More Angels Than Atheists, According to Baylor Study

Today's Washington Times reports on a study performed by researchers at Baylor who found that half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels, and a "significant majority" are comfortable with the supernatural. Also, the study pegs the number of atheists in America at 4% of populace, a number they say is unchanged since 1944.

I don't doubt the answers reported on belief in angels; if anything, I'd say the numbers were higher, based on my own admittedly theist-heavy experience. The results are the responses gathered on 350 questions for 1,648 individuals. Here's a short synopsis of the findings on supernaturalism in the group:
The survey, which has a margin of error of four percentage points, also revealed that theological liberals are more apt to believe in the paranormal and the occult - haunted houses, UFOs, communicating with the dead and astrology - than do conservatives. Women (35 percent), blacks (41 percent), those younger than 30 (40 percent), Democrats (40 percent) and singles who are cohabitating (49 percent) were more likely to believe, the survey said.
What caught my eye here, however, was the editorial provided by Rodney Stark, the researcher, who is an.... well, I guess an "iconoclast" would be a charitable way to put it (see here, here and here, for why I say that).

From the news article (and remember, this is the Washington Times):
Baylor researchers also criticized a much-ballyhooed “new atheism” as a barely discernable trend, saying the number of Americans who are atheists has stayed at 4 percent since 1944.

Why? Atheism is a “godless revolution that never happened,” the survey said, adding that irreligion often is not effectively transmitted to children who, when they reach adulthood, often join conservative religious denominations.
Heh. There is an old adage in Christian circles: God has no grandchildren. That's a nod to the observation that while kids can be indoctrinated by their parents, they eventually grow up to think for themselves (to some extent), and real faith commitments must be made anew by each person. Faith isn't really an heritable trait, in other words, as much a cultural tradition.

But here, we have a corollary from Stark: Dawkins has no grandchildren, either. What's striking about this article is all the interesting things they don't say. Don't Christian families have trouble replicating faithful kids? What about the "jumping ship" phenomenon in the homeschool world, as identified by authors like Michael Pearl? And... Barna? I'd expect a Baylor theist and sociologist of religion to be quite familiar with the God has no grandchildren dynamic, but apparently attrition only goes one way, in his view.

Perhaps this can be resolved by understanding this in terms of Christian culture. Where kids grow up to be basically uncommitted, the dominance of Christian culture exerts a kind of social gravity that attracts them, appealing in its comfortable (if waning) cultural hegemony. They don't so much embrace the dogma as much as the find a comfortable place to float along in the main of the cultural stream. It also occurs to me that the rigors and demands of atheism are a kind of selection filter itself, which anticipates just such attrition.

Later in the article:
Moreover, atheism is hardly taking over the world. Europe does have more atheists than the U.S., the survey said, but no country has more than 7 percent except France, which is at 14 percent of the populace. Farther to the east, Japan is at 12 percent and China is at 14 percent.

Mr. Stark dismissed the popularity of several recent books on atheism, saying they are mostly the products of “angry” people who are largely ignored by theists.

“The religious people don't care about the irreligious people,” Mr. Stark said, “but the irreligious are prickly. I think they're just angry.”

This is a curious mix of commentary. Setting aside the op/ed prose from the article's author (Julia Duin), this is a strange analysis of the situation for an academic, and a sociologist, no less. Stark explains the popularity of recent books on atheism as the product of... anger. That's an odd hypothesis, given the number of angry books out there -- especially from theist authors -- that no one pays any attention to. It's stranger still as a response when we read that Stark doesn't buy it himself, announcing in the next sentence that religious people don't care about irreligious people. Just to make sure we understand that Stark is confused, and not just telling us that this apathy is not attached to atheist anger in selling books, he connects them, finishing the sentence with his observation that the "
irreligious are prickly", "angry".

So, the large religious majority in America can't be bothered by the irreligious, because (at least) they are angry. But yet a raft of "angry" atheist books have soared on the best seller charts, in a country in which (according to Stark) only 4% of the people identify themselves as atheists. That's not an explanation from Stark, but an unwitting? emphasis of the problematic nature of his findings and conclusions.

And that is the underlying problem, here. I've not read the study in question yet, but how naïve is it to ask your subjects if the are atheists, or if they have no belief in any God or gods, and accept the answers back at face value? Do we suppose that we might go around the room, even with "confidential questionnaires" and ask our subjects if they are homosexual and expect to get an accurate set of answers back? It's fine to report back that 4% of respondents are comfortable identifying themselves as atheists -- which doesn't strike me as an implausible number -- but it's not even a crude gauge to the underlying reality, and Stark has the clue pointing him to the problem right in the article, with the question about the popularity of books from the likes of Dawkins, Dennett and Harris.

