Monday, May 02, 2005

Wicked Arithmetic
Clearly we have stumbled on the formula for firing up the comments on this blog: Say something controversial about religion. It worked after the church massacre in Brookfield, Wisconsin, last March, and it worked over the weekend, too.

What interested me most were the estimates of the number of atheists in the United States. Commenters posted numbers from Infoplease and ReligiousTolerance.org putting the number of atheists at anywhere from 900,000 to about 1.6 million (and the latter figure is for all of North America, thus lumping in many hellbound Canadian and Mexican aliens with those in the United States who threaten normal values). Those figures seem wicked low to me--so to speak. I think the lower numbers are accurate only if they are limited to atheists willing to apply the term to themselves. Not everybody is willing (or even able, for cultural or social reasons) to forthrightly say "I'm an atheist." However, if you consider anyone who's completely secular to be functionally atheist, the number would have to grow by millions.

Although there's plenty about it to quibble with, let's assume you don't decide on a religious or secular lifestyle for yourself until you're 18. The population of the country is approaching 300 million, but only about 220 million are aged 18 or over. (Age 16 would be a better cutoff point, but this is a blog post, not a research paper.) A survey at ReligiousTolerance.org says that 10 percent of Americans consider themselves "secular," which would be around 22 million. Lump in those who consider themselves at least "somewhat secular" and the number goes up to 16 percent--which would put the secular population at something like 35 million.

Regarding the number of WTF Christians ("wacko theological fringe"--thanks to reader Tom for the phrase, which is clearly the Quote of the Day), let's break that down also. Something like three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian, so that's maybe 165 million people over age 18. Only about 18 percent of Christians identify themselves as belonging to sects we would consider fundamentalist (this isn't in the survey linked above, but it's been a widely reported figure in the last couple of years)--and we can reasonably guess that most of the WTF Christians can be found there. So if there are 165 million Christians in the United States, 18 percent of that is around 18 million. Not all fundies are wacko. However, if, as Tom guesses, five percent of them are, that's still almost a million.

Now, regarding the tendency of WTF Christians to murder their children--I see very little in the latest child murder story to indicate this was a case of religiosity gone nuts. Stay-at-home mom plus minister husband does not automatically equal a WTF family--and the fact that the family involved was Bulgarian and living in the Chicago suburbs doesn't fit the WTF profile, either. Nevertheless, given the likelihood, based on some back-of-the-napkin calculations, that the number of atheist/secular Americans vastly exceeds the likely number of WTF Christians, I am somewhat persuaded by the point--that the number of horrific mother-on-child murders committed by the WTF is far higher than you'd expect on a percentage-of-the-population basis--if not by the specific evidence intended to support it at this moment.

Footnote: Another look at the ReligiousTolerance.org survey an hour or so after I posted this showed me that it addresses the number of fundamentalists in the population, sort of. Eighteen percent of self-identified born-agains "meet the evangelical criteria"--a fraction of a fraction, to be sure. So that's one source of the 18 percent number I mentioned above. (And yes, I know there's a distinction between "fundamentalist" and "evangelical," but I'm not sure it matters for purposes of this discussion.) If, as the survey suggests, the number of evangelicals in the adult population (which we pegged above at about 220 million) is seven percent, that's 15 million people. Five percent of that--our guess at the number of wackos in the group--would be something around 750,000. So I think the point in my last paragraph above still holds, even if the numbers are slightly different.

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