Statistics: Awareness of Atheism

Disclaimer: From the school of you can make statistics say anything you want, I’ve collected some data and made some speculations (feel free to make your own).

I’ve heard it said that atheism is growing, but I wonder if the assertion is true. One way to get a clue is by surveying the public – the best example being national census/surveys. Polls in Canada show atheism clearly on the rise (we went from 1% to 16% between 1971 and 2001). The picture doesn’t seem to be quite as quite as rosy in the United States.

Surveys aren’t the complete picture since they don’t fully address awareness of atheism – awareness being the first step toward deconversion. The question of awareness got me wondering about the number of news articles being written at least partially on the subject of atheism. I went to Google News to see what I could learn:

    Click to Enlarge                  

  1. Good News: Between January 2006 and 2008, there was an approximate 75% increase in the number of news articles containing “atheism” or “atheist”. This figure throws out a December 2007 spike to be explained below.
  2. Interesting News: There are more articles written about atheism in December than any other month. Is it just a coincidence that December is the high point of the Christian calendar and that more is being said about atheism at that time of year?
  3. Depressing News: Articles that generated the highest peaks were almost always written on religious websites/by theist authors. In other words, we get our best press when theists ponder our – in their view – wrongness. This is, unfortunately, consistent with the previous point about December articles.
  4. Celebrity News: By far, the biggest boost to atheism came with the December release of The Golden Compass. In case you were asleep, there was quite a bit of controversy in religious circles as to the films anti-religious leanings. Atheism got it’s all-time biggest boost over this nugget of controversy.
  5. Not Surprising News: There were some upswings in conjunction with major book releases. Generally speaking, there were small two to three month blips around The God Delusion (October 2006) and God Is Not Great (May 2007). This is pure speculation – although there were blips in those months, I can’t say for sure the books were 100% causal. That said, it’s probably a fair guess they had at least some impact.
  6. Very Bad News: March 2008 (the last month of Google News data) showed the largest drop in atheism articles over the past two years. In fact, the number of articles indexed on Google in March 2008 was almost as low as the number indexed in March 2006.

Notes On The Data

  1. I conducted analysis using “atheism” and “atheists”. The numbers (e.g. 75% growth) were similar for each.
  2. I was a bit concerned that the numbers may have been indicative of overall Google News growth. Meaning, I thought that perhaps Google’s overall news grew by 75% – just like the percent increase in atheist articles. To test this, I conducted the same analysis on “religion” and “Christianity” and found that the percent growth wasn’t even close to “atheism” and “atheist” growth. The growth of the former search words were quite flat.

What Can We Learn From This?

I’m not a media guy, but I think someone with media background could use this information to great effect. My own thoughts are that:

  1. Books Help (I know – duh): My sense (based on nothing) is that most of the big books have probably already been written and that, to be successful, new ones will need to hit a new demographic (e.g. maybe someone can break in by dumbing it down a bit and speaking to the masses). If famous atheists Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were to write a book about atheism, it might just become cool to be one.
  2. Movies and Controversy Bring More Attention Than Books: Let’s face it, North America loves its movies. The bigger the movie with ties to atheism, the better the message will get out. Someone needs to get on that. I tend to think that a mainstream movie with a controversial atheist agenda might do well because of it.
  3. The Tail Needs to Learn How to Wag the Dog: We know the news covers atheism when theists write about it. My view is we should figure out one kick-ass way to feed the trolls.
  4. Christmas: Feed the trolls more at Christmas since theists seem to be looking for it anyway.
  5. No Stopping: Does the trend of less media coverage mean people are tiring of the atheist message, or is it just time to think hard about the approach we’re using to get that message across? 

One Last Thought

We still don’t seem to have a meme that’s taken hold in a big way. We’ve got a few out there (Out Campaign, The Brights, and The Blasphemy Challenge) that seem to appeal to atheists, but none that seem to have really struck a positive chord with the greater public.

What makes a good internet meme? How do we get all the cool kids to run around with an atheist related t-shirt? I’m no expert on memes – I just think that no one has hit that particular nail on the head …yet.

What are your thoughts? How do we increase atheism’s visibility in the news? How do we reverse what looks like a recent decline in news coverage and public awareness?

Comments

  1. I think the best hope lies with the open minds of the youth today .They are not so easily led and fooled by what they are told to believe .They instead look for facts and real reasons .

    But i do think non believers need to become organised , though we have no belief in gods most of us still have morals and most likely would find common ground within groups such as humanitarian organisations .In coming out of the closet as it seems many are at the moment , its a good time for some solidarity to be harvested .

