When I read The Barna Group’s “Most Americans Take Well-Known Bible Stories at Face Value” (which, yes, was a year ago, but it’s not as if there’ve been a lot of great breakthroughs in the field since then), I was not entirely surprised to read that “Americans … remain confident that some of the most amazing stories in the Bible can be taken at face value.”
Given that, as I’ve previously mentioned, the USA appears to be a country in which 21% of the atheists believe in God, it’s not surprising that - to pick one example from the Barna survey - 64% of Americans (or at least of the Americans that the rather preachy Barna Group surveyed…) believe that Moses literally parted the Red Sea.
This, however, is definitely one of those situations where it would have paid for both the people doing the survey and those writing stories about it - presuming they didn’t all just have an axe to grind - to sit down for a probably-unavailable minute and have a little think about exactly what their findings meant.
Since it would appear that they didn’t, let’s do it ourselves, shall we?
Look at that 21%-of-atheists-say-they’re-theists thing, for example. This turns out to be, so far as I can see, an actual, fair, genuine result. 21% of people who clearly said they were atheists also clearly said they believed in a “God or universal spirit”.
That finding is from a
Penthouse Pew Forum survey, which I consider rather more reliable than a Barna one.
Pew, you see, make their methodology and detailed results freely available. There’s a PDF, here, that shows you the actual survey questions, next to the results.
On page 27 of that document, there’s what looks to me like a very fair way to quickly find someone’s religious affiliation or lack thereof, which includes a re-questioning for people who’ve been given the final options “atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular” and chosen the last option, to make sure they actually want to be “nothing in particular”, and not atheist or agnostic.
You can never make a survey question perfect; in this case there’s the problem of people who, like me, hold the considered opinion that gods do not exist (atheism), but accept our own fallibility and thus admit that we might be wrong (agnosticism), however improbable that may be. We therefore tick the “atheist” box, but if later on we’re asked whether we think there’s the slightest possibility that gods may exist, we’ll say yes, like an agnostic.
But the Pew survey is about as good as a quick multiple-choice test is ever going to be.
In the rest of the main “topline” document they roll all of the Unaffiliateds together into one line, which presumably explains why seventy per cent of that category actually report belief in a God or universal spirit (page 44), and 36% of them (page 45) say they’re absolutely certain that said entity exists, neither of which beliefs are at all compatible with atheism or agnosticism.
You can get a nice detailed separate table that breaks down all of the religions (PDF), though. That table shows you that 515 people, 10.2 per cent of the 5048 “Unaffiliated” respondents, said they were atheists.
Taken all together, this indicates that the Pew Forum aren’t getting their “21% of atheists believe in god” result by subterfuge.
Pew’s main “topline” document doesn’t break Unaffiliated out into Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Unaffiliated and Religious Unaffiliated in its tables, presumably to make them clearer. But it does not appear that they’re pulling a statistical fast one by, for instance, rolling all of the responses from Unaffiliateds together and then just declaring 10.2% of those responses to have been from atheists, even if none of the atheists actually reported belief in a deity.
No, it really does seem that about 108 people that Pew surveyed clearly declared themselves to be atheists, and then clearly professed belief in a god of some sort.
That doesn’t, of course, make a blind bit of sense. Atheism is not a religion, just as baldness is not a hairstyle and no car in the driveway is not a kind of car in the driveway. But it’s not the survey-givers’ job to educate people about terminology. If you want to say you’re an atheist who believes in a god, they’ll write your answer down like everyone else’s, even if that answer indicates that you’re ignorant, nuts or a prankster. Fair enough.
Now, let’s look at the Barna Group’s survey.
Oh, wait a minute, we can’t. They’ll be happy to sell us umpteen books about being a better Christian or their copyrighted Christian Leader Profile test, but I can find no trace on their site of even the opportunity to buy a copy of any of their actual survey questions and results.
So now we’re in the woods. Who knows what questions Barna actually asked, and what answers people actually gave?
With the right survey, you can get people to say pretty much anything you want. You can even influence their beliefs. (”What effect would it have on your vote if you were to discover that Candidate Smith is a child molester?”)
Like Sir Humphrey persuading Bernard that he both supports and opposes reintroducing conscription, the framing of the questions makes all the difference. Especially when you’re asking people about things that they don’t actually think about much, or even care about much, like whether David actually killed Goliath.
As anyone working in this field knows, you have to take considerable care, even if you’re scrupulously honest, to make sure that the meaning of your questions, and the meaning of the respondents’ answers, is clear.
