Current Research June 2017

Are the number of atheists drastically undercounted in the U.S.? That is the claim of social psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle, who conducted an experiment on the role of stigma in identifying as an atheist and found that the national percentage could be as high as 26 percent. The magazine Vox (May 17) reports that the researchers formed the hypothesis that many atheists do not reveal their identity to survey interviewers because of social pressure and stigma against non-religion. Gervais and Najle sought to eliminate any element of embarrassment for subjects to admit their atheist identity through using a representative, online survey of 1,000 respondents that allowed them to reply to a group of statements on a range of subjects by writing down the number of statements that was true for them. Thus they did not have to admit to being a vegetarian or a dog owner or, for one group of respondents, believing in God. The researchers write, “According to our samples, about 1 in 3 atheists in our country don’t feel comfortable disclosing their lack of belief.”

Of course, this high figure dwarfs the usual rates of atheist identification—usually at around 3–4 percent but going up to 10 percent for all non-believers. Critics charge that the study exaggerated the effect of stigma on atheist self-identification. Greg Smith of the Pew Research Center said that low levels of atheist identification are also found in surveys where respondents write in their answers, thus minimizing social pressure and stigma. Rodney Stark, sociologist and co-director of ISR at Baylor University, told RW that there are “no nationally ‘representative’ online samples. There is a huge bias in online anything, and even more in volunteer ‘samples.’ And there certainly is no stigma in admitting one is an atheist in Scandinavia, but the percentage of atheists is not much higher there than in the U.S.,” Stark said.


While non-affiliated Americans have grown sharply in recent years, receiving national attention, a more hidden group known as the “liminals,” who are not consistently either religious or non-religious, may be driving up the figures for the “nones,” according to a study by New York University sociologist Michael Hout. In the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (online May), Hout notes that this liminal group of survey respondents is only revealed when data provide multiple answers from the same person, as with panel data. The sociologist analyzed General Social Survey panel data from 2006–2014 and found that “[hidden] in cross-sectional evidence of greater estrangement from organized religion are many people, roughly one in five adults, who are committed neither to being religious nor to being nonreligious.” There are two “liminals” for every committed nonreligious person. Rather than “in-betweeness” being a halfway house to non-religion, Hout concludes that “two key observations point in the other direction, toward a religious identity. Liminals are more likely to name a religion than not. A minority of persons raised with no religion displayed a consistent nonreligious identity as adults; a third of them were liminal, and a quarter of them were consistently religious.”

(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,

Fewer than one in four Americans (24 percent) now believe the Bible is “the actual word of God, and is to be taken literally,” similar to the 26 percent who view it as “a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man,” according to a Gallup Poll. For the first time in Gallup’s four-decade trend, biblical literalism has not surpassed biblical skepticism. Meanwhile, about half of Americans—a proportion largely unchanged over the years—fall in the middle, saying the Bible is the inspired word of God but that not all of it should be taken literally. Writing in the Religion in Public blog (May 19), Ryan Burge notes that the General Social Survey has shown a more consistent percentage of those holding a literal interpretation of the Bible since the 1990s. It is the percentage of Americans believing in an “inspired Bible” that has shown more decline—decreasing from 48 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in the 2016 wave of the GSS.

(Religion in Public,

Catholic consecrated communities in the U.S. have grown in number during the past 10 years, with groups that stress community and more traditional practices showing the most growth, according to a recent study. The study, conducted by Patricia Wittberg and Mary Gautier, is the third since 1999 and found 159 emerging communities, with a gender makeup of 52 percent women. From 2006, there was a 31 percent increase in these communities (a net gain of 38 communities), with a total reported membership in 2016 of 4,200 full members and another 1,000 in formation. According to the CARA Report (Spring), the strongest predictors of which communities grew 50 percent between 2006 and 2016 were an emphasis on traditional practices and beliefs, including loyalty to the magisterium, wearing traditional habits, adoration of the Eucharist and other contemplative practices, and the importance of evangelization. Websites of over one-fifth of these communities mentioned ministry to the poor and to youth. Wittberg and Gautier point out that this growth is significantly lower than the growth of new religious communities in the 19th century, when most of the American religious orders were founded. Predominantly Catholic regions that once turned out such vocations, such as New England and the Middle Atlantic states, no longer do so, the researchers add.

(The CARA Report, Georgetown University, 2300 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20007)

A new study by the Benedict XVI Center for Religion and Society finds that those who identify as having “No religion” (or “nones”) represent 48.6 percent of the British adult population. As far as regions go, inner London reports the fewest nones in Britain at 31 percent, compared to highs of 58 percent in the southeast and 56 percent in Scotland. The study, conducted by Stephen Bullivant, found that 67 percent of Britons identified as some kind of Christian in 1983, while in 2015, the figure was at 43 percent. Nones in the UK are predominantly white and male, but there are now 10.9 million nonreligious women. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, men and women are equally likely to be nones. Among 25- to 54-year-olds, the nonreligious have the lowest proportion of university graduates among the (non-)religious groupings. Three-fifths of nones say that they were brought up with a religious identity, and less than one-in-10 of those brought up non-religiously now identify with a religion.

The study finds that after consistent decline, in the past few years the proportion of nones appears to have stabilized. The Observer (May 13) quotes Bullivant as saying, “Younger people tend to be more non-religious, so you’d expect it to keep going—but it hasn’t. The steady growth of non-Christian religions is a contributing factor, but I wonder if everyone who is going to give up their Anglican affiliation has done so by now? We’ve seen a vast shedding of nominal Christianity, and perhaps it’s now down to its hardcore.” The study found that there are roughly 0.8 million nones who both pray monthly or more and rate their own level of religiosity highly. A further 2.8 million either pray monthly or more or rate their own religiosity highly (but not both).

(The study can be downloaded at:

One of the most extensive studies of jihadist extremism in Italy finds that discrimination, economic disparity, outrage toward Western foreign policy, and oppression of Muslims did not figure highly in their support of violence. The study, conducted by Michele Groppi and published in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism (11:1), is based on a quantitative study and focus groups of 440 respondents in 15 Italian cities. A significant minority (26 percent) supported violence framed in religious terms, though the majority did not. Thirty-three percent of respondents agreed with the statement that whoever offends Islam or its sacred tenets should be punished, while 12 percent strongly or slightly supported al-Qaida, and 15 percent supported the Islamic State. In testing each model linking support for violence with the literature, Groppi found that the strongest predictors were taking offense against offenders of Islam and the endorsement of an Islamic, theocratic form of government. Social difficulties and uncertainty about belonging to Italian culture were found to be only marginally significant for such support.

(Perspectives on Terrorism,

Marriage outside of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which holds the monopoly over Jewish marriages in the country, has gained favor with the majority of Jewish Israelis for the first time, according to a recent survey. The Chief Rabbinate officiates at Orthodox marriages, the only kind permitted for Jews, although the policy has faced opposition and alternatives. The survey, conducted by Hiddush, an Israeli organization seeking to advance religious pluralism, found that 55 percent of respondents said they would be interested in alternatives of Jewish egalitarian marriages outside of the Chief Rabbinate for themselves or their children. This figure included 81 percent of secular Israelis, though only 13 percent for Religious-Zionists and 0 percent of ultra-Orthodox supported such a measure. Those who currently wish to marry outside of the Orthodox faith have to travel overseas for a civil ceremony. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in parallel but unofficial common-law relationships that have won recognition in the courts and confer some marital rights such as inheritance and joint custody of children, reports the Times of Israel (May 11).