Good news: belief in God and the supernatural appears to wane

March 7, 2014 • 6:24 am

The results from a recent Harris Interactive Poll, taken in November of 2013 and published a month later, show a continual decline in Americans’ belief in the supernatural, which I take to be part of the inevitable secularization of this country. The sample size was 2250 adults over age 18, the poll gives no error limits on its estimates as it’s impossible to gauge error on issues like the beliefs of who didn’t respond, the wording of questions, and so on.

The good news, as I said, is that belief in things numinous and supernatural is on the wane; the bad news is that belief in religious superstition still far exceeds the acceptance of evolution.

Here’s the critical data: belief in evolution and the supernatural and paranormal between 2005 and the end of 2013. As usual, belief in things like miracles and the afterlife, as well as angels, hovers around 70%, but, as you’ll see in the last column, the percentage accepting such phenomena has dropped appreciably since 2005, with belief in God alone declining 8% in the last 8 years. If that trend continues, America should be completely atheistic by 2088! That won’t happen, of course, but note that most of the drop happened within the last four years.  (Because of that, one has to wonder if the new figures are somehow anomalous).

Picture 3

Acceptance of evolution has risen 5%, while that of creationism has declined by 3%; and acceptance of most paranormal phenomena, while showing a slight increase, is still appreciably below that of religious “supernatural” phenomena. Still, it’s a bit discomfiting that 42% of Americans still believe in ghosts!

Take a look at this table about degree of certainty that there is or is not a god; figures involve four polls over ten years.

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.35.42 AM

Absolute certainty of God has gone down 11%, and if you cound the last three rows as “atheists/agnostics,” that figure has risen from 21% to 32%—a remarkable 52% increase in 10 years.

That secularism mirrors the change in people’s self-description, in which the “not at all religious” category has increased from 12% to 23% since 2007:

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.40.03 AM

As expected, the South is more religious than other areas of the country, and Republicans are more religious than Democrats:

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.42.00 AM Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.42.19 AM

Add to this table a partition by age (below), and you’ll see a steady increase in religiosity with age of respondent. This suggests a “cohort effect”: older people were more often brought up religious and have retained those beliefs. But there’s an alternative explanation: older people become more religious as they get older. I don’t have the data at hand, but I think that evidence from other polls, as well as from this one—the cross-section of Americans shows a general decline in religiosity, although the mean age is likely to be similar among all polls—suggests that some of this is a general decrease in religiosity in more recent years.

Remember, these data are percentages of people certain that there is a God:

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.52.21 AM

In contrast, scientists working at “elite” universities show the opposite trend (this is from other data I’ve discussed): older scientists become less religious. That cannot reflect either a cohort effect or more belief with age, but, I suspect, reflects a steady erosion of belief the longer one works in science.

As always, religiosity declines with education, probably for the same reasons that scientists lose faith when they get older: with more education comes more ability or exposure to critical thinking. An alternative explanation, which I find less credible, is that people who are more religious at the outset tend to leave school earlier:

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.52.30 AM

There are other interesting data in the poll, including what Americans think about God’s gender, but I’ll let you look for yourselves.

One figure did surprise me, though: the percentage of people who think God concerns himself (herself or hirself or zeself or whatever) with what happens on Earth:

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.59.00 AM Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 6.59.21 AM

I’m trying to comport this with my observation (personal, of course) that most religious Americans are theistic, believing in an interactive God. The figures above, however, suggest that more Americans are deists (“does not control what happens on Earth”) rather than theists, though the most striking figure is in the last row—nonbelievers.

At any rate, perhaps theism is more than simply God’s “control” of what happens on earth, but can also involve God’s “interaction” with Earth’s inhabitants. That is, theists might not believe that God changes things, but still has a meaningful dialogue  with and a personal interest in believers. Still, the 29% of all adults who believe in a non-active God is a puzzle to me. Perhaps the question could have been worded better.

If one can trust these results, they document the increasing secularization of America—a secularization more rapid than I would have expected. Perhaps one happy day we’ll be like Denmark!

