If You’re a Minority Atheist, This Researcher Would Like to Talk to You

Professor Jerome Baggett of the Santa Clara Jesuit School of Theology is conducting a study on American Atheists and he’d like to hear more from those in minority atheist communities (specifically atheists who also identify as African-American, Latino/Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander).

If you’d like to participate, feel free to email Baggett directly!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • _7654_

    “Jesuit School of Theology” hmm, something tells me to run in the other direction as fast as i can …

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Even at worst, the data he gathers is likely to be useful, despite any bias in the initial publication presenting the results. Compare, for example, the various surveys from the Barna Group; and Jesuits tend to be pretty good scientists, who seem likely to produce better results than that. It also seems a good sign that rather than simply pontificating from bare prejudice and stereotype, he’s out looking for empirical data — and (from a poke at Google) has advocated other religious researchers do the same.

      A quick whack at Google Scholar turns up at least one sample of Professor Baggett’s writing on irreligion at (doi: 10.1093/socrel/srq038), where he reviews Phil Zuckerman’s “Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment”. And while I don’t have access to the body, at least the abstract of his essay “Protagoras’s Assertion Revisited: American Atheism and its Accompanying Obscurities” seems to be chiding the religious for not paying attention to what Atheists are actually like. Of course, the abstract also suggests he may be looking at some aspects of the contemporary irreligious trends that some atheists may find less desirable — particularly, the cultural similarities of cultural irreligious expression to cultural religious expression.

      • Anna

        I’m undecided about Baggett, but you can see his survey and questionnaire here:

        https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1SinNWaQ-CuengbWTOAH2orrBvj_x7pZSqy81L4iTYCQ

        https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1Xst_8cD7A_FVurG2Lt2ZOgs1sqouH4UkxRBb7GXFK5Y

        The second one in particular seems to have a lot of poorly defined terms: “raised atheist,” “spiritual,” “meaning in the world,” etc.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          The “raised atheist” seems an oversimplification, yes. I’d agree questions 1-3 in the second one could have been written better to encompass the full range of religious/irreligious upbringings, especially given previous findings indicating that atheists don’t so much “raise their kids to be atheist” as raise their kids (frequently) without emphasis on religious ritual and (often) with emphasis on critical thinking.

          In contrast, both “spiritual” and “meaning” seem likely to have been left vague because the underlying cultural concepts are themselves vague. My understanding is that sociologists use the open answer format of the second questionnaire when trying to get a sample of how diverse the taxa of responses are, often to allow later work to identify how widespread the detected attitudes are with multiple choice inquiries and larger N samples.

          A few of the questions do not seem as carefully developed as (say) the measures used by Altemeyer, and I feel the study would have benefited by more attention to his work. Some others are very standard research questions, which have (what seems to me) peculiar and inexplicable variations from the most widely used forms of the questions. (In particular, about personal beliefs about God and the Bible.) Unless Baggett has a cross-validation study up his sleeve, that seems sloppy experiment design that will limit the cross-study applicability of his work.

          However, I’ve seen far worse coming from the Barna group.

          • Troy Mikanovich

            Hey there! I’m Jerome’s research assistant for the project. You’re right, some of the questions aren’t as good as they could be — and you’re also right about the reason: some of them aren’t his questions. By matching questions with other (larger) surveys, he’s able to compare the atheists from his study with the folks who participated in those other studies. We’d have liked to change some of the questions, but that would make his results less portable.

            If that’s all his study was, then the trade-off wouldn’t be worth it. But…

            His study isn’t just based on these surveys. We’ve also conducted interviews (somewhere between 100 and 150 so far), read through open-ended questionnaires, and attended various atheist/non-religious sponsored events. I think that there’s enough nuance in the rest of these methods to make up for — or further illuminate — the few ham-handed questions in the survey.

            Hope that clarifies what you already knew.

            Yours,
            Troy

            • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

              My point, however, was that the phrasing of the questions seems to have subtle variations from the form used by GSS (and ANES) regarding belief in God and feelings about the Bible, with which I’m most familiar. Whacking the web via Google a few times, it looks like you’re using the Baylor Religion Survey variants.

              If there’s some particular cross-checks with the Baylor work intended, that choice would make sense; or only slightly less if that form was arbitrarily picked at an earlier stage in the research project. Otherwise, given the comparative size difference in N between the Baylor and GSS/ANES data sets… well, not so much sense.

