Clever methodology aimed at detecting ‘stealth atheism’

From an article in Vox entitled How many American atheists are there really?

How to find “closet atheists”

So if you can’t ask people outright whether they’re atheist and get an honest response, how do you go about finding them?

Gervais and Najle set up a very subtle test. They sent a nationally representative poll to 2,000 Americans, who were randomly assigned to two conditions.

The first condition asked participants to read through a bunch of statements like, “I am a vegetarian,” “I own a dog,” and, “I have a dishwasher in my kitchen.”

All the participants had to do was simply write down the number of statements that were true for them.

The value of this method is that participants don’t have to directly say, “I am a vegetarian,” or, “I’m a dog owner” — they only have to acknowledge the number of statements that apply to them. That alone should zero out any embarrassment or hesitance to admit to a particular item.

That’s important because the other 1,000 or so participants saw the exact same list — but with one statement added: “I believe in God.”

By comparing the responses between the two groups, Gervais and Najle could then estimate how many people don’t believe in God. (Because both groups of 1,000 poll takers should, in theory, have the same number of vegetarians, dog owners, and so on in each group, any increases in the number of agreed-to statements from the first group to the second should be reflective of the number of people who don’t believe in God.)

One thing is clear from the results: Much more than 10 or 11 percent of the country (as assessed in Gallup and Pew polling) does not believe in God. “We can say with a 99 percent probability that it’s higher than [11 percent],” said Gervais.

His best estimate: Around 26 percent of Americans don’t believe in God. “According to our samples, about 1 in 3 atheists in our country don’t feel comfortable disclosing their lack of belief,” Najle explains in an email.

Gervais admits this method isn’t perfect, and yields an answer with a wide margin of error. (On the other end of the margin of error, around 35 percent of Americans don’t believe in God.) But the most fundamental question he and Najle are asking here is do polling firms like Gallup and Pew undercount atheists? And it seems the answer is yes.

187 thoughts on “Clever methodology aimed at detecting ‘stealth atheism’”

  1. Flint

    colewd:
    Robin,

    Here is the same claim in Acts:
    Acts 1:6-11English Standard Version (ESV)

    The Ascension
    6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

    Wow, the author of Luke and the author of Acts being likely the same person, let’s pretend these are independent accounts! WOW, look, two independent accounts. Now, THERE is real evidence!

  2. colewd

    Flint,

    So no, there are no unbiased sources. There are no biased sources. There are NO primary sources of any kind. There should be, but none were preserved. And if the histories with the holes had been preserved, AND if Christ had existed, you would think the church would be trumpeting these to the heavens, not excising them from the record. What do you make of all this?

    I think your case is weak but just my opinion. You need to look at all the data a put it together like Strobel does.

  3. colewd

    Flint,

    Wow, the author of Luke and the author of Acts being likely the same person, let’s pretend these are independent accounts! WOW, look, two independent accounts. Now, THERE is real evidence!

    Acts was written earlier and Luke had access to Paul and the Apostles for his information.

  4. waltowalto

    Erik: You mean atheists are not afraid to die?

    No, they may be as well, but they manage not to tumble into religion as a result.

  5. colewd

    John Harshman,

    The first two are ad hominem arguments. Do you consider that valid? The second two aren’t arguments at all, merely allusions to arguments that you say exist. What are the best arguments Strobel puts forth?

    I think the strongest arguments are the connections between the prophecies in the old testament and the how the life of Christ fulfilled those.

    The next argument is that the Acts of the apostles did not reflect that Christ died on the cross only. The muslims story is that Christ was not crucified at all because this type of shameful death would not lead to the powerful following that actually occurred. The problem with the muslim account is there is non bilabial collaboration of the crucification.

    There is more but I need to re read to jog my memory.

  6. John HarshmanJohn Harshman

    colewd:
    John Harshman,

    I think the strongest arguments are the connections between the prophecies in the old testament and the how the life of Christ fulfilled those.

    Wow. That’s your strongest? What about the alternative hypothesis that the story of the life of Christ was tailored to fit the prophecies? That would explain, for example, how it happens that someone from Nazareth has to jump through hoops to be born in Bethlehem.

    The next argument is that the Acts of the apostles did not reflect that Christ died on the cross only.The muslims story is that Christ was not crucified at all because this type of shameful death would not lead to the powerful following that actually occurred.The problem with the muslim account is there is non bilabial collaboration of the crucification.

    I do not understand what you think the argument is here.

    If those are the best, never mind. And yet you won’t accept the evidence that all birds are related by common descent. Worse, you have no clue about your bias.

