The religious recalcitrance of Americans

January 19, 2014 • 8:26 am

After some effort, I managed to track down the Time Magazine poll mentioned by David Masci in this 2007 Pew Research article, where he said this (my emphasis):

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.”

I wanted to make sure that poll existed, and I got upset when I went through every issue of Time Magazine from 2006 (not just October) and didn’t find the poll mentioned.  The 64% figure startled me, and I wanted confirmation.

At any rate, Masci was kind enough to dig out the original SRBI/Time poll from that year, which wasn’t published in the magazine. It’s a survey of 1002 Americans, and here are the relevant data. Make of them what you will:

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59 thoughts on “The religious recalcitrance of Americans

    1. If it’s our kind we should find similar results in other countries. Do we have similar polls taken elsewhere that we can compare? It could just be something in the water or culture here.

      1. I’d be curious to see polls from other cultures too. My cursory googling didn’t turn up any. I’m inclined to think that clinging to irrational beliefs is a fairly universal human trait. I expect the reasons for doing so vary from culture to culture and from individual to individual. I’ve also observed that many people seem to choose personal feelings of certainty over empirical evidence, and not just in matters of religion.

        1. I suspect you’re right about the irrational belief clinging and you’d find similar attitudes in other cultures. The US just has a concentration of the religious for various historical reasons.

        2. If we ignore the religious part I think there’s a fundamental flaw in the question because it assumes that there is a universal consensus on science being the sole arbiter of objective truth.

          Sadly that isn’t so, so trying to imagine some evidence that would overthrow your previous worldview is downright impossible if it doesn’t correlate with your feelings. And I don’t think that’s a particular religious feature, but simply human nature.

          I for one, am having a very hard time thinking of evidence for any gods…that is I have no idea whatsoever what credible observations and measurements would constitute certainty of a god.

          1. That is a very good point. Changing the views of a population depends so much on the passing of generations, with new generations growing up under a new paradigm. Individuals can be changed, but it is so much harder.

          2. Also, very few profound results are instantly accepted as proven.

            For example, big bang cosmology took 40 years to go from Lemaitre to Alpher to Penzias and Wilson. Getting from Darwin to R. A. Fisher took even longer.

            I’m not sure that science really could deliver up a faith shaking result that an adult couldn’t comfortably ignore/dismiss for the rest of their lives. The next generation, however…

            1. I’m not so confident that we’re at a significant turning point where the next generations will reject their parent’s worldview at a significantly faster rate than usual if we look at it globally, but it’s a very fascinating and intriguing idea that the trend towards disbelief could be exponential. I just doubt that is the case and that a fundamental paradigm change is just around the corner. Being wrong on that would be a welcome scenario, though. 🙂

              1. I think you are reading more into my comment than I intended, for which the fault must be mine.

                I merely meant that even among those not hamstrung by religion, a new scientific result that shakes up a people’s worldview is rarely a sudden, shocking discovery. So, I find the survey question to be ill-posed. That’s not how scientific results come to impact people’s beliefs.

                Certainly there’s been a multi-pronged effort by religionists of all stripes to deny and/or co-opt results like the big bang and the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. My last remark was just to point out that the transformation comes largely to younger minds, not that the acceptance of scientific evidence by the these younger minds was a given.

  1. From what I’ve learned from personality tests (yes, I know the validity of some are questionable) it appears the majority of people don’t want to rock the boat – they do what they are told and don’t question authority. The next group makes decisions based on emotions (believing in god feels good and I get the praise of others; refusing to believe in god feels bad because it goes against what I was taught and I don’t like the disdain of others, so I choose to believe in god).

    The questioners, the ones who make decisions through careful consideration and analysis…sadly this personality type is in the minority.

    Whenever I take a test, I find myself in the analytical category. What this means is 1) I understand why I think so many people are assholes 2) I can influence and persuade people using logic but the ones that are convinced are typically those that are also analytical (it works great when you work in an high tech field). The problem comes when you meet someone who won’t accept rational arguments. Accepting your proposal is painful and is therefore avoided.