69 thoughts on “Good news: belief in God and the supernatural appears to wane

  1. What I find perhaps most amazing is that belief in astrology has held steady. While the other phenomena are arguably impossible to DISprove, astrology is relatively simple – the premise behind all the astrological star signs is the relative position – on a notional 2d plane – of the stars that make up the twelve signs. But we know for a certain fact that the stars are moving relative to each other (in a few million years the night sky will look very different); that they’re not all on the same spherical plane relative to Earth; that they’re a FUCKING long way away; and so on. So to believe that their alignment and movements somehow have some impact on all our lives is preposterous; yet the superstition lives on.


    1. The reason you shouldn’t be surprised is that while you say “But we know…”, most people have such a poor scientific education that they don’t in fact know this at all. Shameful, but true.

    2. They are well aware that the constellations change, they claim to use them as a calendar. It’s one of the first things we learn not to use when confronting astrologers. Astronomy and physics should basically be avoided, unless astrologers try to somehow base their claims on that.

      Their major documented failure is on the claim that they are able to predict what kind a personality a person has. That was tested and it was shown that a random assignment behaves as well as astral charts.

      1. When someone asks my sign I say ‘Can’t you guess?’
        Then they guess and I say ‘That’s amazing! You are one of the one in twelve who gets it right’
        They always take that as a compliment.

    3. I’m not surprised re belief in astrology holding steady because my experience with ‘woo’ believers (the Spiritual) is that they’re primarily interested into buying into a world view and creating a flatering image of themselves — with the science and reason following along but often claiming to be first. They’re also very, very focused on “personal experience” as the gold standard of evidence.

      People who believe in astrology often see themselves as very sensitive, holistic people in tune with both nature and ancient wisdom. They’re rebels from a modern society which dismisses “magic” as old superstitions (“ha! little do they know the AMAZING THINGS which I have experienced!”)It is possible to take control of your destiny by figuring out the clues in Nature/Spirit. And so forth.

      Of course, those figures may also reflect other things. A decline in some areas with a rise in others (Hindus, even well-educated Hindus, seem to be more inclined to think that Vedic astrology is scientific.)

      1. Traditions, habits, and superstitions. They can be largely innocuous, like a tennis player always bouncing a ball twice and only twice before serving. Culture carries a great number of things that are very close to religion, but not necessarily religious anymore.

        Two Jews, for example, can behave exactly the same, but one believes in God and the other does not. This can include following a superstition that constrains the actions of both individuals. And yet why does the non-believer still act this way? It is part of accepting a culture, defining one’s acceptance and empathy for traditions which bear some significance to that individual, even if the significance is no longer rational.

        There may very well be a shift for some people transitioning from religion. Not necessarily religious -> atheist. But a transitioning from religion with a selection of traditions and superstitions that remain to keep some semblance of the numinous as part of one’s life.

        1. I don’t think it is possible to not be religious and keep the “numinous” as part of your life. By definition:

          1. having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.

          1. Neither do I, but a possible explanation for why some people maintain beliefs in superstitions may simply be a result of their not wanting to fully abandon the transcendent. For some, it is a transition. They are afraid to let go of all that think might be spiritual or the divine. This might lead to hang on to some seriously silly superstitions (like the power of crystals, horoscopes) even though they are no longer or ever were religious.

          2. Sagan attempted to re-appropriate “numinous” for the entirely naturalistic overwhelming reaction I’m sure we’re all familiar with when appreciating something profound. Whether that re-appropriation is appropriate or yet commonly accepted I’m not quite sure — but, I can assure you, at least as Sagan used it, there wasn’t anything remotely “really” religious about it.


