Five myths about atheists

Does your preconception agree with reality? The data may surprise you.

Atheists: the untrusted, the maligned, the "other." Poll a sampling of Americans on their attitudes toward the godless, and you'll find that atheists are less likely than almost any other group to be voted for, welcomed into the family, or included in a broad vision of what it means to be American. Yet little of substance is known about this demographic, many of whom are closeted, hard to identify, or statistically lumped together with unchurched believers.

Maintaining a body of empirical data about atheists, humanists, and other freethinkers is the idea behind the Web-based American Secular Census, the independent national registry of demographic and viewpoint data recorded by Secular Americans. Census registrants are U.S. citizens or permanent residents over 18 years of age who are skeptical of supernatural claims, including those generally associated with religion. Each registrant maintains an American Secular Census website account used to complete Census forms collecting personal and household information, a secular profile, a religious profile, political activism and voting patterns, philanthropy habits, parenting information, military service, public policy and social views, and opinions about secular advocacy. Users are encouraged to update their forms as frequently as needed so that at any given time the Census represents the most accurate possible snapshot of the Secular American population.

Launched in November of 2011, the American Secular Census periodically releases data analyses to address common questions and misconceptions about atheists. Here we zero in on five pervasive stereotypes - one myth per day - contradicted by the responses of Census registrants.

Myth #1: Atheists are bitter, unhappy people who contribute nothing to society.

The fact that atheists are most visible when criticizing religion and its abuses may leave others with a mental image of non-believers as perpetually angry, but conflict of this nature is apparently a minor bump in the typical atheist's life journey. A mere 4% of Secular Census respondents describe themselves as unhappy, and 99% enjoy hobbies ranging from travel to hiking to the arts.

In the past two years, 82% of Census respondents have made charitable donations. So great, in fact, is the demand among atheists for charitable giving as a secular community activity that new organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief are springing up to fill a previously unimagined niche.

And, non-believers are politically engaged: more than 80% of Secular Census registrants providing activism data have contacted a legislator in the past two years about an issue of concern to them. Over 92% (compared with 68% in the U.S. overall) are registered to vote and, of those, 83% say that they turn out to vote all or most of the time.

"People make our country great, not a god," one registrant wrote.

Tomorrow - Myth #2: Atheists want a government that is anti-God and anti-religion.

American Secular Census methodology: Because not all registrants complete every form or every question, sample sizes vary from topic to topic and cannot be generalized. Until the Census reaches a 5-figure registry overall, analysis should be considered suggestive rather than statistically authoritative; however, most questions now have sample sizes approaching or exceeding those of nationally recognized surveys.

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