Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday, 25 May 2007

It ain't necessarily so

Based on the average of three surveys of 1000 American adults each over the past three Mays, Gallup’s Frank Newport reports that less than one fifth of Americans think the Bible ‘is an ancient book of "fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man."’ Nearly a third believe it is literally the word of god and a plurality of nearly half think it is somehow divinely inspired.

The good news is that the average of 31% who believe in the most literal interpretation over nine surveys since 1991 is somewhat lower than the average of 38% over the seven surveys between 1976 and 1984, twice reaching 40%.

There is a clear negative correlation between education and superstition. Among those who never started university, 83% believe the Bible has some kind of supernatural origin, while only 13% understand its human origins. Among those who started but didn’t complete university, 81% think it’s divinely inspired, and 19% don’t. Ominously, 73% of college graduates and 68% of those with postgraduate education adopt the superstitious explanation, while only 25% and 30% of these populations respectively accept human authorship.

Perhaps the scariest revelation of all is that 36% of those with ‘no religious identification’ still believe in some kind of non human origin and 10% that the Bible is literally the word of god.

In related polling from the Pew Research Center, in the latest values survey, conducted Dec. 12, 2006-Jan. 9, 2007, the proportion saying ‘Prayer is an important part of my daily life’ has declined since 1999 by a full ten percentage points, from 55% to 45%, still a frightening level, and still above the low in 1987 of 41%. The proportion claiming, ‘I never doubt the existence of god’ has also declined considerably since 1999, from 69% to 61%, and even more dramatically since 1994, when it peaked at 72%!

Furthermore, on Pew’s generational basis, younger generations are becoming more ‘secular’, which Pew defines as calling oneself, atheist, agnostic, or no religion. Only 5% of ‘Pre-boomers’, born before 1946, are secular, as defined. Of the ‘Boomer generation, born 1946-1964, it’s 11%. ‘Generation X’ (1965-76) boasts a secularity rate of 14%, while of the post 1976 ‘Generation Y’, 19% claim to reject religion. Still, that means over four fifths of the most secular generation are still steeped in superstition.

A more encouraging trend, presumably unrelated to the hocus pocus factor, is that the proportion agreeing that ‘the best way to endure peace is through military strength’ has declined to it’s lowest point since 1987, at 49% after a steep decline from the 2002 peak of 62%, while those disagreeing have reached a 20 year high of 47%, up from the 2002 nadir of 34%.

There also appears to be some erosion of ‘conservative’ social attitudes. Sixty-nine percent now say the ‘Government should care for those who can’t care for themselves’, up from a low of 57% in 1994, but still short of the 1987 peak of 71%. A 20 year high, 54%, say the government should help the needy even if means greater debt’, the highest since 1987 after bottoming out at 47% in 1994. The proportion who think ‘school boards should have the right to fire homosexual teachers’ has plummeted by nearly half, 23 percentage points, from a high of 51% in 1987.

While the trajectories on these four indicators may be cause for optimism, it’s important to realise that even in this day and age, over 30% don’t want any government provision ‘for those who can’t care for themselves’, presumably the disabled. Nearly half begrudge ‘the needy’, and a plurality still think that military power is the key to peace.


  1. Being the troublemaker that I am (and the fact that I’m mildly board) I’ll point out that not all of the mutually exclusive options in your article are mutually exclusive.

    For example, there is at least one Christian religious sect that would officially believe that the bible is both divinely inspired and that it has human authorship. The official wording is that it is the word of god as interpreted by man.

    Fortunately, for your statistics, this group is relatively small. On the other hand, this type of view has started to make inroads into other Christian sects.

    Religious views are – how to say this – secularizing. Probably a large number of this religious group would be willing to accept that other holy books were the same – the word of god as interpreted by man – well all those who believe in god.

    To really put a kink into this – this same group has a higher percentage of atheists who are part of it than are found in the general population. (US and Britain have been studied)

    I think that religions are beginning to undergo a fundamental shift that isn’t being caught in traditional statical studies.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Edwin.

