21% of US squares triangular, survey finds

When I read The Barna Group's "Most Americans Take Well-Known Bible Stories at Face Value" (which, yes, was a year ago, but it's not as if there've been a lot of great breakthroughs in the field since then), I was not entirely surprised to read that "Americans ... remain confident that some of the most amazing stories in the Bible can be taken at face value."

Given that, as I've previously mentioned, the USA appears to be a country in which 21% of the atheists believe in God, it's not surprising that - to pick one example from the Barna survey - 64% of Americans (or at least of the Americans that the rather preachy Barna Group surveyed...) believe that Moses literally parted the Red Sea.

This, however, is definitely one of those situations where it would have paid for both the people doing the survey and those writing stories about it - presuming they didn't all just have an axe to grind - to sit down for a probably-unavailable minute and have a little think about exactly what their findings meant.

Since it would appear that they didn't, let's do it ourselves, shall we?

Look at that 21%-of-atheists-say-they're-theists thing, for example. This turns out to be, so far as I can see, an actual, fair, genuine result. 21% of people who clearly said they were atheists also clearly said they believed in a "God or universal spirit".

That finding is from a Penthouse Pew Forum survey, which I consider rather more reliable than a Barna one.

Pew, you see, make their methodology and detailed results freely available. There's a PDF, here, that shows you the actual survey questions, next to the results.

On page 27 of that document, there's what looks to me like a very fair way to quickly find someone's religious affiliation or lack thereof, which includes a re-questioning for people who've been given the final options "atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular" and chosen the last option, to make sure they actually want to be "nothing in particular", and not atheist or agnostic.

You can never make a survey question perfect; in this case there's the problem of people who, like me, hold the considered opinion that gods do not exist (atheism), but accept our own fallibility and thus admit that we might be wrong (agnosticism), however improbable that may be. We therefore tick the "atheist" box, but if later on we're asked whether we think there's the slightest possibility that gods may exist, we'll say yes, like an agnostic.

But the Pew survey is about as good as a quick multiple-choice test is ever going to be.

In the rest of the main "topline" document they roll all of the Unaffiliateds together into one line, which presumably explains why seventy per cent of that category actually report belief in a God or universal spirit (page 44), and 36% of them (page 45) say they're absolutely certain that said entity exists, neither of which beliefs are at all compatible with atheism or agnosticism.

You can get a nice detailed separate table that breaks down all of the religions (PDF), though. That table shows you that 515 people, 10.2 per cent of the 5048 "Unaffiliated" respondents, said they were atheists.

Taken all together, this indicates that the Pew Forum aren't getting their "21% of atheists believe in god" result by subterfuge.

Pew's main "topline" document doesn't break Unaffiliated out into Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Unaffiliated and Religious Unaffiliated in its tables, presumably to make them clearer. But it does not appear that they're pulling a statistical fast one by, for instance, rolling all of the responses from Unaffiliateds together and then just declaring 10.2% of those responses to have been from atheists, even if none of the atheists actually reported belief in a deity.

No, it really does seem that about 108 people that Pew surveyed clearly declared themselves to be atheists, and then clearly professed belief in a god of some sort.

That doesn't, of course, make a blind bit of sense. Atheism is not a religion, just as baldness is not a hairstyle and no car in the driveway is not a kind of car in the driveway. But it's not the survey-givers' job to educate people about terminology. If you want to say you're an atheist who believes in a god, they'll write your answer down like everyone else's, even if that answer indicates that you're ignorant, nuts or a prankster. Fair enough.

Now, let's look at the Barna Group's survey.

Oh, wait a minute, we can't. They'll be happy to sell us umpteen books about being a better Christian or their copyrighted Christian Leader Profile test, but I can find no trace on their site of even the opportunity to buy a copy of any of their actual survey questions and results.

So now we're in the woods. Who knows what questions Barna actually asked, and what answers people actually gave?

With the right survey, you can get people to say pretty much anything you want. You can even influence their beliefs. ("What effect would it have on your vote if you were to discover that Candidate Smith is a child molester?")

Like Sir Humphrey persuading Bernard that he both supports and opposes reintroducing conscription, the framing of the questions makes all the difference. Especially when you're asking people about things that they don't actually think about much, or even care about much, like whether David actually killed Goliath.

As anyone working in this field knows, you have to take considerable care, even if you're scrupulously honest, to make sure that the meaning of your questions, and the meaning of the respondents' answers, is clear.

Stop people coming out of a church, for instance, and ask them if they believe in the Immaculate Conception. Most of them - Catholic or Protestant - will probably say that they do. So you can tick down ninety-whatever-percent on your survey and then issue a press release saying that belief in that doctrine is very strong, hurrah.

