Good news for secularism: Part II. Belief in the supernatural declines in U.S., acceptance of evolution rises

December 19, 2013 • 9:06 am

This is a post about a poll, but it’s a very interesting poll, both because it shows the high level of superstition in the U.S. and also shows that that superstition—which includes religious belief—is steadily declining.  Do read the results if you have time.

According to a new Harris Poll (2250 U.S. adults surveyed this November), belief in the supernatural is declining on all fronts, and acceptance of evolution is rising.  I think this secularization is inevitable as we follow other First World Nations; and acceptance of evolution will be a byproduct this waning irrationality. That’s the good news.

The bad news (which we’ve had to live with for a while), is that acceptance of stuff like heaven, Satan, the virgin birth, and the divinity of Jesus far outstrip acceptance of evolution. But that will change!

Here are the salient results (direct quotations from the site are in quotes):

  • “[W]hile a strong majority (74%) of U.S. adults do believe in God, this belief is in decline when compared to previous years as just over four in five (82%) expressed a belief in God in 2005, 2007 and 2009.
  • “Also, while majorities also believe in miracles (72%, down from 79% in 2005), heaven (68%, down from 75%), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (68%, down from 72%), the resurrection of Jesus Christ (65%, down from 70%), the survival of the soul after death (64%, down from 69%), the devil, hell (both at 58%, down from 62%) and the Virgin birth (57%, down from 60%), these are all down from previous Harris Polls.”

The data are below. Note that the “don’t believe ins” are 12% (this figure varies between 5 and 15% among polls), but at the least these people can be described as “atheists.” And note that the “not sures” are 14%; these are the on-the-fencers who are most susceptible to reason.  It still astounds me that 58% of people believe in “the devil” (note: that’s not simply “estrangement from God,” as Sophisticated Theologians™ now construe “hell”)—11% higher than those who accept evolution.

Still, virtually all indices of superstition are declining, and the one declining most markedly is “belief in God”.

  • “Belief in [JAC note: bad characterization!] Darwin’s theory of evolution, however, while well below levels recorded for belief in God, miracles and heaven, is up in comparison to 2005 findings (47%, up from 42%).”

Note that it’s not clear in this precis whether they asked people about “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” or just “evolution.” Note, too, that most Americans who do accept evolution accept a God-guided form of evolution—theistic evolution (almost a 3/1 ratio).  Even if they accept “Darwin’s theory”, they might misconstrue it as “guided by God.” The table below show that belief in creationism has also declined, though 36% of Americans still believe it and 33% are not sure.

  • Belief in God (data not shown here; but you can see it at the Harris site) wanes in older groups, with Echo Boomers (whatever they are) showing less belief than Generation Xers, who in turn show less belief than “matures.” On the other hand, “matures” show less belief in paranormal phenomena like ghosts, witches, and UFOs. I wonder if this has to do with increasing skepticism, over one’s life, about everything but those beliefs that will give you an afterlife.
  • As for the political breakdown (data not shown here; see Harris site), Republicans express higher levels of belief in God and other Judeo-Christian myths in the table below, and lower acceptance of evolution. No surprise there.

Picture 1

General religiosity is declining and “not at all religious” status increasing, especially in the last 4 years. Could it be. . . . .those strident New Atheists?

As expected, certainty about God is higher in Republicans, those with less education, Southerners, and African Americans (historically a highly religious group). But of course they didn’t separate these factors, for there are correlations between education, ethnicity, political belief, and so on.

What about how certain you are of your belief? Certainty about God is dropping, too.

  • “Just under two in ten Americans (19%) describe themselves are ‘very’ religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as ‘somewhat’ religious (40%, down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as ‘not at all’ religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.”
  • “[T]wo-thirds of Americans (68%) indicate being either absolutely or somewhat certain that there is a God, while 54% specify being absolutely certain; these figures represent drops of 11 and 12 percentage points, respectively, from 2003 testing, where combined certainty was at 79% and absolute certainty was at 66%.Meanwhile, combined belief that there is no God (16%) and uncertainty as to whether or not there is a God (also 16%) are both up from 2003 findings (when these levels were 9% and 12%, respectively).Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), Matures (62%) and Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).”

Picture 3

Picture 254% certainty that there is a God is pretty scary to me, especially in the absence of evidence for God.  But the “doubters” comprise the last three rows, and they add up to 32%. That’s heartening!

