A Godless Recount

Baylor University has recently released a study, titled “American Piety in the 21st Century”, on American religious affiliation and church attendance. This study has been widely described as casting doubt on previous studies which have found that religious belief is declining in America. In particular, the Baylor researchers have described their study as an explicit rebuttal to the much-cited 2001 CUNY ARIS study which found that as many as 15% of Americans are non-religious. In contrast to this finding, Baylor University professor Kevin Dougherty stated that 89% of Baylor’s survey respondents had an identifiable religious affiliation, and asserted that previous surveys have overestimated the numbers of the non-religious by incorrectly giving that label to people who actually attend some identifiable, non-denominational church.

“We find that barely one in 10 truly have no religious affiliation in America,” said Kevin Dougherty, Baylor University assistant professor of sociology. “Prior national surveys have concluded that 10 million people are not religious who actually are in church every Sunday – praying, believing in a God; 10 million Americans counted as religious nones.”

There are several things that can be said about this. First, even if we take the Baylor researchers’ findings at face value, their study has not shown a dramatic decline in the numbers of the godless and may not indicate any decline at all. The 2001 CUNY survey found that 14% of the population is non-religious; by contrast, the Baylor study claims to have found that the non-religious constitute 10.8%. The Baylor findings claim that “This three to four percent difference is significant” and that “researchers have previously over-counted the religiously unaffiliated by 10 million Americans” (p.10). And yet, their own data from elsewhere in this very same document state that the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points (p.53). In other words, the finding that the Baylor researchers claim to be “significant” is actually within their own self-stated margin of error! It is scientifically inaccurate and academically dishonest to assert that a difference within the margin of experimental error represents a significant change. In reality, when error bars are taken into account, the Baylor data do not contradict the ARIS data at all.

Considerations of experimental error become even more important when one considers the relative amounts of data upon which the differing conclusions are based. The Baylor study had 1,721 respondents. By contrast, the 2001 ARIS study had over fifty thousand respondents (source). It is a basic statistical principle that, all things being equal, a survey based on more data is more reliable than a survey based on less. Unless the Baylor researchers can show some systematic error in the ARIS data, it is reasonable to assume that that data set is more accurate and more representative, and that the claimed difference in the Baylor study simply represents a statistical fluctuation caused by their low response rate.

For interested readers who wish to delve more deeply, Beware of the Dogma has a superb analysis of the Baylor study, including incisive criticisms of some very strange apparent gaps in its methodology. One such criticism that I found very important was that the Baylor study classified people as religiously affiliated if they described themselves as “seekers”, a highly vague and ambiguous term that could accurately describe many people who have no real religious belief.

As long as we’re on the topic of surveying the godless, I have good news to report: the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, has expressed unhappiness over how many evangelical young people are leaving the church. In 2002, the SBC’s Council on Family Life found that a stunning 88% of evangelicals are leaving the church after graduating from high school. Although some SBC leaders blame this high dropout rate on the “secularist influence” of public school, the article – from a Christian news organization, Agape Press, no less – cites anecdotal evidence that even graduates from private Christian schools are leaving the church at a high rate. Although not all of these dropouts are necessarily becoming atheists, this is very good news, and if we atheists can reach out to them and show them a better alternative, so much the better for us. There is doubtless a great harvest waiting to be gathered, if only we can find the resources to do so.

The SBC’s president, Frank Page, says in the article that “his prayer is that more churches will begin offering Christian schools, both for families who can and for those who cannot afford such education”. Aside from the bizarre wording – does he really mean he believes that even families who cannot afford it should send their children to private Christian school? – there is a very revealing implication here. In essence, Page is admitting that young people who are exposed to perspectives other than his own tend to leave the church – that Christian belief cannot survive without intense indoctrination and careful sheltering from external sources of information that might encourage people to consider the issue from other sides. This, in turn, suggests a strategy for atheist evangelists: if we can simply expose believers to information about ourselves, our work may largely be done for us! It is very encouraging to think that religious indoctrination, as intense as it is, could be so fragile. There may be a world of potential atheists awaiting us, if we can reach out to them.

There is one final piece of good news for your consideration: an article from this summer, Catholic priests become sought-after Polish export. This piece informs us that religious belief in Europe is declining so steeply that the Catholic church can no longer find enough people who want to be clergy to fill the posts in most countries, and the Vatican is relying heavily on Poland, one of the few countries that is still a net exporter of priests. Even former Catholic strongholds such as Italy and Spain, the article points out, have only a 10-20% rate of church attendance. In this respect, it seems that Europe is leading the way; now only if we can make headway in Poland, the Vatican’s last European stronghold, the results might truly be worth seeing.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Interested Atheist


  • Ken. F

    Wasn’t it a Baylor study group that was heavily criticised for its methodology when it found a statistical therapeutic benefit from the wearing of magnets? I believe you are wise to be cautious of this study as well. I wouldn’t get too excited about the dropout rate from the church after leaving high school either. It’s not that unusual for this to occur, but the ‘virus of faith’ inevitably and sadly, leads these wayward souls back into the fold later in life.

  • Alex Weaver

    I have it on good authority that it’s not inevitable, though many do attempt to “relocate Jesus” later in life. It’d be interesting to see some figures on the prevalence of that, though…

  • Christopher

    The christian faith is getting desperate, even delusional!

