NOTE: This post was contributed by Gregory S. Paul, who is an occasional contributor to Free Inquiry, and who published an important article called “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”. Here is how Michael Shermer summarized that article:
Is religion a necessary component of social health? The data are conflicting. On the one hand, in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion & Society–“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”–independent scholar Gregory S. Paul found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen abortions and pregnancies) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD [sexually transmitted disease] infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies.
from “Bowling for God” by Michael Shermer
in Scientific American on December 1, 2006
Ralph Reed Tries to Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes About the Popularity of Prayer and Religion in America on Bill Maher’s Real Time
I was watching Bill Maher’s Real Time on 8/27 when I realized that prominent hard right-wing evangelical political operative Ralph (Christian Coalition) Reed, who Maher seems to like, was trying to profoundly mislead viewers about the level of religious practice in this country. I am not sure how prevalent his misuse of survey data is among theoconservatives – a web search did not find anything – but he managed to slip a bogus item of information out to the few million who see Real Time every week. So I am sending this out in an effort to try to nip this theocon anti-fact in the bud. Plus this scientist is annoyed by the slick pol’s brazen yet sly misuse of statistics.
Reed used the classic tactic of lying by telling the truth while leaving out the pile of contrary data that shows he is lying. First, he acknowledged that rates of nonreligion are indeed rapidly expanding in these United States as church membership and attendance decline with amazing speed – after a slow decline from the 1950s Gallup has recorded a membership decline of about 70% at the turn of the century to under 50% these days (https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx), in line with other surveys as well as reports of closing churches. The seemingly reasonable Reed then offered the logical explanation that the general societal detachment of people from social groups, driven in part by digital media, has something to do with that. Reed then began his verge off into misinformation land when he said all that did not matter all that much because rates of belief in and worship of God remain persistently high because people are becoming increasingly private about it.
Here is where being truthful can be a lie. Reed correctly claimed that in 1990 Gallup asked respondents if they pray often, sometimes, hardly ever, or only in times of crisis, or never.
Before proceeding, we need a digression about the statistical and other requirements of competent polling. Particularly regarding longitudinal surveys that track levels of and changes in opinions and practices over time. First, such polls must be sufficiently quantitative to give meaningful results that can be compared over the years. In the 1990 poll Gallup blew it – the only quantitatively reasonably useful possible answers were “hardly ever” or “never.” As for “often” and “sometimes” those values are pretty much useless. How often is often? How sometimes is sometimes? Each respondent would have a different notion on that, and will inevitably respond in inconsistent ways. Gallup should have known better and never posed such an ambiguous query. And to track changes the same questions need to be asked every one or a few years to generate an opinion level timeline. It’s basic stuff.
In 1990 half of respondents told Gallup they pray often. Which other than telling us what we already know that lots of Americans are religious has no scientific value. What they should have asked was something along the lines of do you pray multiple times a day, once a day, a few times a week, once a week, once a month or so — you get the statistical drift. I mean really, what were they thinking over at Gallup? Demographic dolts. Fortunately, Gallup then did not repeat the query, possibly and hopefully because they did a demographic dope slap and realized their error and good statistical riddance, since asking it again would risk giving misleading longitudinal results.
Alas, apparently inspired by the pandemic, in 2020 a Gallup that again should have known better did ask the same dam bogus query. And lo and behold now 55% say they pray often. Reed used this one pair of statistically valueless figures to try to sell Maher and his audience a demographic bill of goods that Amerotheism is not really in decline after all. Bill, and his other guest, understandably not being up on the minutia of recent Gallup results, were not able to perceive or counter Reed’s clever deception (I had to look it up and see what was really going down myself, even though this is an area of my research – for an extensive 2019 analysis of the subject discussed here and beyond see http://americanhumanist.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/art-1-Paul-The-Great-and-Amazingly-Rapid-Secularization-of-the-Increasingly-Proevolution-United-States.pdf).
The degree to which Reed was being deliberately deceptive by selectively picking Gallup data, or did not realize or understand the critical caveats and contra stats, I do not know for certain but am very suspicious. In any case, he was grossly misinforming Real Timewatchers one way or another.
First, Gallup itself admits that their little trend line on prayer is not statistically meaningful (https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/309638/update-virtual-worship-during-covid.aspx), which Reed did not mention — saying that would have negated his claim right there on the air. Obviously.
And here is what Reed did not offer up because it directly disproves his propaganda line that American God belief and worship is not in decline. In a location where Gallup offers up the useless prayer result they also present a number of more properly posed and frequently repeated polls they have been executing and posting for decades. Ones that do a much better job telling us what is really happening in this country a/theism wise (https://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx). So how about let’s check those fascinating and very telling stats out —
Those who say that religion is very important in their life went from, well let’s see here, ~60 in the 1990s to under 50% these days in a nice, fairly steady downslope (as also is true of the rest of the results). Meanwhile, those who say theism is not very important rose greatly from 10-15% to a quarter (see below discussion on why levels of rationalism measured in polls are probably on the low side). Gosh, Ralph, you did not bring up that one on Real Time. Because you are too lazy and ill-informed to know it — which seems a stretch since it is right there on the web? Or because you knew it would blow your superficially clever lie out of the water?
How about this one. Back in the 1990s, almost two-thirds told the fine folks at Gallup that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems. Now it is heading toward and below half. The rationalists who think religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date? Rose like yeast dough from one-fifth to over a third of the respondents (check out season 1, episode 25 of I Love Lucy for a classic laugh on that bread baking item).
