American atheists, mostly white and mostly male.

Photographer: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

The Atheism Gap

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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CNN’s special report on atheists this week didn’t draw many viewers, and has been kicked around a bit in the blogosphere. Certainly the program had its gaffes. Most important, as other critics have noted, the report trotted out the hoary -- and ridiculous -- claim that 1 in 3 millennials are atheists. (The correct figure is closer to 3 percent.)

But that wasn’t the biggest mistake. By focusing on the lives of atheists, CNN swept into the wings, with only the briefest of mentions, atheism’s significant race and gender problems.

According to a much-discussed 2012 report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, only 3 percent of U.S. atheists and agnostics are black, 6 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent are Asian. Some 82 percent are white. (The relevant figures for the population at large at the time of the survey were 66 percent white, 11 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian.)

The same report tells us that women are 52 percent of the U.S. population but only 36 percent of atheists and agnostics. The gender split has led some male atheists to muse about differences between the male and female brain -- which in turn unsurprisingly generated sharp ripostes. Certainly it makes the atheist movement less attractive to would-be adherents. As one commentator has put it, “Show me a party to which women are invited but that they overwhelmingly choose to avoid, and I'll show you a party to which I'd ask you to remember not to invite me.”

Some feminist atheists contend that the gender split is a distinctively U.S. phenomenon. They point to a 2012 WIN-Gallup International survey tending to show that outside the U.S., men and women describe themselves as atheists at about the same rate.

But the WIN-Gallup data also point to what might be atheism’s larger difficulty: race, nationalism and ethnicity. In the U.S., atheists and agnostics are disproportionately male and white, as we have seen. Around the world -- well, let’s let the data tell the story.

Seven of the 10 least religious countries are in Europe. The other three are China, Japan and South Korea. Seven of the 10 most religious countries are in the developing world, headed by Ghana and Nigeria. When the data are tabulated by region, those most likely to describe themselves as atheists are from north Asia (42 percent) and western Europe (14 percent). At the other end are south Asia (0 percent), and Latin America and Africa (2 percent each).

At some point one has to admit that there is a pattern here. And just to pile on a bit, the estimable Craig Keener, in his huge review of claims of miracles in a wide variety of cultures, concludes that routine rejection of the possibility of the supernatural represents an impulse that is deeply Eurocentric.

Richard Dawkins, well-known apostle of atheism, only damages his cause when he insists that atheists are a race. Even if he was being tongue-in-cheek (and one certainly hopes so), he’s more likely to stir an already boiling identity politics pot. Atheists themselves increasingly fight nasty battles over these issues -- at least online. (That’s how this sort of criticism leads to this sort of response.)

I had lunch a couple of years ago with a Yale colleague who is a committed atheist. He explained away the international data in pretty much the way one would expect: those other countries have to be liberated. They are mired in a false consciousness as the result of oppression and lack of education. In other words, people around the world who continue to believe in God are too stupid to understand the glittering truths that atheists see clearly.

The late Edward Said, in his classic work on imperialism, pointed out that an important step along the road is to describe those who are to be controlled as primitive. Not inhuman, but primitive. Therefore when the imperialist foists his system upon them, he is not oppressing them but improving them.

I’m not judging atheism here. There are atheists aplenty whose behavior is morally superior to that of many a religious believer. Activists in the atheist cause, however, would do well to come up with a better explanation than primitiveness of people of color for the rejection of their message in most of the developing world. In any case, these issues would offer a far meatier topic for CNN’s next exploration of atheism.

  1. Pew’s consistent lumping of atheists and agnostics causes a nomenclature problems. Atheist activists tend to claim the whole bunch. But that represents poor analysis. “I don’t know if there’s a God” is logically distinct from “I know there is no God.” If you think the two statements are the same, consider a pair of witnesses at trial. The first says, “I’m not sure if the man I saw was the defendant. He might have been.” The second says, “I’m sure the man I saw wasn’t the defendant.” Which witness is more helpful to the defense?

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net