Hope for a Brighter Future – Part 2

In the previous post on this topic I pointed to a recent study which showed that belief in God is on the decline in the United States.  Some people, however, have a difficult time accepting this fact, and in order to avoid this “unpleasant” reality engage in various forms of uncritical thinking.  
Joe Hinman, for example, seems to be hell bent on rejecting the facts that contradict his wishes and desires on this matter, and as a result he provides us with a clear example of how NOT to think.  Joe provides us with a clear example of the saying “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”
I think we can all learn something from Joe’s failure to think rationally and objectively about this issue.  We can all learn how to be better critical thinkers, including Joe, if he is willing to admit his mistakes and to learn from them.
Here is a copy of the study that I was pointing to:
ReligioninGSS1-25-16.pdf
There is a lot of interesting information in this study, but there are a few key points that relate to the issue of whether belief in God in on the decline:

  • In the late 1980s,  13% of the general population indicated doubt or disbelief about the existence of God. 
  • In 2008, the percentage of the general population indicating doubt or disbelief about the existence of God grew to 18%.
  • By 2014, the percentage of the general population indicating doubt or disbelief about the existence of God reached 22%.

(This data is found in Table 1 on page 26 of the study.)
There has been a significant increase in doubt/disbelief about God when we compare the 13% figure from the late 1980s to the 22% figure from 2014.  If that trend has continued for the past two years, then we may soon see the day when 1/4  (25%) of the population expresses doubt or disbelief about the existence of God.
The trend towards doubt or disbelief is even more pronounced among young adults (ages 18-29):

  • In the late 1980s, only 12% of young adults indicated doubt or disbelief about the existence of God.
  • In the year 2008, the percentage of young adults indicating doubt or disbelief about the existence of God had doubled: 24%.
  • By 2014, the percentage of young adults indicating doubt or disbelief in the existence of God had grown even further, to 30%.

(This data is found in Table 2 on page 28 of the study.)
If this trend has continued for the past two years, then we may well soon see the day when 1/3  (33%) of young adults express doubt or disbelief about the existence of God.
Because these facts show that belief in the existence of God is on the decline, these facts are disturbing to Joe, and so he raises various obviously flawed objections, fearfully and desperately trying to push this “unpleasant” reality out of his mind.
Joe Comment 1:
Belief in God has not declined. you are making classic mistake of assuming none means belief. it just means no label. At least half the nones believe in God.
Based on my previous experiences with him, Joe has a strong tendency to commit the STRAW MAN fallacy.  This is an example of that fallacy.  Joe does not point out where I make this “classic mistake” nor does he point out where the study that I mentioned makes this “classic mistake”.  Joe does not point out where I or the study make this mistake, because neither I nor the study ever makes any such claim or assumption.  Joe just makes stuff up, attributes it to others, and then objects to the stuff that he made up.
My post was very short, and consisted mostly of a brief quote from a news article about the study.  The last sentence from the article that is quoted in my post was this:
• Those who say they don’t believe in God rose from 13 to 22 percent.
If this claim is true, then belief in God has declined significantly (between the late 1980s and 2014).  There is nothing in this quoted sentence about “nones” nor does it speak of “religiously unaffiliated” people.  This is clearly a statement about the general population.  This is clearly a statement about decline in belief in God.
There is no confusion here involving the false assumption that all “nones” disbelieve in God.  The only confusion here is in Joe’s mind.  Joe wished and hoped that I was confusing “nones” with “disbelief in God”.  Joe wished and hoped that the study had confused “nones” with “disbelief in God”, but no such confusion actually exists.  Joe was desperately grasping for staws to fend off facts that he wishes were not so.
If Joe had read the study for himself, then he would have seen that no such confusion occurs in the study.  So, it looks like Joe launched into creating objections against the study without first READING the study.  If so, then Joe provides us with a clear example of how NOT to think.
A basic principle of critical thinking is this:

Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.

