Atheism and the Dishonest Use of Statistics

Atheism and the Dishonest Use of Statistics October 26, 2015

Neil Carter has a thorough and detailed takedown of David Silverman’s claim that 30% of Americans are atheists even if many of them don’t know it. He accuses Silverman of dishonestly manipulating statistics with faulty definitions and assumptions — and he’s absolutely right. Neil dives into the specific surveys that Silverman cites to back up his claim and dishonest is about the least one could say about the matter. Silverman explained his statistics this way:

“As I describe in my book Fighting God, 42 million nones are 24% theistic… so that’s 32 million atheists. According to Barna, 22% of Christians (48 Million) see God as a metaphor for something real, like love or the universe. These are atheists too…”

No. No, no, no, a thousand times no. The nones are not 24% theistic and 74% atheistic, according to the very same Pew survey that Silverman cites. In fact, as Neil shows with this graphic from that poll, 68% of those the poll designates as nones say they believe in “God or universal spirit,” with 30% answering with certainty and 38% saying yes to the question but with “less certainty.” Only 27% say they believe in neither God nor a “universal spirit,” which is pretty much exact opposite of the 24% that Silverman claims are “theistic.”

That same poll found that nones defined themselves as a “religious person” 18% of the time and “spiritual but not religious” 37% of the time. And the Public Religion Research Institute finds much the same thing, that 28% of nones believe in a personal God, 36% in an impersonal one and 28% don’t believe in God at all. Silverman is flipping those numbers completely on their head by vastly expanding the definition of atheist to include every person who is religiously unaffiliated who does not explicitly say that they believe in a personal, traditional God. But there’s a lot of possible beliefs between classical theism and atheism. Not being a classical theist does not mean one automatically defaults to atheist.

Things get even worse when Silverman tries to claim that 22% of self-identified Christians are really atheists who won’t admit it. He cites a Barna group survey that found that 78% of Christians believe in what Barna defined as a God “consistent with biblical teaching” and 22% do not. Thus, according to Silverman, those 22% must be atheists. But Neil provides the standard by which Barna determined whether one’s beliefs were “consistent with biblical teaching”:

“For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today. In the research, anyone who held all of those beliefs was said to have a biblical worldview.”

So Silverman’s standard for who is and is not an atheist among self-identified Christians is whether one fits that description, which is nothing short of ludicrous. I know a lot of people who believe firmly in God who do not believe all of those things. It’s hard to imagine a claim that is much more absurd than this. It’s so utterly ridiculous that one can only chalk it up to either succumbing to wishful thinking or outright dishonesty.

A few years ago I participated in a panel discussion with several atheists on stage taking questions from an audience that included a lot of people from the Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) on that campus. One audience member stood up and delivered the commonly heard “you all know there’s a god, you just suppress it, and the Bible says so” claim. I tried to impress upon him how offensive it was to be told what you really know, believe and are. A few minutes later, one of the atheists on the panel did the very same thing to an audience member, angrily telling him that he didn’t really believe that the Bible was true because the things it says are so ridiculous. I cut him off and told him that he was being every bit as offensive and presumptuous as the Christian had been only a few minutes earlier in telling us what we really believe “in our heart of hearts” (that may be the most irritating phrase ever invented).

Silverman is doing the same thing here. I’m sympathetic to the argument that there are a vast number of Christians in this country who are, as Dawkins once termed them, “functional atheists.” They go through the motions of church because that is what is expected of them, it’s where their social network is, it’s what they’re familiar with, but they don’t really give their religion any thought and it has little effect on their day to day lives. I think that’s largely true.

But that does not make those people atheists. They still believe in God, whether they do so thoughtfully or out of habit or ignorance (or whatever reason; the why is simply not relevant here). And identifying as Christian but having some mildly heterodox views on some subjects within theology sure as hell doesn’t make one an atheist. Nor does believing in some vague, impersonal deity, or in a “universal spirit” or being “spiritual but not religious.”

I wrote just a few days ago about how the Christian right likes to play games with how many Christians there are. When it suits their purposes, they agree that 70% of Americans are Christians (and therefore on their side). But then they’ll turn around and say that most Christians aren’t real Christians because they don’t believe exactly as they do. The last thing we should be doing is copying their dishonest use of statistics to make a convenient case for whatever narrative they want to promote at the moment. And frankly, that is exactly what Silverman is doing here.

Does that make him a horrible person? Of course not. It makes him human. It makes him as prone to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning as everyone else can be (me and you included). But this is exactly the kind of thing that we hammer mercilessly when the religious do it. The last thing we should be doing is emulating that behavior.

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