  7. Erik

    walto: [Atheists] manage not to tumble into religion as a result [of fear of death].

    The question was: What is your explanation for conversion and for resilience of religious beliefs in a predominantly atheistic culture?

    In a predominantly atheistic culture, religious people don’t tumble into religion, certainly not by fear of death. When in the minority, religion is not openly available so as to be tumbled into, and there would be hardly any occasion for fear of death when you simply remain atheist. Yet there are those who undergo religious conversion in such circumstances, often individually, while the social pressure is discouraging it. What’s the explanation?

  8. dazzdazz

    Erik,

    I think there’s a narcissistic component in wanting to believe that there’s no way you’re gone once you die. But even in predominantly atheistic cultures, there are religious groups, and someone might be inclined to convert just to fit in, as in to score a religious partner for instance

  9. colewd

    John Harshman,

    Wow. That’s your strongest? What about the alternative hypothesis that the story of the life of Christ was tailored to fit the prophecies? That would explain, for example, how it happens that someone from Nazareth has to jump through hoops to be born in Bethlehm.

    He has a strong argument against this but I will review before I comment.

    I do not understand what you think the argument is here.

    Since you said you don’t understand it, isn’t it illogical to ask if this is all I have.

    If those are the best, never mind. And yet you won’t accept the evidence that all birds are related by common descent. Worse, you have no clue about your bias.

    You show me a few DNA sequences some of which do not match and want me to agree this is evidence for common descent? Between the Ostrich and the other flightless birds there are several unidentified ancestors?

    I have no problem with the concept that flightless birds share a common ancestor but the evidence in your paper is highly contradictory. How do you think this data supports the hypothesis that all flightless birds share a common ancestor without UCD as an a priori assumption? The same a priori assumption you made when you concluded that multiple losses of flights occurred. To make a bottom up claim (not assuming the common descent inference) for common descent you must make the case that the DNA differences can be accounted solely through reproduction. You also have to make the case the reproductive mutations can result repeatedly in birds losing flight.

  10. colewd

    Mung,

    John Harshman: Worse, you have no clue about your bias.

    pot. kettle. black.

    Yep. Everyone has cognitive bias but at least some of the guys here are willing to put it to the test 🙂

  11. Pedant

    colewd:
    Mung,

    Yep.Everyone has cognitive bias but at least some of the guys here are willing to put it to the test

    Where has Bill Cole done that?

  12. John HarshmanJohn Harshman

    colewd: Since you said you don’t understand it, isn’t it illogical to ask if this is all I have.

    No, but the logical (and polite) thing for you to do would have been to explain what you meant.

    You show me a few DNA sequences some of which do not match and want me to agree this is evidence for common descent? Between the Ostrich and the other flightless birds there are several unidentified ancestors?

    I don’t think you understood that paper at all. I don’t think you even tried. You only looked at one figure, and you misinterpreted that figure. You never actually looked at any of the DNA sequences.

    I have no problem with the concept that flightless birds share a common ancestor but the evidence in your paper is highly contradictory. How do you think this data supports the hypothesis that all flightless birds share a common ancestor without UCD as an a priori assumption?

    Not all flightless birds, certainly. Just all paleognaths, most of which are flightless. The fact that a tree in which they are all related is much, much better than a tree in which they are not. This doesn’t require any prior assumption of UCD, or even of CD.

    The same a priori assumption you made when you concluded that multiple losses of flights occurred. To make a bottom up claim (not assuming the common descent inference) for common descent you must make the case that the DNA differences can be accounted solely through reproduction. You also have to make the case the reproductive mutations can result repeatedly in birds losing flight.

    I don’t know what “solely through reproduction” means here. Or what “reproductive mutations” are. What I do know is that you have no real idea what you’re talking about and have made no attempt to find out.

    More on topic, I also know that you don’t demand this sort of evidence for claims of resurrection. You have no idea what can cause resurrection, no evidence of the process through which it might have happened. And yet you accept it cheerfully without any evidence that it’s possible or how it could occur. But in order to accept common descent, you expect me to show you each and every mutation that happened, that it could happen naturally, and how it produced some particular phenotypic effect.

  13. RobinRobin

    colewd:
    Flint,

    Acts was written earlier and Luke had access to Paul and the Apostles for his information.

    Acts and Luke were written by the same author and likely the same single piece originally. They were both heavily edited in the 2nd century and then both recompiled in the 4th century.

