New WIN/GIA survey is one of the very few to separate “nones” and atheists

Isn’t it funny how when it rains, it usually pours? After a drought in the statistics/demographics news of interest to Canadian nonbelievers, three reports get released in the space of a couple weeks. The first was the Angus Reid survey on Faith in Canada. The second was the massive Pew study on the Future of World Religions. Now the WIN/GIA group has something to add. However, they did something few surveys bother to do: separate the actual nonbelievers from the “Nones”.

Right off the bat I have to deflate your expectations. This wasn’t a real survey on religion. WIN/GIA (which is a group of polling companies scattered across the world) just does an annual survey that covers all kinds of stuff. It just so happened that the 2014 year-end poll included a question about religion:

Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not would you say you are:

  1. a religious Person,
  2. not a religious person,
  3. a convinced atheist,
  4. do not know/no response.

That’s actually not a bad way to ask the question. It’s not perfect, of course. (Though I assume the capitalization of “person” in option (a) is merely a typo in the report, and that the survey didn’t really ask people to choice between “religious Person” and “not a religious person”.) If it had been up to me, I would have avoided the strong negative (such as “not a (religious) person”) and gone with something more like “… would you say you are: a. religious, b. not religious, c. a convinced atheist…”. I might also have added an “a nonbeliever” option before the “convinced atheist” to catch nonbelievers uncomfortable with the “a-word”, and dropped the rather unnecessary “convinced” qualifier.

But they did two things really well. First, they made it clear that they weren’t asking if you are “religious” for cultural reasons or due to social pressures with the “Irrespective…” bit. That’s literally the opposite of what StatsCan does for our census (or “census”, as was the case last time). (See this 2010 blog post from CFI for some more info about what I’m referring to. Incidentally, the next census is next year; I’ll be writing more about that shortly.) Second, they actually took atheists seriously enough to mention them specifically. I’m not sure if the “convinced” part was really necessary, but many surveys don’t bother to ask about nonreligion specifically at all, let alone atheism – they just ask you to declare a religion, with “none” given as a “not applicable” way to avoid answering, rather than as an answer itself. (The Canadian census/survey is an example of this, sadly.)

I’ll be honest, I was a little startled by the results. I would have assumed that the “convinced atheist” wording was so strong it would have scared away most people. But a surprising number of people actually identified as “convinced atheists” – 11% overall.

How did Canada do?

Answer Total Male Female
A religious person 40% 37% 44%
Not a religious person 41% 39% 42%
A convinced atheist 12% 16% 9%
Do not know / no response 7% 8% 5%

It would appear we are more “not religious” than “religious” overall – and that’s not even taking “convinced atheists” into account. Not too shabby. As usual, males are much less religious than females.

Answer 18–24 25–34 35–44 45–54 55–64 65+
A religious person 27% 25% 34% 46% 52% 53%
Not a religious person 52% 47% 45% 37% 37% 34%
A convinced atheist 15% 19% 11% 11% 7% 10%
Do not know / no response 6% 9% 10% 7% 4% 4%

No surprises here, either – the older you are, the more religious you are. The youngest adults are slightly more noncommittal than the 25–34 cohort, but that’s a good thing: there’s no rush to figure things out (I’m not a big fan of “get ’em while they’re young”).

Here’s the same data in chart form:

A chart showing the proportion of 'religious persons', 'not religious', 'convinced atheists', and 'no response' across age groups in Canada, based on data from the WIN/GIA survey.

Religiosity across age groups in Canada.

Answer Low income Medium income High income
A religious person 33% 42% 38%
Not a religious person 34% 42% 44%
A convinced atheist 21% 10% 13%
Do not know / no response 12% 6% 5%

I have to admit, this surprised me a little bit. Normally atheism is correlated with income, but here we see that low income Canadians were more likely to consider themselves “convinced atheists” than high or medium income Canadians – by a substantial margin, too. Granted, they’re usually the ones most screwed by religion – for example, being forced to pay for two school systems in Ontario – so I suppose it makes sense there would be substantial numbers of convinced atheists among them.