What most of the people will have thought you were asking, though, is whether Jesus was born of a virgin. The Catholic Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually states that Mary was born free of original sin, on account of how Jesus could not be incubated in the wicked womb of a normal woman, and if she weighs more than a duck she's a witch.

Your average rank-and-file dozes-through-the-sermon churchgoer is somewhat unlikely to know this. Your non-churchgoing ticks-the-box-marked-Christian person on the street is very unlikely to know.

So if I were running a survey like the Barna one, then apart from making sure I released the questions and not just digests of the alleged answers, I'd also make very clear exactly what stories I was asking about, without just using common names that people often misinterpret.

(To be fair, the Barna survey probably generally did that; there's not a lot of room for error when you're asking about stories like Jonah and the whale or Daniel and the lions' den.)

But I'd also scatter in a few Bible-ish stories that were actually made up just for the survey. Jesus... blessing the fields... of the Moabites, say.

If respondents say they believe stories that not even Dan Brown ever mentioned - as, I bet, many of them would - then clearly people's statements of belief in the other stories should be taken with a large grain of salt.

The Barna survey press releases do, however, tell you something about George Barna, who is I think representative of a peculiar movement in American Christianity. This press release about the Bible-story survey manages to restrict its preachiness to a "Reflections on the Data" section, but the one I mentioned earlier contains a number of places where George expresses the strangely popular, and reliable-like-clockwork, belief that Christianity in the USA (and elsewhere!) is "under siege".

"...While the level of literal acceptance of these Bible stories is nothing short of astonishing given our cultural context...", for instance, and earlier on "Surprisingly, the most significant Bible story of all - 'the story of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, after being crucified and buried' - was also the most widely embraced."

Outside observers may find this slightly bizarre, since Christianity in the USA is obviously massively dominant...

...and Christians who don't believe (or at least say they believe) that Jesus was resurrected are pretty hard to find.

But there's also no shortage of talking heads eager to opine that the evil forces of secularism are constantly gaining ground in their unholy mission to re-name trees with lights on them, and so on.

To be fair, Barna goes on to say (in the third person...) that the real problem is that all of the nominal Bible-believing which his who-knew-what-it-asked survey discovered doesn't translate to much in the way of actual "Christian" acts. So I suppose that's the grain of rationality within the "Christianity under siege" belief; that lots of people say they're Christians, but you can't find a lot of true Christians among them.

But, again, this doesn't seem very surprising to anybody who accepts the not-too-hard-to-support point of view that Christianity is just another major religion, which the overwhelming majority of adherents use not to lead them into the light, but to justify whatever they wanted to do anyway. Yes, believing the Bible ought to lead to defined-by-Barna-as-"Christian" behaviour. But no remotely sensible reader of the New Testament could possibly conclude that Jesus would find it acceptable for you to drive a Lexus to church - and yet "prosperity theology" has sprung up to bridge the gap.

Similarly, the idea of karma ought, you would think, to lead people to good behaviour. But instead, your average Hindu-in-the-street is quite likely to believe that karma means that miserable beggars, children raped by their parents, or any other unfortunates you care to name, are suffering righteous punishment for bad deeds in a past life. And, again, that the prosperous deserve their prosperity, for surely god(s) would not have given the rich so much money if it were not their just reward.

All of this makes sense, if you don't think there's One True Religion that should guide its followers to be obviously better people than those who've foolishly been raised in some other, fictional faith. But to people like Barna, who believe that their particular religious variant is that one special phone-line to God, the entirely ordinary behaviour of their fellow believers can only be explained by the evil actions of external forces, besieging the chosen of God and leading - nay, forcing - them away from the righteous path they'd otherwise obviously choose to follow.

Adding fake-Bible-story questions to the survey could have helped Barna out, because it would have given him a chance to claim that people of disappointing morality who believe that David fought Goliath, but also believe that Josiah, um, washed the Pharaoh's feet, clearly do not in fact know much about Christianity and could therefore not be expected to be particularly righteous.

Adding fake stories, though, could also have measured the credophilia - indiscriminate collection of beliefs - that lies at the core of a lot of religions.

If your religion says that faith by itself is a virtue, you shouldn't be surprised if you end up with a bunch of people who'll believe almost anything. And who'll think that holding those beliefs, without doing anything else in particular, is enough to get you into heaven.

15 Responses to “21% of US squares triangular, survey finds”

  1. Stuart Says:

    Careful, you'll cop a fatwa from religious nutbags people and statisticians.

