Things Atheists Hate #1: Media Coverage of Polls

Oct 1st, 2008 by PinPonPun in Atheism, Ponderings, Things Atheists Hate

The recent US Religious Landscape Survey featured some fascinating data about the religious make-up of the American populace, but the biggest number to come out of the survey was the infamous “21% of atheists believe in God” that stirred up quite a bit of discussion on the internet and in the media. Everyone had something to say about this stat; many found humor in the fact. 

Some posited that this indicated atheism was becoming more of a cultural designation as opposed to a theological statement; others thought atheists must simply be confused about what atheism really means. But everyone mentioned that same seemingly absurd phrase — “21% of atheists believe in God.”

Most people, however, simply repeated the quote as they found it in the media; few took the time to actually examine the poll question itself being referenced. As someone who previously worked for a firm that did considerable amounts of political polling, I was curious; when forming a poll, the particular phrasing of a question can easily sway or alter the poll results and it seemed odd to me that self-identified atheists, when asked “Do you believe in god?” would answer in the affirmative.

So imagine my surprise when I found that the actual question was:

Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF YES, ASK:] How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?

That wording shows that the oft-quoted phrase should actually be “21% of atheists believe in God or a universal spirit” — a statement with a potentially different meaning, especially depending on one’s personal interpretation of what a “universal spirit” is. Baruch Spinoza might have argued that he believed in a “universal spirit” despite not believing in any sense of personal or self-aware god; Albert Einstein might identify himself as an atheist and yet make the same claim,

In fact, there is a whole movement of “spiritual atheists” — those that do not believe in any god or gods but do believe in the possibility of either individual spirits or a universal one.

Yet still, the 21% number is bandied about further reinforcing ill-informed public opinion on the nature of atheism and providing those that already view atheists so negatively with another piece of faulty evidence they can use to support their theistic worldview. 

Atheists hate faulty evidence.