Brandon Vogt

5 Surprising Facts from the Latest U.S. Poll About God and Atheism


CARA is a national, non-profit research group affiliated with Georgetown University. It conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission:

  • to increase the Church’s self understanding
  • to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers
  • to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism

CARA’s latest research concerns religious belief in the United States. It’s a multi-phase project in its earliest stages, but the group regular offer previews of their findings on Twitter. Here’s the latest chart:

CARA research God and belief

Five things immediately jump out to me from this data:

1. An explosion of atheism.

According to the CARA data, roughly 17% (!!) of American adults identify as atheists (i.e., they say “I do not believe in God…”). That’s about 3-4x higher than I’ve ever seen it measured by Pew, Barna, or other research groups.

2. The rise of “hard” atheists.

What might be even more surprising is the rise of the “hard” atheists. Atheists often distinguish between “hard” (or “strong”) atheism, which positively says “God does not exist”, and “soft” (or “weak”) atheism, which only says “I don’t believe in God” or “I lack belief in God.” According to CARA, about  7% of Americans identify as “hard” atheists, which again is at least 3-4x higher than I’ve ever seen it measured.

3. The uber-confident Evangelical Christians.

Evangelical Christians almost always come out best on surveys like this. They display better knowledge, firmer commitment, and more impressive retention. But I’m still surprised by the remarkable confidence shown here: 92% of Evangelicals say they believe in God and have no doubt of his existence. Think about that. They’re not saying they have some doubts or little doubts. They’re saying they have zero doubt that God exists–impressive! Also, virtually no Evangelical Christians have “frequent doubts about God.” Contrast that with at least 5-8% of every other religious group which report frequent doubts.

4. The 2.28 million Catholic atheists.

Confusingly, 4% of respondents identified as Catholic and also said “I do not believe in God but still believe it is possible that God may exist.” Assuming there are roughly 57 million Catholic adults in America, that means at least 2.28 million Catholics don’t believe in God. If that’s not a catechesis problem, I don’t know what is!

5. The believing “nones.”

One of the most common mistakes in religion reporting today is equating the “nones” (i.e., those with no religious affiliation) with atheists. But most religious studies show that huge numbers of the “nones” still believe in God, still have spiritually active lives, and many even go to church. CARA’s data confirms this. Roughly 27% of “nones” say they believe in God and another 37% are open to his existence.

Overall, the CARA picture is a mixed bag for Catholics. On the one hand, it reveals that atheists are on the rise and Catholics are noticeably less confident about their faith than our Protestant brethren. But there are also signs of hope. One is that more than half of the “nones” either believe in God or are open to God. The harvest is ripe, and we need to befriend those people and help them personally encounter the Lord.

That’s our challenge today, but then again, it’s always been the challenge of the Church.

  • Gerrard_Liverpool

    Large distinction between Catholics and practicing Catholics. Most Catholics I know believe very little of what the Catholic Church teaches, the numbers don’t surprise me in the least…as sad as that is.

  • The truth is, real atheism is the affirmative belief in No God, which is and likely always will be a tiny minority. The New Atheist cult-sect (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and the newer ones like Krauss and Coyne, along with media allies like Bill Maher and Stephen Fry) has in the last 10 years managed to redefine “atheist” to mean “anyone nonreligious or has strong doubt about God.” It’s very clear what the result is though; young “atheists” often actually do believe in God or at least the supernatural, but hate organized religion. And their hatred of organized religion is mostly bigoted and ill-informed, relying on cherry-picked history, some of it even false history. IT’s going to take years to untangle this mess. Although I have no doubt we will, since atheism itself is not particularly logical, is certainly not scientific, and isn’t even particularly coherent.

    • bdlaacmm

      I’ve met professed atheists who also tell me they pray frequently. Go figure!

      And I have a relative who insists she does not believe in God, yet will ask me for my prayers when she is having difficulties in life. Just today she asked me to light a candle for her in church.

      • Guscat

        I sometimes say that as a metaphor. Also, if you’re an atheist, it’s hard to talk about it, so one often has to pretend to be a believer and pray. The habit of lying can stick with one.

  • Bill Russell

    You are a charming and well-intentioned young fellow. But you lack sufficient education and historical referencess, not to mention theological and philosophical understanding, to be addressing subject you try to tackle.

  • Spudnik3

    A century ago the arguments for atheism were mostly based on faulty knowledge or appeals to ignorance (the universe always existed, the Hittites were a myth, etc.) Today most schools don’t equip students to think critically, and the arguments of the New Atheists are based mostly on posturing and ad hominems. New Atheist apologists are to philosophy what Donald Trump is to politics, and it’s no accident that the two are rising together. It’s hard to believe when you confuse emoting and sneering, or what pop culture relentlessly promotes as fashionable, with thinking.

  • Jordan Miller

    I have to say that I find this data encouraging. The general sense I get (by profession I am a teacher) is that the number of “I do not believe in God” is higher than 17%, so to see this polling data suggesting that more than 80% still profess some version of “I believe in God” sounds good to me. The numbers of “I believe in God” in Europe, Russia, China, Japan are much, much lower.

    The United States, at present, remains the best potential location for the New Evangelization to really take off (so far it has not, it must be admitted; there are pockets where it has started, but overall the New Evangelization remains in the future, still a goal rather than an actuality). Here in the U.S. there are millions upon millions who recognize the reality of God, even if their moral life is in conflict with this. That is, I would argue, a hopeful situation, despite the many very serious problems we face.

    • Biff Spiff

      As a teacher, your spend most of your time with 1. young people, who are suffering a terrible increase in atheism and 2. academics, who don’t have much of a reputation for faith to begin with. This may explain your impression.

      • Jordan Miller

        Agreed on both points. The percentages here are presumably spread out over a large range of age groups, with older Americans pushing the “I believe” numbers higher. Would be interesting to see numbers solely on those 18-30.

  • Bernard Fischer

    I believe the Catholics who don’t believe in God are commonly referred to as “Jesuits”

    • Deo Credo

      Best comment yet

    • Michael B Rooke

      “Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the Name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind. He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments. Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.[13]”

  • Thanks for sharing this. My only correction in your analysis would be to distinguish between agnostic and atheist. So, the survey has 4% of Catholics as agnostic, not atheist. Sure, neither the atheist nor the agnostic “believes that God exists,” but the agnostic is at least cognizant of his fallibility in the matter. In my experience, that makes a rather big difference in how you interact with him or her.

    • It’s a good distinction, however the most commonly accepted definition of atheism *by atheists* is someone who lacks a belief in God (i.e., orange or red.) I run a website for Catholic/atheist dialogue so I’m reminded of this definition all the time.

      Either way, whether the “orange” people describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or agnostic-atheist, it’s still deeply disturbing that 2.8 million Catholics don’t believe in God.

© 2019 Brandon Vogt