As for how Americans see God’s control of Earth, here are the data:

  • “There also a continuing – and increasing – lack of consensus as to how much control, if any, God has over what happens on Earth.
    A 37% plurality of Americans (including 52% of Catholics) believes that God observes but does not control what happens on Earth – down considerably from 2003, when half of Americans (50%) expressed this belief. Just under three in ten (29%) Americans, including majorities of those who self-identify as very religious (60%) and/or born-again Christians (56%), believe that God controls what happens on Earth.”

Good news, but too late to impede any religiously motivated disbelief in global warming:

Picture 4Finally, two other results:

  • “Just under half of Americans believe that all or most of the Old Testament (49%) and the New Testament (48%) are the “Word of God,” representing declines of six percentage points each from 2008 findings.”

So much for Leon Wieseltier’s claim, in his debate with Steve Pinker, that “only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.” I don’t think that nearly half of all Americans (many of whom aren’t believers) is a “small minority of believers.” In fact, it’s most believers!

I find this next statistic hilarious.  How can you know what gender God is, unless you take the word of Scripture? Yet Sophisticated Theologians™ tell us repeatedly that god is not a “person,” but some kind of spirit outside the universe.  Why, then, do 39% of Americans think that God has divine but discernible genitalia, while another 10% think that God is “both male and female”? What sense does it make to conceive of the sex of a disembodied divinity?

  • “There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think He is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe She is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).Women, perhaps surprisingly, are more likely than men to believe that God is male (43% women, 34% men), while men are more likely to believe that God is neither male nor female (34% men, 28% women).”

Overall, I think this is terrific news, for the change has happened within the last decade. I can’t be sure what’s caused it, but I think this kind of secularization is inevitable not only for the reasons Pinker cites in The Better Angels of Our Nature (spread of Enlightenment values, etc.), but because we’re following the lead of Europe. We lag behind insofar as we’re held back by America’s social dysfunctionality (see post later today). In my view, the best way to promote evolution is to get rid of religion, and the best way to get rid of religion is to get rid of those social inequalities and holes in the social network that grow faith from the soil of insecurity.  And the best way to fix those problems is to reduce income inequality and enact government-sponsored medical care for all, along the lines of many European countries.

Good news for the holidays!

63 thoughts on “Good news for secularism: Part II. Belief in the supernatural declines in U.S., acceptance of evolution rises

  1. Who is Massimo?


    I am not particularly friendly to the so-called New Atheism. While I respect (and often respectfully disagree with) Dan Dennett, I have been a fairly strong critic of Dawkins, Harris, and the late Hitchens (not to mention other NA’s, such as Jerry Coyne). I have even written a technical paper analyzing the NA movement from a philosophical perspective.

  2. Let’s hope the downward trend continues. It’s a lot of work just to budge it a tiny percent since the root cause isn’t being addressed.

  3. One reason worth considering for the change is, ironically, Christianity’s success. Starting in the 80’s with things like the election of R. Reagan, arrival of the Moral Majority and the blossoming of end-times frenzy, Christianity has taken over significant aspects of politics, culture, morality, entertainment and law, a sort of quasi-theocracy that, like all theocracies, becomes eventually unsustainable, hysterical, angry, frightening, ridiculous and finally, pathetic. Christian leaders tying themselves to Republicans, further, means as the party goes so goes the faith. Hey, Jesus, when’s your next gov’t shutdown?

  4. The what-gender-is-god stats are pretty funny in an ironic kind of way.

    Doesn’t the bible make a fairly big deal out of addressing the big boss as a he?

      1. I consider it a sign of progress. Considering that their book is pretty much a manual in misogony, if find it encouraging that it’s being watered down in a consistent and steady flow.

        I’m with the Hitch on this one. Empower the women and progress will follow.

  5. “It still astounds me that 58% of people believe in “the devil” (note: that’s not simply “estrangement from God,” as Sophisticated Theologians™ now construe “hell””

    Just wanted to comment on this little item. Clearly, the notion of hell is such a ridiculous and loathesome idea that it cannot be made remotely consistent with any moral God. Ok, so God does not torture you for eternity, he just ignores you for eternity. All because what, you refused to accept baseless assertions about his existence? That your Plantinga Truth Detector wasn’t functioning properly?

    To even begin to justify someone being sent to such a place, one has to assume that such a person has knowledge of the reality of God and the suffering associated with eternal estrangement from Him. Yet, if a person had that knowledge, why would they ever choose Hell?