In order to understand a study, one must first READ the study.  If, as appears to be the case, Joe launched into raising objections to this study without first reading it, then Joe violated this basic principle of critical thinking.  We will see futher evidence, from other comments by Joe, that he did not read this study before launching into raising objections against it.
Joe Comment 2:
I also doubt that your study distinguishes between belief and membership.
This is an alternative expression of the same objection made by Joe in “Joe Comment 1”.  Joe is repeating the obviously mistaken objection that the study confuses the lack of religious affiliation (i.e. “nones”) with lack of belief in God.  Note that Joe says “I…doubt that….”  This expression makes no sense if Joe had read the study before raising this objection.  If he had read the study, then he would KNOW whether it confused “nones” with “disbelief in God”, and if he KNEW that such a confusion existed in the study, then he would simply say so, and he would provide one or more quotations from the study showing that it confused these ideas.
In using the expression “I…doubt that…” Joe clearly indicates that he has NOT read the study, and that he merely SUSPECTS that the study involves such a confusion.  The fact that Joe merely suspects that such a confusion occured in the study clearly indicates that Joe did NOT read the study before launching into raising objections against it.
Joe Comment 3:
“The share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God, while still remarkably high by comparison with other advanced industrial countries, has declined modestly, from approximately 92% to 89%, since Pew Research Center conducted its first Landscape Study in 2007.1”
As I said before this is in the margin of error. They alway7s assume any survey could be off by 3% so they call it a dead heat in an election. …But atheism is not increasing in fact it could be an increase in belief since it’s in the margin of error.
There is so much bad thinking going on here, that it is hard to know where to start.
Here is where you can find a copy of the study that Joe quoted from:
201.11.03_RLS_II_full_report.pdf
First of all, Joe quotes from another study in order to contradict the claim that belief in God is in decline, but the study he quotes indicates that belief in God is in decline!  Not exactly a strong objection.  
Second, I don’t think that Joe read the study that he is quoting here, because if he had read it, he would know that the study provides significant SUPPORT for the view that belief in God is on the decline, and significant support for the accuracy of the study that I was pointing out. Also, I don’t think that Joe read the study that he is quoting from, because if he had read it, he would not have made the idiotic and obviously false point about there being a 3% margin of error in the study that he quotes from.
Third,  even if Joe was correct about the margin of error being 3%, his objection still misses the mark because the primary comparison being made in the study I point to is between the late 1980s and 2014, whereas the study that Joe points to compares survey data from 2007 to 2014. (If Joe had read both studies, he would have known that they cover differnent time spans.) So, even if the decline in belief in God was tiny (or non-existent) between 2007 and 2014, that does NOT imply that a decline in belief in God between the late 1980s and 2014 was tiny (or non-existent).  The study that Joe points to makes no reference to survey data from the late 1980s, so it cannot address the primary comparison made in the study that I pointed out. 
There are at least four obvious reasons why the 3% margin of error that Joe asserts is false or questionable:

  1. A Pew Research Center study would NOT conclude that belief in God “has declined” if the percentage of change was within the margin of error.  That would be a mistake that only an ignorant Jr High student would make, not one that a team of survey experts would make (duh!).
  2. A 3% margin of error is what you get with standard national phone surveys of about 1,000 people, and a major Pew Research Center study would be unlikely to be of such low quality/effort. (Joe: if you did not know that a 3% margin of error is associated with national surveys that have a sample size of 1,000 people, then please review this basic information about the concept of “margin of error”.  Also, for the specific statistic that you quote, the margin of error with a sample size of 1,000 would be 2% not 3%, because the statistics were close to 90% figures, which lowers the margin of error.)
  3. On page 39, the margin of error is stated explicitlyWith more than 35,000 interviews each, both the 2007 and 2014 studies have margins of error of less than 1 percentage point, making it possible to identify even relatively small changes in the U.S. religious landscape.  (This is further evidence that Joe did not actually read the Pew Research Center study that he has quoted.)
  4. Joe need not have read the study up to page 39 to determine that the margin of error was significantly smaller than 3%.  If he had just read the VERY FIRST SENTENCE of the study, he ought to have known that the typical 3% margin of error did not apply to this study: This report analyzes findings from the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, the centerpiece of which is a nationally representative telephone survey of 35,071 adults.  (The sample size of this study is about 35 times larger than the size of the typical political poll with a 3% margin of error).

