Baylor religion survey under dispute

Feb. 4, 2009

Survey says...

National Baylor Religion Survey on American's Beliefs and Practices
Baylor says survey results are legitimate and valid.
Results: The survey says over 90 percent of people believe in a God and only 11-12 percent have no religion, increasing from 6-7 percent since 1980.

Council for Secular Humanism
CSH claims Baylor manipulated data and misled the public
Results: Two Harris polls show that 20% of population is skeptical about God and that people are reluctant to identify themselves as Atheists because of negative attitudes towards Atheism.

By Sommer Ingram
Staff writer

A report released Tuesday by the Council for Secular Humanism contradicts many findings in the National Baylor Religion Survey on Americans' Beliefs and Practices, one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted on American religious beliefs.

Released in the fall of 2008, these results were the second wave of the researchers' landmark study on religious attitudes in 2005, and dispelled the myth that the Atheist population of America is growing. In fact, the survey found that the nation is as religious as it has always been.

Dr. Rodney Stark published these and other findings in the book "What Americans Really Believe."

The CSH challenges the Baylor survey, implying that Baylor researchers in the Institute for Religious Studies manipulated data and misled the public.

"As far as the current survey, Stark and his co-workers seem to suffer from the reluctance to admit the trend of rising secularization in America," said independent scholar Gregory S. Paul, author of the CSH report. "America is not increasing in its religiosity, but that's what Baylor, as a Christian and conservative university, hopes we all believe."

Stark discredits Paul's accusations, claiming that the independent scholar didn't do his research thoroughly and is misinformed about much of what he reports on.

"It's important for him, as a militant atheist, to believe that religion will disappear very soon, and he believes we are covering that up," Stark said. "But we are legitimate researchers here. I conducted the first national religion surveys in the '60s, and I am absolutely astonished at these accusations. It isn't like a bunch of the old Baptists at Baylor snuck out into the woods and found a bunch of crazy evangelicals to take our survey."

Dr. Roger Finke, professor of sociology and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, said despite the complexity of other issues in the Baylor survey, the quality of the survey is unquestionably valid. A total of 1,648 adults from across the country were randomly selected and answered more than 350 items on the survey, which was conducted by the Gallup organization.

"They used recommended methods for collecting information, especially since they worked with Gallup," he said. "The Baylor team has done what they should do in this area."

But the CSH report claims that Baylor researchers ignored data from other polls such as Pew Forum on Religious Life, CBS and Harris Polls that suggest that secularism is growing, as well as the Atheist population.

"They used two data points from the '40s and that's all. Then they exaggerated the numbers," Paul said. "Pew last year asked people if they absolutely believed in a personal God, and only 51 percent said yes. That doesn't mean 50 percent of the population is atheist, but this country is not nearly as religious as people have been thinking. We just had the Super Bowl on a Sunday. If this were truly a devout Christian nation, it would have been on a Saturday."

However, Stark says that data from polls conducted for several decades shows that the percentage of atheists in America has stayed consistent.

"Americans differ a lot in what they conceive of God, but well over 90 percent of them conceive of Him somehow," Stark said. "We have done a great deal of work on people's various images of God. There are some people who have fairly vague images of God -- they believe in some higher power but just don't know what. That's probably about 10 percent of public. We published that."

Because most surveys don't specifically ask whether the respondent is an Atheist and instead only ask what religion they are, many jump to the conclusion that those who answer that they have no religion are Atheist or agnostic.

"What it comes down to is that this is an argument over semantics. It really is a struggle to define how many Atheists there are. What's interesting is that the number of people answering 'none' on surveys has been increasing, but the thing is, it's not clear what that means," Finke said. "Because at the same time, the number of independent churches is growing rapidly."

Paul said he believes people are reluctant to answer honestly about their skepticism toward a higher being because of attitudes toward Atheism in America.

"Atheists are so disparaged in this country that they won't admit to atheism. Two Harris polls show that at least 20 percent of the population is skeptical about the existence of a God," Paul said. "But again, Baylor didn't mention this."

However, the Baylor researchers acknowledge in their book that 11 to 12 percent say they have no religion, while surveys from the late 1940s through the 1980s only had about a 6 to 7 percent response rate. However, 56 percent of the group with no religion say they still pray.

"When the researchers went back and interviewed the people that claimed to have no religion, they found that they are actually involved in organizations and aren't completely irreligious," Finke said.

Despite the discrepancies, the Baylor Institute for Religious Studies says it stands by the validity of the survey's methodology and will continue to do so.

"There are some questions that have been worked out for over 40 years and we ask them because we know that's the best way to get results," Stark said. "Baylor believes in us, and it's silly to pretend that we were trying to hide anything."