    Within the machine of religion there is much money and the power base that is the result .To help combat this power the need for finance to compete with getting our reasons for non belief out into public view so its also heard , finance will be needed to make this posible .

    But thankfully alot of things such as this http://www.kgan.com/template/inews_wire/wires.national/2a53d9cf-www.kgan.com.shtml speak for themselves . The main thing we must continue is to continue making lots of noise and not bow down to the many false feeble accusations suggesting non believers are just angry bad people who lack morals .And just keep pointing to the facts that we infact have very good reasons for our position , making good use of bringing to peoples attention all nasty practices that religion so readly makes available to be seen .

    We should not let the likes of the bigotry of religion that disallows comments of our thoughts on their blogs etc worry us to much .Infact if we highlight this blatant bigotry it will only serve to work against the false power that seeks to label those without belief as being bad , and actually show some within belief the nature of the falseness of what they follow .

    So everytime you post on a fundy`s blog make a copy of your post and link it to another blog , where it can be to be seen and be in view for all to see if religious bigotry is or is not offering fair and equal comment .As all can then see just what is allowed and what is not .That being a way to expose those within religion who only seek to allow one point of view .

  2. Hi Gang,
       Individual Atheists like Dawkins et al do a heroic job in getting the Atheist message out to the world. Unfortunately, it would appear that some of our most vocal Atheists disregard the important fact that human beings are “social animals”. Atheism has not provided us with “social activities”. We would hit the “headlines” more often, and be more “socially acceptable” if the other “guys” saw us doing social things. I am in my 70th year and was always an Atheist. I have never been to an Atheist social gathering. I have, however, been to numerous dances, suppers, picnics, summer excursions, etc. that were being conducted by the religious. As I have commented on numerous blog sites, we live in a Judeo-Christian society. We benefit from it. Our children benefit from it. Christians have their “heads  above the hedges” so they can be criticized or complimented as a tangible “group”.

    It would be ridiculous for an Atheist to show up at a media outlet with a request that they give Atheism more coverage because the “editor” would then ask, “We would be glad to cover your events. We may even send a photographer. Where did you say you are meeting?” And our only answer would be a “duh”. Yes, we can get smug about the appearances of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, et al but locally, we are non-existant. Is it any wonder that “the other guys” don’t trust Atheists?

    Also, the only common theme that identifies us is that we don’t believe in Gods! That leaves a lot of room for differences. What can the world expect from us?

    In my attempts to get the Milesians (http://www.milesians.net) started I have had a heck of a lot more positive interest from the religious community. Pastors and priests have used my web site to point out where their followers may be missing the point, and how Milesians appeared to be just as moral, if not more moral, than practicing Christians. I have had absolutely NO comment from (fellow?) Atheists. I am not about to “cross over” but I know I would be a lot more welcome as a “convert to Christianity” than I could as a “convert to Atheism”. I often wonder if deep down, Atheists use “faith” that being a non-believer is enough!

    My observations, and those of my Atheist grandfather, is that Atheists are just too comfortable in their perceived role as “non-joiners” and “annon” critics. He hoped that Atheism would emerge during my life time. I hardly think so!

  3. You seem to have missed The Coming Out Godless Project.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for these statistics!

  4. To point out to what i was talking about above ,i commented on this blog http://philanswers.blogspot.com/2008/08/rebellion-and-amorality.html my comment was in peaceful conduct only pointing out differences of opinion and reasons .Note that no comments have been put up on the blog .
    This is the type of one sided comment we can expect from alot of religious folk on their blogs .
    Some how we need to show this one sided aspect of religion specially to the youth of today .

  5. Just found your blog and a darn good one it is…I’ll be checking back often.  I think more and more people are losing faith, I know I lost mine when I just got tired of trying to come up with spiritual reasons for all the suffering.  If I can treat people with respect and love (including myself) then I’ve accomplished something in my life. 

    I’m truly sorry to hear about your son.  I lost my only brother, he was only 27…yeah, no one can tell me God is love and God is All That Is and God is the Creator of Love but we humans are the faulty ones and we get what we deserve.  The truth is very painful.

  6. Very nice post – interesting results. I wish I had some answers to your final questions, but alas. At least there seems to be a growing atheist presence on the web.

  7. Just came across this doing some research.

    Well the chart and synopses is interesting, what I found most interesting how much of a evangelical Atheist you are. This shows evidence, once again, that atheism is a religion.

    Y’all have denominations, y’all organize camps to indoctrinate your philosophy to young children, y’all publish books and promote atheism, evidence also here by your concerns to do so. You definitely belong to a religion!

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