The survey is being (slightly) lauded as demonstrating increasing tolerance within America. Before we become alarmed (if you are an evangelical) or encouraged (if you think Americans are becoming more tolerant) I question how the survey was conducted.
See, the survey also concluded 21% of people who identify themselves as atheists believe there is a god. Yep, that’s right. 1 in 5 atheists (according to the survey) say, “I am an atheist. I believe there is a god.” Something doesn’t add up.
And no, “atheist” was not a catch-all phrase. The agnostics were separated out, of whom 55% believe there is a god, and the “secular unaffiliated” were also separated out, of whom 66% believe there is a god.
To further demonstrate how odd the results appear, 6% of people who say they are atheists, and 14% of people who say they are agnostic, stated they believed in a personal god! Not only that they believe in some general notion of “god,” but a particular description of one! Now, it may seem as if I am dangerously approaching the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. We are all quite familiar with “No True Christian.” I don’t want to say these folks are “No True Atheist”—but I would sure like an explanation of what they think the word “atheist” means by saying they are atheist and believe in a personal god!
So I looked at how the question was asked. Enlightenment:
Q.16 What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?[emphasis in original]
INTERVIEWER: IF R VOLUNTEERS“nothing in particular, none, no religion, etc.” BEFORE REACHING END OF LIST, PROMPT WITH: “and would you say that’s atheist, agnostic, or just nothing in particular?”
From Data (Note: PDF File.)
You can see exactly what was happening. The person being interviewed was getting bored with the survey and launched out the quickest answer. We can imagine the conversation:
Interviewer: What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mor--
Interviewee: [impatiently] Oh, I am not one religion in particular.
Interviewer: [following instructions] “and would you say that’s atheist, agno--”
Interviewee: [impatiently] Atheist, I guess.
The person was marked down “atheist” and later, when the question of what type of god they believed in came up, they said, “a personal god.” No one ever thought to ask, “Does this line up?”
In a local Judge’s chamber there is a picture of a cake from a certain bakery. On the cake is the following message:
“Good Luck, Betty
“Best Wishes from all.
Likewise we can imagine THAT conversation:
Person: We would like to order a cake.
Bakery: What do you want on it?
Person: ‘Good Luck, Betty,’ and underneath that, ‘Best Wishes from all.’