Answer No education / only basic education Completed primary Completed secondary Completed high level (university) Completed higher level (master’s, PhD, etc.)
A religious person 21% 42% 40% 37%
Not a religious person 59% 41% 41% 42%
A convinced atheist 10% 12% 17%
Do not know / no response 21% 8% 6% 4%

And there’s not really much of surprise here. Higher education correlates to less religiosity, but of course there’s the confounding factor that since higher education is so prevalent in Canada, most people who haven’t completed high school haven’t done so simply because they’re young.

Don’t take the results too seriously, though. First of all, the methodology wasn’t nearly as rigorous as for the Angus Reid survey released a couple weeks ago. Also, the data set for this survey was around three times smaller.

So while the results aren’t really of a high enough quality to take too seriously in isolation, they do generally conform to the results we see in other surveys. And I do give the study kudos for formulating the question well, and taking nonbelievers – and atheists – seriously in their own right.

If you’re interested in global results, Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist has written a nice post covering them quite well (as well as mentioning the American results). There is some interesting data there (*cough*bragging rights at the comparison between US and Canadian data*cough*), so I do recommend checking out what he wrote.

3 thoughts on “New WIN/GIA survey is one of the very few to separate “nones” and atheists

  1. Good article, thanks Indi.

  2. First, they made it clear that they weren’t asking if you are “religious” for cultural reasons or due to social pressures with the “Irrespective…” bit.

    Only if being “religious” is taken as being synonymous with attending a “place of worship”. Their wording goes some way towards addressing the problem, but still leaves plenty of room for culturally ingrained and/or socially enforced forms of religiosity.

    And I do give the study kudos for formulating the question well…

    I don’t, particularly. Apart from the problem I’ve just mentioned, the category “not a religious person” should include the category “a convinced atheist” as a matter of logic.

    Those are both small problems that may not have made much difference to the results of the survey, but they’re still annoying, and the second one could have been easily avoided by writing “not religious, but not a convinced atheist”.

    • > Apart from the problem I’ve just mentioned, the category “not a religious person” should include the category “a convinced atheist” as a matter of logic.

      The question is not formulated to satisfy abstract notions of logic. It is formulated to match real-world patterns of identification.

      Religious identification is not a matter of logic. Take, for example, the huge majority that calls themselves “spiritual but not religious”. Many of them are actually Christians… *literally* Christians, not just “by-default” Christians – some of them are even regular church-goers and will straight-up say Jesus is God. It makes no sense at all to be an openly and conscientiously practising Christian who truly believes in many of the religious doctrines of the faith, but claim you’re “not religious”. Yet it’s quite common.

      Most surveys don’t ask “what do you believe” because most people’s beliefs are vague and/or contradictory – most people really don’t think too hard about their beliefs. Most surveys ask “how do you identify”, which is a much easier question to answer.

      > Those are both small problems that may not have made much difference to the results of the survey, but they’re still annoying, and the second one could have been easily avoided by writing “not religious, but not a convinced atheist”.

      You seem to think the categories should be mutually exclusive. That’s absolutely impossible – you are severely underestimating the complexity and variation of religious identification. It’s possible to be a religious person and a convinced atheist, for example (there are religions that don’t have gods, after all).

      You’re supposed to pick the option that you think best describes you. If you’re both “not a religious person” and “a convinced atheist”, you decide which of those better represents you and your beliefs, and pick that. The question is about how you identify, not about the proper classification of your beliefs.

      It’s even possible that there are people who think all three options apply. You’d think that’s ridiculous, but it’s not. There could quite easily be a person who would say they are “a religious person” because of their beliefs (they are a {person who is religious})… yet “not a religious person” because their beliefs are private and don’t affect who they are publicly (they are a {person who is religious} but they are not a {religious person})…. *and* those beliefs could be atheistic.

      It’s even possible that a person who believes in multiple gods would say they are a “convinced atheist” – the question is not “what *are* you”, it is “what do you *say* you are”. But that is highly unlikely in most contemporary societies. The opposite is far more likely (a convinced atheist identifying as, say, Catholic) – and is actually a fact, in Canada at least – so it is more important to formulate the question to account for that effect… which it does.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Help

WordPress theme: Kippis 1.15