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June 24th, 2008
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Perspective on atheist believers
I've seen the statistic cited a few times today that 21 percent of (American) atheists believe in a higher power, which is roughly as absurd as saying that 21 percent of vegetarians eat meat.

It's pretty easy to make more out of a statement like that than the data really implies, and people have been rightly skeptical. But in chipuni's discussion thread (friends-locked), bernmarx links to the original study [PDF], and so we have the opportunity to unpack it a bit.

Is it statistical trickery?

Briefly, no.

Page 26* breaks it down with more clarity; the 21 percent includes 8 percent who are "absolutely certain" about their belief in "God or a universal spirit"; 7 percent "fairly certain", and 6 percent "not certain". The next page subdivides that 21 into 6 percent who believe in a personal God, 12 percent an impersonal force, and 3 percent other/both. Related questions get similar levels of response; 7 percent of atheists believe the Bible is the word of God, 18 percent believe in life after death, and 14 percent believe "angels and demons are active in the world." This isn't a fluke on a badly worded question.

For sample size, N=515 atheists (P. 111), which means the numbers are +/- 4.3 percent at 95% confidence. Methodology is described starting on P. 174 and is apparently fairly standard for surveys of this type.

(Side note: Could people be flat-out lying, giving random or otherwise useless answers? I suppose it's possible. I can't find any data on how often that occurs or how it's controlled for. Anyone with more of a statistical background is encouraged to speak up in comments.)

And the study's put out by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, not some no-name think tank with an axe to grind.

Is it linguistic trickery?

Briefly, maybe, depending on how picky you want to be and where you want to place the blame.

"Atheist" was determined by self-identification and was an affirmative choice, not a catch-all category (P. 210). They had to either specifically pick "atheist" out of a list, or if they said something like "nothing in particular", had to clarify "atheist" when specifically asked about it. There might be confusion about the term "atheism," but if there is, it's in the mind of the survey respondents, and the problem isn't with the questioners but with the general population.

The question asked was "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" (P. 227) Then, of the ones who answered yes, they were asked of the certainty of their belief and to clarify between personal being and impersonal force (P. 228-229). The argument that this might cause some atheists to answer "technically, yes" due to the "universal spirit" part has some merit -- look at the number of atheists who say they are absolutely certain of their belief in a personal God, and the number plummets to 3 percent. But, again, if this is the case it's a problem with definitions among the general population, and not the survey itself.

The real question is, what causes this disconnect? The survey itself tells us little. Perhaps a fraction of the American irreligious misread "atheist" to mean "against God," and should more properly be classifying themselves as Satanists. Perhaps a fraction misread "atheist" to mean "disbelieve in a personal God," and could better call themselves Deists. It's easier to believe in linguistic error than in willful stupidity.

Does it show that atheists are stupid, crazy and/or hypocritical?

No, no, no. "Atheist" has a handful of different and almost mutually exclusive meanings, to the point where Wikipedia has to distinguish between "strong" and "weak" atheism to even write a meaningful definition of the word. It may seem obvious that "atheism" should imply an active disbelief in higher powers, but people use the term in all sorts of ways (even sometimes when they just mean "agnostic"), and that doesn't make them prima facie wrong.

And let's be clear here: We're talking about 21% disagreement. If you can get 79% of any group of allegedly like-minded people anywhere to agree on anything, you're doing pretty well. This goes double for small and often insular subgroups like atheists (or open source advocates, furries, LARPers, etc). And it's arguments about what the group is actually about that draw the most heat. Believe me, I'm Otherkin, I know.

Still not convinced? Alright. Then let's assume atheists have a 21% nutbar population. This still puts them approximately 7% ahead of the population at large.

* * * * *

Also, apropos of nothing: props to hafoc for utterly out-Frosting me in the tech support poetry thread.

--
* The PDF has four pages of cover, credits and index; I'm following the numbering scheme of the document itself. In order to immediately locate any reference, jump to (page number + 4) in the PDF you download.

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From:roaminrob
Date:June 24th, 2008 10:23 am (UTC)
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Solid analysis, well done. FYI, chipuni's discussion thread appears to be friends-only.

Given the state of education and religious indoctrination in this country, I think you're on the right track in assuming that these are the results of a linguistic error. If I were to place a bet, it would be on most of the 21% of self-described "atheists" having chosen that label for themselves just because they don't attend church services or adhere to a holy book.

