Survey: Where do atheists find meaning?

Atheists are one of the most misunderstood groups in the world. A study reported on by the New York Times and published in the journal, Nature shows most people have a moral prejudice against atheists and nonbelievers. One of the reasons nonbelievers are feared and stigmatized is because many don’t understand where they find morals and meaning.

According to a Pew Research poll, religion is the second most important source of meaning in the lives of Americans (family was polled to be the most important). However, studies show America is becoming less religious as a nation. Between 2007 and 2014, the amount of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated grew from about 37 million to 56 million people. Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic or state their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ make up 23 percent of the population — a significant amount of people. Without religion, where do these Americans find meaning in life?

Americans were asked an open-ended question about what gives them a sense of meaning. Pew compared two groups — Christians, and the religiously unaffiliated. Christians were broken down into the subcategories Protestant, Evangelical Protestants, Mainland Protestants, and Black Protestant. The unaffiliated subcategories were atheists, agnostics, and people who identified their religion as ‘nothing in particular’.

Between Christians and the religiously unaffiliated, the topics mentioned the most when asked about a sense of meaning were finances and money. Twenty-six percent of the religiously unaffiliated mentioned finances and money, compared to 22 percent of Christians. Of all the subgroups, atheists found the most meaning in finances and money (37 percent), compared to the next highest subcategory, Evangelical Protestants, who mentioned finances 26 percent of the time.

Hobbies and activities were found to be the second most mentioned topic amongst the nonreligious. Twenty-three percent of religiously unaffiliated people mentioned hobbies and activates in the open-ended answers, compared to 16 percent of Christians. Atheists were the most likely of all the subgroups to mention hobbies and activities as giving their life meaning – approximately a third. The nonreligious were also most likely to find meaning in creative activities.

Atheists were the most likely to find meaning in travel by a large margin. Thirteen percent of atheists mentioned travel. The most likely to mention travel under the Christian subcategory were Mainland Protestants at six percent. Atheist also found the most meaning in leisure activities at 14 percent, compared to the next highest Christian subgroup, Mainland Protestant at nine percent.

People who identify as nonreligious are a diverse and complex group, however, the stigma remains. These numbers show the religious and nonreligious find meaning in many of the same areas.

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