“atheism” is declining

OK, this post’s title is using a cheap journalistic trick because we all know that, fortunately, the number of ‘confessing’ atheists in the US is rising.  This post instead discusses the decline of the word “atheism”, not the phenomena of atheism. Google Ngram is a great way to investigate word usage over the last 200 years. The graph below is of the frequency of the usage of both “atheism” and “Atheism” in books since the 1800s.


When I write about Atheism, just like when I write about Christianity, Buddhism, Communism or any other positions, I spell these words with a capital letter.  But I have seen others use small letters when writing about Atheism, so I thought I’d see what Ngram had to show us about frequency.  Interestingly, this graph shows that my choice of a capital “A” is in the minority.  So out of respect for the majority (not my usual inclination), my post title uses a small “a”.

But more interesting than that orthographic insight, my research shows that the word “atheism” (capital or small lettered) has continually seen less percentage of press than in the past (with only occasional transient spikes). Perhaps that is good since the words “Atheism” and “Atheist” are largely used pejoratively. Perhaps their decline is for the better. When religion holds a non-privileged role in society, perhaps the use of the word “atheism” will fade.  Take the word “non-stampcollector” for instance, it has always been a flat-line on Ngram.  May atheism’s trajectory follow!

If you identify with “Atheism”, then this will be sad for you, and my apologies for possibly upsetting your sensibilities. 🙂

Questions for readers:  How would you interpret the graph? Would you be sad if “atheism” faded from the English language?


(1) “Identity:

I have written posts on how “Atheism” is not an identity of mine.  Apparently this pisses folks off. I had a Christian pastor vehemently disagree with me on this.  And last week I got private emails from an Atheist who is disappointed that I don’t “admit” to identifying as an Atheist.  So I am hoping this post helps again address the issue of “identity” — which I am sure I will write more about later.  I doubt it will convince those folks — for we know how persistent beliefs can be — but it may be interesting to the rest of you.

(2) Embracing Pejoratives

I experimented searching Ngram for other pejorative terms of other hated groups and see that some terms are actually increasing.  Embracing a term is actually a way of weakening that term too, so one could see this as a good method of killing prejudice. So perhaps a rise in a bigoted term would be like a final agonal breath before its demise.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to ““atheism” is declining

  1. TWF

    I think you are spot-on. It’s also interesting that around 1900, there was a flourishing of “free thought” which seemed to have a significant effect on reducing “atheism” usage up to the start of the Roaring 20’s. Also interesting is the peak apparently coinciding with the Cold War.

    I find it encouraging, and will have no disappointment in dispensing with my atheism tag. 🙂

  2. Thanx TWF. Actually, your comment points at another issue about “Identity” that I have in my notes for future posts. If we want to use the word “Identity” (note the capital “I”), then one use may be that, if someone accused you of NOT being an “X”, would you be offended. If so, then you find identity in “X”. That may be one working-definition to aid dialogue on the idea of “Identity”.

  3. I identify as an agnostic or an Agnostic. This has always been a bit of a difficult position. Atheists hate me because I refuse to say positively that there is no such thing as deity. Most religious individuals hate me because I refuse to say that their deity positively exists, in fact I rather think that deity, if it exists, does not behave in the way they believe it to. Perhaps what I should identify as is a Pariah or pariah.

  4. Hmm, I would interpret the graph as people getting sick of the narrow-minded rantings of Dawkins and his ilk. I also know some good folks at Skepchick are atheist but they fall into the same traps; dismissing all complementary medicine as “woo”, defending vaccines as though (despite Ben Goldacre’s good book) they would be perfectly okay with the medical community never researching the side effects ever again.

    Long story short, in my own experience, Atheists often follow the same blind path as religious folks. I’ve come to not like the word so much. I’d prefer a common sense label like secular that is free of the self congratulatory “skeptic” attitude.

  5. @ Cie,
    I only know blogging, grumpy Atheists who would hate you for your agnosticism. The every day one’s I meet could care less. Just ignore the grumps.

    @ amelie,
    Wow, now it is your turn to be fiery!
    (a) Anti-Dawkins
    (b) Pro-Alternative Med
    (c) Anti-Vaccination sympathy

    That is a lot!

    (1) I disagree with you that the fall is because of Dawkins or others — if anything, they may keep the numbers up. As for your judgement of them — I won’t take that up here.

    (2) Alt-Med
    A huge amount of Alt Med is non-sense, so is a lot of Orthodox Med.

    (3) Vaccinations
    Oddly enough, I went to an atheist site yesterday that was ranting pro-vaccinations and I pointed out the VAERS site and asked if it altered their views. The atheist threatened me — that if I offered more anti-science rhetoric, I would be banned from the site. Go figure! Atheists who hate data.


    Yes, faulty thinking is certainly not a monopoly of religious folks.

  6. Ha! Yeah well, I’m an Aries. 😉

    Not sure what you meant by this:

    (a) Anti-Dawkins
    (b) Pro-Alternative Med
    (c) Anti-Vaccination sympathy

    I won’t dispute (a). As for (b), I’m not “pro” anything. The University of Maryland has an excellent website, on which you can Google alternative medicines like stinging nettle and get the current research. The point is that many medicines came from plants in the first place. We know many herbs have some effect on the human body. Some dangerous, some fairly neutral. Some have been shown in clinical trials to be useful. That’s what I base every decision on, whether traditional or alternative medicine.

    I’m not sympathetic to any group that does not use science. Dr. Ben Goldacre showed in his book that many drug companies hide negative results. What I advocate for is continual testing of vaccines, or any drug. Sometimes side effects for certain genome prone people take decades to be revealed.

    I think you know all this already though. 😉

    So sorry to hear you were harassed by an Atheist on a website. Some people are so childish!

  7. @ amelie,
    Maybe your forgot that I am a former Oriental Medical Doctor (from Japan) who specialized in herbs and ran my own clinic.
    I also write against Big Pharma.
    Didn’t sound like you new that background.
    BTW, as you know, just because their is “current” research on any given alternative medicine, doesn’t mean it is good research. In fact almost all of any acupuncture research showing effect, current or older, is hogwash. Oh yes, I am a former acupuncturist too — you know that, right?
    We probably agree on most things though.

  8. Oh, I was aware of that background. That’s why I said (several times) “but you already knew that”. What I was trying to clarify was that I was not, as you seemed to imply, anti-vax or pro-alternative medicine. My comment was mostly about my beliefs, which you misunderstood.

    I haven’t read much on acupuncture but from what I understand, most medical researchers do think it’s nonsense. I’ll have to check out your posts as I don’t know the science of it! 🙂

  9. Ah, if you are interested in the nonsense behind Chinese herbal medicine and Acupuncture (my former practices), see this blog — he is fantastic and is still a practitioner (but I don’t know how long he’ll last!)

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