    And why must the estrangement be eternal? Why so inflexible? How could the actions of a fallible being such as a human, working on incomplete information, have such onerous consequences?

    Please, just bin the whole idea already. It’s rotten through and through.

      1. There’s a few:

        Matthew 13:42: “And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

        Matt 25:41: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”

        Mark 9:43-48: And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.”

        Luke 16:24: “And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.”

        Revelation 20:13-15: “…hell delivered up the dead which were in them…And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”

        Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving … shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.”

        Now, as far as the actual location of this place, it seems to be quite literally in the center of the Earth according to the Bible. Describing it as some extra-dimensional phantom zone seems to be a later development.

    1. blitz442 #8 wrote:

      Clearly, the notion of hell is such a ridiculous and loathesome idea that it cannot be made remotely consistent with any moral God.

      From what I’ve seen many of the liberal theists are still massaging the concept of hell in order to make it consistent with an Enlightenment culture. The “estrangement from God” is now sometimes translated into being personally consumed with envy, greed, anger, hatred, viciousness, selfishness, racism, sexism, and so forth. In other words, the damned are their own worst enemies. Their torments are not only self-inflicted, but familiar and recognizable even from a purely secular understanding of “sin.”

      And anyone who changes their negative attitude (for any reason) then “joins” God again. Easy peasy.

      In a way it’s quite brilliant a move because it not only makes damnation dependent on a humanist understanding of virtue and vice, it also makes sense — as a metaphor.

      But that’s it’s downfall. It has become so reasonable and humanized that this way of looking at hell and damnation is no more religious than ordinary psychology. It’s like calling God “Love” and proceeding normally from then on. The attempt to save the notion of hell turns into an own goal.

      1. Someone in the early 90s remarked that the liberal Christian churches had so sanitized hell that kids main exposure to these ideas was through movies like “Hellraiser” and “The Exorcist”

      2. My problem isn’t just with the concept of a hell, heaven itself doesn’t sound so bloody great to me either.
        We are mortal, evolved, earthbound creatures – that’s the key point. The essence of our joys are physical and associated with physical life – be they sensual, esthetic, or in bonds of human affection. How can some “spirit life” ever relate to that human nature and how can such a spiritual existence be worthwhile? To me heaven sounds like nothing more than an endlessly induced drug trip. You wouldn’t prefer it when alive, and having it FOREVER when you’re dead sounds downright depressing.

        1. Hitch summed it up best: A sort of celestial North Korea. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea.

      3. CS Lewis tells a story about Hell which is popular among the liberals. It goes something like this:

        A man is shown two rooms by an angel, who tells him this is the afterlife. In the first room there is plenty of food but people can only reach it with long-handled spoons which are too long to fit in their mouths. They cry because they are all hungry. In the second room the same situation pertains — but nobody cries and they are all happy and well fed.

        Why? Because in the second room they use the spoons to feed each other.

        The first room is Hell; the second room is Heaven.

        Awwwww…. get it? See how reasonable this makes hell? It’s no different than heaven. But the PEOPLE are different because they’re not kind, thoughtful, or loving. And can anyone hear that story and think to themselves “Yeah, I’d be in that first room. I would never, ever figure out or want to eat by feeding another. Yup, that’s me all right. An eternal asshole.”

        No, nobody would think that. It would always be some OTHER bunch of people who are like that. And the Christian walks away from this smug and satisfied that now the atheist gets it. Hell makes sense and is moral because people are punishing themselves. And the nonbeliever won’t get defensive because the implication is that they’d be in heaven.

        It’s the rest of the ‘people who reject God’ who are eternal assholes. It’s what ‘rejecting God’ means. They didn’t mean you. You’re an atheist — but safe because God is in your heart.

        Stupid story. It annoys me.

        1. I never heard that. What a tormented mind Lewis had to believe that this analog was anything more than a metaphor for what nice and bad people would do to one another for even a few minutes. It is not sensible, and worse, it is obsequious to think that humans have to work in order to show love.

          Humans love each other even if no one ever did anything for them. I love Feynman and Darwin, though they never loved me. I love them for what they gave humanity but also in the sense that I would feed them if that was necessary to keep them alive.

        2. Well of course it’s a stupid story. If the handle of the spoon is too long you just hold it halfway along. Maybe it’s Hell because the inhabitants are all, every single one of them, just too mind-bogglingly stupid to figure this out?

            1. Ah, yes. The Room of Shattered Saccharine. In the mornings, the people there are treated to stories such as the one about Hell and the spoons, and they inevitably get all sorts of warm-n-fuzzies in reaction. Deepities abound.