    I think this is what is going on with atheism and science. In order to increase the reach, you have to appeal to emotion somehow and make coming over to the truthful side more appealing. It’s pretty hard considering that our brains give us chemical punishments when we see evidence that contradicts our established “truths”.

  2. Hi Jerry, I’ve been a fan for a long time now.
    Just wanted to say that I really enjoy your site. An added benefit is that you’re always using interesting vocabulary words that I’m not familiar with and so I learn something new every day.

    Also, I grew up in a very religious household and unlike you, it took be a while to rid myself of belief in God. I’ve read a lot from the other New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.
    I have to say though, it was after finding your site that I finally came around to considering myself an atheist or a least a strong agnostic.
    I look forward to reading your new book.

    NE way,

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Coming from outside the USA, and having been a frequent resident of the US, I have noticed some explanations. Americans tend to equate religion with being a good person. That connection is all but lost in Europe, especially in France, where there used to be frequent headlines that the archbishop or Cardinal has died of a sudden heart-attack (over-exertion?) past midnight, in a Paris brothel where he was attending the spiritual safekeeping of the girls. Europeans are cynical about polling, but Americans dissemble when talking to pollsters.

    Secondly, something I have mentioned before, one of the social mechanisms in developing and sustaining ideologies such as religion, UFOs, Sociology, Psychology and astrology, – is a principle called ‘Social Self-Selection’, whereby people of a similar belief concerning the nature of reality will gather into groups. So many Americans had antecedents who fled Europe for religious and political freedom. America is a stronghold of deliberate and avowed belief which is now tribal in nature. Frankly, I am highly suspicious of polls on account of the ornery nature of Americans.

    I have lied to pollsters in America. I once worked for a New England radio station. On my day off, a pollster phoned and asked if I was listening to a radio station. Of course, I mentioned MY radio station. But keeping her on the line I walked around the house and told her that my wife was listening to the same station in the kitchen. And that my two kids were listening to the same in the den. And in a burst of creativity, I lied that my gardener was listening to a car radio, same station, outside! The poll results came out and my radio station had shot to the top of the list.

    Don’t judge me. It’s the American way!

      1. As I remember it, claiming that anything is the American way is the American way. (There are some core values that once appended IIRC an article I once read, but they are usually disregarded when making these claims…)

  4. You’ll never convince most people to change their minds through scientific/rational arguments. It would help if sophisticated, ground of being religionists would start criticizing the ridiculous beliefs of religious fundamentalists, but they are too busy trying to defend their pathetic religious reformulations against atheists.

  5. I suppose the results are roughly correct, but…
    [1] Only 1,000 interviewed over the ‘phone on a rather complex question? It’s not like being asked if one is planning to buy a new fridge this year

    [2] It’s probably a question most of the interviewees have never considered before & thus requires some reflection. I would want to see the question & three choices of answer written down rather than spoken on the ‘phone

    [3] “Continue to believe what religion teaches anyway” is a terrible multiple choice answer. It should be “Continue to believe my religion & god are true/real” because as phrased one could choose that box & only mean something like “I will continue to love my neighbour as myself, not kill & not steal etc”

  6. When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding

    I think this makes the most sense if one realizes that those 64% don’t realize that the scientific method is the gold standard for understanding reality. Instead, they see science as a quasi-religious exercise with people in white lab coats in a room full of glassware trying to create the Philosopher’s Stone. In that context, their own priests with their own special garb who “actually” turn bread and wine into blood and flesh on a regular schedule have every bit as much authority.

