Atheists were abuzz this week over Pew Research releasing new numbers  showing that the number of “nones” (people who have no religion at all) in the U.S. is soaring to record levels, making up a whopping 56 million Americans. In just the past seven years, the percentage of Americans who say they have no specific religious affiliation went from 16 percent to 23 percent. While nones  are a diverse group—some are atheist, some agnostic, some believe in God but don’t follow a religion—this explosive rejection of organized religion certainly means America is becoming a country where it is safer and more acceptable to be a non-believer.
But while the Pew research is causing this massive wave of media attention, both good and bad , just as interesting was a quieter report from the Christian polling company Barna Group on the state of American atheism. Barna is clearly motivated by trying to bring people into the Christian fold, but its polling methods are sound, and like Pew, its research shows that the nones are a diverse group. However, this March report focused on what Barna calls “skeptics,” who are self-identified as atheists or agnostics. Barna’s research found that this group’s demographics have changed considerably; skeptics are younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, more educated, and more spread out than they were 20 years ago.
But the biggest demographic shift recorded by Barna was related to gender. “In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women,” the report explains. “By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent.”
While the number of skeptics, both male and female, has been growing rapidly, it’s been growing even faster for women, which is why this shift has happened. Anyone who attends atheist or skeptic events has seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of this shift. When I first got involved in skepticism and atheism many years ago, when nones were only 16 percent of the population, it was often awkward and alienating, and I felt like one of the few young women in a sea of older men. Now I’m not quite so young, and things have changed dramatically. No more hesitating about going into the bar after a conference, for fear it’s going to be a sausage fest. No more scouting the entire room for a woman, any woman, to talk to. While some conferences need to do more work to make women feel welcome, by and large the skeptic world is one where being female doesn’t make you feel weird anymore.