Measuring the number of people who are religious is a bit of a tricky job. We can be pretty sure that there are people who don’t believe in God or myths or any supernatural business. We can also be sure that there also people who, say, believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that God has stuck around after the creation business and intervenes in our lives now and then. But what about the rest – the majority of people?
I was about to say those ‘in between’ but I think that could be slightly misleading, giving the impression that there is a linear scale between the two points.
Richar Dawkins has a crack at such a scale. As the New York Times summarises:
On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
The thing is that everything depends on the question you ask. Dawkins is dealing with a specific God hypotheis that he feels resembles the Abrahamic version of God – a creator of the universe who should be worshipped. But I think depending on how he went into more detail of such a God would determine where people placed themselves on his scale.
I raise this because a halloween-themed poll by IPSOS MORI revealed that 56% people believe in God, 35% consider themselves religious but 62% people believe in fate, the same proportion in souls, 58% believe in premonitions and 38% people believe in Ghosts. And while I’d guess these are largely correlated (so theat most of the minority that believe in Ghosts believe in all the other stuff) there’s probably an element of pick’n’mix about these beliefs, so if someone says no they don’t believe in God, don’t assume they are an atheist or agnostic as they might retain a whole bag of weird supernatual beliefs.
And even if you’re just talking about ‘religion’ the exact wording of a question makes all the difference to what information you elicit (not to mention the order in which you present the options), as the Office of National Statistics points out:
The way in which people answer questions on religion is very sensitive to the exact question wording. This is particularly true for people who have a loose affiliation with a religion. Slight differences in question wording can produce large differences in the proportion of people who say they are Christians or have no religion, although the proportion of people from other religions tends to be more stable.
So, for example, while the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) asks Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? , the Census asks What is your religion? and as a consequence, the BSA question producded a much smaller proportion of Christians and a much larger proportion of people with no religion.
Something to think about next time you see a statistic trying to provide a snapshot of religious belief or lack of.