If One in Five Americans are Godless, How could they Hide?

Who is living the secular life? More people than one might suppose. Studies show how personal religiosity and church attendance have been declining. And around one-fifth of Americans aren’t God-believers today.

Secularity is growing, but the evidence has been “hiding” in plain sight, distorted and disguised by organizations long trusted to report what Americans are thinking. Many Americans aren’t thinking about God much anymore. But how many? Could that number have reached as high as 20% of the adult population?

I’m not talking about the ‘Nones’, also around 20% of Americans, who no longer feel like they belong to a religion. Only some of the Nones are nonbelievers. Nor am I talking about how much a role religion plays in people’s lives: 31% are nonreligious according to Gallup in 2012. That nonreligiosity is a measure of religious behavior, not identity or belief.

This blog is about religious belief – belief in God. And that really is declining to surprising lows in America.

Regrettably, some major polling organizations are apparently minimizing and hiding the numbers of nonbelievers. Religion’s champions proudly repeat headlines from poll reports: So few unbelievers to be found! And those small numbers are hardly growing! Suspicious, indeed. One begins to wonder if a cozy partnership has congealed, like Fox News and Republican pollsters before an election.

Actually, some real numbers are getting reported, too, if you push past the polling headlines. The headlines are hard to ignore, though. You’ve seen the same numbers, over and over: “91% of Americans believe in God.”  Pew’s 91% figure in 2012 – strangely identical to Gallup’s 2011 figure of 91% – gets repeated constantly.

How is this staged illusion of 91% maintained? Let’s look deeper into the numbers, starting with Pew. First, Pew doesn’t ask simply about God. They add “universal spirit” to the question so it reads: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” Plenty of people are rejecting supernaturalism and traditional religion, sensing something cosmically spiritual in nature instead. Rather than asking about those two things separately, Pew demands a single answer. Their trick is this: don’t ask, “Do you believe in God?” and then ask, “Or, do you believe in a universal spirit?” Asking just that one bigger question helps to hide disbelief in God. Plenty of ‘spiritual’ but ‘not religious’ people no longer think any God exists.

There’s a second trick here. Pew doesn’t report the answer to that singular question by simply adding up all the firm “Yes” answers. Instead, Pew inflates the “Yes” answers by adding in the people who say something like “not much” and “not at all.” Who is left to think God doesn’t exist? Pew only counts people who confidently say “No” plus those who refuse to answer in order to total up those not thinking god exists. Pew then reports that 7% say No plus 2% Refuse equals the 9% who don’t believe in God. Finally, Pew easily concludes that “91% believe in God.”

Don’t take that 91% figure seriously. What are Pew’s real numbers? Look more closely at the top line reporting the US General Public’s answers. 69% are certain and 17% are fairly certain about God. But what does that next number of 6% mean? [Yes, those three numbers add up to 92% - Pew is listing rounded-up numbers here, but their precise figures add up to 91%] According to Pew, these people say “Not too much” or “Not at all” about their certainty in God. But that sounds more like agnosticism. And don’t overlook the fine print, because Pew even included people who wouldn’t answer the question. These people can’t all count as God-believers. Maybe only half are. If 3% really are God-believers, then that leaves 88% as believers, not 91%.

And keep in mind that this 88% figure still includes the people who accept a “universal spirit” instead of God. How many people? We can consult Gallup. Gallup began asking the question “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit” many years ago. That tactic has allowed Gallup to report very high numbers of believers, such as that 91% figure in 2011. However, in 2010, a Gallup poll distinguished the two, reporting how 12% selected “universal spirit” rather than God. When that 12% figure is subtracted from Pew’s 88% figure, we arrive at 76% who are God-believers.

One more important detail can’t be overlooked here. Surely plenty of these ‘spiritual’ people are thinking about their universal spirit pretty much like a deity. Their dislike of the term ‘God’ can’t mean they aren’t actually thinking about a god all the same. So let’s throw a third of these spiritual people back into the God-believing pool, letting 4% rejoin the 76% to get to 80% as God-believers. That still means that 20% aren’t believers in God.

Yes, you read that correctly: 20% of Americans apparently are not God-believers. Many of them report how they feel spiritual, many attend worship services on occasion, and some say that they pray or meditate. Polling hears some of them describe themselves as ‘Christian’ or ‘Jewish’ and so on. They aren’t completely secular in every sense of that word. Most wouldn’t let the label of ‘atheist’ or even ‘agnostic’ attach to them. But wherever they are journeying in life, they have traveled to a personal place beyond God.

Finding all this hard to believe? You aren’t alone. Admitting how faith has waned isn’t easy for most people. Many nonbelievers find it hard to admit their nonbelief to themselves, much less to anyone else. People who have stopped believing typically relate how it took a long time to privately admit a loss of faith in God, and they needed even more time to admit that to anyone else.

