Barna is Seeing Through a Mirror, Darkly

Barna is Seeing Through a Mirror, Darkly May 2, 2015

The Barna Group, a large research group dealing almost exclusively with religious issues, is one of my go-tos for interesting tidbits about religion and how America is responding to Christianity–and leaving it. Every couple of months I head there and see what they’re figuring out next. Usually it’s a lot of sunshine blown up Christian leaders’ butts–their studies about Millennials and why people leave church routinely make me and my friends hoot in laughter for how off-base they are. I’ve always had to take their surveys, as useful as they can be, with ultimately a grain of salt when it comes to their interpretation of the numbers and responses they measure. So when I saw their new studies about atheists and a “post-Christian” America, I wasn’t expecting much. It’s not much of a surprise or a secret that Christians don’t generally understand non-believers very well, nor that they entertain a great many misconceptions about outsiders. If Barna can’t even really understand Millennials, many of whom are still Christian, what hope do we have that they’ll understand atheists?

An abandoned pagan temple.
Gods and religions pass from favor all the time. There’s no reason to imagine Christianity will be different, nor its god. This is a temple from a Roman-era ruin in Tunisia; the city itself, Dougga, is thought to have been dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno, while the temple in the background is thought to have been dedicated to Asclepius, a half-man, half-god who did miracles like raising the dead back to life and healing people long after his death. (Credit: The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, CC license.)

Well, it actually sounds better than I’d have expected from an overtly Christian and generally-fundagelical-leaning organization. Not perfect, but better than expected. I want to go over this survey, called “2015 State of Atheism in America,” with my own observations.

First, their definitions aren’t totally awful. Atheists “do not believe God exists” while agnostics “are not sure God exists, but are open to the possibility.” I’d quibble about that; I think that atheists themselves are open to the possibility of something supernatural being true, but see that as very unlikely at this point; they don’t see any reason to believe in any religion’s claims. I see agnosticism as Atheism.About.Com does, as being more a position of uncertainty. Agnostics can also be atheists; the groups often but don’t always coincide. By the same token, a believer might concede that there’s not a way to know if his or her chosen god or gods exist in the real world, and thus that theist would be agnostic. There’s no reason why an atheist could not also be an agnostic, or an agnostic to be a Christian.

But overall, Barna’s definitions aren’t too off-base, just out of date. Even as recently as ten years ago, I was hearing the term “agnostic” routinely applied to people who weren’t sure of their conclusions about religion; it was used as a shorthand for “someone actively seeking to figure out if a religion’s claims were true,” so those who weren’t actively doing that seeking were told they were doing agnosticism wrong. Even now you sometimes hear atheists mockingly refer to agnostics as “atheists sitting on the fence” and as “cowards”. I think this misunderstanding will change in time. At this point, atheists themselves tend to use a very standard definition of the word after many years of there being confusion about what atheism was. I’m sure agnosticism will follow along in time.

Barna lumps agnostics in with atheists and calls the resulting group “skeptics,” defined as anybody who either doubts or outright disbelieves “God’s existence.” Here we run into another issue: why just their god’s existence? There are thousands of gods–maybe more–in our past and present. I don’t just find no reason to believe in the Christian god. I doubt lots of gods’ existence and see no reason to take their existence as a serious idea–just like Christians themselves do. If they even think gods like Ganesh and Zeus exist at all, they think of them as demons at best, but most Christians don’t even get that far. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, I just take my skepticism one step further than Christians do. But Barna is writing for Christians and by Christians, so I doubt they’ll understand.

Of these “skeptics,” Barna writes the following:

Skeptics represent one-quarter of all unchurched adults (25%). Nearly one-third of skeptics have never attended a Christian church service in their lives (31%). That’s nearly double the proportion of “virgin unchurched” who are not skeptics (17%).

“Unchurched” people, by the way, are those who haven’t attended a church service at all within the last six months. That would seem to indicate that most people who don’t attend church are Christians, not “skeptics,” and I don’t think I could disagree. We know that church attendance has been falling for some time even among Christians.

I don’t have a beef with their assessment of atheism’s demographics, either. Atheists tend to be a younger, more diverse crowd than they were in years past. Women and non-white people make up a much bigger percentage of the numbers now, which is reflected in the new voices arising in the movement and its growing focus on social justice and inclusiveness. That’s some exciting stuff to me. A while ago when I was talking to the Minnesota Atheists on their radio show, they mentioned having daycare on-site for their meetings. That’s a huge step right there, one that I hope is leading to a much more socially-stable and welcoming environment for everyone.

