Densa’s inability to understand the implications of comparing a large population to a small one got me thinking about some of the other myths about atheism. One of the many misapprehensions of the New Atheists is that the rapid growth rate of godlessness over the last 20 years will have grand ramifications for American society. And yet, the example of various former atheists such as CS Lewis and Anthony Flew indicates that atheism is nothing more than a transitive state for many individuals. The implications of this philosophical transience are often forgotten even when shifts in religious identification are being discussed. For example, the 2008 Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey is often cited to show that there is a national trend away from religious faith.
“Overall, 3.9% of the adult population reports being raised without any particular religious affiliation but later affiliating with a religious group. However, more than three times as many people (12.7% of the adult population overall) were raised in a particular faith but have since become unaffiliated with any religious group.”
That sounds like conclusive proof that lots of people are abandoning their religious faith, although a closer reading reveals that 36% of those “unaffiliated” people consider themselves to be religious. But even if we take the numbers at face value and assume that a loss of religious affiliation is tantamount to a loss of faith, the statistics don’t actually show what they are usually cited as showing.
Consider this. That 3.9% of the population that was raised without religious affiliation and eventually found one represented more than half of the 7.3% of the population that was raised without an affiliation. That means that the retention rate of the non-affiliated was only 46.6%! Whereas that seemingly impressive 12.7% who abandoned their childhood affiliation represented less than 14% of the religious affiliated population. So, religious affiliation has a much better retention rate at 86.3%.
The retention rate is even worse for the full blown atheist population. 60% of those raised atheist abandon atheism; 0.5% of the population was raised atheist and 0.3% of it left atheism. And while 1.4% of the population became atheist, the fact that nearly all of the nation is not atheist means that the non-atheist population has a retention rate of 98.6%, which is nearly 2.5 times better than the atheist retention rate of 40%. Therefore, the perceived rapid growth of atheism is nothing more than an artifact of the atheist population’s statistical insignificance. Even the dying Episcopalian church has a better retention rate than atheism does and the fact that 75% of atheist households contain no children under the age of 18 merely underlines the fact that atheism would be in decline if it were not already such an insignificant portion of the population.
Anyhow, it appears that this may call for the addition of another slide or two to the Against the New Atheism slideshow.