This situation helps explain why even honest polling can’t report lots and lots of people just simply saying, “No, God doesn’t exist.” Asking people about their God-belief, or whether they are atheist or agnostic, couldn’t be a simple matter. Some people will say they do believe when they really don’t. Just the simple act of admitting one’s faithless condition to a trusted friend or family member can be very hard to do. Social scientists are familiar with this problem. Anonymous polling isn’t immune. Cognitive biases can be aroused by hearing a human voice, even over the phone, so honest answers to personally sensitive matters aren’t guaranteed. Our minds work hard to maintain the good opinions of others. It’s not the pollsters’ fault. The poll questioners used by Pew and Gallup (and the rest) know how to maintain a neutral and professional tone while speaking on the phone. Yet that biasing effect persists.

The human factor is hard to eliminate, of course. Something very difficult to admit to a human voice could be easier to admit by answering questions posed on a website. Internet polling isn’t anything new. The Harris Poll, for example, has ably defended its methods.

Nobody is saying that internet polling is perfect, but it does present a valuable opportunity when dealing with religion. What would internet anonymity reveal about belief in God? This is what Harris recently did in late 2013.

Look at this polling data from Harris, especially Table 2a: CERTAINTY THAT THERE IS/IS NOT A GOD. Like Pew, Harris let people select how confidently they think that god does or doesn’t exist. The nonbelievers add up like this:

Somewhat certain that there is no God: 7%
Absolutely certain that there is no God: 9%
Not sure whether or not there is a God: 16%

Between the more confident ‘atheists’ and the hesitant ‘agnostics’, a total of 32% of Americans can’t say that they think God exists. But we should be cautious here. Harris’s numbers must include plenty of ‘agnostics’ with spiritual/religious leanings, as other polls reveal. After generously relocating three-quarters of the “not sure” people, 12% of that 16%, back in the God-believing group, that still leaves 20% of Americans who aren’t God-believers. And that matches the genuine Pew number.

Is Harris way off about religious belief by using internet polling? It doesn’t seem so. The May 2013 Gallup poll found 11% saying “No” to “Do you believe in God”, which isn’t much different from Harris’s 9% who felt sure no God exists.  And back in 2011, an Ipsos poll found that 7% of Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power while an additional 10% waver between belief and disbelief.

The “discovery” that around 20% of Americans aren’t God-believers isn’t really new. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that just 70% believed in a personal God, plus an additional 12% believing in a higher power. That left 18% unable to say they believe in God.

One in five adult Americans? Current statistics are pointing to 48 million people who don’t believe in God. People have the right to keep their beliefs to themselves. Yet when they do honestly speak their minds, shouldn’t their voices be counted accurately? More people would stop hiding their disbelief if they didn’t feel so outnumbered. That’s a huge worry for religions. Helping religious people ease their fears with made-up stories is expected from clergy, not pollsters.
NOTE: As a service to readers and commentators, this blog offers Quick Guides from time to time.

QUICK GUIDE ONE: Objections to be used by commentators wanting a snappy “refutation” of this blog. But read my replies, too!

Objection A. This blog dismisses how lots of people think that the universe is god, or has sacred status. You have to let people mean whatever they want by “God.” So the number of god-believers is still vast and this blog is easily refuted. [Reply: If “God” only means whatever people want it to mean, so that “God” has no clear meaning at all, why do polls bother to offer “God OR a universal spirit” as a question? Obviously, the idea that a God made the universe is different from the idea that the universe is divine or infused by a cosmic spirit. Ask religions: their theologians get the difference very well. Besides, those big polling numbers from Harris add up after letting people mean by ‘God’ whatever they take it to mean.]

Objection B. This blog makes a big deal out of one shaky Harris poll when the other big polling organizations won’t use internet polling. This Harris poll can be set aside as an unreliable outlier, and it won’t be duplicated by reliable polling. [Reply: We began with Pew’s numbers, not Harris’s. Besides, several of the best-performing polls on the 2012 Presidential election were internet polls.  Even Pew is now using internet polling. Neither Harris nor Pew are in the business of unscientific “polling” like those quick polls thrown onto media sites.]

QIUCK GUIDE TWO: Dismissals to be used by lazy critics who won’t read the whole blog.

Objection C. This blog won’t say how polls find that only 6-7% say they are atheists or agnostics. Do the math! That leaves more than 90% of Americans as God-fearin’ Christians. Checkmate! [Reply: This blog isn’t about how many people like those specific labels. It’s really about what people think about god.]

Objection D. If 20% of Americans don’t think God exists, then why don’t I know some atheists? All I see are normal decent Americans where I live. Living in a fantasy world, atheists? [Reply: You probably know several people who have stopped believing in God already. It can’t be surprising that they aren’t opening up to you.]

 

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About John Shook

John R. Shook, PhD, is a scholar and professor living in the Washington, D.C. area. He is research associate in philosophy and instructor in science education for the University at Buffalo. He is also President of Partners for Secular Activism, an educational nonprofit offering online classes of interest to the secular side of life at secularactivism.org. Click the About tab under the header to learn more about John.


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