My main issue with Barna’s study, though, about atheists centers around their insistence on the “three components of disbelief.” They think those components are the following:

1) rejection of the Bible,
2) a lack of trust in the local church and
3) cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview.

To paraphrase something a friend of mine recently told someone fishing for his reason for becoming an atheist: nope, it’s pretty much realizing that Christianity’s claims are not true that did it for most of the people who reject Christians’ claims.

Hear that, Barna? Hear that, Christians? How much plainer do we need to be here?

We disbelieve because there is literally no reason whatsoever for us to suppose that Christianity’s god even exists. We’ve realized that the evidence we thought we had was untrue, and we’ve never seen any other evidence that was credible.

People who reject Christianity don’t just distrust the local church; they distrust all religious groups. And they distrust them because Christianity’s claims are not true. People who know Christianity’s claims aren’t true know that there is no Jesus making Christians better people or making churches bastions of morality and truth. Scandals erupt routinely out of them, and generally churches stand for everything that is horrifying and despicable about modern culture. For the very little social good they do compared to the (tax-free) money they take in and the (largely illegal) control they demand over people’s lives and their home countries, and not forgetting that churches are also largely exempt from the laws that keep secular organizations and businesses from preying upon the marginalized and taking advantage of the unwary, they are a scandalously-negative drag on the world. The real tragedy is that Christians trust churches!

There is no such thing as “cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview,” either. What there is, is separation of church and state. That means that Christians can’t try to warp kids’ taxpayer-funded science education into Sunday School, and that their pseudoscience and historical revision is not welcome in a society that values truth and facts. I know that may sting Christians, but that’s just reality, and it helps them as much as it does the rest of us. Until they realize that those rules are in place to help everybody, they will continue to hemorrhage members who value truth and facts.

A few celebrity spokespeople and actors coming out as atheist do not make an entire culture shift, either. I’d be hard-pressed to find a single atheist who believes that modern American culture does anything but try to grab back Christian privilege before it’s too late. Our government is controlled almost entirely by zealots and sycophants who seek to pander to vocal religious extremists. Our military fights regularly against progressive requests to even recognize non-evangelical needs, much less honor those needs. Our very healthcare system is in thrall to dangerous militantly-Christian leaders who seek to peel back the human rights of half the American population. Our educational system is right now fighting against right-wing fundagelical attempts to enshrine Moses as a “Founding Fucking Father” in public-school textbooks!

Oh, it doesn’t end there. Our entertainment system may seem a little more outspoken, but movies like God’s Not Dead still rake in the big bucks by stomping all over atheists and pandering to fundagelicals, and TV series about religious stuff abound–Touched by an Angel, Seventh Heaven (starring a child molester, no less! Good for Christians!), Highway to Heaven, and more. Some of these, like The Vicar of Dibley, are actually great, and I’ve seen overtly religious movies that were really good, so I know it’s possible to do it without coming off like self-deluded, sanctimonious, reality-denying, blithering tools. There are a lot more atheists presented as characters on television than in movies, but still, percentage-wise, it ain’t impressive.

One thing modern American Christians are really good at is imagining persecution where there isn’t any, and I can totally see how they come by that mindset.

When someone’s had privilege for as long as they have, and some of that privilege starts getting peeled away, why then yes, of course that person’s going to feel stung and put-upon–especially if he or she isn’t convinced that this privilege even exists or that anybody else is harmed by that privilege. Every inch of progress we make is clawed out of their resisting, grabby little hands, but they won’t realize just how much they have until they become a true minority in this country. At that point, they’ll understand what a cultural reinforcement of atheism really looks like. Right now, though, we don’t have that. When we do, maybe Christians can whine about feeling left out and having no voice–though our response is not likely to be sympathetic considering that at that point, they will just need to compete in the marketplace of ideas like anybody else. They don’t want to compete, however. They want unthinking deference and automatic superiority. That’s why zealotry is bad; it’s never satisfied with equality and will always want dominion. Barna doesn’t realize that this isn’t about persecuting Christians; it’s about putting them where they always needed to be with relation to other groups.

For that matter, if we thought there was a reason to believe in Christianity’s claims, it wouldn’t matter who hurt us or offended us. It wouldn’t matter what our culture said. I sure didn’t care about those things while I was Christian and being hurt by Christians and offended by Christians and feeling butthurt over how popular culture viewed my religious convictions. I just thought I was doing something wrong or that I was in the wrong church; my search only ended when I realized that none of Christianity’s claims were true at all. Our mortal lifetimes are brief, while eternity is forever, as the popular singsong threat goes; it’d be stupid and worse to worry about stuff that happens in this world at the expense of what happens in the next. Christianity enshrines privilege and promotes abuse by this exact reasoning.

