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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- I conducted analysis using “atheism” and “atheists”. The numbers (e.g. 75% growth) were similar for each.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Christmas: Feed the trolls more at Christmas since theists seem to be looking for it anyway.
- 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?