Are All Nones the Same? Exploring the Political Differences Between Atheists and Agnostics

Featured Image Credit: Cross Examined

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

One of the most important trends occurring in the American political landscape is the rise of the “nones.” According to polling data collected by Pew, roughly 23% of adults in the United States do not identify with a religious tradition and that number is rapidly increasing. For instance, Pew found that about 37 million were nones in 2007, but that number stood at 55.8 million in 2014. Social scientists have had a hard time trying to understand exactly what this means, largely because the survey instruments we use like the General Social Survey don’t identify large numbers of non-affiliated respondents. However, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study has managed to fill this gap by surveying a large number of individuals and giving them a wide array of options to choose from for their religious affiliation.

Some quick background. The CCES polled 64,600 individuals. 3,993 responded that they were agnostics (6.2%), while 4,025 indicated they were atheists (6.2%). However, the CCES also gives respondents the chance to respond with, “nothing in particular.” This group was huge at nearly 12,000 respondents (18.6%). These three groups together (31%) are actually larger than Pew previously estimated. I wanted to focus this analysis on just the differences between atheists and agnostics; I will likely try to understand what the “nothing in particular” respondents are in a future post.


The figure above displays party identification in the top panel and political ideology in the lower panel. For both, the pattern for atheists and agnostics is clear. They fall to the left of the political spectrum, but on both accounts atheists are more liberal than their agnostic counterparts. When it comes to ideology, none of the major religious traditions are more liberal than atheists. It’s interesting to note how black Protestants seem themselves as much more Democratic, but then more moderate than from an ideology perspective.


On social issues, the pattern is very similar. When it comes to the issue of legalizing same sex marriage, evangelicals are the most conservative and atheists are the most liberal. However, here is no statistical difference between atheists and agnostics. It is interesting to note how large the gap between the “nones” and everyone else is onacceptance for gay marriage though. For example, 94.1% of atheists and 91.3% of agnostics are supportive, but only 66.8% of Catholics are in favor of legalization. This does seem to provide tacit support for the idea that opposition to gay marriage is tied up with religiosity, either culturally or theologically.


The CCES asks respondents a series of six questions to capture their abortion attitudes. I combined all six questions into a single scale where those on the left are more pro-choice and those on the right are more-pro life. If you would like to see each question individually, click here. The gap of .08 on a one point scale is significant between atheists and agnostics on abortion. The gap between agnostics and black Protestants is twice the distance at .16. It’s also worthwhile to note that the only group that is to the right of center is evangelicals at .56.


Finally, how did vote choice differ among atheists and agnostics? Both heavily favored Hillary Clinton for president. However, atheists were more likely to vote for the Democrat (79.9%) than agnostics (71.1%). What is worth noting is that almost all those agnostics who didn’t vote for Clinton voted for Trump instead. He did 8.5% better among agnostics, while Hillary did 8.8% worse. Neither group were particularly strong for the Libertarian party’s candidate even though a significant number of Millennials have libertarian tendencies. The last graph displays the mean age for the major religious traditions in the CCES. The average age for atheists and agnostics is 43.7 and 44.7, respectively. This is much younger than the largest religious traditions: evangelicals (51.5), Catholics (50.4), and especially mainline Protestants (56.5).


It’s interesting to note that agnostics stand between their atheists counterparts to the left and the other Christian traditions to their right. They seem to be caught in the middle on both matters of politics and religion. However, the total number of “nones” in the CCES is staggering at nearly one third of the respondents. The fact that the survey gives three possible choices for no religion – atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular – might make some survey takers more comfortable in choosing their true religious identity. Social science is just beginning to consider what these shifts mean to our social and political worlds, but one thing is for certain: nones are not going away.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.


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