Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Atheists are liberals as often as not, but most liberals are theists

Recently, the Inductivist dismissed the perception that atheists are usually leftists:
Perhaps I should give people more credit and assume that they believe that an atheist is very likely to be a liberal, but doing even a little bit of homework will get beyond the stereotype.
We would be so fortunate if only the stereotype was an inaccurate one! Inductivist may not be off the mark in describing atheists in the Steveosphere's orbit, like the scientifically-minded prodigies at GNXP. Among the general public, however, presuming most atheists to be leftists is not unreasonable, even if it's not quite precise.

The GSS shows that among atheists (N=252), 47.6% self-describe as being somewhere on the liberal end of the political spectrum. A further 29.0% are moderates, with the remaining 23.3% on the conservative side of things. So it is more sensible for one to assume, absent any other information, that there is basically a 50/50 chance that an atheist will also be a leftist.

Among the public, 26.8% self-describe as belonging on the liberal side, 38.7% say they are moderates, and 34.5% count themselves as conservatives of some stripe. Thus the odds of finding a leftist at random among atheists are nearly twice as great as they are of finding a leftist at random among the general population.

The graph on the left looks at atheists alone. The graph on the right represents the general population. Green-on-down represents those on the liberal side of the political spectrum, yellow those who consider themselves moderates, and orange-on-up those who are conservatives of some degree. (Click on either graph for greater resolution).

The stereotype of the liberal atheist becomes untenable when it is conversely assumed that because there is a good chance atheists are leftists, there is similarly a good chance that liberals are atheists. In the US, theism continues to be the dominant position across the political spectrum. Fewer than 3% of those on the liberal side of the political spectrum describe themselves as atheists. Eight percent are agnostic, while an overwhelming 89% are theistic.

As the graph below shows, the more liberal a person describes himself as, the less firm his theism becomes. But among the general population, atheism and agnosticism are rare even among those on the left. Magenta represents those who are certain God exists, red represents those who are certain God does not exist, and the colors in between represent varying degrees of confidence in the existence of God.

GSS variables used: GOD, POLVIEWS


Frank Lee said...

I enjoy your blog, thanks for posting.


We would be so fortunate if only the stereotype was an inaccurate one!

Do you mean it would 1) be better if more conservatives were atheists or 2) be better if more atheists were conservative?

I don't see much reason to agree with 1). Theists are better neighbors: they commit fewer crimes, give more to charity and are happier, just to name a few.

And I don't see why 2) would be so heartfelt: if conservatism has positive externalities, why does it matter if the conservatives are atheists.

Stopped Clock said...

It's too bad there's no libertarian category; I'd take it almost for granted that atheists are more common there. In my experience libertarians have been more likely to consider themselves conservatives than liberals, but this trend may have a lot to do with their tendency to identify with the enemy of the party currently in power. For instance I think it's likely that most libertarians moved left during the Bush years.

Stopped Clock said...

I should clarify that I live in New England, so even under Bush the Democrats were still generally the party in power at the state level.

al fin said...

Some atheists are moral and intelligent, other atheists are conformist shitheads. The classification holds little information.

The left fringe of the Democratic party has achieved total power of the US gov. (except for the SCOTUS). Whether the fringe loonies are atheists or deists does not signify. They represent the greatest hazard to liberty since slavery.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks. The comments are mutually apprceciated.

It's tough (for me, anyway) to effectively communicate when I'm trying to be sarcastic or unctuous. So I use an ! as an indicator (I'm not presuming my odd grammatical 'rules' are really of that much interest, but I do go into more detail near the end of this post). I was trying to gently take issue with the Inductivist's assertion without disagreeing with his point that the political beliefs of high office holders are more germane to voters than their various religious/spiritual beliefs are.


Yeah, the lack of libertarian categorization is irritating (to the extent that I am able to complain about a massive socio-cultural database made available to me for free :). Half Sigma presumes that respondents interpret the liberal-moderate-conservative spectrum (the GSS offers 7 categories) as pertaining to cultural issues rather than economic ones. I'm not comfortable asserting that, though. For one, issues like immigration are both cultural and economic, and I regularly hear people describe themselves by saying something along the lines of "I'm really fiscally conservative", followed by a range of positions on something like abortion. Nearly all of them would describe as conservative for the purposes of the GSS, I think.


That is essentially the point the Inductivist was making in the referenced post--that supernatural conceptions might matter ceteris paribus, but since all things are never exactly the same among office seekers in the US' political arena, supernatural conceptions among government officials don't really matter. I have no issue with it.

Ron in L.A. said...

The result is less left-leaning that I would have expected, given that the imprecise word "conservative" will be associated with the religious right and thus fewer atheists would self-identify.

We also need to correct for the fact that self-described atheists are apt to be more strident in expressing their beliefs. Saying that you're an atheists offends people, and the people that are willing to that anyway are more likely to identify at an extreme. Note how much narrower the band is for self-described moderates. If atheism were a valid predictor of political beliefs then the self-described moderate band would be about as wide, just displaced.

Correcting for these two factors (conservative=religious in some interpretations of the word, and atheists are more likely to avoid a moderate label) the data indicate that atheism is not much of a predictor of political views.

BTW, this is my first post and I really like your blog, Audacious E.

The Undiscovered Jew said...

One quick thing I'll note is how the liberals are far more likely to choose "some higher power" than the moderates and conservatives are.

This fits yet another political stereotype: The mystical Eastern religion loving liberal whom I'm sure many of your readers have encountered in SWPL parts of the country. I certainly have met many Kaballah/Yoga/Buddhist type liberals at various cafes.

Nonetheless, I'm still a bit shocked by how many extreme liberals "know God exists." I would have assumed the proportion of believing liberals would be much smaller.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks. I'm not sure relative paucity of self-described moderates among atheists is indicative of a tendency for admitted atheists to be see themselves as more politically extreme than modest atheists do--moderates are, on average, less intelligent than either conservatives or liberals are. Atheists are above average in intelligence, so it's reasonable to expect them to be less likely to self-describe as moderate than the population as large.

The liberal-moderate-conservative spectrum does present some problems of interpretation, although the GSS makes it clear that the POLVIEWS question is concerned with political, not theological, beliefs.


Nice point. The "some higher power" answer steadily decreases from extreme liberal to extreme conservative, whereas "believe but doubts" bounces around more.

The "no way to find out" answer is the only one I take to show agnosticism, as opposed to vague or uncertain theism from the answers between it and "Know God exists". But if "Don't believe" is atheist, "Know God exists" is theist, and everything else is agnostic, then liberals look a lot less theistic than conservatives do.

Audacious Epigone said...

"population AT large", that is. Sorry.