There might even be a good reason for that. If somebody directly asks me about my religion, or if the topic comes up and it's appropriate for me to chime in, I start with the abridged, "I'm atheist". It's the closest-to-accurate pigeonhole that the average person is likely to recognize, and if there's any genuine interest on their part, then I can begin to qualify my position: "actually, strictly speaking, I'm not an atheist; I just prefer to approach the subject of religion from a logical foundation, rather than a faith-based one, even though I'm uncertain of the nature of personality and spirit, and even though I might concede that there could be supernatural phenomenon. Also, I once was a practicing mage, and I think that people can have connections between each other that run deeper than merely the physical or the emotional, and that some people sometimes have that sort of deeper connection with their surroundings. I have a smattering of other little beliefs that I find useful or comforting even though they exist without a rigorous logical foundation, but that's a longer conversation still."

See, now that would be a very poor answer for a survey. :-)
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From:roaminrob
Date:June 24th, 2008 11:06 am (UTC)
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(...LJ doesn't allow me to edit my posts, which is yet another reason why I don't use it much anymore...)

The charts are pretty interesting throughout, but especially check out the one on pp. 99, "Evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life". Before I go any further, I'd like to take issue with the title of that chart, since evolution is the standard explanation for the origins of all life, not limited to human life only. It was called, "On the Origin of Species", dumbasses.

Aaaanyway: according to that chart, 9% of atheists and 11% of agnostics do not believe that evolution explains the origin of species.

I would love to talk to some of these 9-and-11-percenters. I'm intensely curious on what they have to say about the subject.

(Also, in that same chart, note that 45% of the overall polled population disbelieves evolution altogether. In my opinion, this represents a grave systemic failure of both education and rationalism in this country.)

...Huh! pp. 117, "Frequency of Attendance at Religious Services by Religious Tradition": 6% of "atheists" attend services at least once or twice a month, with 4% attending once a week, and 1% attending more than once a week. OK, WTF? Even the agnostics attend services less regularly. I refuse to accept that that number is entirely made up of people like necama. ;-)

Also, pp. 123, 2% of atheists pray at least once a week, and (pp. 126) 3% of atheists believe that the word of God is to be taken literally. Did this survey take place on 4chan, or what?

Aiiieee, and (pp. 150), 20% (!!) of atheists believe that the government should do more to protect morality in society. That's it, that number just pegged my stink-o-meter. It's official, this stinks. :-P

...Ah! Finally found what I was looking for, on pp. 210, the interview question that establishes the respondent's religion. They present the question of religion as multiple choice, and I think the way it's presented, there would be a tendency for persons of "alternative" religions to answer either atheist or agnostic.

Still, not at all the results I would have expected.
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From:natetg
Date:June 24th, 2008 01:50 pm (UTC)
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Considering that mainstream religious beliefs tend to be auto-contradictory, it's no less consistent to simultaneously believe in god and the absence of god.
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From:frameacloud
Date:June 24th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
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That would be Schrödinger's God.
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From:baxil
Date:June 26th, 2008 02:13 am (UTC)
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If you're going to do what Schrodinger proposed, much kinder to do it to a god than to a cat!

(And, depending on what god(s) you use, it may or may not result in significantly fewer scratch marks.)
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From:kevynjacobs
Date:June 24th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)

It's a feature, not a bug

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Doublethink: simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs. -- George Orwell, 1984
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From:frameacloud
Date:June 24th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
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Great stuff, Bax. Love it. :)

". . . which is roughly as absurd as saying that 21 percent of vegetarians eat meat."

An apt comparison, since the degree to which a person sticks to vegetarianism also varies from strict to loose, just as there is both "strong" and "weak" atheism. Not everyone agrees on whether fish counts as meat, and so some vegetarians eat fish... or some other animal product of controversial meatiness, each according to their religious guidelines, personal judgment, or health requirements. (See Wikipedia on semi-vegetarian diets.)
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From:kevynjacobs
Date:June 24th, 2008 05:41 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the thought-provoking analysis.

I am one of those weird atheists who isn't an atheist. Or rather, I identify as an atheist in shorthand, but more accurately, I am a weak-atheist or agnostic, because I don't believe in god, but I can't prove she doesn't exist. I just don't know.