    Regardless, even if one could come up with some bizarre evidence to show they were actually written by different people, it still doesn’t change the fact that neither piece could have been written by an actual witness to anything Jesus did. Further, whether the writer of Luke was the companion of Paul is debatable, but even if the writer was the same Luke, it’s a moot point since Paul did not witness anything Jesus did either, let alone his supposed ascension.

    So you’re still left with no witnesses.

  14. RobinRobin

    Flint: And here we should mention Bart Ehrman, who claims to be an atheist, but who insists Christ was real and his adventures are accurately related. And how does Ehrman know? Ah, because Mark derived most of his material from a document known as “Q”. Now, nobody has ever seen the Q document, but Mark must have based his work on something, right? People don’t just make things up, right?

    Now, if we compare Mark and Matthew, we find that nearly all of Matthew is found in Mark, but some is not. The part not found in Mark is called “M” (for Matthew), another document nobody has found. And of course, there was supposedly an “L” document, for material in Luke not found in either Mark or Matthew. Ehrman claims we “have” these documents, and cites them as documentary evidence!He even footnotes them and cites them!

    Now, Ehrman is a respected scholar who reads the original languages. If we don’t accept colewd’s evidence, how about Ehrman?

    I’ve read quite a lot of Ehrman and I know his research. I’m not aware of his ever claiming to have the lost sources. In fact, he’s been asked in various venues what he’d most like to find and his first choice is Paul’s lost letters and his second is always the Q document. So I think you may have misunderstood Ehrman on that point.

  15. RobinRobin

    colewd:
    Flint,

    I think your case is weak but just my opinion.You need to look at all the data a put it together like Strobel does.

    Meh…I don’t find Strobel very credible

  16. colewd

    John Harshman,

    No, but the logical (and polite) thing for you to do would have been to explain what you meant.

    After you impolitely said is this all I had yet did not understand what I had said? Let me try again.

    It is generally agreed that a profit Christ lived and was crucified. The contention is the resurrection. What does not make sense is the Apostles reaction if Christ was crucified only. This is a very shameful death and would have led to the end of the movement.

    Instead that opposite happened and the Apostles spread the message and many ended up dying for the cause. The current result is the largest religion in history with 2.3 billion followers. The logical conclusion is the resurrection was a real event.

    I don’t think you understood that paper at all. I don’t think you even tried. You only looked at one figure, and you misinterpreted that figure. You never actually looked at any of the DNA sequences.

    It has been a while since I read it. I will read it again. BTW I think it is an excellent paper and I enjoyed reading it.

    Not all flightless birds, certainly. Just all paleognaths, most of which are flightless. The fact that a tree in which they are all related is much, much better than a tree in which they are not. This doesn’t require any prior assumption of UCD, or even of CD.

    I agree that having related DNA creates a better tree. If we are claiming a better genetic and morphological fit then I agree. The common descent claim without the UCD assumption is by itself very difficult to establish unless the genetic relatedness is extremely close. In the case of some of the paleognaths there was very high sequence identity, however we were looking at a very small segment of DNA. I assume that you have looked at the other segments I have not.

    I don’t know what “solely through reproduction” means here. Or what “reproductive mutations” are. What I do know is that you have no real idea what you’re talking about and have made no attempt to find out.

    If you have no idea what I mean here then how can you say I don’t know what I am talking about? Ok I will explain.

    The claim of common descent is that new species are derived solely from reproduction. Variation from reproduction can cause divergence enough to explain observed diversity. A reproductive mutation can be one that is caused by the genetic combination of the genes of both parents. This is one source of reproductive variation. Another could be a retrovirus changing the germ line of one of the parents.

    How much reproduction itself can be the generator of the diversity of life is a big question in my mind. I see evidence that reproduction itself is a limited generator of diversity.

    More on topic, I also know that you don’t demand this sort of evidence for claims of resurrection. You have no idea what can cause resurrection, no evidence of the process through which it might have happened. And yet you accept it cheerfully without any evidence that it’s possible or how it could occur. But in order to accept common descent, you expect me to show you each and every mutation that happened, that it could happen naturally, and how it produced some particular phenotypic effect.

    From my perspective we are almost certainly in a created universe and that is the explanation of the origin of two very sophisticated things, matter and life.

    If my laptop computer stopped functioning without the proper knowledge and tools I would have little chance to fix it. If I had originally designed it, fixing it would not be hard to do.

    I am not sure the resurrection really happened but based on the above perspective and historical documentation I have good reason to take it seriously. I will also take your paper seriously when I re read it over the next several days.

  17. MungMung

    Robin: Meh…I don’t find Strobel very credible

    Meh…I don’t find your finding Strobel not very credible very credible.