So Barna’s totally wrong there. I wonder how they asked those questions, because I honestly don’t know of any atheists who would say bad treatment or being cultural laughingstocks is why they disbelieve. If anything, being hurt or offended by Christians or interacting with openly disbelieving people might lead a Christian to more closely investigate Christian claims, but those alone do not lead to disbelief. That is a piss-poor argument there, and insulting to those who have thoughtfully and after much deliberation rejected the religion’s claims.

Their assessment of how atheists view churches and the Bible did sound about right; I don’t know of any who’d disagree with that list that follows. And at least they understand that most atheists have attended church, many for a long time, so they understand exactly what they’re rejecting. That’s a bit of wisdom I hope Christians do absorb; most of them seem to think that those who leave Christianity are idiots who just did something wrong or “wanted to sin” (yeah, baby!). But then they wreck it by claiming that proclaiming atheism is something “the ‘cooler’ kids are doing.” Sorry, no. I’m betting there are way many more celebrities touting their Christianity, but Barna conveniently forgets that in their confirmation bias. And I haven’t even heard of some of the people on their list of celebrity atheists.

They end with wringing their hands over how harrrrrd it’s going to be for them to convert “skeptics.”

But in giving his followers the Great Commission, Jesus didn’t mention anything about doing what is easy. New levels of courage and clarity will be required to connect beyond the Christianized majority.

We’ll ignore that the Great Commission got added to the Bible later, likely to excuse their desire to stomp all over people. I suppose it’s too much to ask for Christians to please leave people alone unless we ask to hear their religious sales pitches. I don’t want courage and clarity. I want them to keep their goddamned hands off my educational system, government, relationships, and body. I want them to keep their oppressive delusions and their judgmental clucking to themselves. I want them to be good neighbors instead of opponents, and allies instead of sullen, petulant deadweight the rest of us have to drag kicking and screaming every inch of the journey toward human progress.

It’s astonishing to me that Christians are worrying about converting people when they should be worrying about keeping the people they’ve (barely) got now and doing what Jesus actually told them to do: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the grieving.

Maybe it’s harder to measure that stuff by metrics. A stack of prayer cards is easy to count. Real love and compassion? Much harder to gauge. Also boring. Battle is more exciting than tending the wounded afterward.

So What Can We Take from This Survey?

Well, Barna is a big name among Christians. If they’re coming around to the idea that non-believers reject the idea of the Bible being holy or divinely-inspired/written, then that’s a big deal in and of itself. If they’re finally understanding that a great many atheists actually did once attend church and still read the Bible frequently, that’s huge. They seem downright surprised by that last revelation:

Given their antipathy or indifference toward the Bible, it is remarkable that six out of 10 skeptics own at least one copy. Most have read from it in the past, and a handful (almost exclusively agnostics) still read it at least once a month. The fact is, most skeptics have some firsthand experience with the Bible, and most had some regular exposure to it during their youth.

Can’t you just see their shock rippling up from the page? They don’t really engage with why atheists have turned from the Bible as a divine document, but at least they’re seeing that atheists do in fact understand the Bible and have a deep background in engaging with it. It’s kinda funny that they don’t get why atheists read the Bible when they don’t believe in it (hint: we are surrounded by Christians who oppress, demonize, and marginalize outsiders and constantly use misunderstood verses from the Bible against us, so many non-believers arm themselves against Christians’ ignorance by knowing their book better than they do). But we should not underestimate how important it is that at least one major Christian research group is at least semi-aware at this point that people can read the Bible and come away repelled and unconvinced by its claims, threats, and demands.

We can also take from this survey that the trend toward skepticism and secularism is accelerating fast, and it’s moving in a generally favorable direction. Now it’s not so much the province of older white dudes. I know that a lot of us had been thinking that it was moving toward diversity, and it’s great to see that our suspicions are confirmed there. That skepticism is attracting younger people is great too, and that disbelief is no longer the province of godless havens like California. That is all great news.

In the end, Barna’s at least got a start toward measuring how people engage with Christianity and how they don’t. Though I disagree with many of their points and ideas, as well as some of their basic definitions and operational terms, I think it’s great that we’re at least getting some idea of how quickly America is progressing toward secularism. I knew it was going faster than any of us would have imagined just ten years ago, but I didn’t realize it was this fast. We’ll talk a little more about that next week–see you then!


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