Stop people coming out of a church, for instance, and ask them if they believe in the Immaculate Conception. Most of them - Catholic or Protestant - will probably say that they do. So you can tick down ninety-whatever-percent on your survey and then issue a press release saying that belief in that doctrine is very strong, hurrah.
What most of the people will have thought you were asking, though, is whether Jesus was born of a virgin. The Catholic Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually states that Mary was born free of original sin, on account of how Jesus could not be incubated in the wicked womb of a normal woman, and if she weighs more than a duck she’s a witch.
Your average rank-and-file dozes-through-the-sermon churchgoer is somewhat unlikely to know this. Your non-churchgoing ticks-the-box-marked-Christian person on the street is very unlikely to know.
So if I were running a survey like the Barna one, then apart from making sure I released the questions and not just digests of the alleged answers, I’d also make very clear exactly what stories I was asking about, without just using common names that people often misinterpret.
(To be fair, the Barna survey probably generally did that; there’s not a lot of room for error when you’re asking about stories like Jonah and the whale or Daniel and the lions’ den.)
But I’d also scatter in a few Bible-ish stories that were actually made up just for the survey. Jesus… blessing the fields… of the Moabites, say.
If respondents say they believe stories that not even Dan Brown ever mentioned - as, I bet, many of them would - then clearly people’s statements of belief in the other stories should be taken with a large grain of salt.
The Barna survey press releases do, however, tell you something about George Barna, who is I think representative of a peculiar movement in American Christianity. This press release about the Bible-story survey manages to restrict its preachiness to a “Reflections on the Data” section, but the one I mentioned earlier contains a number of places where George expresses the strangely popular, and reliable-like-clockwork, belief that Christianity in the USA (and elsewhere!) is “under siege”.
“…While the level of literal acceptance of these Bible stories is nothing short of astonishing given our cultural context…”, for instance, and earlier on “Surprisingly, the most significant Bible story of all - ‘the story of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, after being crucified and buried’ - was also the most widely embraced.”
Outside observers may find this slightly bizarre, since Christianity in the USA is obviously massively dominant…
…and Christians who don’t believe (or at least say they believe) that Jesus was resurrected are pretty hard to find.
But there’s also no shortage of talking heads eager to opine that the evil forces of secularism are constantly gaining ground in their unholy mission to re-name trees with lights on them, and so on.
To be fair, Barna goes on to say (in the third person…) that the real problem is that all of the nominal Bible-believing which his who-knew-what-it-asked survey discovered doesn’t translate to much in the way of actual “Christian” acts. So I suppose that’s the grain of rationality within the “Christianity under siege” belief; that lots of people say they’re Christians, but you can’t find a lot of true Christians among them.
But, again, this doesn’t seem very surprising to anybody who accepts the not-too-hard-to-support point of view that Christianity is just another major religion, which the overwhelming majority of adherents use not to lead them into the light, but to justify whatever they wanted to do anyway. Yes, believing the Bible ought to lead to defined-by-Barna-as-”Christian” behaviour. But no remotely sensible reader of the New Testament could possibly conclude that Jesus would find it acceptable for you to drive a Lexus to church - and yet “prosperity theology” has sprung up to bridge the gap.
Similarly, the idea of karma ought, you would think, to lead people to good behaviour. But instead, your average Hindu-in-the-street is quite likely to believe that karma means that miserable beggars, children raped by their parents, or any other unfortunates you care to name, are suffering righteous punishment for bad deeds in a past life. And, again, that the prosperous deserve their prosperity, for surely god(s) would not have given the rich so much money if it were not their just reward.
All of this makes sense, if you don’t think there’s One True Religion that should guide its followers to be obviously better people than those who’ve foolishly been raised in some other, fictional faith. But to people like Barna, who believe that their particular religious variant is that one special phone-line to God, the entirely ordinary behaviour of their fellow believers can only be explained by the evil actions of external forces, besieging the chosen of God and leading - nay, forcing - them away from the righteous path they’d otherwise obviously choose to follow.
Adding fake-Bible-story questions to the survey could have helped Barna out, because it would have given him a chance to claim that people of disappointing morality who believe that David fought Goliath, but also believe that Josiah, um, washed the Pharaoh’s feet, clearly do not in fact know much about Christianity and could therefore not be expected to be particularly righteous.
Adding fake stories, though, could also have measured the credophilia - indiscriminate collection of beliefs - that lies at the core of a lot of religions.
If your religion says that faith by itself is a virtue, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up with a bunch of people who’ll believe almost anything. And who’ll think that holding those beliefs, without doing anything else in particular, is enough to get you into heaven.