    The answer, of course, is education. And, I think, the current method of science education has it basically bass-ackwards. Rather than spending most of the time in lectures with a bit of time in the lab, the students should be spending most of their time in the lab, getting their hands dirty, and then, only afterwards, should there be some discussion about what they saw. Further, the lab portions shouldn’t be about slavishly following the recipe in order to come up with the perfect number to write down on the designated space on the assignment sheet; rather, it should be, “I have reason to suspect that there’s some sort of a relationship between the weight of an object and how soon it hits the ground. Go see what you can dig out of that pile of junk over there and try to come up with a way to suss out what might be going on.”

    Once you yourself have re-created various famous experiments and found that you get the same results (within the margin of error) as the published figures, you start to gain an awful lot of trust in the scientific method. You then start to realize just how easy it would be to uncover any sort of conspiracies along with the kind of fame and glory you’d get for doing so. At that point, you’ll provisionally accept anything that’s gone through the gauntlet, but with added skepticism towards radical new findings that haven’t received extra scrutiny.

    And that’s exactly what we should all want all our fellow citizens to do.



    1. ….the lab portions shouldn’t be about slavishly following the recipe in order to come up with the perfect number to write down on the designated space on the assignment sheet

      Yes! I loved science & hated science class for this reason alone in high school! It was a mad dash to grab the equipment, then you followed a recipe (which I usually got wrong because I hate recipes) while racing against the clock so you still had time to clean up & make your next class!

      More concentration on the thought process would make a huge difference! Teach how to design experiments and then try them out. Even if you only did one or two labs for the whole course, what the students would get out of it would be far more useful than simply following a recipe!

      1. In a chemistry class I had in high school, (called Advanced Chem II or something like that, similar to what came to be called AP) a typical lab was getting handed a vial of liquid that you had to figure out the composition of. It could have one or more things in it. If you found everything you received a 100%. If you didn’t you received a 0. No in between. There was no standardized format for any particular experiment, no recipe. It was up to you to decide on a plan of action.

        There was one in particular that I have always remembered. I received a vial of distilled water. I was at least 1/2 sure that that was not possible. I was sweating bullets because one 0 out of maybe 5 grades in a period could really trash your grade. But I went with distlled water, and that is indeed what it was. The instructor was smugly amused at my expression of relief when I saw my grade.

      2. “It was a mad dash to grab the equipment, then you followed a recipe (which I usually got wrong because I hate recipes) while racing against the clock so you still had time to clean up & make your next class!”

        Even more so in college, as one may have to go to the other side of campus as opposed to the other end of the building. The TA said to use the Mettler device to weigh some quantity; the problem was that the Mettler was in short supply relative to the number of students jostling to use it and the fairly limited amount of time. Less accurate but still serviceable scales were there for the using. The TA responded on my lab report: “-10 Next time use the Mettler,” which, as a tender and callow fellow, I, though enraged, took silently on the chin. Infuriating, edgy, neurotic, petty tyrant. After 40 years, I still remember his name.

      3. Been on both sides of that. I am often a lab instructor in various college bio classes and from that perspective it becomes very daunting to try to get 20 students to get anything done if they are asked to figure out things for themselves. I would get the deer in the headlights look. It would be worse for teaching high school students.

        1. 20 students

          Of course, that’s a big part of the problem right there — seriously out-of-balance student-to-teacher ratios. Wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we were as happy spending money on education as we are on killing brown people….


    2. Very much what I was thinking as well. I am sure that the large majority of that 64% have no idea what they are talking about because they are ignorant of what science is.

      In any case, their behavior betrays them. In a myriad of ways, every day, they behave as if they believe things that have been derived from science over what their religion teaches. This can also be seen in how religion has inexorably become less literal, more metaphorical, and more liberal. It is still way to early to call the game, but science and rational thinking have made a big impact on religion, even in the US.

  7. It’s a strange result. Most people I argue with about religion, global warming etc. want to claim that their viewpoint is the scientifically justified one and will, for instance, go to great lengths in order to find a way that koala bears could have gotten to the ark or why evolution is ruled out by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

    1. Yes, and that to me seems like tacit admission that science trumps their religion. They have to keep adjusting their religious views to accommodate the expansion of science derived knowledge.

