Buy 'Godless in America'
Buy 'mere atheism'
My Blog/What's New
To the religious
Irreconcilable Differences
A violation by prayer
Answering atheism's critics
Arguing the inarguable
Baloney detection
Sagan remembered
Capitol gods, historical fictions
Chance, Karma, etc
Columbine: 5 years after
Thoughts on abortion
Divine fictions
Dueling billboards
Economic cold turkey
Election reforms
Excommunicating reason
Finding the line
The First and the 10
Freedom of the press
Friday night at Curry's
From the shores of Tripoli
Garbled 'God'
Genes don't care
Fooled again?
The Gifts We Give
'God' and the pro athlete
God losing its religions
Spotting monkey traps
Inaugurating change
ID facts and fictions
A last rite
Let us think
Lethal bliss
Memo concerning a wall
mere atheism
My left lung
Mythic Lies
The numbers game
On 'atheist' atrocities
Only words
Out of the mainstream
Q&A Dialogue with a Christian
The real war
Rebutting Rabbi Gellman
Storm story
Rosa's 'No'
Rethinking the 'A' word
Same-sex marriage
See no evil
Signs signal changing times
Sitting still?
Tom Paine
Trouble with miracles
The trouble with NOMA
Under sail
Voting for bigotry
What the thunder says
When atheists attack
When faith trumps reason
Why Darwin was right
GIA errata
e-mail me
garbled gods

Garbled 'God' leads to flawed studies
Belief claims present a bait and switch on ‘God’

By George A. Ricker

Two recent reports on religion and god-belief illustrate some of the difficulties inherent in our national conversation on these two subjects. The first is the second installment of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The second is a collection of essays published by the John Templeton Foundations, all of which purport to deal with the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” I will return to the Pew Forum study in a moment, but first I want to take up the Templeton Foundation collection because I think it illustrates the problem quite clearly. (Please note, both of these reports are available online and may be downloaded as .pdf files.)

Some words
Some words are always problematic and the word “God,” when treated as a proper noun, may well head the list. Consider the question the thirteen essays in the Templeton collection attempt to answer: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” Respondents are asked to talk about “belief in God” as if it were a coherent concept, yet the essays illustrate it is not. Framing the question in such a manner guarantees there will be considerable hedging in the answers. It is unavoidable. Since there is no consistent idea about “God”—a fact that is illustrated in several of the essays in the collection—there is no way to answer the question. We don’t know what “God” is. And if we don’t know what “God” is, then positing a “belief in ‘God’” begs a major question and assumes coherence where none exists.

This is an important fact to keep in mind when evaluating all such presentations. There are all sorts of ideas about gods out there, and human beings, being the inventive creatures we are, have no difficulty whatever coming up with new ones when the old ones, for whatever reason, no longer serve our purposes. Even the god named “God” is described in all sort of ways, from the desert sky god of the ancient Israelites (its name was not “God” then but was translated as such later) to the “ineffable essence at the core of an otherwise inexpressible reality” at the heart of some metaphysical ruminations in our brave new age. Between those two extremes there exists a host of possibilities.

So when we are asked anything about “God,” the first order of business, it seems to me, should be to define what is meant by the word. Only after that task is accomplished can we proceed to comprehensible answers.

There were other options available to the folks at the Templeton Foundation. Respondents might have been asked “Does science render all beliefs about gods obsolete?” or “Does science render any beliefs about god obsolete?” or “Does science offer proof of the existence of a god?” None of those questions would have implied there is a universally accepted idea of what “God” means. Even if the motivation behind asking the question was not suspect, the manner of asking makes it appear so. First, because the manner in which the question is framed makes a clean “no” answer impossible. Second, because the question itself implies a universal agreement on the fundamental concept being examined when none exists.

Believe in ‘what?’
But if the Templeton Foundation asked a question destined by the presentation to be unanswerable, the Pew Forum study, at least in the way it was reported, performs a classic bait and switch—a retail strategy in which consumers are promised one thing but wind up with something different. Because of religious biases and a seemingly irresistible impulse to pander to those biases on the part of the dominant media, the Religious Landscape Survey’s findings got buried beneath headlines that ballyhooed a result that is not supported by the data collected.

Consider the way the report was handled by two representative media outlets. In its lead-in, National Public Radio (npr) declared, “Americans have more diverse religious beliefs than before, but 92 percent still believe in God according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.” (emphasis added) Meanwhile the Tulsa World’s Associated Press report was headlined “National poll says 92 percent believe in God.” Most other media outlets reporting the story chose to stress the almost universal (92 percent) belief in “God.”

Since the study itself promoted this view—even though it really did not support the claim—this is not surprising. In the summary of key findings, a table detailing god-belief among respondents indicates that 92 percent believe in “God.”

However, in the paragraph preceding that table, the report states: “The lack of dogmatism in American religion may well reflect the great diversity of religious affiliation, beliefs and practices in the U.S. For example, while more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there is considerable variation in the nature and certainty of this belief. 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. And while roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence, more than one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.”

Quite apart from the difficulties inherent in any attempt to define what is meant by the word “God,” the study does not actually claim that 92 percent of respondents believe in “God” but that 92 percent believe in “God” or a “universal spirit.” Sixty percent of adults think of “God” as a personal being while 25 percent think “God” is an impersonal force.

