Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Don't Give Me That Old Time Religion

The Pew Center on Religion & Public Life released the results of a survey yesterday that made headlines by revealing that more than a quarter of Americans have left the faith in which they were raised, and that figure is 44% if one counts movement from one Protestant sect to another. Perhaps the bigger news in the survey is that all Protestant sects combined make up only 51.3% of the population.

Or do they? "Unaffiliated" Americans account for 16 percent of the population, breaking down as follows:
Atheist: 1.6
Agnostic: 2.4
Secular Unaffiliated: 6.3
Religious Unaffiliated: 5.8

It's probably a fair bet that slightly over half the "religious unaffiliated" Americans are unaffiliated Protestants, which brings the combined number of American Protestants to more like 54%.

Maybe the biggest news is that over 10% of Americans are not religious at all. That's roughly equal to the number of Americans who are ex-Catholics. Indeed, there is likely considerable overlap in those groups.

What the survey may miss is the difference between religious and cultural identity. For religious groups with strong ethnic components (e.g., Judaism, Greek Orthodox, Native American religions), one can well imagine a survey respondent self-identifying in one of these groups without affirming any of the religious tenets thereof. A secular Catholic or Jew, for example, could self-identify as Catholic or Jewish, even though she should also count as an agnostic (say). But because the percentages sum to 100%, the survey wouldn't register this respondent as an agnostic. That, in turn, may suggest that the aggregate proportion of non-believers and doubters is larger still.

Finally, note that the survey results by age show that older people are much less likely to be atheists or agnostics than younger people. It would be interesting to learn whether the current younger generations are simply less religious than earlier ones, or whether this fact reflects a change that occurs in lifetimes: If the latter, that would mean that as people get older, they worry more about their mortality, and are more likely to place Pascal's wager.

Posted by Mike Dorf

21 comments:

Tam said...

Does the fact that only 2.4% of people are agnostic strike anyone else as a surprising result, as a matter of pure reason?

It means that on one of, if not the most complex philosophical question one can ask - does God exist? - 39 out of 40 people believe they know the answer, and only 1 person is reserving judgment.

As you point out, though, this survey really measures identification with a group, not necessarily based on views relating to the existence of God.

It would thus be interesting to see a survey that measures directly the belief in the existence of God, and the strength of commitment. One could assign -10 for strongly disagree (i.e., strong atheist) to 10 for strongly agree, for example, and 0 for "reserving judgment" (pure atheist).

I wonder: (1) whether such a graph would resemble a normal distribution. If it does (and assuming the mean is 0), then the distinction between what the PEW survey measures and people's theological beliefs would be clear; and (2) if it does not, then even so, I wonder if the agnostic population wouldn't still be significantly higher than 2.4%, based on some reasonable definition of an agnostic (i.e., how close do you have to be to "0").

Tam said...

er, I mean "pure agnostic" for 0, not "pure atheist".

Guess I should have been more agnostic about the lack of errors in my comment before hitting "publish".

egarber said...

I always wonder if there is some sort of "Bradley effect" at play in these kinds of polls. It's easy enough and safe to answer affirmatively on the basic question of whether God exists. In other words, given the value of religion in our culture, I'm thinking a lot of folks err on the side of God when asked about the subject -- even if they don't observe on a daily basis.

Carl said...

Does the fact that only 2.4% of people are agnostic strike anyone else as a surprising result, as a matter of pure reason?

I'm not particularly troubled by this for several reasons. First, belief doesn't and shouldn't require certainty. There is nothing in itself virtuous about withholding belief in cases where considerations pull in both directions. It is only where the reasons for and against a particular belief are roughly evenly matched that agnosticism makes much sense.

Second, I think in the God context people use "belief" to mean "faith," where this is taken to be belief in some proposition despite strong evidence that it is false. Even if the believers in this survey were honest about their misgivings, I doubt they would identify themselves as agnostics. The flip side of this is that most atheists probably do not identify themselves as agnostics because the evidence against the existence of God is strong enough to permit them to positively affirm that God does not exist. They may be wrong, of course, but that is not by itself a reason to suspend belief.

Third, while I agree that the complexity of some question is reason to withhold judgment on it, I don't agree that the issue of God's existence is particularly complex. This is not to say that it's not a difficult question to answer or that it's not extremely important to people, but just that its truth conditions are fairly straightforward - either there's a being that answers to some easily grasped description or there's not.

Even if there is some complexity in the question that I'm not seeing, I think for many believers these complexities would be outweighed on Pascalian grounds. Of course, this wouldn't explain why more atheists are not agnostics. I would hazard to guess that this is because most people who would otherwise be agnostics are persuaded by precisely these Pascalian considerations to believe. Those who aren't goaded into believing by the threat of eternal damnation are prescisely those for whom the lack of evidence of God's existence is especially salient in the belief formation process.