  2. Darien Says:

    You left out one very important point: namely, that a lot of people profess belief in a religion and "go through the motions" without really ever becoming really involved in that religion for social, and not spiritual, reasons. People like to fit in and be part of a group, and (at least in the US) declaring oneself a Christian is an express ticket to being in a big group of "normal" people. This is a comfort. And a lot of these people, especially when suddenly interrogated by a man holding a clipboard, are likely to attempt to appear as pious as possible, and not really think about the questions that hard.

  3. Dustin Says:

    I'm not sure I buy the notion that just because your group is in the majority that your group can't be under siege. It could be a smaller group of powerful people attacking your group.

    I have no opinion about whether or not Christians in the US actually are under attack...mainly because I don't care, but this bit of reasoning struck me as a bit wrong.

  4. j Says:

    "The Catholic Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually states that Mary was born free of original sin, on account of how Jesus could not be incubated in the wicked womb of a normal woman, and if she weighs more than a duck she’s a witch."

    Unfortunately, this is one of the less weird doctrines made awkward via retrospective Papal infallibility.
    The Catholic church has made it very difficult to fix itself as time goes by and various teachings become obviously ludicrous.
    Oh well, given the number of people going through school and being spit out into society without ever having to excercise critical thought, they'll be okay for a little while yet.

    "I’m not sure I buy the notion that just because your group is in the majority that your group can’t be under siege. It could be a smaller group of powerful people attacking your group."

    Yeh, but by that definition, Christianity has always been under siege (the same way everyone has always persecuted the Jewish people - bit of a bummer for the Canaanites).
    It's still a prerequisite for the US president to be Christian (apparently black is cool now, but women are right out), so I'd be happy making the sweeping statement that US Christians don't have that much cause to be alarmed.

  5. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I'm not sure I buy the notion that just because your group is in the majority that your group can't be under siege.

    Well, sure, in theory. But Christianity self-evidently has a firm grip on the entire US government from bottom to top.

    Both the US House and Senate have, just as one little example, their own Chaplains who start every single sitting day off with a Christian prayer, and have done since 1789. (There was a Hindu one last year, who attracted three protestors.) More importantly, as Jon Stewart in the video above and j in the previous comment point out, every single President has been Christian, so have the bulk of high-level appointees, and they've only been getting louder about it as time goes by.

    I'm perfectly receptive to the argument that Bush and Cheney, and pretty much every other powerful politician in the world for that matter, are self-evidently not Christian in any real way. But since the nuttier a right-wing US Christian is, the more likely he or she is to claim that God personally put Bush in office, I don't think this is a point against the argument - except in that No-True-Scotsman way again :-).

    Oh, and Christianity also has a disturbingly strong, though certainly not unchallenged, grip on all branches of the US armed forces, from boot camps to front lines.

    Given all this, it's kind of goofy to argue that TV shows or local-government Christmas-tree committees or heavy metal music are evidence of the Giant Secular Conspiracy that plans to turn North America into a gay Muslim abortion heroin wonderland, or whatever.

    Oh, and then there's the fact that the people who believe Christianity is "under siege" can usually be counted upon to say that Christians are not just persecuted, but a persecuted minority. Somebody bought 65 million Left Behind books, but apparently most of them are Satanists using their bookshelves as protective colouration, or something :-).

    I imagine that they'll soon be claiming "persecution" in a relative sense. The recent belated rebuke to the Republicans should, with any luck, be a serious setback to the Dominionists who've had a serious hand in steering the US government over the last eight years. Now that all, or at least most, of the Liberty/Regent University dimwits, horse lawyers and other pillars of ignorance are going to be swept out and replaced with Democratic appointees of no more than a normal level of incompetence and corruption, the Dominionist Jesusites' loss of absolute control of pretty much everything can be presented as terrible, here-come-the-gas-chambers oppression.

    Part of the reason for the current version of these strange ideas about oppression, I think, is that it seemed self-evident to the evangelical hard line that if Their Boys got in charge of the joint, Stuff Would Change, and in a good way.

    But they were in charge for two Presidential terms, and the whole world has not turned Christian, the Rapture hasn't happened, income tax hasn't been dropped to zero per cent, fetuses don't have voting rights... stuff has happened, all right, but it's all been horrible, and you need to be pretty darn delusional to not notice the wheels falling off the economy, the armed forces being ground away in two wars, et cetera.

    So the only conclusion they can draw is that the "liberals" must have devilishly thwarted all of their well-thought-out schemes.

    And since they can't possibly conclude that "liberals" are smarter than them, any more than they can demand Christian behaviour rather than empty statements of faith from their favourite politicians, the only alternative is to decide that the "liberals" must have done it by force of numbers.