              Regardless, the broader methodology seems generally sound, and the minor variation unlikely to preclude the results being of interest. And nohow, I’m just an interested amateur.

              • Troy Mikanovich

                Jerome’s referenced the Baylor survey in classes that I’ve taken with him, so I imagine that’s where he’s going with this.

                Also, because — as you mentioned — the questions in that survey are largely the same as those found in the GSS (and other surveys which were designed to compare to it), I don’t think that it would be out of the question to make mention of them somehow.

                Thanks for the discussion!

                • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

                  While they’re similar, there’s some subtle but potentially critical differences in wording between Baylor and GSS options; EG, “I don’t believe in God” versus “I am an atheist“. The potential is highlighted by the Pew Forum research data on “atheists” who believe in God, and on assorted folk who say they do not believe in God but who self-identify with some non-atheist religious affiliation. This has been speculated to be a result of decreased willingness to accept the “atheist” label due to associated social stigma.

                  Regardless, if he’s been relying on the Baylor data, an internally consistent measure within his work is more important than exact cross-compatibility with the largest data set. (I don’t know why Baylor used a different form, but the main fault in that decision thus seems theirs.) If need be, the issue can easily be dealt with at publication via a brief aside saying the work is focused on those willing to self-identify as atheist rather than simply those who don’t believe in god, garnished with a couple footnotes and references.

                • Troy Mikanovich

                  Absolutely. Self-identification plays a huge role in this — a fact which makes the survey data less useful unless it’s flavored with other, more in-depth, investigative methods. Even folks who are quick to survey-identify as atheists (social stigma be damned) might add some nuance to that when talking about it in an interview. Two different atheists can hold views of what being an atheist means that completely preclude each other from being called atheist.

                  Because the study is more focused on letting atheists speak for themselves, I think that Jerome is less likely to work towards hard distinctions (either in favor of the GSS language or the Baylor language) than he is to highlight what’s being said in conversation. The surveys are helpful as a guide, but there’s no use in letting them dictate how we listen in interviews if they’re just going to constrain our interpretation for the sake of multiple-choice simplicity.

                  That being said, insofar as response-wording matters — which, as you’ve pointed out, it does — Jerome isn’t one to compare apples and oranges. When there’s a difference (like your example, above) I expect him to treat it carefully, keeping in mind what effect those various wordings may have had.

          • Anna

            The first question in particular struck me as the most problematic. There’s such a huge number of possibilities between “raised atheist” (which could encompass everyone from those whose parents didn’t mention religion to those specifically raised to identify as atheist) and “raised religious.”

      • _7654_

        good research, he is trying to find the cracks to drive the thin wedge into.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          That sort of thing tends to work both ways. Researching what tends to make people become atheist seems to tend (in short order) to result in atheists trying to deploy the effective approaches more widely, and the theists trying to find ways to reduce that effectiveness. The resulting Red Queen’s Race lately seems to have the theists not running fast enough to stand still.

  • skeptical_inquirer

    I can’t help but wonder what twist he’ll bring to whatever he finds. I’m a bit wary of a “Fox News” approach.

    • Troy Mikanovich

      Hey there! I’m Jerome’s research assistant and I understand your skepticism. I can guarantee you, however, that Jerome doesn’t really have a horse in the race. He’s interested in producing an accurate, sociological picture of what American atheism looks like. If you have any questions about his methods or presuppositions, feel free to email him — he loves to talk about himself.

  • Erp

    The school is part of the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit run university with a good academic reputation and the university has had at least one open atheist teacher in the area of religious studies. It will not be an ham-handed study.

    The Jesuits probably do want to convert people but they have a reputation of wanting to properly understand them first and of being highly academic (it is the Jesuits that staff the Vatican observatory).

  • Julie Mankowski

    Does being female count as a minority, or is he only interested in race?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      I believe just race.

  • Dez

    Seems interesting. I’m thinking about sending an email.

  • David Diskin

    For what it’s worth, I can vouch for Jerome. He’s come to Camp Quest West and the Atheist Film Festival, and I’ve spent time talking with him. He’s a good guy, and genuinely interested in atheists from a sociology perspective. There’s no hidden agenda here.

    -David Diskin, President, Camp Quest Wst


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