  18. MungMung

    colewd: Instead that opposite happened and the Apostles spread the message and many ended up dying for the cause.

    Apparently this is because they were afraid of dying.

  19. John HarshmanJohn Harshman

    colewd:
    John Harshman,

    It is generally agreed that a profit Christ lived and was crucified.The contention is the resurrection.What does not make sense is the Apostles reaction if Christ was crucified only.This is a very shameful death and would have led to the end of the movement.

    Instead that opposite happened and the Apostles spread the message and many ended up dying for the cause.The current result is the largest religion in history with 2.3 billion followers.The logical conclusion is the resurrection was a real event.

    You understand that this is a new argument, bearing no resemblance to what you said last time were the best arguments for the resurrection, right? But no, that isn’t the logical conclusion. One can imagine quite different reactions to the death of a leader or some failure of a movement. Religious movements are quite good at re-imagining events to fit a narrative, so that failure becomes another sort of success. Consider the Jehovah’s Witness prediction of the end of the world in 1914. When that didn’t happen, did they say “Oh, we were wrong. Go try another religion.”? No, they just reinterpreted events as the beginning of a long process of world ending and kept going. So your “logical conclusion” is fueled entirely by your desire for it to be true.

    I agree that having related DNA creates a better tree.If we are claiming a better genetic and morphological fit then I agree. The common descent claim without the UCD assumption is by itself very difficult to establish unless the genetic relatedness is extremely close. In the case of some of the paleognaths there was very high sequence identity, however we were looking at a very small segment of DNA.I assume that you have looked at the other segments I have not.

    I don’t know what “small segment of DNA” you were looking at. Presumably it’s the little bit in the figure, the bit surrounding a relevant indel. That’s a tiny part of one gene. We looked at 21 genes. Is that not clear? You can access the entire data set if you want, at a site I have probably linked several times. But I don’t think you are equipped to understand any of it. You may be able to understand the statements derived from that data, i.e. reading the paper.

    I don’t know why you keep harping on UCD. Birds can all be related even if vertebrates were separately created from insects, not to mention all life. And even common descent of birds isn’t an assumption but a conclusion from data. We didn’t test that particular assumption in that particular paper, but it’s been tested many times in other papers.

    If you have no idea what I mean here then how can you say I don’t know what I am talking about?

    I was being polite. I meant that your statements appeared to be word salad, suggesting that you didn’t understand the concepts behind them. Your explanation below adds evidence for that inference.

    The claim of common descent is that new species are derived solely from reproduction. Variation from reproduction can cause divergence enough to explain observed diversity. A reproductive mutation can be one that is caused by the genetic combination of the genes of both parents. This is one source of reproductive variation. Another could be a retrovirus changing the germ line of one of the parents.

    I think by “solely from reproduction” you mean that individuals are descended from individuals, populations from populations, in opposition to fiat creation of individuals or populations. Is that correct? Now for the word salad: genetic combinations from two parents are not mutations; that’s recombination. While recombination can be a source of variation, recombination is not mutation. Retroviral insertions in the germ line, which is what you might be talking about, are mutations, though a rare type. The more common mutations are point mutations, one base changing into another, and indels. Almost all the differences among the paleognath sequences we used in that paper are point mutations and indels. A few of those indels are transposon insertions, which are somewhat similar to retroviral insertions. But the analysis itself was only of point mutations. Point mutations and indels, which are commonly observed within species and which you agree can happen, explain almost all the observed differences among the species shown. Incidentally, none of the genes we sequenced has anything to do with flightlessness. That would be a different study.

    How much reproduction itself can be the generator of the diversity of life is a big question in my mind.I see evidence that reproduction itself is a limited generator of diversity.

    What evidence is that? How do you reconcile that evidence, whatever it is, with the evidence that all paleognath birds are related?

    From my perspective we are almost certainly in a created universe and that is the explanation of the origin of two very sophisticated things, matter and life.

    What does the creation of the universe have to do with life? The universe is over 13 billion years old, life less than 4 billion.

  20. newton

    Mung: Apparently this is because they were afraid of dying.

    It not the dying it is what comes after that is the concern.

  21. MungMung

    John Harshman: One can imagine quite different reactions to the death of a leader or some failure of a movement.

    Let your imagination run wild John!

    I bet you can imagine all sorts of reasons a bird might have a spare ovary.

  22. newton

    Mung: Let your imagination run wild John!

    I bet you can imagine all sorts of reasons a bird might have a spare ovary.

    Bad design comes to mind

  23. Neil Rickert

    colewd: It is generally agreed that a profit Christ lived and was crucified.