So, if Joe had read the study that he quotes from to try to contradict the conclusion of the study that I pointed out, then Joe would have known that (a) it has a margin of error less than 1%, and (b) that it actually SUPPORTS the study that I pointed out (as we shall soon see), rather than contradicting it.  So, it looks like Joe did NOT read the study that I pointed to before launching objections against it, and that Joe also did NOT read the study that he pointed to before using it as the basis for an objection.  Either that, or Joe cannot read with any competence.
Here is a corollary to the previous principle of critical thinking:

Don’t use a study as evidence for (or against) a claim until you understand that study.

To understand a study, of course, requires that you first READ the study, so it appears that Joe has also violated this corollary principle of critical thinking.
The study that Joe points us to supports the view that belief in God is on the decline in the United States.  First of all, it shows that there was a decrease in the percentage of people who say they believe in God. In 2007 92% of the general population would say they believe in God, but in 2014 89% would say this.  Since the margin of error is less than 1%, that means, contrary to the fervent desires of Joe, that the percentage of people who say they believe in God declined about 3%.
If this decline is part of a trend that already existed prior to 2007, then the decline in recent decades would exceed this 3% figure.  But whether this decline between 2007 and 2014 is part of a trend that existed prior to 2007 cannot be answered by the study that Joe points us to, because that study only compares two sets of survey data:  survey data from 2007 and survey data from 2014.
The study I pointed to, however, makes use of many sets of survey data going back as far as 1972, and includes data from the 1980s and the 1990s as well as data from the first decade of the 21st century, plus a few more recent years (2010, 2012, and 2014).  This data shows that the trend of decline in belief in God began in the late 1980s, and thus the decline in belief in God between the late 1980s and 2014 is significantly greater than the 3% decline between 2007 and 2014 indicated by the study that Joe pointed out.
The study that Joe points us to also supports the view that belief in God is on the decline, because it shows three important trends (see page 4 of the Pew Research Center study):

  1. The percentage of the population that are “nones” has been increasing significantly.
  2. The percentage of “nones” who doubt or disbelieve in the existence of God has been increasing significantly.
  3. The percentage of religiously affiliated persons who believe in God has NOT been increasing significantly.  

The combination of these three trends supports the view that belief in God is on the decline.  If belief in God is stable among the religiously affiliated, but is significantly on the decline among “nones”, and if “nones” are becoming a significantly larger percentage of the population, then belief in God is declining. So long as these three trends continue, belief in God will also continue to decline.
Joe Comment 4:
Belief in God is down among the nones. It’s down from 71% to 61% but that’s 61% of 10% of the country so it’s in the 3% over all.
Joe admits that belief in God is declining among “nones”.  But this admission threatens Joe’s wish that belief in God NOT be on the decline, so he tries to minimize the significance of this fact by minimizing the significance of the “nones” category: they are only “10% of the country”.  Where does this 10% figure come from?  Joe doesn’t say.   I think Joe just made this number up, perhaps because it fits nicely with what he wishes were true.
But Joe’s claim here is FALSE.  There was a time when “nones” were only 10% of the population, but that was back in the mid-1990s.  The year Joe is talking about is 2014, and in 2014 the percentage of the population that were “nones” was significantly larger than 10%.  In fact, in 2014 the percentage of “nones” was more than DOUBLE what it had been in the middle of the 1990s.
According to the study that Joe points us towards, the percentage of “nones” in 2014 was 23%, and if the trend has continued for the past couple of years, we are probably at about 25% now.  Not one in ten, but about one in four!  Wishful thinking leads Joe to imagine that “nones” only make up 10% of the population, but the very study that he holds up as a solid and trustworthy study shows that the percentage of the population that are “nones” has significantly increased between 2007 (16%) and 2014 (23%) – see page 4 of the Pew Research Center study that Joe quoted.
The study that I pointed to supplements that data, and shows that this trend was already in progress in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s:

  • In the early 1970s, only 6% of people in the U.S. were “nones”.
  • In the late 1990s, the percentage of people who are “nones” had more than doubled to: 13%.
  • The percentage has continued to increase since that late 1990s, and in 2014 the percentage of the general population that are “nones” was 21%, more than triple the figure from the early 1970s.