    I don’t vouch for Pew’s methods, much less, Gallup’s. I just try to extract some meaning from what they send me. I certainly wouldn’t consider them ‘traditional statistical studies’. When it comes to classification, I don’t really trust anybody and this Gallup Bible survey is a clear case of a classification that doesn’t exhaust the field – a definite no no for a statistical classification. That said, the categories seem to me to be mutually exclusive, as I understand their content.

    On rereading, I confess that my first paragraph could have been clearer. When I wrote, ‘Nearly a third believe it is literally the word of god and a plurality of nearly half think it is somehow divinely inspired’, I didn’t consider that ‘literally the word of god’ could easily be interpreted as a subset of ‘somehow divinely inspired’. In reality, these were separate categories in the Gallup classification. Nor did I provide the numbers that would have illustrated that the three categories sum to 97%. The other 3% are more, I think, than can be accounted for by rounding and probably conceal some sort of residual ‘Other’ category that would accommodate those who consider scripture a manifestation of ‘collective unconscious’ and so forth.

    Gallup’s analysis focused on the group that took the Bible literally. From my perspective, the more significant distinction was between those who rejected any kind of supernatural origin on the one hand and those who thought a supernatural being had some role in its composition, whether it was literally dictating it verbatim, or just inspiring the sentiments that some human agent gave literary form to.

    The sect you mention seems to me to fall neatly into the category that ‘feel that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but not literally so’. And indeed, this was the largest category – 47% overall, 61% among Catholics, and a small plurality for Protestants and ‘Others’, who I think are supposed to represent Evangelicals.

    I have no statistics about this, but impressionistically, religion as we understand it is a social phenomenon and mainstream religion has always been principally a mechanism for social bonding and identification. I don’t think ‘faith’ per se ever had a great deal to do with related factors like attendance at religious ceremonies and observance of religious rituals. So I’d be surprised if these data, especially the Pew data, actually represent further ‘secularisation of religion’. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if 61% of Nineteenth Century Anglicans ‘never doubted the existence of god’, or even less.

    Now there are those who could answer that question in the affirmative and whose definition of ‘god’ is so far from any kind of anthropomorphic supernatural entity that it wouldn’t even offend my delicate sensibilities. And some of them might accept the Judaeo-Christian scriptural canon as a literary expression of some kind of inoffensive numinosity and find themselves in Gallup’s second group. But I think they are an insignificant minority who would probably say the same thing about Lao Tzu and Shakespeare. It really is worrisome that so many feel comfortable confessing to a telephone interviewer that they believe in something they are content to characterise as ‘god’

    But I agree with the Gallup mob that it’s frightening that in the 21st Century the literalists remain such a significant proportion. It seems to me to evidence a real cognitive defect. If religion is for these people some kind of spiritual phenomenon, then aren’t they shooting themselves in the foot conceptually by insisting that their principle spiritual guidebook is nothing more than a bunch of literal facts?

    And it betrays a real failure to come to grips with questions of translation. Apart from extremely mundane technical stuff, it is virtually impossible to translate from one modern language to another. To take a trivial example, while the Turkish word çorba is always translated into English as ‘soup’, and all çorba is in fact soup, not all soup is çorba. Furthermore, there are forms of çorba, like the bland combination of yoghurt and rice, that an English speaker would recognise as a kind of soup, but probably not why anyone would want to eat it. And most English speakers would probably resile from the thought of a breakfast of lentil soup. And that’s just two nouns in two modern ‘western’ languages. The Tongan word ‘‘ofa’, always translated as ‘love’, actually incorporates concepts like filial duty, family and civic responsibility, making suitable contributions to the church, the nobles, and the king, and others that don’t even exist in English.

    Even for those few literalists who actually possess a working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek, how can they be so sure that they understand the literal word of god just as a Bronze Age shepherd would have? In fact, being literalists betrays that they are the very last people who might be able to put themselves into the head of such an alien culture and understand those literal words as they were purportedly intended to be understood. In reality, of course, they are relying on a translation by some person or persons as steeped in their own particular culture as they themselves are and they probably don’t even understad the transaltion in the way the translators intended it. That fourth hand report is the literal word of god that they believe in. And these are the people running the most powerful empire in the history of the planet!

