Never do I get so riled as when reading a report that refuses to address information that is staring the average reader in the face. Case in point: The Washington Post ran a story by staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon on June 24, 2008, “Most Americans Believe in a Higher Power, Poll Finds,” which states that “The study detailed Americans’ deep and broad religiosity, finding that 92 percent believe in God or a universal spirit—including one in five of those who call themselves atheists. More than half of Americans polled pray at least once a day.”
First, note that the poll’s initial question measures belief in “God” OR a “Universal Spirit.” Of the nearly 36,000 respondents surveyed, 71% said they were “absolutely certain” that such critters existed—God or a Universal Spirit. However, do those professing absolute belief in a Universal Spirit ALSO believe in God? Who knows? Readers are left to create a chimera, God/Universal Spirit (hereafter GUS).
More upsetting, actually, is Salmon’s interpretation of the poll results, inflating the 71% of those professing certainty in GUS to the ninetieth percentile by adding the “fairly certain” (17%, nationally) and the “not too certain” (4%, nationally) to those who are “absolutely certain.” That is how Salmon arrives at the questionable conclusion that 92% of the American public believes in GUS.
What of nontheists and naturalists? Nationally, those respondents without belief in GUS came in at 5%, while those who “don’t know” or refused to answer the Pew questions were the smallest group of respondents, at 3%. Obviously, 8% of 36,000 people didn’t see the need to admit that GUS is central to their lives.
Salmon’s emphasizing the “deep and broad religiosity” of Americans occludes the facts. The Pew Poll numbers can be interpreted as showing that at least one-fifth of Americans are somewhat or strongly agnostic, up to 21% of those surveyed. If that number is added to the 8% without belief or interest in GUS, it would mean that 29% of those surveyed profess some or a great deal of religious doubt, let alone atheism.
And how did atheists morph into theists? Here is one humanist’s response to Pew’s data collectors, from Salmon’s report:
David Phillips, 57, a Bethesda receiving clerk who considers himself a humanist (meaning he does not embrace the concept of a supernatural being) does not believe in a God who is an “actual person.” But Phillips does believe in a “spirit—a spirit within you.”
“God is a symbol that everybody can relate to,” Phillips said. “They look to it as a visual thing. But, actually, God is inside of them.”
Was Phillips’ response included in the 92% of those believing in GUS? If that’s the case, then God is a literary trope, a handy cliché in a discourse on the human spirit.
Given the muddiness with which the poll results were interpreted by Salmon (and by others), someone like Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic,” would likely be included in that 92% with belief in GUS. But remember what Ingersoll wrote in his essay “The Gods”:
Few nations have been so poor as to have but one god. Gods were made so easily, and the raw material cost so little, that generally the god market was fairly glutted, and heaven crammed with these phantoms. (reference here)
These days, belief in gods/angels/spirits likely hearkens as much to America’s increasingly vague and marketed spirituality, as it does to its religiosity. The Pew numbers, after all, also suggest a rising tolerance for diversity, or as Gregory Smith, a research fellow with Pew, says in Salmon’s report: “there is a certain degree of openness and a lack of dogmatism in [Americans’] approach to faith and the teachings of their faith.”
A different view of tolerance is offered by Ronald Bailey, a science correspondent for Reason Magazine, who penned an April 2008 article, “The New Age of Reason: Is the Fourth Great Awakening finally coming to a close?” Bailey argues: “Just as movies and the pill enticed people out of the pews, so is modern technology making it harder to impose any single moral vision,” while also noting survey data from 2006 that shows 23% of Americans in their twenties and 19% of those in their thirties unaffiliated with any religion.
The language of religion may persist, and people may use religious language in replying to pollsters and other data collectors who ask questions about God or faith traditions. Indeed, a 2004 study of surveys on religion (in the U.S. and Europe) by Peter Lüchau found: a) “Since many nationwide surveys in the U.S. are financed by the media or organisations wanting to influence public debate they tend to focus on attitudes towards religion and the relationship between religion and politics”; b) “The United States as opposed to the European countries have a religious market which increases religious competition and thereby religiosity”; and c) “Generally speaking American scholars are more inclined to use religion in their analyses than European scholars. American scholars find religion relevant in such different research-subjects as suicide, smoking, old age research, and of course abortion.” In sum, like begets like, and so the DNA of religious discourse is duly propagated in the United States.
Returning to the Pew Poll and The Washington Post’s Salmon, let’s admit that it’s weaselly to conflate belief in GUS with belief in a traditional God. Also, it’s irresponsible to lump together the 71% “absolutely certain” of their belief in GUS with the 21% professing uncertainty or downright agnosticism. Language may perpetuate memes, but at least let the numbers have an honest say.