To put my point another way: I suspect there are fewer self-identifed agnostics than atheists because anyone who thinks the evidence for and against the existence of God is fairly evenly matched is likely to be persuaded to believe on Pascalian or similar grounds.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl said...

I should have re-read Dorf's post before I responded to tam. There are not in fact more atheists than agnostics among nonbelievers after all. I guess tam was expressing surprise not that people have settled beliefs on the issue of God's existence, but that so many people actively affirm it. As I suggested above, I think this is in part because belief and doubt, and especially faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. I am kind of curious know as to why nonbelievers are more likely to identify themselves as agnostics when there is so little evidence in favor of the existence of God. Is it psychologically a more comfortable position? Is it evidence of the rather strong hold religion has on us that even when we begin to doubt it we do cannot consider the question of God's existence from a fully rational point of view? Maybe someone needs to do another survey or something.

egarber said...

Carl said:

I am kind of curious know as to why nonbelievers are more likely to identify themselves as agnostics when there is so little evidence in favor of the existence of God.

I think one answer might relate to where the burden of proof lies. Perhaps in choosing to be agnostic, some folks aren't convinced that atheists have proven God doesn't exist. Maybe it's roughly like the idea of a soul: if you can't prove to me that it does NOT exist, who am I to know one way or another?

And therein might lie more confusion. Some atheists do strongly feel that it has been proven God doesn't exist (at least I know a few like that) -- while others believe he *probably* doesn't exist. A person answering a poll, who defines atheism as the former, might think agnostic is the better term for his / her belief.

Carl said...

Some atheists do strongly feel that it has been proven God doesn't exist (at least I know a few like that) -- while others believe he *probably* doesn't exist. A person answering a poll, who defines atheism as the former, might think agnostic is the better term for his / her belief.

I think something like this is probably right (no pun intended). I tend to reserve use of the term "agnostic" to refer to people who believe that it's roughly no more probable that God exists than that God does not exist and vice versa. I suspect that very few people who call themselves agnostics are agnostics in my sense. I suspect the majority of agnostics believe it's more probable than not that God does not exist, but do not want to call themselves atheists because they have come to associate the term with the kind of dogmatic certainty that many theists profess. I suppose there might also be self-identified agnostics who believe it's more likely than not the God does exist but do not want to call themselves theists for similar reasons. I realize this is largely semantics at this point, but I think there is an obvious benefit to greater precision in these cases. Perhaps it would be better to conduct these surveys in terms of belief probabilities. At the very least, it would give us a clearer picture of what people actually think.

Jean said...

2 quick points, and then maybe I'll actually do my assigned reading:

I think another reason older people might profess belief more is that they've had kids. I was raised Catholic, and my parents told me they started going to church again and practicing more in general once they had children. They felt it was important to give their kids that spiritual/moral/religious grounding. Often, when I think about having kids myself one day, I struggle with what I'll do with the same issue. I'm pretty much non-practicing at this point, but I also think it was very important that I was raised in a religion, even if I now question and doubt it a lot. Incidentally, my parents don't go to church much anymore, so this theory may be off. Or maybe it works for sort of middle-age.

Second point, in response to this:
I am kind of curious know as to why nonbelievers are more likely to identify themselves as agnostics when there is so little evidence in favor of the existence of God.

I think the statement that there is so little evidence in favor of God's existence is very subjective. For me, it's pretty easy to find evidence of God, at least the kind that will satisfy me. And I also agree that the faith/belief difference is important. On some level, I think the whole point of faith is it's something people can believe without searching for constant, physical proof. It's a stability in their lives, when so much else is unstable. You might disagree on whether or not that's a good reason to have faith, but I think it's very distinct from believing in something more physical or tangible that we can't see, like atoms.

Carl said...

Jean said:

I think the whole point of faith is it's something people can believe without searching for constant, physical proof. It's a stability in their lives, when so much else is unstable. You might disagree on whether or not that's a good reason to have faith,

I think any beneficial psychological effects of believing in God are reasons in favor of having faith that God exists, but I would distinguish reasons of this kind from evidence that God actually exists. I would also hasten to add that whatever beneficial effects belief in God may have for believers may be outweighed by its negative effects. But if your point is that belief may have goals or purposes other than being true, so to speak, I think I'm in general agreement with you.

Jean said...

That's a good point, Carl. As a 1L, I haven't quite learned to clarify my thinking - and expressions of thought - enough at times. It's a process...and a maddening one at times. Part of what I was also trying to say is that "faith" doesn't necessarily require evidence in the way that belief might, if we follow the dichotomy you laid out earlier.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Jean,

Two books that might interest you that treat faith, belief, and evidential questions in a sophisticated manner are James Kellenberger's The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985) and John Cottingham's The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

And should anyone be interested in what it might mean to practice a "non-religious" (yet philosophical) sort of spirituality, I would recommend an exquisite essay by John Haldane: "On the very idea of spiritual values," in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 53-71.

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