Drilling down for doubt: The latest Pew suvery on religion

The Pew Forum surveys on what Americans think always churn out fascinating results. The latest one, released Monday, is no exception. My favorite tidbit emerges from the clever decision to drill down past the simple question of whether the recipient believes in god to a more sophisticated understanding.

Of particular interest on the Island of Doubt is the question of just how certain are people of faith about what they believe. The answer, which is drawn from 34,000 Americans polled, is that only 71 % are absolutely certain that their god exists. The means the other 29 % harbor some degree of doubt as to whether there's any point to it all. As only 8 % percent call themselves atheists, that leaves a lot of confused people out there.

More puzzling is the finding that 21 percent of US atheists nevertheless believe in God. What the frak? Maybe it's only fair. If theists can be confused about their belief, why shouldn't some atheists be confused about their lack of belief?

But there's some genuinely uplifting data in the survey, including the news that surprising large shares of each major denomination's faithful believe theirs is not the only path to salvation. And this gem, which implies deism didn't die with Thomas Jefferson:

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.

Browse the user-friendly online report here. Most curious.

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I think that weird 21% figure is due to people being confused how to represent their beliefs. In particular many people are confused over what the terms atheist, agnostic and so forth actually mean. A lot of the questions for religious people seem problematic since many of the categories don't exactly fit every religion's theology. The surveyers usually do the cop out of "what answer best fits" but that's hugely problematic if none of them fit well.

'Confused' is probably the wrong word to describe those who aren't absolutely certain about the existence/non-existence of a god. 'Uncertain' is a much better choice (indeed, uncertainty might well be a marker for clarity rather than confusion).

By bob koepp (not verified) on 24 Jun 2008 #permalink

Twenty percent are confused? I hope it's more that twenty percent have actually thought about it. It's not much of a hope.

One problem is that people think of faith as meaning "belief without proof", which is delusional. But what about a faith that has a bit of skepticism thrown in? For example, if one interprets the Bible literally, then one is led to wacky conclusions like "incest is OK", "murdering the children of your enemies is OK", and so on. And there's very little behavior that can't be justified. Jesus knew this, and talked in a way that encourages people to think for themselves.

The passing of George Carlin has brought some of his stuff on line for your viewing pleasure. For example, Google "george carlin religion". Even if you don't agree, he's seriously funny.

I answered a survey (one of 4 recommended by the Sam Harris website) and one question was: Do you believe that religion has done more harm than good for humanity? I answered that I neither agreed nor disagreed.

I think that if it came with a time line I could answer it better. I have come to think that religion has been so prevalent to humans that it must have had some benefit or it would be gone by now. But I think moving forward, it has hit its "diminishing returns" phase.

I use Pew results often when formulating my next generalization about people, so from that creeky stand point its useful.

By dogheaven (not verified) on 24 Jun 2008 #permalink

I'm not saying they are necessarily confused about their beliefs rather I'm suggesting they are confused by the terminology. A subtle but important difference.