      1. There is an old saying, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” I think that “creationism is the tribute that religion pays to science.” After all, the creationists aren’t arguing that science is irrelevant; rather, they want science to give its imprimatur to their beliefs. If a minister wants to assert that the universe is 6,000 years old, there is nothing stopping him. That’s not enough, however–he wants scientists to agree with him.

  8. I don’t think this result is about whether people trust, understand, or respect science. This result is because people just don’t care whether science informs them in this area.

    I would bet if this poll was done only on high functioning research scientists who also happened to be devout religionists (yes, we know they exist) the results would be the same.

    This poll is about religious privilege, including the privilege of dismissing any challenge to the magical thinking of the religious in-group. This is about the privilege of magical thinking.

  9. A small example of not rocking the boat ,not eating meat on Friday for Catholics. My mom even though the church said Catholics could eat meat made tuna sandwiches on many Fridays. Also cheese pizza,i know she never thought about a hamburger for Friday dinner I suppose it never was done and that was that.

  10. This is a perfect weapon that can be used when beleivers can’t accept evolution because there is not enough evidence. It’s quite apparent that no amount of evidence would be sufficient.

  11. This is “confirmation bias on steroids” -you say that, in the event (hypothetical) that science “proves” a religious belief of yours wrong, you still wouldn’t discard it- without having even SEEN said evidence? La, la, la, I’m not hearing you; la, la, la….

    I also believe that many people routinely lie on even “confidential” polls and almost subconsciously hedge their bets as to keeping their doubt (or difference of opinion) secret from the rest of their perceived “tribe”.

  12. I can say anecdotally that the poll rings true for me. I spend days teaching evolution. I go over the facts of the fossil record and the ubiquitous presence of identical junk DNA. This should leave no sane room for doubt that life evolved and that species today share common ancestry. But the ultra-religious students in the class write their notes, take the tests, and move on like nothing happened. Amazing.

    1. Do you get pushback from parents or do school administrators tell you to go easy with pedaling evolution? Here is the tack my daughter’s middle school takes. You can teach it if you have too but don’t be to enthusiastic or excite the students into wanting to learn the subject. Just drone through the requirements and for gods sake don’t say the E-word.

      1. No. I teach in college classrooms, and have never had less than full support from administration. I never hear from parents, and if I do I will just follow instructions which is to avoid responding to them as much as possible. I am to treat their children as adults, and parents are not not supposed to butt in about subject matter or about grades.
        I know that in our area schools there is a mixed bag of teaching on the subject. Some do everything straight up, others soft-peddle it.

  13. Most believers subscribe to the following mathematical Theory of Everything:

    What isn’t (or can’t be) understood = something to do with “God”

    Quite clearly then, the only valid way to make this equation robustly true is for the term “God” to be undefined.

    Who are we to call these people stupid?


    1. It’s their “theory” that is Not Even Wrong. That is not a stupid theory, that is an insane notion.

      The religious has as a group an IQ < 100 in most nations. (Some nations have so many religious the find doesn't apply.) And clearly some individuals are far from stupid anyway.

      It is their behavior that is "globally" stupid (cements society dysfunctionality).

  14. Seems to be that the fact that people would and do reject science if it contradicts their religion is an uncontroversial one. The only surprising part is the large number of people who admit that is what they would do. And it isn’t just religion, it is any very strongly held ideology, such as strong conservatism or libertarianism, which we’ve seen correspond with climate change denialism.

  15. American’s are ‘proud’ of being American. This sense of self-worth coming as an accident of birth doesn’t bother them and doesn’t strike them as offensive to other nationalities the way, say, a rich person would be ‘proud’ of being born rich. It also suggests that no matter what the facts are, self-worth and pride trump any of that puffed-up sense of superiority. It is so entrenched and accepted in American society and media that I had to leave the country before fully grasping it.