              In the afternoons, they get their noses rubbed in all the “minor” little niggling problems of the stories and, generally, have their fantasies brutally shattered.

              Every day.

              For all of eternity.

              …nah, scratch that. Even Lewis doesn’t deserve as much.



  6. The percentages of people who “claim” to believe (I don’t trust anyone to really be honest in these polls; even confidential ones)that “God observes, but does not control, what happens on Earth” is a good indication of just how few people learn how to think rationally in this country: an “All-Powerful” being (I’m certain most of these people would also go on to claim this as one of God’s attributes)cannot help but affect, and thus control, everything, because even the “non-actions” of such a being produce their own effects.
    For example, on the “human-scale”, if I wind up a clock it runs until the spring unwinds and it stops; if I re-wind it before it stops, it keeps running. If I start a load of laundry in a washer, the washer will run until it completes its cycle; if I lift the lid during the cycle, it stops. In the first scenario, My action causes something to continue and my “non-action” causes something to stop; in the second scenario, my “non-action” causes something to continue and my action causes it to stop.
    If I walk up to an intersection and decide to continue walking straight ahead, the outcome is exactly the same as if an all-powerful God had ordered me, “Don’t go back; don’t go left; don’t go right.”
    Such are the paradoxes that are automatically generated when one attempts to reconcile the notions that an all-powerful being is “in the world (exists)”, yet is not “of” the world (“supernatural” in nature).

  7. Re God’s genitalia. In the early 1980s, I was surprised to learn that a strongly Catholic friend of mine was utterly unaware that in classical Catholic dogma, God has no body, being beyond space and matter as we perceive it (albeit still in some sense “male”). I showed it to him in an adult catechism and he was bowled over.
    (This was not the only area where I knew more about Catholicism than he did.)

  8. Great news; interesting poll. I’m a little confused though about the wording on two options for the “nones” — “somewhat certain that there is no God” vs. “not sure whether or not there is a God” in my mind are roughly equivalent, or at least not distinct enough for me to be able to choose between the two.

  9. Even though there are more and more atheists, and this is a very good thing indeed, this does not mean they’re all science friendly. I know some Germans who although they don’t believe in a god, they’ve replaced that belief with some vague “something bigger than us” nonsense. And they’re quite anti-science as well.

    Re acceptance of Global Warming. There’s going to be some warming from what we’ve already put into the atmosphere. So we’d better come up with ways to deal with that. At the moment all the focus seems to be on prevention, in reducing emissions, and hardly anything on cures. So we should vastly increase research spending on finding solutions. If people don’t accept global warming is happening then we’re not going to find it easy to do prevention. So best crack on and find ways to live in a warmer world.

    1. The upcoming and popular new version of supernaturalism which replaces religion is “spirituality.” Especially if it’s capitalized (Spirituality.) All the traditional irrational beliefs in dualism, magic, and mystical insight without the strong organization behind it. This can be both a blessing … and a curse.

  10. I’m surprised that nobody has yet addressed the shocking-to-me conclusion of that very last panel: that four in five Americans believe that there is no divine intervention in Earthly matters, and half of those don’t even think there’s any divine observation, either.

    That, to me, tells me that the war has actually been won and we’re now just in cleanup mode.

    Yes, there’s a major fuckton of cleanup, and it’s going to be a lot of hard work that’ll take a long time.

    But the antirational side clearly has no more heart in it, and have conceded the fundamental, foundational point that matters most: that we’re entirely on our own.



    1. I had to look up what a fuckton is. Just for future reference, a metric fuckton is considered to be 1000 Shitloads.

              1. Actually, if you’re Jesus Christ, you turn the water into wine, throw a zombie-themed party, and forget about the swimming.

                At least, that’s what I’d do if I was Jesus Christ….


            1. Or been a Fortune 500/Forbes 400 CEO or venture capitalist or hedge fund manager or economist or U.S. congressperson too long.

    2. Humans live by US and THEM. It is kind of how we are built. There is US and THEM. When you change the consensus to think that being religious is THEM and not US, then there is a paradigm shift.

      The fuckton of work will be easy under the auspices of the US->THEM shift. THEY are the religious…that is no longer US. I see it in young kids growing out of religion…they still like their family but the whole religious community is THEM now and their parent’s belief systems are part of THEM.