              1. Antonio Damasio does an interesting thing. He takes the words ’emotion’ and ‘feeling’ and gives them distinct definitions.
                When the brain recipes a stimulus from its environment (remember that the brain itself is part of its environment) it responds with some appropriate wash of neurochemicals. You are conscious of the effects on your brain before you have any thoughts about it. This he calls emotion. Then your brain thinks under the influence of these emotions and the result is feeling. It’s analogous to the rush you get from drugs just before the ‘Oh Wow!’
                It’s his argument against people (like Dan Dennett) who think that language is a precondition for consciousness since there are obviously things that one can be conscious of for which there are no words.

                Even if Karen Armstrong can write whole books about it.

      2. ya, ‘sensitivity’

        I once complimented a progressive on their political acumen

        They replied it was due to their psychic ability. This person also believes in the real five elements and personal reality tunnels.

        The chat made me realize the phrase ‘reality has a liberal bias’ just ain’t so

        woo has no bounds, you never know where you’ll find it

    4. Just as with god, how you define astrology matters a lot. My first boss made some comment about someone’s sign at lunch one day and I replied that astrology was obviously bunk because how could 1/12 of the population have the same future forecast. He relplied that of course one can’t predict the future with astrology, but you could tell things about their personality. He went on to say that it probably wasn’t even due to star positions, but more likely due to seasonal conditions as the fetus was gestating such as temperature and hours of daylight. So, one can be sort of sciency and still believe in some aspects of astrology.

      1. But crucially, he wouldn’t be able to provide evidence. So it is only vernacular “sciency” while in fact it is non-science nonsense.

        1. Reminds me of a conversation last year with a small cafe owner, a person in his early 30s. He first floated the idea that maybe various aspects of reality do not become actualized until someone comes along and measures that aspect of reality. Seemed to me to be a kind of mangling of Copenhagen school of thought, except applied to everything, big and small.

          I went ahead and (gently) worked along with him about the consequences of the logic of such a scenario… especially where it concerned faulty measurements, where the underlying reality didn’t shift on everybody, despite the discovery of the fault or the bias. He seemed satisfied for a while…

          …and then started floating the idea that there was something to astrology, and how he might go about proving this, that, or the other. I mentioned that anybody really could investigate these things on their own, which led to a discussion of the problems of doing just that — making sure that the phenomena could not be more easily explained by seasonal fluctuations (offering as an example, the acquisition of bacterial STDs [VD] as a function of people about 21 years of age who are hitting the bars for the first time, you would expect greater STD rates among Cancers, Leos and Virgos). So if one was to try to construct a large enough study and control for such seasonal anomalies, one way to do it would be to hunt for phenomena that exhibited true “step function” behavior along the lines dividing the different signs.

          I then mentioned that there was a group (out in North Carolina?) that had been investigating all kinds of claims, including ones of an astrological nature – that they had been in this business for about 70 years, and that it would make sense to canvass the work they had already done to keep from spinning wheels unnecessarily.

          He said he might as well not bother, because if they already did all this work, then they would have determined a reality into existence that would preclude the astrological phenomena from looking like it was true, even if it was.

          It seems that many of the young people I have been meeting lately (esp. in the musical or artistic community) are MUCH less religious than people my age, but are so full of shit that it hurts to even converse with them.

    1. There is a book about generations called Boom, Bust & Echo about the baby boomers, generation X & echo respectively. It sucks that my small group is “bust”.

      1. Given that set of conditions; too many, slow down, here we go again. Bust is the best.

        It’s like the greatest generation. They can’t justify that claim.

  2. I don’t think most believers have thought about the matter enough to actually know what they believe. Hell, even the ones who have thought about it can’t seem to offer coherent descriptions of their faith.

    1. Yes, when given in abstract terms, “does God control what happens” a believer is likely to fall back on whatever theology they remember from catechism class or other theology they’ve learned.

      When asked about whether God caused natural disaster X the respondent is likely to answer based on their feelings about the victims of disaster X.

      When asked whether God ever answered one of your prayers, they are liked to answer based on some life anecdote or other.

      In principle, these are the same question, but the same person could answer very differently to these three questions.

  3. Note that (for example) if 42% did accept evolution, while 47% do now, that is a more than 10% increase, not 5%.

    Similarly, 10% fewer believe in a god, not 8%.

