[The following is adapted from my unpublished book, No One Believes in God.]
Why do so many people believe?, we want to ask. But how big is this “so many”? Can we quantify it? How many are the believers – and how do we know?
Of course, there have been surveys. According to them, something like 85 percent of everyone in the world believes in some kind of god. But we cannot trust these polls. They are misleading. The methodology is flawed. Let me explain.
The goal of such surveys is to measure the popularity of various types of religious belief. But of course you can’t measure anyone’s belief directly, the way you can their temperature or their blood oxygen level. Are there indirect ways? Sure, you can just ask them about it! – but the thing is, how do you put the questions? What is the wording? You’d have to be pretty clever, I would think, to get decent results. A bald “Do you believe in god?”, for example, would elicit skewed, hard-to-interpret and probably worthless results.
What do the best pollsters use? Let’s take a look at some of the questions from a recent poll by the “highly respected” Pew Forum.
Q.30 Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
Q.33 Do you believe in life after death?
Q.35 Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?
Q.36 Do you think there is a hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished?
What – that’s what the Pew asked? I thought they were the real pros! They ask the same questions that the really stupid polls use. Jesus Christ.
Polls like this are misleading because to ask people “Do you believe in god?” is not an effective way to find out whether they believe in god. Here are just two of the many reasons that we know this to be true.
Most obvious and important is the strength of the social norms surrounding professions of “belief in god”. You answer the door, or the telephone, and a pollster is there. He starts asking you strange questions. In a vast number of households, if you are asked whether you “believe in god”, to say anything but yes would be to invite brutal reprisals from your family and neighbors. And in places where the risk is not so dire, there can still be severe pressure to say the right thing. This is a fact of life in any place where religion has serious influence, and that’s an awful lot of places.
The yes answer, on the other hand, is perfectly safe. There is no cost. Whether or not it is required, nothing follows from it. It’s not like saying, for example, “I believe in recycling”, which might be seen as committing you to a change in lifestyle. After you have affirmed your “belief in god”, no further action is required – so heck, why not say it? (Even if your dad is an atheist, he’ll just think you’re being funny. It’s not like he’s going to beat you or withhold meals or something, as a devout Christian or Muslim parent might do with a kid who said no.)
These observations have the following consequence. Of the people answering yes, some unmeasured but significant proportion have made this response not because they understand themselves to have a belief but because they fear the personal consequences of saying – not believing, but saying – the wrong thing. They feel constrained to say certain words, regardless of their actual belief. Even where the local norm is worded as a requirement that one believe, the practical result is rather that one is required to profess such belief. After all, no one can see into your mind. They cannot tell what you really think. Nor, most likely, do they care. They want you to say the right thing. That is the real demand. It’s about the words you say, especially to outsiders.
“Belief in god” is probably best seen as an idiom. It is not a state of mind but simply a stock phrase. Its meaning is not at all clear; however – and this is interesting – in practice, in the quotidian experience of the religious “believer”, the question of belief’s meaning, its nature and definition, does not arise. People are not asking themselves what it really means when they say they “believe in god”. They assume that they know. Whereas actually, they don’t know the first thing about it.
When we go to the trouble of surveying people on their “religious beliefs”, one of the things we should try to find out is what they personally mean when they use those words. But polls like this one – and they are all like this one – do nothing to help us understand this. They tell us nothing about belief. They assume that everyone already knows just what it is. But no one knows this.
Imagine a different poll. This one is measuring belief in Poseidon, so it asks people: “Do you believe in Poseidon?”
This is a very different question from the one we were just considering. Compared to Poseidon, the “god” in the other question sounds awfully vague. Asked whether I believe in “god”, I might find myself wondering nervously which god is being asked about. However, most respondents will recognize, probably before the question comes up, that there is a soothing, obvious, no-need-to-even-mention-it answer, which goes something like “You know which one: the one that most people talk about, and that most questions ask about. The one that most people, you know, believe in.”
And this assumption is written into the poll. People are going to assume that the “god” being asked about is the “god” that everyone always talks about. The fact that so many people pronounce this word so often is part of the de facto, unexamined definition of what the word means.
And now I really have to wonder whether this poll has measured anything at all. I suspect not. I suspect that every such survey is a travesty of research. Yet, the methodology goes entirely unquestioned. This is how religious belief is “tested”: you ask people absurd, pointless, misleading questions that can throw no light at all on what belief in god actually is – other than reminding us, between the lines, that it’s what you’re supposed to do. Heck, maybe that’s the real intention behind these stupid polls.
Many people believe in God. Many people believe in belief in God. What’s the difference? People who believe in God are sure that God exists, and they are glad, because they hold God to be the most wonderful of all things. People who moreover believe in belief in God are sure that belief in God exists (and who could doubt that?), and they think that this is a good state of affairs … . Given the way religious concepts and practices have been designed, the very behaviors that would be clear evidence of belief in God are also behaviors that would be clear evidence of (only) belief in belief in God. … This fact makes it hard to tell who – if anybody! – actually believes in God in addition to believing in belief in God. —Daniel Dennett
As far as I can tell, no one has ever obtained an actual measurement of the prevalence of religious belief, in this country or any other. The pollsters have no idea how many people believe in god, only how many are likely to say that they do, which is a completely different thing. They have neglected to notice that simply asking people this question, in these words, is worse than pointless. Their asking it in this way proves that they do not understand what the question means. Nor are they trying to understand. Nor are they helping us to do so.
In fact, there are many reasons to suppose that the prevalence of religious belief is greatly overestimated by almost everyone. Dennett’s “belief in belief” effect is one reason. Later in the book we will see more of them, the cumulative effect of which is to bring plausible estimates down very close to zero.