    Facts, other points of view, or even scientific discovery cannot possibly pierce the mantle of self-identification as ‘superior because of what we believe’, so there is no need to question those beliefs, including the fact that religion is always right, particularly on things like personhood of the zygote or the inalienable right to own and carry a concealed firearm. Nothing stands a chance when it comes to national identity. I suspect the Ancient Romans had similar patriotism that blinded them to the views of others.

    1. Sorry, but I think this is a stereotype of Americans. Let’s take the Iraq War, most Americans (over 60%)say that the war was wrong and we should not have invaded Iraq. If we were “America is always right”, then more than half should support what we did there. Look at the NSA spying scandal, Americans are split on this. Again, if America could do no wrong, then why would so many oppose what the NSA is doing, especially overseas.

      I think that you have (30-40%) of Americans who are very conservative, religious and super nationalistic (many conservatives are actually anti-government, but not anti-country). If you watch the news, it appears that there’s a lot of tea party patriot types out there, but polls show that this is not the case. That being said, I think most countries have populations that are nationalistic to some extent, Americans are no exception. But so are Brits, Germans, French, etc. It’s just that you see more Americans on TV and let’s face it, we still are the most dominant (arguably the only) super power.

      1. Most dominant super power? It sounds like we are bragging that we are the biggest bullies on the block. How about are being a member of the community of nations.

      2. I don’t think Iraq is a particularly compelling counterexample. The gross stupidity of the neoconservative project, the transparancy of the lies on which the case for war was built, and the fact that it took five years of idiocy in the execution of the war for, say, 60% of Americans to the war was wrong only goes to show how deeply ingrained American nationalistic pride is.

        More generally, the majority of Americans virtually never look at a problem in their society and ask, “Do other people have a better approach to this problem than we do?” If they did, we’d have a better health care system, a better educational system, and we wouldn’t be so drenched in our idiotic religion.

      3. I’ve been thinking about this, and while I see more America on the news (and an awful lot of it because I’m still only next door), I also see that cancerous idea of ‘American Exceptionalism’, that the US is somehow above and beyond the laws that govern the rest of humanity (think ‘The worlds’ cop, your phrase ‘most dominant super power) persists. You do not see it because you are inside of it. As I said, even small things, like the constant religiosity of American English and idioms (Americans are not lucky, they are ‘blessed’, ‘Thank God I got the promotion I was working for, ‘God willing we will win more gold at the Olympics, etc. )- make for a populace that takes all of these things for granted. Live in another country, where they are not able to fall back on that tired and ugly phrase ‘We are the world’s policeman’ and you’ll see why even changing simple traditions infuriates Americans.

        In Canada we got rid of the dollar bill and replaced it with a coin. We even got rid of the penny. If you did that in the US, people would be up in arms about some kind of conspiracy. In Canada we stopped mail from begin delivered on weekends and no one even sniffed. Now were are looking into getting rid of mailboxes and yes, there are a few who are upset, but nothing like the hew and cry you’d hear from the US and Fox News, who would cry for Impeachment faster than you can say ‘Benghazi’.

        I’m not even talking big things like Single Payer Healthcare or Federal recognition of Same-Sex Marriage (both of which we have, despite a Conservative Government – which hopefully we’ll be rid of via the next election). I’m talking little, trivial things. In the US, tradition is sacrosanct, to the point where nothing can ever change for the good, be it mail delivery or believe that In God we Trust.

        1. America is strange that way. It can be good and bad. They tend to be horribly stubbourn about things but they also tend to lip off a lot and sometimes that’s a good thing. Sadly, the lipping off seems horribly misdirected these days. There was a time where Americans would practically riot in the streets over the NSA fiasco.

  16. Inspired only by transcendence. These people (~50% US) will do anything including disqualifying truth in order to hold on to their loved ones for an eternity of delusion.

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