But it becomes even more complicated when I delve into what I really do believe. I strongly suspect that the Universe itself is a living, conscious organism (the Gaia hypothesis writ large). That doesn't mean that I think that the Universe is like the Xian God, watching the lives of us little humans, or consciously guiding our destiny. But I do strongly suspect that all of existence is a "higher power," in the same sense that *I* am a higher power a cell in my little toe.

No way to put that in a multiple-choice poll, so I just say "atheist."


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From:baxil
Date:June 26th, 2008 02:05 am (UTC)
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Sounds something like pantheism.

But I agree, it's hard to condense that down into the sort of multiple-choice pigeonhole exercise that a poll like this is looking for. I have a similar problem describing my own beliefs to people who aren't already familiar with the term "Otherkin," but fortunately for me, "pagan" is such a broad umbrella that it's not inaccurate.

And while "agnostic" might be a better descriptor than "atheist" for you depending on the precise definitions you prefer for both terms, I can see why you wouldn't want to call yourself an agnostic -- inevitably that leads to people assuming you don't know what to believe, and pushing their own personal cosmology on you.
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From:kevynjacobs
Date:July 22nd, 2008 02:22 am (UTC)
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> Sounds something like pantheism.

I know, but where I differ from the pantheists is that I don't believe that the Universe is "divine," just alive.

From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 25th, 2008 07:25 am (UTC)

One atheist open to the possibility...

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At first glance I was taken aback - for about a minute - then I realised I'm probably in the group that is 'atheist' but not totally closed to the idea there could be a creator. It really depends on how the question is worded. I wish I could see the questions to understand the answers.

As an open minded person, I can't discount the possibility that ancient astronauts tampered with our genes, or that an incredibly advanced computer travelled to our world an was such a creator. So my openness to a 'god' is not grounded in the supernatural - there is no evidence of such a thing. So the definition of atheist is not at stake here. The definition of god is.

(tony at veggiedude.com posted this)
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From:baxil
Date:June 26th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)

Re: One atheist open to the possibility...

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Tony,

The specific questions asked were:

"Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?"

If yes, ask next:
"How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?"
And then:
"Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?"

You're right, the concept of "God" packs in a lot, and the brevity of the questions didn't really allow for distinctions between (for example) "God, meaning creator" and "God, meaning omnipotent metareal entity." There's certainly room for further data gathering.

Thanks for stopping by. Can I ask how you found this post? Am I being linked elsewhere? (Livejournal doesn't offer referrer stats ...)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 26th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)

Re: One atheist open to the possibility...

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I found you via:

http://blogsearch.google.com/
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From:dancinglights
Date:June 25th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for sharing the link to the original study. This is the kind of thing I find more frustrating than fascinating when I find newsfeeds quoting numbers and interpreting them poorly, and can't find the original information myself. Especially important information like "what choices were available for undecideds and others to box themselves by and skew the numbers." Also thanks for the number crunching interpretations, I like what you have to say far better than the frustrating newsfeeds :P
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From:joysweeper
Date:June 25th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
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Interesting. I guess when it comes to surveys, athiesm is a catchall grouping. Modern faith is very complicated and individual. As it should be.

... I don't really get how anyone decides that "athiest = satanist" at all. Some people are paranoid, I suppose.
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From:baxil
Date:June 26th, 2008 01:34 am (UTC)
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I certainly wasn't trying to imply atheist=Satanist. If I did, my apologies to any offended atheists and/or Satanists out there.

I was simply trying to state that, due to popular misconception that "atheist" means "against the Christian God" (a misconception often actively encouraged by the Christian fundamentalists), there exists a class of people who actively believe in the Christian mythology and who nevertheless label themselves "atheist" due to that mistaken belief. These hypothetical folk are people who, properly speaking, are Satanists, but are misinformed as to the definition of the term they use.
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From:joysweeper
Date:June 26th, 2008 02:23 am (UTC)
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I know you weren't, and I should have made that more clear. It just confuses me how anyone thinks it.

That's as good an explanation as any, thanks. I suppose there's also the belief some less-than-accepting factions have that worshipping anything but the Christian God(and in some cases a very specific version, too) is the same as devilworship.
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