The group Seattle Atheists announced this week that it's buying bus ads on Seattle's public transit system to raise awareness about the atheists among us:
As an atheist who occassionaly whines about discrimination, I'm all for bringing attention to the number of atheists in America. But while its intentions are good, I think this campaign is deceptive. Ironically, the number it's bringing attention to is not an accurate number.
The study that provides the basis for the Seattle Atheists' campaign is the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008, which was funded by a secularism institute. The survey found that 25 percent of Washingtonians say they have no religious affiliation (Oregon is right behind, with 24 percent). But that doesn't mean 25 percent of Washingtonians are atheists. Only a slim number of those nonreligious folks identified as atheists—between five and seven percent. Taking the high end of that number, we still wind up with only about three percent of the state identifying as atheists. The rest of the group identify as agnostic or simply just not a member of any belief.
I asked the Seattle Atheists about why they describe one in four Washingtonians as atheists when clearly the number of Washingtonians who identify as atheists is more like three in one hundred. "It certainly was never our intention to mislead and we acknowledge we're using a broader definition of atheist than most people," wrote back member Ericka Johnson. "Our goal is to make non-believers feel less alone, to realize there is a community of people looking forward to welcoming them."
That's sweet. But I think the definition of atheist is pretty clear. On the campaign website, it's spelled out: "An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in a god."
Leave the number fudging to the Evangelists, friends. The fact of 25 percent of the state is not religious is worthy enough of attention on its own.