Here’s a good one that shows that the days in which the hardcore devout religious right that Reed is a leading fellow traveler of was doing pretty good, while it was the mealy mushy mainline faiths that were taking it on the demographic chin, are no longer operative. In the 2000s those saying they were born-again or evangelical were in the broad area of the lower 40s percentage-wise (which was a little above the values observed in the 1990s). Now is in the mid-30s, hello Ralph. Might you mention that next time you are on the telly?
Next up is an oldie but goodie. In the 70s one in four thought the Bible is literally true. Now it’s a quarter or so. So are those who are of the opinion that the Bible is supernaturalistic fantasy mixed with some history, which is impressive because those good people were a mere one in ten back when Jimmy and Ronnie were POTUS. And while support for the creation of humans by God has been slipping, support for evolutionary science is on the way up. Sorry Ken Ham, Philip Johnson, and Michael Behe.
Time for the BIGGIE. One Mr. Reed somehow again failed to chat about as he misled Bill on his own show. Convinced God exists? In 2005 80%. In 2017 64%. A decline of a sixth of the national population in a dozen years. How about God probably does not exist or convinced there is not one. Doubled from 7% in 2005 to 13% in 2017. And if the fast-shifting trendlines have continued since then, probably still lower for the first and higher for the second here in 2021. But wait, there are more godly Gallup longitudinal deity queries. From 2001 to 2016 God belief sank from nine in ten to eight in ten, those who don’t opt for the supernatural rose to over one in ten. Gallup’s venerable simplistic yes or no on God belief question got virtually all to say yes in the 1950s and 60s, and after a yawning data gap has shown no results similar to the above surveys in the last decade. This is a good place to explain that it is well documented that persons are often reluctant to say they hold an unpopular opinion even when doing so privately by phone or online. A technical effort to use standard sociodemographic techniques to correct for this factor estimates that American atheists as broadly defined make up a quarter of the population (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170516143411.htm), matching or outnumbering a number of major religious sects. Likewise, other studies indicate actual church attendance is about half that claimed to Gallup (and other pollsters). It follows that all the Gallup (and other pollsters’) results for not praying, thinking religion is not societally important, attending church, are not Born-Again, thinking the Bible is not the word of God, understanding we are big-brained apes, are nonreligious, etc., are very probably markedly higher than Gallup, Pew, Harris, GSS, WVS, et al. results seem to indicate.
Gallup points out something interesting. One of their queries indicates that the number of Americans who think religion is having a major influence on America is currently on the high side. But they point out that is directly contrary to their own measures showing the opposite is true
(https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/310397/religion-paradox.aspx). So what gives? Although the query has its uses, it is not a direct measure of how much influence religion is actually having on America, which is not practical to measure, one would think, but what people think it is having. Which may well not be the same thing. That is why, unlike most longitudinal questions, over time the results for this query have fluctuated wildly. Apparently, the rise of the hard right under the aegis of secular hedonist Trump, which has had a strong evangelical component to it, has caused many to presume that religion has revived as a major influencer. Which it has not because even among Republicans theism is on the decline (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace).
So. Only one very unreliable Gallup result that the organization itself does not take all that seriously seems to support political operator Ralph Reed’s patently absurd pretension that polls show that Americans are remaining privately as Godly as ever over time, despite fleeing institutionalized religion. That when all of the more scientifically constructed and frequently asked Gallup queries show that while organized Christianity is declining faster than personal theism, the latter is going down fast too. One can and probably should presume that a data cherry-picking Reed knew that. Such is common among theists – it’s called lying for the church (or mosque or whatever; a young Muslim initially pretending to be uncertain about his beliefs showed up at a local atheist meetup not long ago and proceeded to try to convince the women to convert by quoting inane Quran lines ad nauseam). And if per chance he did not he has not the slightest excuse for not knowing the real and easy to find facts. Ergo, Godly, Born-Again evangelical Reed profoundly lied either deliberately or out of gross negligence and ignorance to a national audience.
The dire demographic reality is a big factor behind the push by many theoconservatives to rule this republic via minority votes at the presidential and Senate and state levels, and by packing the Supreme Court. What they should do is use persuasion via free speech to try to get the American majority to go along with their conservative supernaturalistic ways. But that effort has been failing big time for decades with no realistic hope for success. So they are trying to capture the government by electoral hook and crook and use sheer political power to remake America into the kind of right-wing Christian land this nation was back when the government was a bastion of traditionalist values. Remember Comstock Laws? They bemoan the onset of the unprecedented cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1900s that are helping drive the withering of theism. And that’s why the right continues to embrace a chronically dishonest and irreligious Trump who in turn depends on the religious right for the political success he has enjoyed. That makes twisted electoral sense since Trump lost the electoral college by just 45,000 votes in three states – interestingly, I have not found evidence that Reed has either supported or rejected the claim that Trump did not lose in 2020, seems he is trying to avoid entirely ruining his credibility with either side.
So how about it Ralph? Will you publicly and prominently retract your claims and acknowledge that Americans have become markedly less Godly over recent decades? And apologize to the host of the show you with your boyish grin tried to snooker?
Got to say, I am not holding my breath on that.
But you should.
Now, being a data-following scientist who really does my best to be objective — which is why I am not a theist – I note that the PRRI has released new results that while confirming the broader trends of recent decades, suggest that the deChristianization of the US may be plateauing out (https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion). That is possible, but looking at their rather internally contradictory data I am not convinced. All the more so because the PRRI results do not look to be in line with those of other organizations. So we shall have to see over the coming years what the assorted surveys turn up and go from there.
And Bill. When you have Reed, and others of his ilk, on your program in the future and they make one of those that sounds kinda dubious claims, do one of your classic yeah like I (don’t) believe that one looks, and warn your audience to take what they just heard with a large load of salt. Really large.
You have to watch out for those theocons. They can be sneaky.
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