  3. Now there are those who could answer that question in the affirmative and whose definition of ‘god’ is so far from any kind of anthropomorphic supernatural entity that it wouldn’t even offend my delicate sensibilities.

    It really is worrisome that so many feel comfortable confessing to a telephone interviewer that they believe in something they are content to characterise as ‘god’

    It is here that we would disagree. I should make some sort of confession at this point: I consider myself Jewish, and an atheist as well, I am a member of a Christian church. On top of that I am left-handed. I know I am not the only one as someone as a lark posted exactly these characteristics and a few other people piped up and said "me too". I don't know if the page still exists because the site was not maintained when I stumbled upon it.

    Ever since I left the Unitarians because someone made a particularly nasty comment about belief in god that was met with general approval (and probably other reasons as well), and I agreed with it - I have been searching for something. I wasn't happy with my agreement. In this way your comment resonates with my searching. I don't have any answers to you comment, and it still seems to offend my delicate sensibilities. : )

    I do have some thoughts and if your eyes glaze over I won't be offended. At least in part this response is for me. I have tried to deal with this type of issue before with atheists - only to find that the level of hostility was extremely high. Recently I walked the Camino de Santiago; a small part was to discover if it was possible to reconcile myself with Christianity. The answer was no, though I don't feel as hostile to it as I one did.

    John Lennon stated "Imagine there is no religion. It is easy if you try." I have not found it at all easy. I think that our minds gravitate towards religion; that religion is hard wired into us. I really lack the scientific background, and I haven't read anything from people who have the background, but I feel that the culprit is our frontal lobes.

    The idea that one can hold a position religously I think expresses what I am trying to get at. The phrase is not accidental I think. I wonder if it is here that science has managed to go forwards beyond the dogmatism of what is known. When a scientist says, "This is wrong, I feel it." and then spends the rest of his life proving it - is this fundamentally a religious type of response? Now I don't want to be mixing religion and science, as they are very different - with the understanding that feeling it is not enough, it must be proven. Of course one can argue the flip side, perhaps even better. When science has found the answer - like the absolute truth of communism and hence the need to stifle dissent - it has slipped into religion. Imagine there is no religion? I suspect that the answer to that is the Neanderthal who ruled this planet for (what was it) a million years?

    I often find myself coming back to an obscure author, Jane Jacobs. Part of the reason is because of how she thought. She observed and then wrote about what she observed. She was primarily interested in cities. So I can look at something and tie it in directly with what she observed. I guess I deal much better with concrete than abstract. An important aspect of cities is work. So she at one time clipped newspaper articles that covered moral judgements on work. After a while she had a pile of these clippings. She then started to go through the clippings and discovered that she had a real dog's breakfast. They all seemed to contradict each other. Here someone was praised for being deceitful, and here they were going to jail. At some point she realised that she did not have one pile of clippings, but she had two piles. Suddenly they were not contradictory anymore.

    There were a number of startling conclusions. One is that the morality of work consists of a subset of "morality". Things like compassion transcend the morality of work. Another is that the morality of work is absolute, not relative, and that there are two of them. The reason there are two moralities is that we have two fundamental different ways of making a living. One is taking - think hunter gatherers. The other is trading - think farmers for its historical equivalent. This is where the connection comes in with religion and science. Religion is part of taking, I suspect that this is not hard to see. Science is part of trading. The monetary aspect of trading is not really part of the trading of science. Science and religion are not equivalent. They serve very different purposes. The rather odd split that good Christian scientists have is not odd at all, but is required, and that requirement transcends religion.

