The Day America Told the Truth: Doing Polls on Religion Correctly

Polling agencies like Gallup, The Pew Forum, and The Barna Group listen up. We need a new updated survey of religion in America to be modeled after the book The Day America Told the Truth.

I'm tired of the way you do your polls for the most part. You ask some important questions, yes. But take this book as a model for how to do it better. The authors first separate us into nine moral regions: Pacific Rim, Marlboro Country, L.A.-Mexico, Granary, Old Dixie, Rust Belt, New South, Metropolis, and New England, for starters. And they cover all kinds of topics, like morality/ethics, American sex lives, gender differences, violence, work, community, religion, and global issues. They even include topics like, "What are you willing to do for $10 Million?...for $2 Million."

Let me focus in on what the authors did with religion, because this is what gripes me to no end. I'm tired of polls that merely ask if a person believes in god. There are many different conceptions of god.

I'm also tired of polls that that separate atheists from agnostics, or polls that never include agnostics at all. We are a like-minded group when it comes to the so-called revealed religions and we reject them all, along with those gods. In this book the authors found that in 1991 ninety percent of Americans believed in a god. Okay, I guess, although we don't know if the only non-believing category in the survey was "atheist." When the question is asked correctly, by placing atheists and agnostics together, a later 2007 poll suggests that up to 25% of us could be non-believers. That's the way to do it.

I'm also tired of polls where people are asked to identify with one religion, like Christianity. There is such a wide diversity within Christianity I want to know what people who call themselves Christians believe about specific items of their faith. There are liberals like James McGrath and Thom Stark who would say they are Christians but who have little in common with the Bible thumpers out there who would condemn these liberals to hell. And I want to know how Christianity affects the lives of believers. Does it make a difference that a person claims to be a Christian?

I know several people who will talk about prayer to god, and claim to be Christians but who hardly ever darken the door to a church, never read the Bible, have no clue what their faith commits them too, and live just like me without any god at all. They are Christians because they are Americans. That's all they know. There are lots of people like this in the workplace, in different political parties, in the bars, and in the jails. With these people we cannot tell by the way they live that they believe in god or that they are Christians in any meaningful sense.

So just asking whether people believe in god or if they identify with Christianity is not helpful because there are many practical atheists out there, just as there are many different conceptions of god. The problem is that when polls say most of us are Christians the Christian right can find comfort and boldness from these polls in putting forth their agenda for America, even though this is not what people are allowed to say on the polls because of the questions themselves. Liberals and practical atheists become enablers at this point because their poll numbers help add weight to the claims of the Bible thumpers and their agenda. I want to see a real poll helping make clear these differences. How many practical atheists are there in America? How many Bible thumpers? How many liberals?

Anyway, here's what the authors of this book concluded about religion in America:
God is alive and very well. But right now in America, fewer people are listening to what God has to say then ever before. Nintey percent of the people we questioned said that they truly believe in God. It would be the logical conclusion then to think that God is a meaningful factor in today's America. But we reached a different conclusion when we dug deeper with our questions.

In every single region of the country, when we asked how people make up their minds on issues of right and wrong, we found that they simply do not turn to God or religion to help them decide about seminal or moral issues of the day. For most people, religion plays virtually no role in shaping their opinions on a long list of important public questions. This is true even for questions that seem closely related to religion: birth control, abortion, even teaching Creationism and the role of women in the clergy. On not one of those questions did a majority of people seek the guidance of religion in finding answers. Most people do not even know their church's position on the important issues. That, perhaps, is the true measure of America indifference to the teachings of organized religion: We don't follow what our church says because we're not interested enough to find out what it's saying." (pp. 200-201).
So what I want is an updated 2011 survey that can help us determine how many practical atheists we have in America. It would be illuminating. If you'd like my help in developing such a survey let me know. I have some ideas, ones that come from this book.

The first polling company to do this will gain a great deal of public attention, whatever the results. Get it funded. Come up with the survey questions. And put an emphasis on getting it done fast.