For every self-identified atheist, in public or in a poll, stands an atheist who just isn't comfortable owning up to that in this culture. Ask your favorite, friendly self-identified atheist and they will tell you there's at least one they know (and often several) who remain "in the closet" for any of many social and emotional reasons. In my own case, the fact of my reasoning towards atheism produced several days of terror, with the urge to hide it, deny it, hedge against it, just out of fear for the social costs it may exact. In a society where atheists, for all the popularity of Dawkins' book, atheists are still commonly demonized in a similar fashion to the way homosexuals are, and for much the same reasons.

Behind the silent atheist(s) stands a small gang of agnostics, folks who do not identify themselves as atheists, but who nonetheless either have no belief in God but aren't certain enough to take on the "atheist" label, or are actually on the fence, unconvinced either way.

In this article on the same release, Stark blames the media for the popularity of the New Atheist books:
Despite the wave of best sellers by atheists blasting religion and predictions that religious belief is fading, Stark said the survey shows atheism has not gained momentum. Nonbelievers still represent only about 4 percent of Americans, Stark said, but they attract interest because they are a novelty and because "there's a lot of support and sympathy for them in the media."
Here, we have Stark conspicuously omitting agnostics. Above, he pegs "atheists" at 4% of the population. Here, he describes this 4% as "non-believers", with the implication being that the complementary 96% representing "believers".

There's a much more efficient answer than either of Stark's odd explanations. While the number of self-identified atheists may not be growing (and for the record, I'm calling "bull" on that finding, too, but am willing to accept it, arguendo, for the purposes of this post), the growth in "non-believers" has been dramatic in America in recent years. A look at Barna's work over those same years dovetails nicely with the New York Times Bestseller List, sporting so many atheistic and irreligious books selling in such large numbers. Non-belief, skepticism and scientific thinking are growth industries.

Given the traditional demonization of atheism in the culture, something not even given passing acknowledgment in the articles I linked to (caveat: this may be addressed in the analysis of the study which I've not yet read), this is what we would expect to see in evolution of an skeptical, rationalist culture. The doubt and skepticism precede the atheistic self-identification, and the dissolution or dissipation of the social animus takes time, a trailing indicator following early indicators like the surge in books sales on the topic, and the broad decline of participation and enthusiasm observed in churches across the land.



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

While there's no stigma attached to being an atheist where I live, national survey results I've seen presented in the newspapers pretty recently suggest that about 10 percent of the population consider itself atheist, while only about 50 percent "believe in God". I'm not really sure how to interpret this info. It might be that those asked thought "atheist" meant something like "being 100 percent sure there's no god", or that they thought "God" meant only Yahweh, but it could also be that they have some rather odd New Age beliefs (you find quite a lot of that here).

Samuel Skinner said...

I don't think atheists are the people buying the "new atheist" books- I think it is the curious and uncommited.

As for "Faith isn't really an heritable trait, in other words, as much a cultural tradition."

Not really true- cultural traditions are pretty heritable. For example, the Australins, despite being half the world and 200 years away, still have major ties to England. The Greenland vikings choose to die rather than give up their culture. Don't underestimate the strength of culture.

PTET said...

"Religious person ignores the parts of reality which contradict what he wants to believe - Film at 11."

What is it with evan/fundagelicals and bearing false witness? Do they think it doesn't count if they are doing god's business? Or have they just short-circuited their brains to cut out self-awareness? I wish I knew.

Touchstone said...

Samuel Skinner,

The adage "God has no grandchildren" is one that is speaking to the "inner conversion", the pious commitment to faith in Jesus (or whoever), rather than just growing up in that religious tradition, and accepting it.

In other words, if Dick and Jane raise their three kids to grow up Christian, they get raised in the church, and identify themselves as Christian, but according to evangelicial Christianity, something else has to take place. Being raised a Chrisitian is not enough. You gotta be born again, according to the teaching, and that only comes from the direct choice of each kid. Christians use this phrase as a way of observing that a lot of Christians are not "real" Christians, but only "cultural Christians" who identify themselves as Christians, but suppose they got their Christianity from their parents and the culture around them, rather than through their own unique conversion event.

I agree on the books, although I'm sure that many atheists *have* bought and read the New Atheists books. I've got them all (I think) myself. What's hard to buy is the idea that all of these interested non-atheists are buying these books, and are as a whole being unaffected by them.

BahramtheRed said...

But here's a logical question? How did the survey define atheists? I've seen several that would put my into the agnostic pile. Even one heavily relgiously bent chrisitian one that would try to consider me a chrisitian (LOL) because I didn't reject god enough to be anything else.

This guy dosn't seem to know anything about atheists (we're not all angry sterotypes any more than all chrisitians are rabid bible thumpers).

Carbon Based said...

Samuel Skinner says "Not really true- cultural traditions are pretty heritable."

I think it should read "inheritable" simular to genetics. The aussies "choose" to keep their english heritage. It's not a genetic trait.

District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...


