Baylor University is a Christian university in Texas that, among other things, publishes analyses of the religious landscape in the USA. The latest (What Americans Really Believe) was released in book format last September.According to their analysis, the percentage of nonbelievers in the USA has been roughly constant ever since the 1940s – and here’s the graph they use to ‘prove’ it.
Gregory S Paul, on behalf of the Council for Secular Humanism, has just ripped their analysis to shreds (Is the Baylor Religion Survey Reliable?). There are some obvious howlers – like the non-linear timescale they use on their graph (the distance between 1964 and 1994 is the same as the distance between 2005 and 2007!). But more serious is the omission of data from regular Gallup surveys that have been conducted over the past 50 years. Adding these in and fixing the timescale shows a very different pattern. The second graph has a line in it which is what you get if you just take the studies Baylor cherry picks and plot them sensibly.
The dots are all the studies they left out.
It’s pretty clear that there’s been a rise in non-believers in the past decade. Well, at least there has been a rise in the numbers of people willing to tell a pollster that they are a non-believer. Atheists in the USA are subject to a lot of prejudice, and so there’s strong pressure on people to pretend to have a belief, even when they don’t.
What about those two ‘H’s on the graph? They represent the results from surveys conducted by the pollster Harris, rather than Gallup. According to Harris, the numbers of non-believers are much higher. And that’s probably because, rather than telephone polling, Harris uses internet surveys. Because they are impersonal, people are more likely to be honest about their lack of belief.
Here’s a footnote about the Baylor study. It was written by none other than Rodney Stark, the sociologist of religion who seems to be going increasingly unhinged in his analyses of religion. In an earlier post, I took a look at one of his recent papers. He spent a good part of that paper in a partly ad hominem attack on… Gregory S Paul!
I don’t think they like each other.