God-fearing atheists

thankgodatheistA few days ago, Terry looked at a few of the initial stories that came out of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life megastudy. In the comments, a few of you noted one particularly odd statistic from the survey. Here's how Ed Stoddard of Reuters put it on the news service's blog:

There seems to be some confusion among self-described U.S. atheists, at least according to the second part of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's monumental "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" that was issued today.

It found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying they were "absolutely certain" on this score.

Curiously, more than one fifth -- 21 percent -- of those who counted themselves as atheists said they believed in God while eight percent expressed absolute certainty about this state of affairs.

One thing does seem absolutely certain: at least a few U.S. atheists must be confused.

My "Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions" (Wordsworth Reference Series, 1992) begins its definition of the word "atheism" in the following manner: "The denial of the existence of God or gods."

Indeed, the very definition of the term atheist seems to preclude a yes answer to the question of belief in God or a universal spirit. Whenever I read stories about surveys, I've found that going to the original source documents helps. But not in this case. Here's how the surveyors asked the question:

Question: Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF YES, ASK:] How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?

For atheists, eight percent were absolutely certain, seven were fairly certain and 6 weren't terribly certain. Fifty-five percent of agnostics, who by definition claim ignorance about the existence of God, believe in God. Seventeen percent are absolutely certain, 23 percent fairly certain and 15 percent are less certain.

While atheists and agnostics gave very low marks to the importance of religion and whether they went to church frequently, when asked whether they pray, 21 percent of atheists and 56 percent of agnostics said they did. In fact, a small percentage of atheists said that they received definite answers to prayer at least once a week.

Steve Waldman at Beliefnet has a theory about the numbers:

The Spirituality of Atheists - 21% of Atheists believe in god. What this means is that Atheism has become a cultural designation, rather than a theological statement. Some are likely declaring themselves atheists as a statement of hostility to organized religion, rather than to God. This might help explain polls showing rising numbers of Atheists.

That may very well be, although there is no way to know that for certain from the data. Particularly considering respondents had the option of saying they weren't affiliated with any organized religion. But even if it were certain, what would that say about the rest of the numbers? It doesn't really inspire confidence, for me at least, in the survey's methodology, accuracy or utility.

Certainly a survey so wide -- 35,000 random Americans -- is by necessity very shallow in it's theological depth. Particularly when so many of the questions were political instead of religious in nature. In fact, the first 20-plus questions did not discuss religion at all.

Steve Waldman, this time writing for the Wall Street Journal, analyzed another part of the survey:

--On the big culture-war issues, Catholics seem only marginally influenced by the Church's positions. While 50% of the population as a whole say homosexuality should be accepted, 58% of Catholics say it should be. A narrow majority (48%-45%) of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Part of the explanation: while most Catholics say they have strong views about right and wrong, a paltry 22% say they get their views about morality primarily from religion while 57% say it comes from "practical experience and common sense" -- and only 9% of Catholics say religion is the major determinant of their political views.

That's also some great analysis, as one might expect from Waldman. But the survey again has limitations. For one thing, these numbers combine the views of Catholics who go to mass weekly or daily with Catholics who haven't been to mass in decades. If there are cultural, non-theological atheists, there are certainly cultural, non-theological Catholics. So before journalists extract dramatic conclusions about the results, I hope they understand the limits of the data. automotivator

In the comments to Terry's post, reader Ron wrote:

I am struck by how hopelessly inadequate the poll's questions about exclusive truth claims are to capturing the complexity of traditional Christian teaching.

Similarly, I found the question that resulted in Waldman's second paragraph just lacking in general. It asked "When it comes to questions of right and wrong, which of the following do you look to most for guidance?" The choices were:

Religious teachings and beliefs; philosophy and reason; practical experience and common sense or scientific information.

It's not just that I would have liked to answer "yes." It's the entire premise I find troubling. In my confession of faith (Lutheran), we're taught that all of these things are gifts from God and that we are to use all of these things to order our daily affairs. Our religious teachings and beliefs come from both revealed and observed truth. They work together.

Or take this aspect of the study as summarized by Jacqueline Salmon of the Washington Post:

The poll, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that nearly three-fourths of Americans believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives will be eternally rewarded. And almost 60 percent believe in hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without repenting are eternally punished, the poll found.

Look at the question that was asked:

Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?

I honestly have no idea how would I answer that question. The "heaven" in the question in no way resembles Lutheran teaching about heaven. We don't believe good works gain people salvation (see: the Doctrine of Justification). It's a minor point, but one worthy of considering as reporters head off to write big think pieces about what these numbers mean.

Reader Chris Bolinger wrote:

I fear that, with MSM articles on the the latest Pew Forum survey and report, we have the perfect storm of: * An overreaching survey that tries to cover too much ground and includes many questions that are poorly constructed * A summary of the resulting 276-page report that tries to boil down results that, frankly, are all over the map * MSM reporters who are obsessed with politics, know little (and care less) about how surveys are conducted or what flaws may exist in this one, and are itching to call characterize the survey results as "proof" of what they have been reporting for the past few years

These Pew surveys are wonderful and highly addictive for religion reporters. But reporters should be careful about the conclusions they draw from the data given the limitations of the survey.

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