    Those who take do the type of work associate with governments. Police forces, army, environmental activists, political activists and so forth. Deceit is part of what is morally acceptable here - with some clear limits on who is not to be deceived. An environmental activist may use deceit to help protect old growth forest from being clear cut. A church may use deceit to protect a refugee from being deported back home where they would be tortured. Within the realm of trading, deceit is a problem. Within science this probably is well understood. Within business, it is less well understood because we have allowed it to be violated for so long. One example of the immorality of deceit in business is the melamine scare that currently is being minimised by the government.

    Intelligent Design neatly falls into place as an immoral attempt by those who take to perform the actions of those who trade. To rephrase this - Fundamentalist Christians are attempting to make trading like taking. To expand into the general there is an attempt to make Business run like government or more precisely, science run like religion. Interestingly, the US has a major problem with corporateocracy, which is the attempt to make government run like business. The problems with not understanding business and government seem to permeate all levels of American society. The result is rampant immoral behaviour. The flying spaghetti monster intelligent design is not immoral as it has a very different foundation. In this sense the ID people are correct in opposing the competition from being taught in school. They want immorality to be taught and learned and the flying spaghetti monster ID does not cut it.

    Einstein at one point said that god does not play dice with the universe. This is an immoral statement - in a very minor way. God has no business within science. In the opposite way, science is perfectly correct to say that the probability of a god is very small - vanishingly small. Religion has no moral recourse to protest. This is the realm of science. This should be taught in schools. It is an important part of science and understanding science.

    Einstein was opposed to the atomic bomb. At one point he said something to the effect that if I knew that Germany was not going to get the bomb, I would have not lifted a finger. This statement is not a scientific statement. It is a moral statement, and it exists outside of the scientific realm. Scientists who claim that morality does not enter into science and they should be able to do whatever they want have entered the flip side of ID. One of the roles of those who take is to regulate those who trade. The difference between ID and claiming that building the atomic bomb is an inherently immoral activity is a fine one indeed, but the line is quite real. That line runs along the line of the difference between regulation and attempt to run. The ID folks are attempting to run science. Einstein in the second example is attempting to regulate. Keep in mind that government is not the only regulating body and that scientists are welcome to wear different hats - but when they do so they must be very careful to segregate their activities - just as those good Christian scientists do.

    So religions have a right to make moral pronouncements about the conduct of science - pronouncements that are in effect outside of the activity of science, but they do not have the right to make pronouncements about what science discovers. When looking at policy - it again becomes the prerogative of those who take to create policy. There is nothing wrong with science saying that religious beliefs do not pass scientific muster and that a belief in god is just as likely as the belief in the flying spaghetti monster (and not half as fun because you don't get to dress up like a pirate); and there is noting wrong with a religion saying that doing the science necessary to build weapons of mass destruction is an inherently immoral activity. There is no reason they both can't be right. There is something wrong when religion tries to make scientific rationalisations about their beliefs, and there is something wrong when scientists try to claim that they should regulate themselves - science for science's sake.

    The over-fishing in the Grand Banks provides exactly this conflict outside of the religious sphere. The government cherry picked and second guessed the scientists who were busy sounding alarms with the immoral result that what was once perhaps the richest area of the planet is now practically a desert. The government had as much right to cherry pick and second-guess scientists as the ID folks have.

    The US phrase Checks and Balances I think partially describes one of the functions of religion. Within the sphere of those who govern (or take) there needs to be checks and balances. That is one of the functions of religion within our society. It is quite profound moral statement when a church provides asylum to a refugee that the government wants to deport back home to be tortured. They can offer a check against the tyranny of the majority.

    And so - in an incredibly long-winded response I hope I have conveyed why I am uncomfortable with your uncomforatableness on religion. If you haven't got this far, or if you are thoroughly confused, accept my apologies. It was at least useful to me.