  6. Darien Says:

    To be fair, I love right in the heart of liberal country, and I'd have to say they're probably right not to conclude that the liberals are any smarter than they are. From where I'm sitting, it sure seems like both sides are ignorant and cocksure to pretty much the exact same degree.

    Unless of course by "liberals" (since you do have it in quotes and all) you're refering to the paranoid fantasy of "liberals all around us" that the xtr33m fundies tend to have.

  7. iworm Says:

    ...later on we’re asked whether we think there’s the slightest possibility that gods may exist...

    Would you actually say that, strictly speaking, you're agnostic? I suspect not. Dawkins (as ever) has a nice differentiation between the different flavours of atheism.

    Dawkins describes people for whom the probability of the existence of God is between "very high" and "very low" as "agnostic" and reserves the term "strong atheist" for "I know there is no god". He categorises himself as a "de facto atheist" but not a "strong atheist" under this definition.

    Would you describe yourself as a "de facto atheist"? I like the term. Admittedly, in the context of your article, a survey is unlikely to offer a choice of several varieties of atheism - despite offering numerous options for the theists.

  8. dabrett Says:

    Actually Darien, in Australia our conservative party is called the Liberal Party, so over here we tend to have to be careful about who we're referring to when we use the word liberal.

  9. Kiro Says:

    We should really all just follow the GSD. It would make life a lot simpler for all us ;)

  10. Dustin Says:

    Well, sure, in theory. But Christianity self-evidently has a firm grip on the entire US government from bottom to top.

    This seems like an example of arguing from different perspectives, but I'll trudge on...

    It seems perfectly reasonable to me that a Christian could claim to be under siege even if every single person in government is Christian, if there are powerful lobbies striving to change that.

    Of the Christians I know, that tend to feel like Christianity is under attack, don't think Barack Obama is attacking them. The feel like Hollywood, academia, and special interests are attacking them, which is not incompatible with having a completely Christian government.

    Not that they're right or wrong, but I don't think the arguments presented so far attack any of the reasons most Christians who feel under attack feel that way.

  11. j Says:

    "Not that they’re right or wrong, but I don’t think the arguments presented so far attack any of the reasons most Christians who feel under attack feel that way."

    The question wasn't whether or not anyone felt they were under siege, it was whether or not they could be under siege.

    Clearly many Christians do feel like the values they hold dear are being eroded and that we'll all bring pestilence upon the world with our wickedness - but that's not exactly new.

    But even if one strongly argued that the Christian faith was threatened in the US - so what?

    Some of us (okay, me), feel that the members of the whackjob religious right do far, far more to threaten Christianity than any number of atheists or different faiths.

  12. Dustin Says:

    The question wasn’t whether or not anyone felt they were under siege, it was whether or not they could be under siege.

    Poor choice of words on my part. Doesn't matter though, my points still apply.

  13. Mordenkainen Says:

    Dustin: I think your point lies on very shaky ground. What you seem to be proposing is that despite Christianity's prevelance on US's politics, society, etc. it could be somehow under siege.

    Would you also say a lone crusader at the gates of Jerusalem controlled by the Sarracens was laying siege to the city? Something can only be under siege when its strategic options are restricted. The matter of school prayer, abortion clinics, etc. are not examples of laying siege to Christianity but preventing Christianity from wholly subsuming society, similarly to how Microsoft is regularly prevented, through anti-monopoly laws, from gaining even more importance.

    Christianity would be under siege if Christian women were forced to have an abortion when they were raped, believers were prevented from displaying the cross around their necks, and a Christian-professed presidential candidate lost the election BECAUSE of this religious beliefs. I.e. Jon Stewart's point.

  14. Dustin Says:

    That's not my point at all. My point has only been that the evidence presented does not prove that Christianity is not under siege. They may very well not be in any meaningful way, but the fact that the majority of politicians are Christian is not proof as there is other ways they could be under attack.

    Group1 can't claim that group2 isn't under siege if there's a group3 doing the attacking.

    Of course I wouldn't say a lone crusader was besieging Jerusalem, but then again that's not analogous to what I'm saying could be the case.

    That's my point in it's entirety. The following is an aside:

    Your examples about school prayer, abortion clinics, etc are not proof either. Just because we think those things are wrong or whatever, doesn't mean we're not attacking Christianity if Christianity thinks they're necessary. Just because Nazi Germany (school prayer, abortion clinics, etc) needed to be taken down for the greater good, doesn't mean that the Nazi's couldn't claim they were under siege. The "rightness" of the attacker has nothing to do with whether the one being attacked can claim they're besieged.

  15. Dustin Says:

    To make it clear, I'm not making serious comparisons between Nazi Germany and Christianity, it's only an extreme analogy to make a point.

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