Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Numbers: I've got good news and bad

According to this 2006 Newsweek article, "The New Naysayers," before the 9/11 attacks a 1999 Gallup poll had showed 49 percent of the American public would have been willing to vote for an atheist, by 2006 it had dropped to 37 percent. Now, according to the latest Newsweek poll, it's down to 29 percent. (It would have been interesting to see if “agnostic” or “secularist” or "humanist" produced a different percentage.)

Those results seem to contradict this Feb. 9-11, 2007 Gallup poll where atheists score 45 percent, only dropping 3 points, which is still the lowest rating.

If the Newsweek numbers are the accurate ones it suggests to me that Chris Mooney is on to something with his framing argument. In a column in the Washington Post Mooney and Matthew Nisbet suggested that atheists who want to support better science education should stop defending atheism and just promote the idea that science and religious faith are compatible in order to appease a mostly religious public. So what is the connection between science education and not voting for an atheist presidential candidate?

It's the reason's why an increasing number of people are saying they wouldn't vote for an atheist. From the naked bigotry of Chuck Norris to the veiled bigotry of Mitt Romney saying "We need to have a person of faith lead the country," (and he received a standing ovation from his audience for saying it) religious folk are finding atheism as increasingly threatening as atheists find the irrationalities of religion to be.

Mooney and Nisbet said things like:
Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public's beliefs? Can't science and religion just get along? A "science and religion coexistence" message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.
There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the "mechanisms and evidence" of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

That article and others created a huge web debate, here's a link catalog of all the back and forth, because Mooney and Nisbet seemed to be recommending that atheists should shut up about our convictions, or say things we did not really believe. I don't think that's what they meant. Rather, sometimes the subject of religion is brought up when it's neither appropriate or useful to do so. And often it's broached in a way where we choose to be threatening.

Atheism is not the solution to all problems. I can't see that subject being appropriate or useful when talking about global warming, tax policy, immigration reform or most science subjects. The only thing that might make it appropriate is if someone started using their religion to justify a position on those issues in the same way they use it to justify a position on evolution and abortion. Unfortunately groups like the Discovery Institute were framing their attack on evolution in terms of its effect of promoting "atheism" and then attacking atheism long before Richard Dawkins wrote "The God Delusion," and before Sam Harris wrote "The End of Faith." The only proper response to such attacks on atheism has always been to defend atheism itself.

While there certainly are scientists, like Francis Collins, who can harmonize their knowledge of science and evolution with their evangelical Christianity, I don't find their arguments for this any good. Neither does Sam Harris who reviews Collins' book here. And people like Collins might even join in the attack against atheism and just deny evolution or science should lead to such a conclusion.

Obviously, telling people they are deluding themselves with a dangerous and outdated superstition is not a good way to get them to agree with you or vote for you. I don't doubt that the sinking support for atheists in politics is in part due to the increasingly negative view of religion modern atheists are expressing in books like Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" and Christopher Hitchens' "God in not Great." This attitude is not really all that new, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken were saying similar things long ago. What's new is its popularity. I was writing similar things over a decade ago and no one cared. Neither were George H. Smith and Douglas E. Krueger selling as well as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are today and one could argue the older books are better.

At the same time that more people are disinclined to vote for an atheist, the numbers of atheists in America are increasing, if only slightly. In this article linked here there are links to polls showing a drop in God belief:
The latest study found that 86 percent of American adults believe in God which is a drop from 90 percent in 2004 and in 2001.

The Barna group gets somewhat different numbers than Newsweek, because they ask different questions, and they show atheists/agnostics/no-faith at 9 percent of the population. Look again at where the latest Newsweek poll asked "Do you believe in God?" and 91 percent, supposedly, say yes and then you add Barna group's 9 to that to get 100. On the Newsweek poll you have to call yourself and atheist to be one of the 3 percent of atheists on their poll.

Are these numbers accurate? Something that might not be taken into account by polls that uses landline telephones exclusively is that many younger, high tech savvy, atheists drop off landlines and opt to use cell phones only.

This article, "How Serious the Cell Phone Only Problem," suggests that standard polling techniques might be skewing against atheists. It does affect polling data by enough to affect landline only polls. Cell-phone-only users are markedly different than landline users. They're younger, less likely to be married, and less likely to be a homeowner than adults with landline telephones. More than 25% of those under age 30 use only a cell phone. An analysis of young people ages 18-25 in one of the Pew polls found that the exclusion of the cell-only respondents resulted in significantly lower estimates of this age group's approval of alcohol consumption and marijuana use.

It could possibly also result in an under-estimation of atheism. And I also wonder if atheists might not want to waste time on a 20 minute survey using up valuable cell phone minutes?