  4. No I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution,” any more than I “believe in Dalton’s theory of atoms.” The very wording of the question is an indictment of the educational system.

    1. Very true. Using the word Darwin begs the respondent to answer in the negative. It would be about the same as calling it Jerry Coyne’s Theory of Evolution.

    2. I’m not too terribly upset at the word, belief. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that the purpose of science is to apportion belief in proportion with a rational analysis of empirical observation.

      It’s only when your beliefs aren’t in such a reasonable proportion that things go awry — for example, if your error bars are tighter than the evidence indicates is reasonable, or if your conclusion lies outside the error bars entirely. That latter case, by the way, is what we commonly refer to as, “faith.”


      1. I disagree. It would be odd to say that you believe in thermodynamics, and it’s equally odd to say that you believe in evolution. And it’s actually damaging because it gives “belief in evolution” the same kind of framing as “belief in creationism,” and our enemies take full advantage of the rhetorical resemblance.

        1. I will concede this much; you might say that you believe some claim is (or isn’t) sound, but, crucially, you would only say that if the opposite opinion was a credible alternative.

      2. Personally I’m peeved.

        Not only does it give ammo to the religious. The very framing is philosophic and more specifically accommodationist. Facts # belief. (Say, you have to ascertain uncertainty and quality limits in order to arrive at observations. Belief doesn’t need anything at all, it is of null value outside the value of taking an opinion.)

        1. To be honest, I believe that there’s a bit of over-reactionary hypersensitivity going on with this word, and I don’t at all think it’s appropriate. Yes, the religious have appropriated it for a certain aspect of their thinking, but they’ve also appropriated other perfectly fine words such as, “love,” and, “peace.”

          My dictionary — American Heritage, 5th Edition — opens with three definitions for the transitive verb:

          1. To accept as true or real: Do you believe the news stories? 2. To credit with veracity: I believe you. 3. To expect or suppose; think: I believe they will arrive shortly.

          It’s only when you get to the intransitive verbs that we finally see the “objectionable” definition:

          1. To have firm faith, especially religious faith. 2. To have faith, confidence, or trust: I believe in your ability to solve the problem. 3. To have confidence in the truth or value of something: We believe in free speech. 4. To have an opinion; think: They have already left, I believe.

          If we then move on to the noun, the secular case, as overwhelming as it is for the verb, becomes even stronger. Three definitions only:

          1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another: My belief in you is as strong as ever. 2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief. 3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially as a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

          So, put it all together, and I firmly believe that all of us pro-science “evilutionists” would happily apply all but one of those definitions to the conclusions of science. We accept them as true and real, we credit them with veracity, we have confidence and trust in their truth, and so on.

          To eschew this particular word because it’s a favorite of certain illiterate Christians, I believe, is counterproductive and cedes far too much undeserved linguistic ground to them.

          But that’s “just” my belief.



          1. You have actually clarified my case. “I believe the data” is ok; “I believe IN the data” shows that something’s fishy So I believe the arguments establishing the truth of evolution, but I do not believe IN the arguments, or IN evolution itself.


            1. While one can, of course, butcher any language in all sorts of ways, even “believe in” isn’t problematical the way you suggest.

              American Heritage didn’t see fit to include “believe in,” but the New Oxford American does, and it’s really no different from the others.

              Now, there are those who will use, “belief,” as a synonym for, “faith,” but that’s because faith is a form of belief. If you have faith in something you, of necessity, also believe it. But it’s perfectly reasonable to believe something without having faith in it.

              That’s the linguistic line that should be drawn. It’s fine to believe in the data (assuming, of course, the methodology, etc. support the belief); it’s not fine to have faith in the data.