    For example: my family recently attended some “prophecy” conference at Heartland World Ministries Church (a group of radical fundies in Dallas) where they had some speaker claim that the christian movement is on the verge on becoming stronger in Germany than the Nazi party ever was! Furthermore, most of them actually believe that nonsense!

    Just one look at the demographic data will show that christianity is on it’s deathbed over there, but they still cling to this hope that they will retake the lands of their origns. And they call me crazy…

  • Amy

    Even when the younger generations fall away from their churches they are still somewhat religious and want NOTHING to do with atheism and even get mad if you tell them about some of the not so nice passages in their beloved bibble. One lady got really mad at me for telling her about some of those passages. She admitted she had never read the bible, but made it very clear that she was pissed that I told her something she didnt want to know. So, not only are we dealing with christian belief, but even worse IGNORANT christian belief.

  • lpetrich

    Parallel to the decline of Catholic priests has been how Catholic nuns are dwindling and aging and becoming ‘none’.

    And despite that study’s problems, I do think it valuable that it pointed out differences in opinion about the nature of the God(s) that people believe in; it didn’t have a tone of “We all believe in the exact same God, down to every last detail.”

    I myself have written on this study in Baylor U Study: What Kind of God?

    People were polled on how active in the world they believe God to be, and how angry and judgmental they believe God to be. This leads to a two-dimensional spectrum of possibilities that the researchers divided into four possibilities:

    A, the Authoritarian God: active and angry
    B, the Benevolent God: active but not angry
    C, the Critical God: inactive but angry
    D, the Distant God: inactive and not angry

    Atheism might be called F for Faithless, as a LA Times article pointed out

    The more fundie one is, the more one tends to believe in God A, with B and C being in the middle and the least fundie believing in God D. Believers in God A tend to have Religious-Right positions, while believers in God D are often secularists.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    Two notes.

    First of all, just because a pollster samples a high number of people doesn’t mean he is going to get accurate results. The common example is Landon vs Roosevelt in the 1936 presendential election. Literary digest mailed 10 million questionares to its readers (2.3 million responded) and predicted the race would be won by Landon, 57%-43%. There were obviously problems in the sample, notably volentary response. Gallop polled the same race with a sample of 50,000 and correctly predicted Roosevelts victory. Now, as you note, all things being equal a 50,000 sample size should be more accurate than a 1,750, but all things might not be equal. In this case it appears that the ARIS study is more accurate, but it has nothing to do with the sample size.

    Second, I am not saying that Europe’s declining religiosity is a bad thing, but what is happening that concerns me more than a christian Europe is the immigration of fundementalist Islam. Nothing against muslims in general, and I largely support immigration wherever it is occuring, but Europe moving from a (mostly) sensible non-fundy christian continent to a much more radical Islam continent is not something I cheer. And it will happen; it is predicted that by 2050 Europe’s population could be half muslim. Again, I’m not saying all or even most muslims are radical. But outside of perhaps Ireland, fundy christians are not dangerous (in the sense of killing others.) Fundementalist Islam is.

  • http://del.icio.us/sporkyy Todd Sayre

    Considering their reaction to the 4%-10% of the population that is gay, I find their downplaying the fact that even 10% of the population are nontheists funny.

    Imagine what our numbers could be if we had the same kinds of recuitment drives the gays have?

  • Christopher

    So this is what those dopes at Braylor have done: they invented a new religious catagory just so they can claim that there are fewer nonbelievers than there truley are.

    I’m simultaniously insulted and complimented by that; insulted that they underreport our existence, but complimented by the fact that they see my kind as a threat (as well they should because we will be knocking on their front door within the next few decades).

  • Alex Weaver


    On that note, though, I’m curious about Baylor…is this an explicitly Christian university? Or private secular with conservative tendencies? That might have some bearing on the interpretation of their results, but, as jumping to conclusions about organizations with which one is not familiar tends to be, it’s probably a mistake to conclude that they were trying to deliberately underreport our existence before we actually know anything about their motives, practices, and policies.

  • Bechamel

    I’m curious about Baylor…is this an explicitly Christian university?

    From the university website: “Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas, Baylor has an enrollment of about 14000 and is the largest Baptist university in the world.”

  • http://del.icio.us/sporkyy Todd Sayre
  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Interesting to note, Baylor was also the university that back in 2000 briefly hired William Dembski as director of a “research center” on intelligent design, until protests from science faculty convinced the university to end their affiliation with him.

  • Awaiting

    I have decided to day at the age of 23 that either he doesn’t exist or he is a down right asshole which I care not to know, so why waste my time “praising him/her/it”!
    Even when I thought I did believe in it, the whole concept of the world is a game or experiment to him. WHY would you love someone who thinks of you as a game? It’s
    just like saying parents have the right to treat us any kind of way because they created us and that is how it acts. Good people everyday suffer from bad things just because “he will never put on us more than we can bare” I guess because a woman can live through rape, she should be raped. I hate it and will no longer support it. I don’t consider myself over-reacting out of anger, but acting out of observation. Even when you do get your so called prayers answered, it’s a joke to him. Some sense of humor he has! If we make him so angry, why doesn’t he just stop torturing us and himself already!!!

  • Alex Weaver

    Admirable sentiment, although a more…measured tone might be advised for future expressions. And while I’m not entirely sure that this is the proper thread for it, welcome nonetheless to the reality-based community.