This kind of result: Poll: 56% of atheists find radical Christianity as threatening as radical Islam might be attributed to the books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Also from that blog:
We’re 9% of the overall population — but 14% of 23-41-year-olds and 19% of 18-22-year-olds. And contrary to popular wisdom, those numbers don’t appear to decline significantly as people age. They’ve held relatively constant over the past 15 years.

Or, as expressed here, on the site:

One of the most fascinating insights from the research is the increasing size of the no-faith segment with each successive generation. The proportion of atheists and agnostics increases from 6% of Elders (ages 61+) and 9% of Boomers (ages 42-60), to 14% of Busters (23-41) and 19% of adult Mosaics (18-22). When adjusted for age and compared to 15 years ago, each generation has changed surprisingly little over the past decade and a half. Each new generation entered adulthood with a certain degree of secular fervor, which appears to stay relatively constant within that generation over time. This contradicts the popular notion that such generational differences are simply a product of people becoming more faith-oriented as they age.

What seems to be happening is an increasing polarization of American society along religious lines.

The forces of reason are winning at present. Atheist books are climbing the bestseller lists. Intelligent design was beaten down in the courts. Creationists and their allies have been routed on all fronts. The religious right was trounced in the last elections and Rick Santorum was cast out. The Republican party is now in a state of disarray.

Another aspect of the growing atheism that might be negative:
One of the most significant differences between active-faith and no-faith Americans is the cultural disengagement and sense of independence exhibited by atheists and agnostics in many areas of life. They are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%), to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%), to describe themselves as “active in the community” (41% versus 68%), and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%). They are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.

I don't think the cultural disengagement reported here is a good thing, voting, volunteer to help non-profit organizations, being “active in the community” and personally helping people around you are important forms of social capital and social capital matters.

This is where we form social networks and how a community establishes the norms of reciprocity associated with life in the community. It's a measure of the quality of collective life, people getting together and trying to improve the communities where they live.

Is this who we really are, socially disengaged loners? Or is that just what it takes to stand up to the social pressures imposed by religious communities? Will it change as our numbers grow? Maybe the impression this survey wants to leave us with isn't correct? A commentator reminded me that the Barna Group, whose goal is "to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States" toward fundamentalist Christianity, were comparing atheists/agnostics/no-faiths with "active faith" Christians. The key word here is "active." "Active faith" was defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey. There were 20 million no-faith adults and 58 million active-faith Christians and that leaves a big gap full of "non-active" Christians. That means that there's a strong selection bias working here, those who go to church are more engaged in the community than are others who call themselves Christian.

If a survey were to compare atheists who are actively engaged in with groups like "American Atheists" to all those who call themself Christian they might have gotten similar but opposite results. This might represent an element of dishonesty in the design and analysis of their survey.

But if it's not a design flaw, one way to check on whether atheists remain these supposedly socially disengaged loners is to see if the pattern continues in countries where atheism is more common, like Sweden, where atheists don't have to stand up against the social pressures.

I'll have to look into this in future posts, but in the meantime I found this site, a Book Summary of Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society. Here's what they say about Sweden:
Sweden is at least a partial exception to this trend. While many forms of traditional social capital are declining in Sweden, there is little evidence of damage to Swedish democracy. Indeed, Sweden seems to be on the cutting edge of new forms of social capital, and in some cases (such as unions) it has experienced virtually no drop in traditional forms. This has been attributed, in part, to its strong welfare state as "Sweden (along with its Scandinavian neighbors) leads the world not only in many measures of social capital, but also in public spending and taxation." Japan is another exception, with stable and in some cases rising civic engagement. Even more surprising, unlike all the other countries studied here, and in opposition to most literature on social capital, in Japan social participation is higher among less-educated groups.

I offer you no answers, no speculation, just a question: Where are we really going?


brtkrbzhnv said...

Re: the social disengagement: They were comparing atheists with "active faith" Christians; I think the key word here is active; i.e. these are people who go to church on a regular basis, so there's a strong selection bias working here: of course those who go to church are more engaged in the community than are people in general.

They'd have probably gotten similar but opposite results if they'd compared atheists who regularly go to atheist clubs with theists in general. Because of this enormous flaw in design and analysis, I think the survey is pretty much totally uninteresting except for the age data. Also: the bias may be explained by the fact that the survey was designed by the Barna Group, whose ultimate objective is "to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States" toward fundamentalist Christianity.

normdoering said...

brtkrbzhnv wrote:
They were comparing atheists with "active faith" Christians; I think the key word here is active;

Good point! I missed that distinction. They said "Active faith" was defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey. As far as size goes, there are 20 million no-faith adults and 58 million active-faith Christians and that leaves a big gap full of "non-active" religious people.

I'll have to edit in your insights eventually.