    3. I considered that and it may represent the beginning of the end for some of them but I think it’s really just more cognitive dissonance. They see bad things happen to good people and instead of saying ergo no god, they instead decide god doesn’t influence the world or witness what is going on in it. We can hope that the next generation takes it at least a step further.

  11. In my view, the best way to promote evolution is to get rid of religion, and the best way to get rid of religion is to get rid of those social inequalities and holes in the social network that grow faith from the soil of insecurity.

    You could be right, but I think social equality without an ongoing attempt to keep chipping away at religion’s irrational premises, beliefs, and methods will result in “faith” being helpfully reworked into being a necessary component of a healthy social network. And we’ll end up with problems like affordable national healthcare covering homeopathy and multiple creationisms being taught (ie ‘offered’) as multicultural other ways of knowing.

  12. What I essentially hear you saying is this: there is evidence that the number of people in this country that are regaining some control of their facilities is on the increase.

    Yes, indeed, that conclusion is very heartening. I for one, however, am withholding my judgement. I am very skeptical about what the numbers really mean. Too frequently I am a witness to a level of stupidity and willful, ignorance that is difficult for me to image if I didn’t actually experience it for myself. I just can’t come to the same conclusion; Jimmy Swaggert is drawing bleachers full of Morans and new reality shows like “snake Salvation” are gaining steam!

  13. In related good news today…New Mexico just passed same-sex marriage. >38% of US has a proper, unprejudiced definition of marriage.

    1. Also, the London School of Economics has issued an apology for its treatment of the guys who sported Jebus and Mo t-shirts on their premises.

  14. I am intrigued by the last number in Table 4. It indicates that of people who currently classify themselves as “Born Again”, that 6% of them are not sure if God exists.

    A couple of decades ago, it would have been astounding for 6% of the entire American population to admit that they were not sure if God existed. But now even the Born Agains can be at that level of skepticism, and nobody even thinks anything of it. This is true progress. Or statistical variance — whatever. Thanks for the post.

    1. I’m very wary of small percentages in polls. Iirc most polls of atheists show that something like 3-4% of them agree that they believe in God.

      There seems to be a small but consistent percentage of poll-takers who apparently either don’t understand the question, think they’re funny, enjoy being contrary, and/or simply make up and use their own special definitions for words.

      Keep in mind that it’s possible that there are popular faith-promoting stories going around the churches which carry the theme that trusting in God even if you’re not completely sure that God exists is extra-special pleasing to God because that’s the strongest faith of all! Wouldn’t surprise me.

  15. Echo Boomers are the children of baby boomers. It’s an echo because a larger cohort is having children, and so there are more children than the typical cohorts.

  16. My neighbor considers herself non-religious, she just believes in God. This is because the non-denominational church she goes to plays word games and defines “religious” as “belonging to an organized sect”.

  17. other Judeo-Christian myths in the table below,

    Humorously, the number of believed virgin births are huge according to US statistics:

    “The results of a long-term study of reproductive health, published in the British Medical Journal, have revealed that one in two hundred US women claim to have given birth without ever having had sexual intercourse.”

    The reason? Religion poisons everything:

    “Thirty-one per cent of the girls had signed a so-called ‘chastity pledge’, whereby they vow – usually for religious reasons – not to have sex. Fifteen per cent of non-virgins who became pregnant also said they had signed such pledges.

    The 45 self-described virgins who reported having become pregnant and the 36 who gave birth were also more likely than non-virgins to say their parents never or rarely talked to them about sex and birth control.”

  18. I’m trying to do my part to help this process using software. I released an app today that uses Bayes’ theorem to explore the question “Does God Exist?” It guides the user through a series of observations and questions. If nothing else, God-believers should get a strong dose of cognitive dissonance. Depending on how the app does, I may write others along these lines, e.g., “Did we evolve?” and “Is the climate warming?”

    The app is available on the Google store (it’s ad supported).
    I’m still working out some bugs on tablets, but it seems to work fine on phones.

    1. Believe Bayes theorem was already applied to this problem. Answer was ~0.6 that gawd exists, after you discard all the real data and input your own comfort bias! 🙂

      1. One can of course get any answer one wants from the app by not thinking about the questions or keeping one’s desired conclusion foremost when answering. I’m hoping not everyone will use it this way. I imagine several more positive use-cases, such as a family or small group sitting around reading the observations and questions aloud and pondering the answers, or a conscientious individual realizing that when she answers honestly, she gets a conclusion with which she doesn’t nominally agree.

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