In Search Of Undercover Unbelievers

Aug 2, 2017

"Do you believe in God?" It’s a question that often goes to the heart of a person’s identity. But a University of Kentucky professor believes mainstream polls and surveys may not be doing a good job getting to the answer, and his research suggests there might be more doubters in our midst than most assume.

For many people, there’s just something about that word – atheist.

"Now, I think my parents had been mildly disappointed when I told them I didn't believe in God anymore, but being an atheist was another thing altogether," quips Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney.

The subject is mined for laughs in her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, but UK psychology professor Will Gervais is making a career out of studying just why jokes like these strike a nerve. He says, even just a decade ago, researchers in his field seemed out to lunch on the topic of religion.

"If you talk to people, they think it's hugely important," he notes. "But it you talk to psychological researchers, especially circa ten years ago, it was just a black hole in the literature."

That set Gervais on his own journey: to tease apart how beliefs color our perception of ourselves and others. And his most recent project is turning some heads, because the results suggest big polling firms like Pew and Gallup might be missing the mark when it comes to non-believers.

"Their method is typically random-digit-dialing telephone polls. So imagine you're sitting at home and a stranger calls you on the phone and they say we want to ask you some questions. And among those questions, they'll say well, do you believe in God?" he explains.

The hypothesis: "We live in a country where... there's a lot of stigma levied against the people who don't believe in God, so that could create some pressure for people, even if they privately don't believe, to not necessarily tell a stranger over the phone."

Chart comparing 2007 and 2014 responses to the question "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" in the Pew Religious Landscape Survey.
Credit PewResearch.org

A Roundabout Route

So Gervais and co-researcher Maxine Najle borrowed a research method that’s sometimes used to detect criminal behavior in respondents who may be less than forthcoming.

Here’s how it works: Grab a nationally-representative sample, split them into two groups, and give the first group a list, let's say, five boring, everyday statements – bold declarations like "My favorite color is red" and "I like hot dogs" – and have them count up how many are true for them.

Next, hand the same list to group two with one little addition: “I don’t believe in God.”

Afterward, compare the tallies.

"So since the first five items across the two groups are identical, if we see a difference in the average count between the two groups, we can attribute that to how many people would have said yes to that last item," he says.

And what happened when Gervais tested this out on two samples of 2,000 people each? Well, the results emerged somewhat noisy, but the final percentage jumped off the page.    

"Based on this, our best estimate was that around 25-26 percent of Americans don't believe in God," he reports.

Cue the record scratch. That’s a quarter of Americans, a far cry from the 3-11 percent who typically self-identify on standard surveys.

Bumper stickers produced by American Atheists are displayed on a table at the Humanist Forum of Central Kentucky's monthly meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington on July 6, 2017.
Credit Josh James / WUKY

Non-Believing In The Bluegrass

We were curious how those Gervais’ hypothesis mapped onto Lexington and surrounding communities, so we took our questions to a local humanist group that’s been meeting for nearly two decades.

"All right everybody, it's 7 o'clock, so we're going to go ahead and get started," Clay Maney announces, approaching the Great Hall podium at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington off Clays Mill Road. "Welcome to the Humanist Forum of Central Kentucky."

Not everyone who attends the monthly gathering or follows the group’s Facebook page fits neatly into the “atheist” category, but we quizzed those who use the word about their comfort level on surveys. Asked whether they might be reticent to tick the atheist box, we received a variety of responses, ranging from enthusiastic, unqualified yeses to marked hesitation.

Demonstrators line the sidewalk outside Ark Encounter to protest the Bible-themed attraction's one-year anniversary on July 8, 2017.
Credit Josh James / WUKY

For the most part, respondents reported feeling at home in Kentucky’s major urban centers, Lexington and Louisville – places where events like the recent March for Science found a friendly reception. But all were keenly aware of the commonwealth's Bible Belt bona fides, including Williamstown’s controversial Noah’s Ark-inspired theme park, which recently drew vocal atheist protesters for its one-year anniversary.

One forum member who helped organize that demonstration was John Pike, a Louisville native who’s lived in Lexington for the past four years. He says, even in Kentucky’s bigger cities, atheist-friendly organizations often opt for descriptors that carry less cultural baggage.

"A lot of times, you'll go to these atheist meetups and they use words like humanist or freethinker or agnostic when in fact they're all atheists. They just prefer different words and those can be good words to hide behind maybe at work and with the family," he says.

Although Pike believes it’s time to normalize the word atheist, he’s sympathetic with those who keep their cards close to their vest.

"I tell my kids from time to time, because they're coming around the age where they see us and they're trying to find their identity... to pick their battles strategically," he relays. "You don't have to let everyone know up front if you don't have to."

About an hour-and-a-half away down the road from Lexington, in town with a population hovering just under 12,000, another member of the Humanist Forum’s Facebook group is picking those battles daily. Justin – he prefers we stick with his first name only – has been a skeptic since his elementary school days.

"I was that weird kid that, when I was five, I was the one who went to my parents and said, 'This whole Santa thing doesn't make sense,'" he remembers.

While Justin has bounced around the country, sampling the culture from California to Indiana, he landed in Somerset about four years ago for a job. He says religion is so tightly woven into life there that he still identifies as a Christian at work, partly to fit in and partly to avoid any friction with the higher-ups.

"I learned from being openly atheist in South Carolina that it creates more problems than it solves," he admits. "Honestly... it's better to lie than to be honest because they're going to look at you..."

It’s a suspicion researchers say is borne out by the data.

"It turns out atheists are among the least popular groups of people in the U.S. today," says Gervais. "That comes from a lot of polls where, for instance, you ask people would you vote for a well-qualified member of your own preferred political party if they happen to be Catholic, black, Jewish, a woman, or an atheist. And atheists come out in the bottom of most of those polls."

Ditto surveys that ask what type of person you don't want your son or daughter to marry, or which groups least share your vision for the country.

Ricky Gervais arrives at the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Credit Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Moving The Needle

Still, atheists like Justin have forged a sense of community online. And, while it may not be scientific, a brief glance around the pop culture landscape finds skeptical celebrities feeling far less shy. Take the recent Late Show sparring match between Stephen Colbert, a Catholic, and British comedian Ricky Gervais – no relation.

"And I know that you're an atheist, correct?" Colbert asks, gearing up for a friendly tête-à-tête.

"Yeah," Gervais answers to audible applause, prompting the smirking late night host to fire back, "That's the devil waiting for you in hell by the way."

When it comes to winning greater acceptance, atheists, like many minority groups, sometimes split on the best path forward. Many gravitate toward the gay rights movement as a model, often co-opting language for initiatives like the “Openly Secular” campaign. Others, like Justin, argue alliances with fellow low-polling groups could foster more trust in communities.

Gervais says research like his might also play a small role in changing attitudes.

"I can especially see that in politics where, if it turns out that there's this really large group of people out there who aren't religious – and it's a larger group than we thought – it could be a group that's less kind of neglected and ignored on the political stage," he suspects.

But, with some, including the associate director of research at Pew Research Center, still hesitant to sign on to Gervais’ early estimates, it’s going to take time and more study to win converts.