Cognitive Daily

Things got a little crazy yesterday, with Greta headed off to VSS and the kids needing to be at three different places at once, so I’m presenting this week’s Casual Friday results on Saturday.

Last week we asked our readers who their most important mentors were. We didn’t mention it at the time, but the survey was inspired by the headlines that week about Barack Obama’s pastor’s seemingly unpatriotic sermons, and how those sermons reflected on Obama. Do pastors really have a huge influence on people’s lives? Can we actually evaluate a presidential candidate based on something his pastor says?

By asking our readers who their most important mentors are, we thought we might get a better picture of what the actual role of a mentor is. Of course, our readers might not have the same religious background as the average American, so we also asked about religious preferences. Here are the results:


Less than a quarter of our respondents indicated being a part of a monotheistic religion, and almost 60 percent say they are atheist or agnostic. A quick search online shows that result to be dramatically different from the American population, which is generally reported to be about 85 percent Christian and less than 1 percent atheist/agnostic. Nonetheless, as a highly educated law-school graduate, Obama could be considered to be more like our readers than the general population, so perhaps our results do have some relevance for how we might expect his pastor to influence him. So let’s take a look at who our readers think their most important mentors are.

We asked our readers to rate the influence of their most important mentors across three different dimensions: career, personal, and moral. We also broke the mentors themselves into several different categories. In each case, the mentors were rated on a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (extremely important). Here are the results:


As you can see, clergy rated at the bottom of the chart in each dimension of mentoring, significantly lower than even “other,” when averaged across all of our 302 respondents. Our respondents rated teachers highest as career mentors (though not significantly higher than “colleagues”), friends highest as personal mentors, and parents highest as moral mentors.

But perhaps it’s not fair to include atheists and agnostics in the results. Let’s consider just the respondents who indicated having a monotheistic religion:


Clergy rated a little higher, but still were among the least important mentors in every dimension, even Moral. Five of the nine mentor types were rated as more important than clergy for morals, and four of these differences were statistically significant. The most important mentors for religious people were the same as for atheists/agnostics: Teachers were the most important career mentors, friends the most important personal mentors, and parents the most important moral mentors. This pattern is also the same when we look at atheists and agnostics separately.

So what does account for the differences in mentor importance? We also asked our readers about their level of education, and once again found the same pattern of most-important mentors. However, the relative importance of some mentor types did change as education level changed:


The lower your level of education, the less important teachers are as mentors, and the more important clergy is. But even at the lowest levels of education, teachers were significantly more important as mentors than clergy for our readers.

We also took a quick look at gender. Friends and teachers were more important as mentors for women than for men. In general, women seemed to value mentors more than men, even though there were no education or religious belief differences between women and men.

Finally, some readers were curious about the question where we asked about strength of belief. Some atheists and agnostics were reluctant to say they “believed” in those philosophies. So here is a graph showing the relationship between religion and strength of belief. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.



  1. #1 Stagyar zil Doggo
    May 10, 2008

    As you say, Obama may be more like your readers compared to the general American population. But there’s a very important distinction. He’s described himself as having converted from Agnosticism/Atheism to Monotheistic Christianity. The person who guided him through this change of world view would, by any measure, count as very influential indeed in his life.

  2. #2 bg
    May 10, 2008

    That may be true for some, but I converted to neo-paganism from being agnostic a few years back, yet I can’t say that anyone influential from that time in my life actually speaks for me or my personal/political/religious beliefs. Quite the contrary, actually, and, like Obama, I’ve had to distance myself from them. Obama strikes me as the type who can think and speak quite well for himself and that’s one of the reasons why I like him so darned much. I’d be much more worried if he struck me as the type that had a Moral Identity.

  3. #3 CG
    May 10, 2008

    Fair enough. But there’s a big difference between you belief in neo-paganism and Obama’s belief in Monotheistic Christianity.

  4. #4 Becca
    May 10, 2008

    Reverend Wright was not necessarily responsible for Obama’s change from Atheist/Agnostic to Monotheistic Christianity. From Obama’s book, it sounded like what really forced him to alter his stance was at least as much about the way organized religous groups were improving people’s lives than about their world view/philosophy.

    Of course, there’s also the matter of whether Wright’s comments are
    1) a dangerous and devisive rhetoric that will prevent people from working together for change, or
    2) a spirited indictment of a society that already is deeply divided and continues to systematically exploit it’s most vulnerable members.
    Or whether his comments are both, and reflect a flawed human attempting to lead a moral life of service… in which case, I’m not sure it would be a problem if Obama *did* view him as a source of moral guidance.

  5. #5 James
    May 10, 2008

    I don’t think the last graph is particularly surprising – the higher your level of education the more likely it becomes that your peers will be teachers, so I’d expect some sort of friends / colleagues boost occurring. Conversely if you’ve left school early then a member of the clergy is probably going to fill that ‘professional’ mentoring role as contact with teachers would become minimal.

    On a slight aside I’d also guess that people turn to clergy as a method of last resort in rarer situations, in the sense that they want/need advice on something that they don’t wish friends or relatives to know about. That would probably skew percieved importance as mentors, but I’d also imagine that in those situations what and how the clergy advises them is going to have a bigger impact than the day-to-day stuff might. (?)

  6. #6 Emily
    May 11, 2008

    Oh those agnostics! So moderate and even-handed even with regard to belief in their own agnosticism!

  7. #7 majolo
    May 11, 2008

    This is tangential, but where do you get “less than 1 percent atheist/agnostic” (in the US population) from? The Pew forum on Religion and the Public Life has 1.6% atheist, 2.4% agnostic (and 12.1% “nothing in particular”).

  8. #8 minusRusty
    May 12, 2008

    I’m bettin’ he meant to say less than 10 percent…

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    May 12, 2008

    No, I meant to say less than 1 percent. But as I said, I just did a quick search online. This is the study I found.

    Whether it’s 4 percent atheist/agnostic or 1 percent, it’s still a huge difference from our group.

  10. #10 Dhea Quasim
    May 12, 2008

    I wonder why there is such a large proportion of atheist respondents?

  11. #11 Abhishek Upadhya
    May 12, 2008

    Nice work. Very meticulously done. But I’ve a fundamental doubt on the nature of results. Your readers, as you truly claim are above average,well learned than the general american,and probably global population as well. Which is obvious considering the knowledge-intensive topics that you write about. Hence there is a finite and a significant probability that These readers, even when uninformed about the purpose of this seemingly out-of-the-blue religious survey, might envisage the possibility that you might be thinking on some lines pertaining to obama and the pastor. I’ll be considered immature if i extend this to the majority of your respondents. But it is highly possible that a good set of thinking minds set about downplaying the role of the clergy, in the whole poll. As i mentioned before, i’m not questioning your results. Being an atheist myself, i’d agree with the top mentors chosen by your readers. But in the case, that what i propose, is true, then the authenticity of online polling in supra-intellectual contexts might not be advisable. Every one loves conspiracy theories. Just a passing thought…

  12. #12 minusRusty
    May 12, 2008

    Whether it’s 4 percent atheist/agnostic or 1 percent, it’s still a huge difference from our group.

    No doubt. Even at a 10% level, it would be.

  13. #13 botogol
    May 15, 2008

    >>From Obama’s book, it sounded like what really forced him to alter his stance was at least as much about the way organized religous groups were improving people’s lives than about their world view/philosophy.

    That’s interesting: it sounds a little like Dan Dennet’s idea of people having not so much belief as ‘belief in belief’

    Personally I wonder of Barack was also influenced just a teeny-weeny bit by the improvement in his chances of becoming President that undoubtedly followed when he found his god.

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