(See Table 1 on page 26 of the study that I pointed out.)
Thus, it is clear that the increase in the proportion of the population that are “nones” is a long-term trend that has been going on since the early 1970s.
Furthermore, if you look at the statistics on young adults (ages 18-29), there has been a steady increase in the percentage of “nones” in that sub-group since the early 1990s, and the increase in the percentage of “nones” parallels the increase in doubt and disbelief about the existence of God in that same sub-group of young adults.  This is another indication that the decline in belief in God is related to the increasing number and percentage of the population that are “nones”.
Joe Comment 5:
…my study is more recemt so different year helps me. Makes yours out of date.
If Joe had actually read the study I pointed to, and the study that he quoted from, then he would have known that this claim is FALSE.  The most recent data used by the study I pointed to was from suveys taken in 2014.  The most recent data used by the study that Joe pointed to was from surveys taken in 2014.  Both studies are based on data from surveys taken in 2014.  The Pew Research Center study that Joe points to is NOT “more recent” than the study I pointed to, and if the study I point to is “out of date”, then so is the study that Joe quoted.
This is mentioned in the VERY FIRST SENTENCE of the study that Joe pointed to: This report analyzes findings from the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, the centerpiece of which is a nationally representative telephone survey of 35,071 adults.  The study I pointed out contains this information in the TITLE of the study (which appears at the top of the very first page of the study): Declines in American adults’ religious participation and beliefs, 1972-2014.  So, if Joe had only taken four seconds to read the first sentence of the Pew Research Center study that he points to, and two seconds to read the title of the study that I pointed to, then he would not have made the obviously false claim that the Pew Research Center study “is more recent” than the study that I pointed out.  This is further evidence that Joe did NOT read either study, and that he violated the above basic principles of critical thinking.
Joe’s thinking on this question manifests a pattern:

  • Joe wishes that I and the study I pointed out were confused about the concept of “nones” (so that he can dismiss my view and the conclusions of the study that pointed to), but the fact is that neither I nor the study I pointed out are confused about that concept.
  • Joe wishes that he had read and understood the study that I pointed to and the study that he pointed to, but the fact is that either he did not read these studies or he did not understand what he read.
  • Joe wishes that the Pew Research Center study contradicted the view that belief in God is on the decline, but the fact is that it clearly supports this view.
  • Joe wishes that the margin of error for the Pew Research Center statistics on belief in God was 3% (so he can dismiss the statistic showing decline in belief in God), but the fact is that the margin of error is less than 1% for that statistic.
  • Joe wishes that the Pew Research Center study contradicted the study I pointed out (so that he could dismiss the study I pointed to), but the fact is that the Pew Research Center study says nothing about belief in God in the late 1980s, which a key time frame for the study that I pointed out.  So, there can be no direct contradiction between these studies.
  • Joe wishes that “nones” made up only 10% of the U.S. population (so that he could downplay the increase in disbelief in God among “nones”), but the fact is that we make up nearly 25% of the population (23% as of 2014).
  • Joe wishes that the Pew Research Center study that he quoted from was “more recent” than the study that I pointed out (so that it could be used against the study I pointed to), but the fact is that both studies use data from surveys taken in 2014, and neither study uses data that is more recent than that.

It appears to be the case that, concerning this issue, Joe’s thinking is driven by his wishes and desires, and NOT by the actual facts and data: his mind is made up, so don’t confuse him with the facts.

This article is archived.