Clearly what Americans mean when they talk about belief in “God” varies depending upon who gets asked the question. The Pew study offers a few category breakdowns while feeding the false notion there is almost universal agreement on god-belief. In truth the variations on that theme are nearly endless. The truth is there is no “God.” There are only gods. They exist in great profusion and are worshiped in many ways by many people. Saying 92 percent of Americans believe in “God” is, at best, a misunderstanding of the data being presented.

The bait and the switch
The bait offered in these, and other, reports on god-belief is the implication that, although there may be considerable variation in religious belief, the overwhelming majority of Americans are united in their belief in “God.” I call this “bait” because it feeds the preferences of the religious, who are an undeniable majority, for whom it is important to suggest that, when you get right down to it, everyone who expresses belief in a deity actually worships the same “God.” The switch occurs for those who actually study the details and realize the reports do not support such a broad generalization at all. Unfortunately, and unlike the classic retail “bait and switch,” many who take this bait never realize they have been had.

Please note, I am not accusing the folks at the Pew Forum of suspect motives. I will accept, provisionally at least, that their intent was to deliver an accurate and honest accounting. But until we change the way we think about the god-idea, all such reports inevitably must yield garbled results. It is inaccurate and downright deceptive to suggest that religious believers all believe in a god named “God.” They clearly do not. What they do believe in is a variety of gods, each of which is tailored to meet the needs of the dogma of a particular sect and is further modified to satisfy the unique requirements of individual believers.

Indeed, anyone who spends any time at all questioning those who do believe in a god named “God” will discover huge variations in both the nature of the being so identified and the requirements placed on believers. As I noted in my book, Godless in America, “The truth is the word ‘God’ conveys very little information.” Without substantial discussion, it is impossible for a nonbeliever to know what any believer means when he or she declares a belief in “God.” The word itself is incoherent.

Studied incoherence
When such incoherence is at the core of the values being studied, it is hardly surprising to find it spreading into other areas. What are we to make, for example, of the finding that 21 percent of the atheists in the study state they believe in “God” or a universal spirit. Since “atheist,” by definition, refers to someone who does not believe in gods, then “god-believing atheist” is an oxymoron. One simply cannot be an atheist and, at the same time, someone who believes in a god. One would think the people at the Pew Forum should know that.

The Pew survey reports the results of interviews with more than 35,000 adult Americans, and only 1.6 percent of those responding identified themselves as atheists. Since the margin of error for the “Unaffiliated” classification, which includes atheists and others, is plus or minus 2 percent (according to the report’s section on methodology), it is difficult to place much confidence in any of the results relative to atheists. But whether the result is caused by random errors committed by those administering the survey, confusion on the part of those taking the survey or a desire to garble the results on the part of a person or persons in either camp, the fact remains that is it errant nonsense to speak of atheists who believe in “God.”

What is shown in both the Templeton collection and the Pew Forum study is the basic incoherence of the “God” idea. That incoherence is demonstrated, not by excessive interpolation, but by the data presented in the material. Asking whether science renders the god-idea obsolete is an absurd question unless one has a clear understanding of what is meant by the word. Declaring that 92 percent of adult Americans believe in “God” is a claim belied by any serious study of what the word “God” means.

Clearly, it serves the purposes of some to keep the concept muddled. If there is no clear understanding of what “God” means, then it is easy for religionists to deflect criticism with the objection that any perceived shortcomings do not apply to the “God” they worship.

However, while such an arrangement may soothe the anxieties of believers, many of whom feel threatened when anyone challenges them on matters of faith, it does nothing to advance mutual understanding in our society. The myth of near unanimity on god-belief makes it impossible to have any sort of honest dialogue about either gods or religions.

Any claim about belief in “God” ought to be met with two questions.

What god? How is it defined?

© 2008 by George A. Ricker

|Home| |About| |Buy 'Godless in America'| |Buy 'mere atheism'| |My Blog/What's New| |To the religious| |Irreconcilable Differences| |A violation by prayer| |Answering atheism's critics| |Arguing the inarguable| |Baloney detection| |Sagan remembered| |Capitol gods, historical fictions| |Chance, Karma, etc| |Columbine: 5 years after| |On "The New Atheism"| |Thoughts on abortion| |Disagreeable| |Divine fictions| |Dueling billboards| |Economic cold turkey| |Election reforms| |Excommunicating reason| |Finding the line| |The First and the 10| |Freedom of the press| |Friday night at Curry's| |From the shores of Tripoli| |Garbled 'God'| |Genes don't care| |Fooled again?| |The Gifts We Give| |'God' and the pro athlete| |God losing its religions| |Spotting monkey traps| |Inaugurating change| |ID facts and fictions| |A last rite| |Let us think| |Lethal bliss| |Memo concerning a wall| |mere atheism| |Mockingbird| |My left lung| |Mythic Lies| |The numbers game| |Obama| |On 'atheist' atrocities| |Only words| |Out of the mainstream| |Poems| |Q&A Dialogue with a Christian| |The real war| |Rebutting Rabbi Gellman| |Storm story| |Rosa's 'No'| |R*E*S*P*E*C*T| |Rethinking the 'A' word| |Same-sex marriage| |See no evil| |Signs signal changing times| |Sitting still?| |Tom Paine| |Trouble with miracles| |The trouble with NOMA| |Under sail| |Voting for bigotry| |What the thunder says| |When atheists attack| |When faith trumps reason| |WhiningforJesus| |Wholeness| |Why Darwin was right| |GIA errata| |Links|