Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Most Americans believe in something: surprise, surprise!

A recent Gallup poll indicates that just over 90% of Americans believe in “God.” The headline on the poll says that quite clearly: “More Than 9 in 10 Americans Continue to Believe in God.”

What isn’t immediately clear is two things. One is that the already vague, non-specific concept “god,” has been supplemented with two other vague, non-specific concepts and affirmation in any of them is then rolled together to get the 9-in-10 figure. For instance, people are also asked if they believe in a “universal spirit,” which is even more non-specific than the term “god.” Also included in this figure are all people who believe in a “higher power.” Higher than what?

Does this mean higher than them? Higher than me? Higher than you? Higher than humans? Would potentially more evolved species living elsewhere in the universe, which is possible, count as well?

These are rather vague concepts. Ask people if they believe in “good government” and you will get widespread agreement. Ask them if they believe in specific policies and you get widespread disagreement. The vague “good government” concept gets widespread support because it is left undefined. When offered other, even more obtuse terms, beside the “god” term, we discover that the 9-in-10 figure drops to 8 in 10. Then 80% say they believe in a god, while 12% opt for universal spirit.

And, among these believer there is actually rather widespread doubt. We see 90% drop to 80% and if you ask people if they are convinced (by what?) there is a god, the figure goes to 73%.

What Gallup doesn’t do is ask people what kind of god, or which god it is they believe in. At that point the shit would really hit the fan. Mormons think they will becomes gods themselves through the secret rituals of the Mormon Temple—cheap rip-offs of Masonic rituals that Joseph Smith borrowed. That is a very different view of “god” than you get from Christians. Fundamentalists are adamant that Jesus is God. Jews tend to disagree, as do Muslims. New Agers might argue we are all god, and god is everything, and thus nothing in specific. A “higher power” could be something as non-supernatural as having a positive attitude.

This reveals the second major issue with the poll. By using vague concepts the poll hides the deChristianizing of America. The American Religious Identification Survey, in 1990, found that 86% of Americans said they were Christians. By 2008 that had dropped to 70%, and many of them are not Christian in their personal theology.

In 1944, if you asked the “god” question, a good number of Americans meant the Christian god. Many meant Jesus specifically, but at least all meant him or “God the Father.” A small percentage meant Jehovah of the Old Testament. Very few meant Buddha, Allah, Krishna, etc. What we have seen is a lot of Americans moving away from Christian theology to more vague concepts of spirituality, including a large number embracing a relatively non-theistic belief in positive thinking or mental energy of some sort.

Previous polls indicate that around 60% of Americans believe in a personal God, that is a God that is similar to Christian concept of God.

The belief in “a something,” which is what the Gallup poll comes down to, hides the growing number of Americans who reject religion while still believing is this “something.” Somewhere between 15% and 20% of Americans now lack a religion. And 27% have said they don’t want a religious funeral when they die.

Another flaw in the poll is that Gallup people give a false alternative. They write: “The percentages who more definitively say there is no God are general 6% or 7%...” But an atheist is merely someone who lacks a belief in a god. They may say there is no god and do so with certainty, or they may simply say they have no such belief without asserting the other.

This atheist does not say there is “no god” because the term is so non-specific I am sure I have not heard every definition that could apply. I do believe the Christian god does not exist and cannot exist because I find it a self-contradictory concept. I would say the same for Allah. But having not explored every imaginary concept of god possible I can’t speak to them, and don’t. Of the concepts I’ve heard, I reject all of them, including the flying spaghetti monster.

The worst aspect of the poll isn’t that it is asking about such a vague concept as a god, spirit, or higher power, but how the Religious Right misuses the data. I regularly hear them crow that 90% of Americans believe in god. From that they quickly switch to the Christian God, then, more specifically, they try to tie that God into their political agenda. This is bait-and-switch a couple times over.

That all said, there is one important thing to remember: whether or not a being called a god exists or not is most certainly not determined by public opinion polls. If he doesn't exists, even 100% belief figures will not cause him to come into existence. If he does exist, then even 0% belief doesn't not negate his existence. Things exist separate from our belief that they do. There are billions of planets that none of us know about or "believe" in, at least not in any specific way. Yet they are out there. If you have cancer cells growing in your body, they will continue to grow even if you don't believe they are there.