Disbelief About Belief

What is the future of religion? During much of the 20th Century experts accepted the secularization hypothesis, which held that … Continued

What is the future of religion? During much of the 20th Century experts accepted the secularization hypothesis, which held that with increases in scientific knowledge and general education faith would decline in influence. In later decades the secularization hypothesis came under fire. It’s not dead, but it no longer represents settled opinion among demographers. In its place has grown a view we might call “faith is forever”: religion is a human universal and acceptance of religious doctrines varies little over time.

A new report from the Council for Secular Humanism suggests that the secularization hypothesis is alive and well. According to the report’s author, independent scholar Gregory S. Paul, social survey data clearly show religious belief declining throughout the United States. This echoes a drop in piety that already swept Europe and the rest of the West. Among the evidence: More than 16 percent of Americans now express no religious preference, a number that has more than doubled since the 1990s. Gallup polling data from the 1940s to today reveal that disbelief in God or a universal spirit has risen fourfold. Two recent Harris polls specially designed to counter unconscious religious bias found that a surprising 21 percent of Americans harbor doubts about God’s existence.

That’s not the world we see depicted in the research of Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, which proudly bills itself as a Baptist institution. Nor do we see it in an ongoing opinion research program that Stark leads at Baylor, which has enjoyed major financial support from the pro-religious John Templeton Foundation. In his popular book “What Americans Really Believe,” a report on the most recent Baylor research, Stark claims that his group’s data support the “faith is forever” view. Among other things, he claims that Americans’ level of belief in God scarcely budged over six decades.

Has disbelief in God quadrupled, or held steady? How can “the data” justify both conclusions? In the Council’s report, Gregory Paul asks, “Is The Baylor Religion Study Reliable?” Paul argues that Stark and his Baylor colleagues may have distorted data, choosing surveys selectively or in some cases omitting relevant studies, with the result that American religiosity appears healthier than it is.

For example, Stark relied on two early Gallup polls and data from a handful of other studies to show belief in God holding level since the 1940s. That’s what the data show, if one relies on that exact selection of studies. But track belief in God across a broader range of relevant surveys, including several later Gallup polls the Baylor group omitted, and the number of disbelievers quadruples.

Is religion a human universal? The example of Western Europe suggests otherwise. There, millions have abandoned religious identity and practice. Current data suggest many Americans are beginning to do the same. Yet it’s hard to find secular Americans – people who aren’t actively religious, but aren’t atheists either – in Stark’s data. Paul argues that Stark’s methods focus narrowly on outright atheists, tending to miscount all others as religious adherents. Nonpracticing doubters simply disappear. “Stark and his co-workers seem to suffer from the reluctance to admit the trend of rising secularization in America,” Paul concludes in his report.

Responding to Paul’s study in an interview with the Baylor University student newspaper, Stark dismissed Paul as “a militant atheist” (he’s not) who believes that “religion will disappear very soon” (he doesn’t). I hope Rodney Stark is more cautious in drawing sweeping conclusions in his work than he was in that interview. In fact Paul, an independent researcher with a broad range of interests, has spent years studying an area that mainstream social scientists have admittedly neglected. Men and women who live without religion tend to appear in studies of religious believers only as “none of the above.” Disbelief as a phenomenon in its own right has received far too little attention from sociology, an oversight Paul has attempted to address in his work. (Read more about the response from Stark and Baylor.)

Stark’s book and the Baylor study it reports on received broad, largely uncritical coverage in the media. In the Council for Secular Humanism’s report, Gregory Paul raises troubling questions as to this work’s reliability. Those who study or write about trends in religion should keep a close watch on what promises to be a growing controversy. Should reasonable people expect faith to hold steady, or gradually to lose ground? That dusty old secularization hypothesis may be poised for a comeback after all.

Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its magazine, Free Inquiry.

Tom Flynn
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  • CCNL

    Some specifics about Disbelief About Belief for those eyes that have not seen:Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/ simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a mamzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). Analyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, On Faith panelists) via the NT and related documents have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus’ sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects. The 30% of the NT that is “authentic Jesus” like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus’ case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics. Current crises:Pedophiliac priests, atonement theology and original sin!!!! Luther, Calvin, Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams et al, founders of Christian-based religions, also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of “pretty wingie thingie” visits and “prophecies” for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immaculate conceptions).Current crises: Adulterous preachers, “propheteering/ profiteering” evangelicals and atonement theology.