    Hmm, “profit”. Perhaps that explains why so much of Christianity has become a sleazy profit-making business.

  24. waltowalto

    Erik: The question was: What is your explanation for conversion and for resilience of religious beliefs in a predominantly atheistic culture?

    And I’ve given you my answer.

    In a predominantly atheistic culture, religious people don’t tumble into religion, certainly not by fear of death.

    So you say. I disagree.

  25. GlenDavidson

    colewd: It is generally agreed that a profit Christ lived and was crucified. The contention is the resurrection. What does not make sense is the Apostles reaction if Christ was crucified only. This is a very shameful death and would have led to the end of the movement.

    Instead that opposite happened and the Apostles spread the message and many ended up dying for the cause. The current result is the largest religion in history with 2.3 billion followers. The logical conclusion is the resurrection was a real event.

    Very much argumentum ad populum. Basically you’re saying that the religion that wins out is right. Meaning that if mithraism wins out, well, it must be right (whatever its claims were) or people wouldn’t deeply believe it.

    What makes you think that the apostles were any more logical than yourself? Considering their “arguments” and tortuous reinterpretations of the Bible to point toward Jesus, I’d say that their belief in the risen Christ is hardly impressive.

    Glen Davidson

  26. GlenDavidson

    walto [Erik first, then walto]: In a predominantly atheistic culture, religious people don’t tumble into religion, certainly not by fear of death.

    So you say. I disagree.

    I remember Mark Perakh writing of people in the Russian gulag turning to religion for hope/comfort. Of course you’ll see that with Solzhenitsyn and many others as well.

    Naturally many do not become religious, many get with the atheist program. But what do you really have if you’re in prison, or at the bottom of officially atheist society, but some religious hope for all to be made right sometime? Like in the afterlife.

    Glen Davidson

  27. Erik

    walto: I disagree.

    Any reason for it other than not caring to find out how conversion really occurs?

    GlenDavidson: But what do you really have if you’re in prison, or at the bottom of officially atheist society, but some religious hope for all to be made right sometime. Like in the afterlife.

    That would then be faith in justice, wouldn’t it? Not quite the same thing as fear of death. Well, for you it’s probably all the same.

  28. Flint

    Erik:
    That would then be faith in justice, wouldn’t it? Not quite the same thing as fear of death. Well, for you it’s probably all the same.

    I’d probably consider it hope when there isn’t any.

  29. GlenDavidson

    Erik: Any reason for it other than not caring to find out how conversion really occurs?

    That would then be faith in justice, wouldn’t it? Not quite the same thing as fear of death. Well, for you it’s probably all the same.

    Well, you suck at psychology, like at most everything else.

    Somehow, the intensity of the fear of death often correlates positively with being trodden upon. If you don’t know that, you’re truly ignorant.

    Glen Davidson

  30. Erik

    GlenDavidson:
    Well, you suck at psychology, like at most everything else.

    Somehow, the intensity of the fear of death often correlates positively with being trodden upon. If you don’t know that, you’re truly ignorant.

    “Often”? How “often”? At least so often as to be an actual correlation, right? Since you are not ignorant like me, surely you have the source for your claim at hand and you can point it out to me.

    Anyway, you already fell off the tracks, if you ever were on the tracks in the first place. The question never was whether fear of death correlates with being trodden upon. It’s whether fear of death correlates with being religious.

  31. GlenDavidson

    Erik: “Often”? How “often”? At least so often as to be an actual correlation, right? Since you are not ignorant like me, surely you have the source for your claim at hand and you can point it out to me.

    Actually, you suck at just plain reading. I wrote:

    But what do you really have if you’re in prison, or at the bottom of officially atheist society, but some religious hope for all to be made right sometime. Like in the afterlife.

    If you can’t figure out that people who have lived lives of quiet desperation, or some such plight, hope for an afterlife both for justice and to finally achieve some of what they wished they could (and more so than the favored), you’re really not going to be helped by anything more that I might give you.

    Glen Davidson

  32. RobinRobin

    walto: Not quite.With BECOMING religious.

    Having grown up devout and with a deeply devout set of relatives and community, it seems to me that the reason(s) people become religious is a little more complex than simply fear of death. For many folks, religious institutions provide a structure they crave and a sense of belonging and purpose. They can also be an amazingly comforting support group. I tend to think one of the key elements for Christianity’s draw and longevity is simply it’s social infrastructure. I think these elements are more important to most folks than the afterlife element or resurrection or comfort from death.

Leave a Reply