              And, even then, I’m pretty sure, again, we all have “confident or unquestioning belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of the proposition that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow” — and that would be the second definition of, “faith.” Now, considering the regular religious use of the word (the first definition), I’d be damned careful to express my faith in the direction of tomorrow’s sunrise in exactly the way I’m doing so right now…

              …which brings me to my final point. No matter how you phrase it, no matter what words you use, there’ll always be somebody looking to score cheap rhetorical points by equating scientific confidence with religious faith.

              So fucking what?

              When somebody tries to pull that trick, take a deep breath, sigh dramatically, and explain just what the difference between the two actually is.

              And, yes. There’re plenty of assholes who’ll, intentionally or otherwise, childishly taunt you with a continued misunderstanding. Either disengage if you don’t like discussing at that level, or remind them that they’re the ones who take seriously a book that opens with a faery tale about talking animals and an angry wizard — and I’m sure you’ve got the rest mesmerized by now.



      3. The word belief has the same problem as the word theory. With much of the general public these words have meanings that are completly different what you will find in Webster’s Dictionary. I believe in the theory that one is better avoiding these words whenever possible. It is annoying to have to do this but if this is what is necessary to win someone over then so be it.

        1. See, if you grant the religious the right to appropriate language unchallenged, not only will they cheerfully accept your kind donation, you’ll soon not even be able in theory to discuss anything without first conceding the fight to them by your very inability to communicate without religious language.

          What, do you think the religious don’t also know that their redeemers liveth? That it’s not a fact that Jesus loves them and wants them to fondle his intestines? That they don’t have evidence (in the form of revelation and / or the Bible) supporting their claims?

          Please, don’t give up the fight before it even starts.

          Language is useful, and it can’t be magically tainted cooties-style by religious usage unless you let it happen that way.



  5. “Still, it’s a bit discomfiting that 42% of Americans still believe in ghosts!”

    I wonder if this includes Christians who typically reject spooks and haunted houses – but who check the box anyway because of doctrinally sanctioned miracles (Lourdes, etc.)? Maybe they count Marian apparitions (et. al.) as “ghosts”…?

    1. “Still, it’s a bit discomfiting that 42% of Americans still believe in ghosts!”

      Explains the popularity of some of the crap on science and history channels for cable TV.

      1. Or it might go the other way around. I can easily imagine someone on the fence about ghosts being impressed with the regular ‘evidence’ presented on these shows. I mean, even if 99% is faked — what about that last bit? Huh? Huh?

        Must be something to it or they wouldn’t be showing it on Discovery Channel.

  6. If 53% of the population does not accept evolution while 36% accepts creation what exactly do the other 17% accept as a satisfactory explanation for the change and diversity we witness in nature? Should we perhaps categorize them as clueless?

    1. My guess? Those 17% are the ones who dislike the wording of the questions so much that they answer in a technically accurate fashion which nevertheless misconstrues their general position.

      So, it’s the pro-evolution folk who answer “no” to Darwin’s theory, or creationists who answer “no” to the particular phrasing of the creationist position on the question.

      1. I think you overestimate pedantry and underestimate apathy in the general population.

        For any topic of any intellectual heft at all, having “don’t know” run into the double digits is not surprising.

    2. They could be Lamarkian-Kiplingists – “How the rhinoceros got his skin”, “How the leopard got his spots”, etc.

  7. Although I doubt this topic is polled frequently enough to allow it, it would be interesting to see how belief in the supernatural has changed over time after poll aggregation (a la Princeton Election Consortium etc.) to iron out the outliers. It is very easy to be misled by one poll (such as Gallup in the 2012 presidential election cycle)

  8. On the control issue, I think you are right the question is poorly worded. Since most religionists believe in “free will” they cannot say that god ‘controls’ what happens on Earth. This does not mean they don’t believe in miraculous interventions etc…

  9. If that trend continues, America should be completely atheistic by 2088!

    Ah, but I note with amusement (not criticism) that bottom entry is also a plus…and predicts the entire population will believe in reincarnation by 2215 🙂

    1. So… we will see a pre-religious world reincarnated!?

      Else Atheists Reincarnated sounds like a band name.