Herein is the problem as I see it.

1- Even Paul Kurtz doesn't see atheism as a viable alternative for mankind. So many humanists in the know don't even ascribe to atheism.

2- Atheism replaces biblical creationism with assent to an evolutionary system which is both unscientific, unobservable, and unevidential....

Further, the atheist holds that

3- We are all glorified pieces of primordial slime, genetically predispositioned to behave like we do therefore eliminating any potential of "free-will"...this is hopeless

4- Secondly, we are no better than animals in fact so close to chimps, as you guys have outlined on this site, that they (chimps)should have equal rights I suppose.

5- Nothing we do really matters because there is no future reward or punishment whatsoever in any form.

6- There is no objective morality, only a glorified form of relativism and no central or set core of moral beliefs.

7- We only behave as the "group" behaves therefore we are stripped of independent thought and actions...I've never understood how this works because many of you were raised in Christian homes but somehow dissented...this definately goes against MN's core belief of Cultural incommensurability...Anyway,

8- Atheism is confused over the past, even teaches like our dear Dr. Avalos that we can know nothing about the past or history...WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?

9- In atheism, objectivism is supposedly a rational concept, but it has been proven to lead to faulty conclusions and greater problems such as functionalism as espoused by baby killer Peter Sanger(sp)

In short, how and why do you expect to see a growth in atheism when it offers no human value PERIOD. Not either now or in the past and is not slated to ofer anything in the future.

Before you get all in a bunch and argue against my conclusions...with exception of a couple of these observations these are all arguments THAT HAVE BEEN PRESENTED ON THIS SITE.

Various "debunkers" have set forth nearly all of these propositions and I've got the emails to back it up because I delete very little.

Atheism is in a conundrum for ONE reason, not because the adherants are not smart or less human...The problem is DENIAL and that's NOT a river in Egypt.

That's how I see it and the evidence and support for my arguments is DEBUNKING CHRISTIANITY and most, if not all, of it's contributing cast of characters.

Thanks for the space my friend.


Touchstone said...

District Supt. Harvey Burnett,

If you read back through your list, it seems a lot of your points of objection are emotional ones or rejections based on your desires and preferences.

For instance, your (5) there seems conspicuous as a reaction not based on whether the evidence points to an afterlife with rewards and punishments, but a reaction based on the fact that the prospect of no afterlife and no rewards or punishment is one you have a visceral DISLIKE for.

That's OK, but it's worth pointing out the current of dislike and disapproval on emotional terms running through your list.

Using (5) as an example, I'd say the finality of your death and mine one day, hopefully far in the future, is precisely what gives the days we have remaining MEANING, and a depth of meaning that just can't be embraced to one who thinks their consciousness will persist forever. I'll pass on trying to turn this combox into an exchange on that point with you, but I want to "reverse" your (5) above because I think the arguments you've seen here at DC do make many of the points you list, but not in the clumsy, caricatured way you've presented them here.

Or at least not ALWAYS so clumsy and caricatured as that; we have our good days and bad days like everyone else who's communicating here.

I do agree with you that this blog is very much about denial. I think you'd say "in denial", as in "denying something true and obvious out of incorrigibility". But my claim is that the denial here is of the "Emperor has no clothes" kind.

Thanks for the list. It's always interesting to see how people synopsize atheism-broadly-construed.


Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Harvey,

I think your list of objections to "atheism" disregard the actual trajectory of people who do become atheists, agnostics, doubters, questioners.

The evidence for evolution, for change over time in the geological record and in the genetic record is what convinced me of common descent.

And the failure of Biblical theologians and authors to come up with the same "answers" via the Bible also left me with more questions than answers.

When you study all instances of Biblical moral teachings you also begin to question the usage of the Bible as a moral textbook filled with "proof texts." Polygamy, slavery, even abortion and genocide are acceptable and praiseworthy according to the Bible depending on the circumstances.

The Relativity of Biblical Ethics
by Joe Edward Barnhart

See also:

The Three Things About Evolution That Revolt Creationists The Most

RealisticCynic said...


I completely agree with your Dick and Jane story, as I have seen it first hand many, many times. As far as the books being bestsellers, I do not agree as to why. If I decided to come out with a book that was a tell-all about the Pope, and in it, there were explicit details of sexual misconduct, how wealthy do you think I would become? Mankind is so into whatever is controversial, that a book (or books) that seek to debunk God Himself will most certainly fly off of the shelves.

Every human must believe in something, or all hope is lost. Religion promises hope beyond this dismal life, whereas atheism shouts, "get yours now, there is no afterlife". In this day and age, sorry but religion will win out every time.

BTW, I am neither a christian or an atheist. I study everything so that I might be enlightened, and I believe in ME.

Aquaria said...

A false hope is no hope at all. And it's not "get yours now." You'd know that if you weren't a disingenuous fucktard.