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Report Knocks Baylor Claim about American Religiosity

News & Comment

The Editors

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

Do nonreligious people in America represent a larger group than has been portrayed?

The Council for Secular Humanism (a sister organization to our Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) made some headlines in February with a report released to the national media calling into question many of the findings contained in a widely cited Baylor University Religion Survey of 2008. Baylor, a Baptist university, claimed in its survey that America is as religious as it has always been, adding that belief in religion is a universal characteristic displayed by all peoples around the world. Baylor researchers recently published their findings in a book called What Americans Really Believe (Baylor University Press, 2008).

The CSH report, “Is the Baylor Religion Study Reliable?” (PDF), contradicts these claims, suggesting that Baylor and lead researcher Rodney Stark may have improperly evaluated the data and consequently misinformed the public and the media.

The Council’s report points to a growing body of research by academic institutions and major survey organizations that clearly documents a downward shift of religious adherence in the United States. Why does the Baylor study contradict this? Independent scholar Gregory S. Paul, author of the Council’s report and author of a major article on these matters in Free Inquiry (December 2008/January 2009) says that Baylor relied on a flawed methodology.

“The Baylor team has adopted a curious way of treating atheism, forms of unbelief short of atheism, and religious belief. This approach places a disproportionate emphasis on convinced atheism—the confident rejection that a personal God exists—at the expense of more moderate forms of nontheism,” said Paul. The report suggests that Baylor has failed to document large numbers of Americans who reject conventional religious beliefs, such as those who self-define as agnostic or “spiritual but not religious.” The Council’s report declares that “Baylor’s methods largely ignore these doubters, making nonbelief appear less prevalent in society than it truly is. The Baylor team treats almost any deviation from strict atheism as a sign of religiosity. Doing so falsely maximizes the apparent level of faith.”

The United States is still the most religious country in the First World, but the Baylor thesis that “‘faith American style’ is holding its own is clearly false,” states the report. “Religious belief and activity in America are trending downward in so many ways that it is simply untenable to pretend that the nation is growing more religious.”