  • morryb

    Faith is pure and simply endoctrination. All religions endoctrinate their young with primitive and superstitous myths, because young minds are impressionable. Faith is belief based on authority, not evidence. Most rational people will not subscribe to this.

  • morryb

    Faith is pure and simply endoctrination. All religions endoctrinate their young to superstition and primitive myths, because young minds are impressionable. This is belief by authority. I would rather use my own mind to decide on the basis of rationality.

  • norriehoyt

    Asked if they “believe in God”, a huge majority of Americans will respond with a Pavlovian “yes”.More informative was a Gallup poll of 350,000 Americans just released at the end of January, 2009.The question was “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Overall, 65% of the 350,000 answered “yes”, far lower than the percentage of Americans who say that they “believe in God”.Responses by state varied dramatically: 85% of Mississippians said “yes” (highest %) while 42% of Vermonters also said “yes” (lowest %).I’m glad I live in Vermont.

  • ThomasBaum

    Does it not seem that sometimes we, believers and non-believers, get so caught up in statistics and surveys, both of which can be quite misleading that we forget behind each response is a human being.Believing in something does not mean that it is true and conversely, not believing in something does not mean that it is false.What is true is true whether anyone believes in it or not.Some people seem to believe more in “religion” than they do in God.Some people seem to have more faith in “faith” than in God.I used to believe in God until I met God, now I know that God is very much Real and He does care for each and every one of us and when God became One of us, He tried to teach us that, did we learn?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • CCNL

    Thomas “The Hallucinator” Baum,You noted: “we forget behind each response is a human being.”You should have said “behind each holy book e.g. the bible and the koran, were human beings embellishing the truth and creating myths for the “bowers and pew sitters”. Say Hi to god for us!!!

  • Paganplace

    How people answer questions has much to do with who asks whom, and how the questions are asked. Plenty of people who reject certain forms of ‘piety’ and ‘religious identity’ as posed by certain people (or counterposed by certain people) still hold *some* faith or sense that we aren’t the ‘biggest’ critters out here. When people ask questions, they set conditions. No wonder the results are always scrammed according to what the interviewer would like to see. All any of these sorts of ‘statistics’ prove is we’d best make town big enough for the lot of us. They say numbers and pictures don’t lie. Captions do, though. The whole *premise* of this article is there’s something inherently contradictory between being ‘secular’ and ‘having faith.’Humans are perfectly capable of compartmentalizing our awareness.Haven’t you noticed?This is *why* secularism is a goodness in certain venues and is *not* anti-‘faith,’ …unless you happen to be a religious authority trying to confuse *obedience* and *polled opinion* with that concept.’Influence?’ That’s mostly the threat or interest you ain’t seeing. Not the same as belief.And *Gods* help us if it’s the same as ‘faith.’

  • Paganplace

    Anyone figured out yet that this stuff don’t sample? Not in these broad terms, anyway. People don’t actually *think* or answer questions ….the way folks write the questions. There’s more. That ‘more’ adds up to, ‘Yep, if there’s something bigger than our opinions, it’s bigger than our opinions. Better learn to cope with that.’

  • DMZ1

    JakeD:How can you claim not to hate homosexuals when you clearly do. It is one thing to hold a personal moral opposition to homosexuality – based on religion or whatever – but it is a quite different thing to seek to deny equality under the law to some subset of American citizens based solely on their status. It isn’t just hate, it is the actual practice of hate. Your goal is to punish by denial of rights – that is hate, pure and simple.

  • ThomasBaum

    CCNLYou wrote, “Say Hi to god for us!!!”When you meet God, you can tell Him that I tried to tell you and the rest of the world about Him if you like.We will all meet God and God is a lot nicer, to be it mildly, than some people think that He is and what is sadder still than some people even want Him to be.Even tho I use the masculine pronoun, God is not a He, a She or an It, even tho God-Incarnate was a Male. God is a BEING OF PURE LOVE and is a Trinity.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.