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.