Religion was a major backdrop in the 2016 election. Donald Trump campaigned hard in white Christian America, promising voters that he would essentially turn back the clock to an America when religion and Christians overall were more influential in the country.
This strategy paid off, as the Washington Post reported: “Exit polls show white evangelical voters voted in high numbers for Donald Trump, 80-16 percent. That’s the most they have voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004.
“White evangelicals are the religious group that most identifies with the Republican Party, and 76 percent of them say they are or lean Republican, according to a 2014 survey. As a group, white evangelicals make up one-fifth of all registered voters and about one-third of all voters who identify with or lean toward the GOP.”
So it is no surprise that Trump has quickly moved with an executive order to relax restrictions on the political activities of tax-exempt churches in an effort to strengthen the role of religion, in essence working to strengthen the political hand of churches in political campaigns.
Trump playing the conservative religious card is in stark contrast to the role nonbelievers play in American society. Atheists, those who disbelieve in the existence of god, comprise a growing sector of American society. Their numbers are often hidden in polls and generally undercounted because some fear reporting their identity and facing social stigmatization.
There have been various reports showing a marked increase in nonbelievers, including atheists, agnostics and others who do not identify with a religion or say that religion is not important to them. Between 2007 and 2014, the portion of Americans who do not believe in a god grew by over 10 percent, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center. The growing numbers of nonreligious people in the United States are propelled by generational change, as young people, who are more likely to be unaffiliated with a religion, reach adulthood and slowly replace their older and more religious counterparts.
A recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle at the University of Kentucky concluded that the number of atheists in the United States “exceeds 20 percent with a roughly 0.8 probability.” This estimate is more than double the conclusion of the study collected over the telephone by Pew Research Center, which found that approximately 10 percent of Americans don’t believe in god and only 3 percent of Americans identify as atheists. This disparity toward what is essentially the same question suggests that people are hesitant to identify themselves as atheists. Furthermore, a study by PRRI in 2016 revealed that more than 30 percent of atheists hide their disbelief from friends and family for fear of disapproval, suggesting that many might find an admission over the telephone similarly difficult.
To obtain accurate results, Gervais and Najle constructed a very subtle test that would remove the stigma around atheism. Using a sample population of 2,000 Americans, they asked respondents to answer true or false to seemingly banal statements such as “I am a vegetarian” or “I own a dog.” The control group responded to nine statements while the test group responded to the same nine statements plus an additional one—“I do not believe in God.”
Participants only had to acknowledge the number of statements that applied to them. They never had to deny believing in god or identifying as an atheist, which omitted any social stigma from the test.
By comparing the responses of the two groups, Gervais and Najle came to their conclusion—approximately 26 percent of Americans are atheists. Assuming the number of vegetarians and dog owners is the same between the two groups, any increase in the test group compared to the control group indicates the number of atheists.
The two psychologists admit that their study is not free of error, but they have undoubtedly proven that previous polls conducted over the telephone or in person have yielded deceptively small numbers.
In fact, another study performed by the Pew Research Center found evidence supporting the existence of social stigma around being openly atheist. Pew found that only a third of Americans feel warmly toward atheists. Daniel Cox of PRRI wrote in FiveThirtyEight that a third of Americans believe that atheists should be banned from becoming president, and a similar percent thinks that they should be prohibited from teaching in public schools. With pressure to conform to the dominant religious beliefs, some American atheists choose to hide their beliefs.
In an interview with Slate, Renee Johnson, a single lesbian mother in Point, Texas, said that she would “rather have a big ‘L’ or ‘lesbian’ written across [her] shirt than a big ‘A’ or ‘atheist,’ because people are going to handle it better.” Johnson is just one of many who feel uncertain about revealing their nonbelief in a country where religion and spirituality seem like national imperatives.
As the discrepancy between the poll performed by Gervais and Najle compared with previous polls indicates, the role of religion in the daily lives of Americans is becoming increasingly complex. Many polls require respondents to select a single religious identification from a list, which does not allow people to choose multiple answers. By this method, someone can’t be Jewish and an atheist or Catholic and atheist. Although it’s possible to follow a religion for cultural, heritage or spiritual reasons—separate from a belief in god—in previous polls, religion and atheism have been considered mutually exclusive. This method of polling fails to recognize the possibility that religion may be determined by heritage and cultural background, rather than belief; it also presumes one concept of god.
However, ideas of god or spiritual forces are entirely subjective, as indicated in a study by Gallup, which found that 89 percent of Americans believe in god, but only about half believe in an anthropomorphic god. The various studies about religion, belief and god exemplify how the United States necessitates having a society that can accept a full range of religious belief and spiritual ambiguity.
While feelings toward atheism are certainly changing—60 percent of Americans report knowing an atheist, which is significantly more than 10 years ago—the stigma surrounding people who do not believe in god is continuing to stifle freedom of belief in America. As with his other attempts to turn back the clock in America, President Trump’s remark in his inaugural address about joining all Americans together with “the same almighty Creator,” threatens the intricate and varying histories, beliefs and ways of being that are present in this country.