  10. “people who are more religious at the outset tend to leave school earlier”

    Maybe this could have some effect: It is plausible that people at school age with strongly held religious beliefs are on average less intelligent than those who sussed it earlier. Certainly, it appears to be that way in internet forums, where those with religious convictions tend to have a lower level of literacy. In the same way one might expect intelligent children to work out that their Christmas stockings were the work of their parents earlier than less intelligent ones.

    Also, religious belief can have a stultifying effect on the acceptance and understanding of knowledge, especially in the sciences. That would also tend to result in religious people leaving school earlier.

    1. And if you are raised in a religious community where education is devalued and schools viewed with suspicion, it reduces that chance that you will enjoy it or stick with it through a rough patch.

  11. I too wonder about people’s change in religiosity as they age. In my case I just couldn’t maintain any belief in the Catholic doctrines by the age of 13 or so. I couldn’t see how any grown up could still believe such obviously ridiculous things.
    At that age I had not experienced any hardships or tragedies. No one I knew had died. Now in my fifties I’ve experienced some bad things and I wonder if religious people as they age and experience more and more tragedies might question the loving god idea more. It could also have the opposite effect of course and intensify their religiosity.
    It would make an interesting study. Maybe someone has already done such research.

  12. I’m optimistic about the results. The first table looks surprisingly (to me) consistent among the different categories. The decline in those with god delusion seems to correspond to a decline in other beliefs commonly associated with gods.

    The bottom table is subject, I think, to different interpretations of what ‘control’ means. I think that table reflects more of a measure of what people think about free will than a belief in deistic gods. Comparing the two tables it looks like christians believe their gods can cause things to happen (miracles, angels) but, doesn’t dictatorially control what occurs in the lives of humans. Which isn’t practicably consistent but then, they are christians.

    It looks to be in close alignment to what Gnu atheists have considered would likely occur due to the influence of the public expression of atheism without apology. The christians that are willing to think are willing to admit that their gods aren’t at all obvious or even likely to occur. Those christians that are severely indoctrinated won’t think no matter how they are accommodated.

  13. One figure did surprise me, though: the percentage of people who think God concerns himself (herself or hirself or zeself or whatever) with what happens on Earth

    I wonder if a fair percentage of believers are exempting their own psychological states from “Earth.” It seems to me to be getting more and more acceptable to insist that God doesn’t act directly on events, but interacts instead with people’s minds and hearts. You pray to God for guidance or strength, and God interactively participates with your internal world and gives you that guidance or strength!

    Ok, that sounds suspiciously like a step closer to atheism, but the believers who believe in an active Inner God connecting to their mental world usually put a great deal of effort and emphasis into denying that this is ANY closer to atheism at all. No! It’s more mystical! Purer! More Spiritual and real and godly and true! It is!

    1. God is so busy deciding the outcome of football games and choosing lottery winners that he doesn’t have time to perform ordinary miracles anymore.

  14. Could the decrease of religiosity with age group in scientists have to do with an increase of diversity? I expect that academia has become less elitist which may have fostered a higher proportion of more “common”, perhaps more often religious people.

  15. It’s still some ways to my barfday, but this is a sweet early present for my nom day (Torbjörn 9th of March).

    I’m sure people will have their favorites, but what jumps out to me is the overtake of fundamentalists by atheists (21 -> 19 % vs 12 -> 23 %) and the decisive win of evolution over the earlier comparable creationism (42 -> 47 % vs 39 -> 36 %). The “evolution” group will include evolutionary creationists to ~ 50 % IIRC of course, but the social willingness to aggregate it that way is positive for the eventual acceptance of evolution as is.

    In other good news I read today that Denmark, Norway and Sweden places 1-3 on nations where rule of law applies.

    [Unfortunately and perhaps somewhat surprisingly I can’t see US in the top 10, despite the general willingness for litigation and the preference of law over other governmental ways of ruling.]

    1. Millenials are a marketing nightmare. They often like new and unique things as well so they aren’t brand loyal.

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