  4. Comment by Tom O'Lincoln on leftwrites (
    and my response:

    Maybe this is a good place to make a few comments on the Richard Dawkins program, of which I watched the first part last week. I went into it assuming I would be a firm Dawkins ally. And of course at one level I am; I obviously have no time for religious dogma.
    But as I watched I felt more and more dissatisfied. He basically told us that religion was to blame for all the world’s problems, whereas I think it’s more the other way round. The problems are more the cause of religious feeling. People turn to faith for consolation because the world is a vale of tears.
    Dawkins is perturbed that support for science seems to be slipping, and I agree this is perturbing. But he seems to think he can win that battle by explaining scientific principles to the benighted masses, and offering them a rationalist critique which shows how confused and contradictory the bible is. I don’t think this is going to work, for reasons Marx spelt out.
    In his most famous discussion of religion Marx wrote first of all that: “For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete”. He wasn’t interested in developing yet another rationalist critique of religion – that had already been done to death. He set himself some very different tasks. “The struggle against religion is …a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.” Marx was interested in the struggle to change society, not just change people’s heads.
    He wanted to understand why – despite all the logical critiques – people clung to faith. He explanation was that “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
    So what is to be done? Now comes this utterly moving passage: “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions… Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that they will wear the chain that is without fantasy or consolation, but so that they will throw it off and pluck the living flower… “
    Just taking away people’s religious illusions leaves them without consolation. That won’t appeal to very many church-goers. We need to offer them a way out.
    Marx continues: “The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”
    This is what’s dangerously missing in Richard Dawkin’s documentary. No wonder he can’t figure out why people cling to religion.
    For many of those American or Middle Eastern fundamentalists we find so unsettling, religion works. It makes them feel some touch of happiness in the vale of tears, in a way (capitalist) science doesn’t. This is the challenge for us.
    Without actually seeing it, I think there are two things missing from Tom’s spot on critique of Dawkins’s doco.

    For one thing, for many of those whose religious beliefs turn them against science, there is a real fundamental conceptual conflict. It’s not just that scientific discoveries contradict a literal interpretation of scripture. It’s that faith is exclusive of and superior to reason. It’s not just particular scientific facts, or even science as a whole, but ‘Secular humanism’ that is the enemy of those who think that the world should be ruled by ‘spiritual values’, by which they mean their own particular literal interpretation of whatever scriptures they happen to like.

    For another, in a neoliberal world, the declining rate of profit has forced the bourgeoisie to reclaim control of every area of the economy where they can extract a profit. This has led, among other things, to the erosion of all kinds of social welfare and safety nets. At the same time, the secular left of all stripes has been going through an extended period of decline. The real, material religious bigots have found themselves a niche providing real, material support for people in distress. It is no coincidence that the people most in need of such material relief are at the same time those most open to the illusory happiness Marx wrote of. And those distributing the material relief are by and large sincere and welcoming. It’s a hard act to follow.

  5. Thanks for sharing that exposition of your dilemma, Edwin. I’m delighted you found it useful to articulate your thoughts here. It was a long comment – nearly 1800 words. And yet it seemed a bit telegraphic. I can’t honestly say I understand where you’re coming from or heading. The ‘taker’/’trader’ distinction doesn’t make any sense to me, nor does couching an argument in terms of morality and rights. I don’t know anything about any spaghetti monsters. Are they like the tooth fairy? It might be something we need to discuss in real time, face to face.

    I gather you are trying to reconcile science and religion in a schema that provides each with a valued place in society. As far as I’m concerned, religion does have a valuable place in society, but it is contingent on the persistence of injustice and oppression. I have copied a comment by my comrade Tom O’Lincoln from the leftwrites site where I think he makes the point very clearly in the context of a discussion of Richard Dawkins’s recent documentary attacking religion. I’ve also included my response to Tom, I think amplifying his points.

    Science of course also has its own social functions. It does not occur in a vacuum, as I think you acknowledge. Political and economic forces determine the compartmentalisation of science into separate disciplines, as well as what kind of research gets published and funded. It’s not coincidental that particular scientific discoveries occur just when they do – they respond to particular social needs.

    Now I don’t actually consider myself an atheist, per se. I think of an atheist as someone who considers whether supernatural beings exist a question worth answering. ‘No religion’ is the box I tick on the Census form.

  6. ernie:

    don't you think you should thank god for having the PRIVILEGE of not needing religion in your life?

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