June 06, 2005

Silly, silly poll on religion

Writing about web page http://wid.ap.org/polls/050606religion.html

So, some people are raving and ranting about the results of a new poll by AP.

Most of this is stating the complete bleeding obvious. Of course the US is more religious than Canada and the UK and stuff. But some of the claims being made by the poll are pretty silly. And if you look carefully, you will find that the poll was in fact badly done.

The specifically dubious claim is that:

Nearly all U.S. respondents said faith is important to them, and only 2 per cent said they do not believe in God.

Now, let's dig up the actual results:

Now, they've all focused on that first single entry:

  • I don't believe in God.

But check out some of the other entries:

  • I don't know whether there is a God, and I don't believe there is a way to find out.

  • I don't believe in a personal God, but I believe there is a higher power of some sort.

  • Not sure.

By the definition of belief, all of the above in fact qualify as not believing in God. If you don't know whether X exists, obviously you don't believe in its existence. You just don't believe in it's non-existence either. And an impersonal God is indistinguishible from a natural law – many scientists, such as Einstein, believed for example in the universality of a natural order, and they don't believe in God. And if you are not sure what you believe in, how can you make the positive statement that you believe in God?

Here's the thing. Implicit in the question was the definition of 'not believing in God' as 'believing in the absence of God'. Now, this is an incredibly strong and irrational statement to make, and the vast majority of self-declared atheists would not agree with it. No scientist worth his/her salt would dare make such a statement.

That's why it is hugely misleading for the above ranters to treat this latest poll as proof of the end of secularism in the US, or whatever. Rest assured, fellow comrades, there is still some sanity in the old US of A.

- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Mathew Mannion

    I'm not sure I read that completely correctly, but are you saying that if the whole of America believed in God, they would be insane?

    06 Jun 2005, 21:42

  2. Peter Thomas

    95% of statistics are absolutely right.

    06 Jun 2005, 22:31

  3. Tongue in cheek, of course.

    Though if the whole of however many million people ALL believed in the same thing, be it God, or whatever, then the situation would be rather worrying. The 2% figure they quoted, contrasted with the consistent 15-odd percent we've been having in previous polls, would suggest a drastic increase in 'believers'. I mean, really staggering. Something like that can't be healthy.

    07 Jun 2005, 00:23

  4. Andy Baxter

    Even if 70% of people believe that X exists, there's still the question of what is it that they believe X is, which might not be the same for all of them – it's just a word people say to mean that they take their faith from some kind of (monotheistic) religious teaching rather than some other source.

    20 Sep 2005, 01:35

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