Atheists were abuzz this month over Pew Research releasing new numbers showing that the number of “nones” (people who have no religion at all) in the U.S. is soaring to record levels, making up a whopping 56 million Americans. In just the past seven years, the percentage of Americans who say they have no specific religious affiliation went from 16 percent to 23 percent. While nones are a diverse group—some are atheist, some agnostic, some believe in God but don’t follow a religion—this explosive rejection of organized religion certainly means America is becoming a country where it is safer and more acceptable to be a non-believer.
But while the Pew research is causing this massive wave of media attention, both good and bad, just as interesting was a quieter report from the Christian polling company Barna Group on the state of American atheism. Barna is clearly motivated by trying to bring people into the Christian fold, but its polling methods are sound, and like Pew, its research shows that the nones are a diverse group. However, this March report focused on what Barna calls “skeptics,” who are self-identified as atheists or agnostics. Barna's research found that this group’s demographics have changed considerably; skeptics are younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, more educated, and more spread out than they were 20 years ago.
But the biggest demographic shift recorded by Barna was related to gender. “In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women,” the report explains. “By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent.”
While the number of skeptics, both male and female, has been growing rapidly, it’s been growing even faster for women, which is why this shift has happened. Anyone who attends atheist or skeptic events has seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of this shift. When I first got involved in skepticism and atheism many years ago, when nones were only 16 percent of the population, it was often awkward and alienating, and I felt like one of the few young women in a sea of older men. Now I’m not quite so young, and things have changed dramatically. No more hesitating about going into the bar after a conference, for fear it’s going to be a sausage fest. No more scouting the entire room for a woman, any woman, to talk to. While some conferences need to do more work to make women feel welcome, by and large the skeptic world is one where being female doesn’t make you feel weird anymore.
But people who go to meet-ups and conferences are really just a tiny percentage of people who identify as atheist or agnostic. Because of this, it’s important not to overrate the impact of conferences, which only pull a few thousand people a year, on the sudden explosion that puts the numbers of non-believers well into the millions. This is likely the result of a larger cultural shift making it easier or more attractive for women to identify as non-believers.
The growing public awareness of atheism no doubt plays a big role in this change. Being seen as an iconoclast or a rebel has long been a lot easier for men to pull off than women, particularly when it comes to rejecting family traditions and beliefs. Independence is a quality that’s long been valued in men, but traditionally, being independent has been seen as a bad thing in women. But atheism has been gradually normalized over the past couple of decades, through both atheist celebrities like Richard Dawkins and a healthy discourse about atheism online available for any curious person who wants to google it. As atheism seems less rebellious it becomes easier for women, who are trained from birth not to stick their necks out as far as men are allowed, to go ahead and take the leap into admitting they don’t believe.
On the flip side, the pressure for women to be quiet and conformist has been receding in recent years, with the rise of girl power, online feminism and an explosion of female celebrities in the Rihanna vein. Even men who reject independence in their own wives often value it in their daughters, showing how the tide is turning. As women become increasingly comfortable with being seen as independent thinkers, atheism, which is still coded as rebellious in our culture, becomes easier to embrace. It’s really a combination then, of atheism being seen as slightly less rebellious than it used to be and women being able to be slightly more rebellious than they were. In that middle ground, a whole new crop of female atheists is emerging.
Barna also noted that the conflation of “Christian” with reactionary politics is fueling this dramatic turn from the church. “Most skeptics think of Christian churches as ”places that have ugly views, such as “wars, preventing gay marriage and a woman’s freedom to control her body, sexual and physical violence perpetrated on people by religious authority figures, mixing religious beliefs with political policy and action,” Barna explains. Women are more liberal than men and take issues like abortion much more seriously than men. Because of this, it makes perfect sense that as more conservative politicians and pundits act like “true” Christianity must be right-wing, women are going to be turned off of religion altogether at a faster rate than men.
Regardless of why women are turning to atheism at such a rapid rate, this is all very good news. Atheism is hurt by its image as a hobby of self-important white men who can’t be bothered to actually listen to other people talk. Having more women and people of color and diverse personalities into the mix will help open up more people to the idea that it really is okay not to believe. Maybe when Pew does another report seven years from now, that percentage of nones will be closer to 1 in 2 than 1 in 4 Americans.