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Reply #23: Was just looking at the Pew Survey and it's got problems... [View All]

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JackRiddler Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-23-08 05:39 PM
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23. Was just looking at the Pew Survey and it's got problems...
Edited on Mon Jun-23-08 05:42 PM by JackRiddler
This survey is always promoted heavily when it comes out. My impression through the years of Pew Research is that it specializes in extreme conventionalism, always reinforcing the status quo.

Both the media and the report writers themselves play with how they're presenting the results, mainly in what and how they highlight, and what they choose as headlines.

Here's the survey.

The question yielding the 92 percent answer is not listed separately there, but from the listing of the results it's clear that it roughly ran, "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit"? Spirit of what? "Universal spirit" is incredibly vague, and I believe many people who are basically atheists but not doctrinaire about it would say they believe in it. On alternate Tuesdays, I also believe in "universal spirit," a concept that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with God. A sociologically valid question would give a choice of multiple answers, and certainly not equate "God" (understood by almost everyone to mean a specific, sentient entity) with "universal spirit" (a variable philosophical concept).

Says the report:

For example, while more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there is considerable variation in the nature and certainty of this belief. Six-in-ten adults believe that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship; but one-in-four including about half of Jews and Hindus see God as an impersonal force. And while roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they are absolutely certain of Gods existence, more than one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.

Other paragraphs give more differentiated views and cast doubt on the 92 percent figure, although they don't seem to generate as many newspaper ledes:

Nearly two-thirds of the public (63%) takes the view that their faiths sacred texts are the word of God. But those who believe Scripture represents the word of God are roughly evenly divided between those who say it should be interpreted literally, word for word (33%), and those who say it should not be taken literally (27%). And more than a quarter of adults including two-thirds of Buddhists (67%) and about half of Jews (53%) say their faiths sacred texts are written by men and are not the word of God.

(Note: I don't even see how Western Buddhists can be considered theists. They're invariably interested in the practice of meditation as a means to overcoming suffering and reaching personal enlightenment, and not the often-flexible doctrines of the religion per se.)

I think the questions concerning "absolutely certain" belief in God and actual practice in the form of attending church services are far closer to the reality of religious adherence and belief in God in the United States:

Then there is the herd effect. In this culture, people are generally reluctant to say they don't believe, or if they are uncertain or their belief is shallow or nominal, they will tend to go with the herd. Starting with the sociologically incompetent mixing of two different concepts in the central question (God vs. "universal spirit"), I see no indication that this survey acknowledged this problem, or attempted to deal with the distortion this would cause. Quite the contrary; the underlying preference seems to be to lump as many of us as possible together in a common identity as "Americans," albeit with a tendency to "tolerance," so that definitive-sounding results can be given.

I'd like to see a survey that acknowledges the herd effect and is clearer about the range of possible answers. Going from these results, it seems to be about one-third of Americans don't really believe in the conventional God but go along with the conventional answer without devoting much thought to it. God isn't a factor in their lives, but they'll express allegiance anyway. Let us recall how atheism in particular has been demonised, and the threats of hellfire from the right. This survey is not taking place in a neutral environment.

Here's another question that's not as clear as the statistics make it seem:

I'm Greek, so to the Orthodox Church I am affiliated even if I don't believe in the religion. On some days I might be inclined -- if a survey called me -- to say I am affiliated, just to see our true numbers reflected against the Anglo-Protestant majority. I'm sure many people, especially nominal Catholics, answered out of this form of team loyalty.

The last question may be closest to the truth, by the way - the 16 percent "unaffiliated" may correlate most closely to the group implicitly telling you they reject religion. You can bet that almost all of the "unaffiliated" grew up in some church or other, or are considered by their own family to be Catholic or Muslim or Protestant, even if they don't think so themselves.

I'd like to see a survey drawn up by atheists and agnostics without a pro-religionist bias, like this one. Hell, I'd like to see one with an anti-religion bias, to see how high our numbers can be pushed when atheists are doing the manipulation!
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