(Excerpts below from the Templeton Foundation.)
In 2017, University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle published a paper titled “How Many Atheists Are There?” arguing—on the basis of provocative preliminary research—that traditional surveys of religious attitudes may consistently and significantly undercount the number of people who are atheists.
They suspected that the concept of atheism carried enough of a negative social stigma that many people who met the criteria of disbelief would be unwilling to admit it directly, even in an anonymous survey. In the paper, Gervais and Najle argued for a different approach—the unmatched count technique, a survey method pioneered in the late 1970s and since used as a way to get accurate, anonymous estimates for delicate or even incriminating questions on topics ranging from drug use to domestic violence.
Now, University of British Columbia psychologist Azim Shariff is working with Gervais to design and deploy experiments that will refine the survey technique for questions about religious beliefs, both in North American contexts and internationally in societies like Saudi Arabia or Sweden whose members may feel different levels of social pressure when it comes to admitting atheism, even anonymously.
The abstract of the original research report read as follows:
One crucible for theories of religion is their ability to predict and explain the patterns of belief and disbelief. Yet, religious nonbelief is often heavily stigmatized, potentially leading many atheists to refrain from outing themselves even in anonymous polls. We used the unmatched count technique and Bayesian estimation to indirectly estimate atheist prevalence in two nationally representative samples of 2,000 U.S. adults apiece. Widely cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence of only 3-11%. In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty). Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability. Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible. Some popular theoretical approaches to religious cognition may require heavy revision to accommodate actual levels of religious disbelief.
Thus Gervais and Najle strongly suspected that atheism is significantly underreported. The new research will use the unmatched count technique. Here is a description from the Templeton Foundation website which summarizes how this works.
“The gold standard of survey research often involves face-to-face interviews with survey participants, often conducted by people of similar cultural backgrounds,” Shariff says. “This method has been used in some of Gallup’s international polls on religion, and the data that derives from these surveys is widely used across the social sciences, but it creates exactly the circumstances under which people feel pressured to embellish their virtuous responses, and disguise or outright lie about ones they feel enjoy less societal approval.”
The unmatched count technique attempts to avoid this by never requiring participants to directly answer the question at hand. Instead, they are given a list of statements and are only asked, “How many of these are true for you?” The control group generates baseline data for a set of innocuous statements (for instance, “I use a computer every day” or “I own blue shoes”) while the other group receives the same set of statements plus an additional question such as “I believe in God.” Since the participants only report a number, but never have to indicate which items on the list are true for them, any individual’s answer is not a definitive admission or denial. But by comparing the average number of agreed-to statements for large-enough control and experimental groups, the group’s rate of agreement with the target question can be deduced.
I’m really looking forward to the results of the new research. I’m guessing that the original speculation of Gervais and Najle will be correct—non-belief is widely underestimated. I’d also argue that the actions of many theists belie their supposed belief.