Google the words “atheism” and “demographics” together, and the odds are you’re looking for information about the rise in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic. And that’s perfectly fair; there has indeed been an unmistakeable rise for atheism, or the “Nones,” over the past decade. Unbelief has never been more in en vogue in culture than it is right now.
Assuming, of course, that the “culture” we are talking about is white male culture.
It turns out that atheism in the United States is very male and very white. According to a new one-sheeter put out by Pew Research, 68% of self-identifying atheists in the country are male, while an astonishing 78% of them are white. That means that more than half of the US’s atheist population are Caucasian males.
Contrast that with the demographic data for religious groups in the country. Pew estimates that 54% of US Catholics are female, while only 59% are white. Evangelicalism–which many atheists endlessly lampoon as whitewashed and sexist–is more diverse than atheism, with more than half of US evangelicals being female and 76% being white. Collapsing all of the divisions under the “Christian” category in Pew’s data yields numbers that are significantly more diverse both in gender and in race than the numbers for American atheism.
I find this data so interesting because, in mainstream public forums like higher education and mass media, it is typically religion that is portrayed as stifling diversity and secularism as welcoming it. Much of the literature of the New Atheists takes massive broadsides, for example, at Christian churches that practice male-only eldership or that teach that husbands are to be spiritual heads of the home. It’s amusing to think that the same authors who are accusing religious people of practicing discrimination and prejudice are forming an intellectual culture that is actually less diverse than the churches they rail against.
This data is also interesting because it demonstrates the futility of trying to compact social trends under broadly sweeping statements like, “Americans are leaving religion.” As my friend Chris Martin has pointed out, those kinds of unqualified, all-inclusive sounding statements are always click-worthy but are more often than not simply incorrect. If what we mean by “Americans” is “white, male, college-educated Americans,” then the statement becomes more responsible. But of course, such synonymity is ridiculous; America is vastly more than its white, male, thirtysomething bloc.
It would be a mistake, of course, to act as if such demographic homogeneousness was itself some kind of sophisticated argument against atheism. It’s not, just like the homogeneously white history of my own denomination is not itself an indication that the resurrection of Christ is a false doctrine. But even if such facts do not affect the truthfulness of the biggest metaphysical claims being made, they do tend to reveal an internal logic to the belief system. My denomination’s pro-slavery origins reveals a white supremacist hermeneutic, for example, that struck at the very center of how my denominational ancestors would have understood the gospel of reconciliation. That’s the power of theology; it can either build slave plantations or build a biracial marriage.
So what does that tell us about the maleness and the whiteness of American atheism? First, atheism, as a demographic, seems to be succeeding where most of the Christian denominations are failing–namely, with men. The appeal of atheism to younger men probably has less to do with its intellectual rigor and more to do with what Ross Douthat has identified as a kind of latent boredom in the West with religious and social traditions that have been undermined by progressive culture. There is a self-preserving, rebellious character to atheism that likely appeals to the atrophied moral imaginations of young men living in a lifeless sort of post-confessional, hyper-pluralistic society.
Secondly, atheism’s demographic shortcomings among minorities suggests that its appeal is not, in fact, to people who have been on the wrong side of privilege but on the powerful side. Atheism’s success on the college campus seems to be tilted generously towards white students and not towards minority students who we might instinctively think have more of a complaint against the “power structures” of religion. This too would be a significant corrective to the image of atheism and religion that is often presented in college and in media.
In any event, the whiteness and maleness of American atheism is a fascinating demographic reality and not one, I think, that many would expect or assume. Truth is sneaky like that, I suppose.