Monday, September 16, 2013

Certainty of God's existence is now a minority position among young whites

In an intriguing post (when are his anything but?) criticizing the New Atheists' evangelism, Jayman remarks:
This indicates that religious belief – or lack there of – is largely intractable. It is a futile effort to get people to give up religion en masse (or, for that matter, to get non-believers to believe). You may have some individual “successes”, largely because of changing the environmental context of people who already had the genetic potential for whatever belief you want to instill, but you’re not going to achieve broad change in the population.
While we're not looking at a phenomenon operating at anything close to the velocity in the rate of change we've seen in the western world with regards to homosexuality, atheism is on the rise. Heredity isn't the whole story. Theists have more children than non-believers do, and they start having them sooner. That broad pattern has characterized the US for at least the last century, yet rates of belief have gently but steadily declined over that period of time. Correspondingly, professed atheism continues ticking upwards, having more than doubled over the last couple of decades. More than a few atheist spawn are springing from the loins of the faithful.

In this battle between nature (which favors theists) and nurture (which favors atheists), the atheists can scarcely afford to forgo missionary work if they want to maintain and extend upon the gains they've made in the 'culture war'.

The GSS has queried respondents on their belief in God since 1988. The following graph shows the changes that have occurred over the last 25 years. To avoid racial and generational confounding, only whites under the age of 40 are considered:

While atheists and agnostics remain squarely in the minority, their combined representation has doubled over the period under consideration. Meanwhile, the 20-point advantage firm believers ("I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it") had over uncertain theists ("I don't believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind", "I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others", and "While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God") has completely vanished.

Whether this is because of, in spite of, or uninfluenced by the rise of militant atheism is another question, as is the judgment of whether this is a boon or a bust for society in general, but, while belief in the supernatural might not be especially elastic, it isn't static, either.

GSS variables used: RACE(1), AGE(18-39), GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6)


August said...

This is probably due to the impossibility of family formation at the appropriate age. The churches are compromised with the secular society, and they laud people going to college. College is largely a scam, so assets that could be used as capital for beginning families are wasted. Additionally the demands of college on women are pretty impossible, given that they are going to waste their most fertile years. The secular answer is contraception. Unfortunately the response to the destruction of family formation among Christians is to rebrand this as people 'living single for the Lord' and pretty there is a bright shiny patina of a choice somebody made for God.
Meanwhile every one who goes through this crap, especially after you get to the end of the college rainbow and realize there ain't no golden career sitting there for you, begins to struggle with their faith because what seemed to be something people could live, now seems to be a fairy tale.
I think it can be something people can live again, but it requires some radical change on the part of Christians. I haven't seen stats on Amish or Mennonites, but someone recently remarked that they were surprised to see the Amish (in Alabama?) making gluten free noodles. It would be interesting to see if they are doing any better, since (I assume), they can get married at a younger age.

Anonymous said...

Belief in God may be a proxy for capacity for a certain type of thought. Consider how many people believe in the obviously false proposition that all human groups are similar. Consider how many intelligent and well educated folks believe both of the two contradictory ideas of evolution and its lack of impact on modern human differentiation in psychology. It may be a capacity for cognitive dissonance.

JayMan said...

Good post, thanks for the nod!

This is probably the best example, by far, of antagonism between evolutionary forces (favoring increased religiosity), and environmental forces (favoring irreligiosity) – perhaps better than the Flynn effect. The two forces operate directly opposite to each other, with "environment" currently winning.

Of course, that could eventually sow the seeds of atheism's undoing. Getting more people to abandon religion – and presumably, breed less accordingly – might hasten the genetic push. Eventually, I expect to see the tide turn – in favor of religiosity – though it might take a few decades to be visible.

Anonymous said...

Amish and Orthodox Jews are the fastest growing groups in the US. I think they double about every 16 years last I checked. Their rates of defection have fallen in half over the last 50 years. It seems they mostly lose outliers. Those who are either too high functioning or too low functioning, thereby increasing the correlation of the group mean to its median.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to know the intensity of belief of some other ideas for the sake of comparison. How high is the public's certainty of some other beliefs? What is the theoretical maximum for belief in anything? For example, how about a question like, "How certain are you that the sun will not explode (supernova) within one year?" Obviously some people are actually knowledgeable enough to answer that question, but the rest are just going by other signs like there are no predictions of such a thing being likely, so it probably isn't. But if only 50% could answer that question with certainty, then you would know about how dumb/ignorant/irrational/clueless the respondents are. Without good comparison questions, we have little to go on in judging the people answering the question.

SMERSH said...

Religiosity is heritable at a not too impressive rate of .30 to .45 but the heritability of a specific religious practice is near zero.

Your children may end up as religious adults but environmental factors can easily lead them away from your specific religion.

One wonders if people who've inherited religiosity genes can be converted to atheistic religions like Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism or worship of Kim Jong-Il.

One also wonders how good our genes are at figuring out whether or not something is a religion. Can quasi-religious belief systems like Unitarian Universalism or Progressivism fulfill the religious function that our religiosity genes make us desire?

August said...

I think it is somewhat mistaken to think in terms of intensity of belief. There is intensity of emotion, which tends to hold groups together, but if the conditions are wrong that same intensity of emotion can backfire.
Very few people actually get interested in doctrine and/or think about a particular tenet of faith because this requires intelligence.

Audacious Epigone said...

The Amish and Mennonite populations are still trivial. Even doubling at 16 years and combined together they don't reach 2 million until mid-century. Mormons, though more integrated than Amish and Mennonites, might be the more significant group to watch, at least during our lifetimes. They number over 6 million and have above replacement fertility. Utah's median age is only 28, which gives us a good idea of where (native) population growth is coming from and where population concentrations will shift to going forward.


The cathedral has largely become part of the Cathedral, yes.

Re: intensity of belief, what you get in breadth you inevitably lose in depth on surveys as massive and broad as the GSS, but there is clearly a fertility advantage among firm believers over others, and it runs on down to atheists and agnostics, who are both well below replacement fertility, so we know we're getting some insight from the questions as presented.


The question is, is it a substitute or a complement? Evangelicals tend to be more restrictionist on immigration, less supportive of affirmative action, more skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, etc than more liberal or non-theist groups are.


The future is notoriously difficult to predict, but I think you're correct, especially internationally so. I'm not sure where I'd put my money domestically, though.


Re: Buddhism, the GSS only has 77 respondents claiming that as their religious persuasion, but more of them are atheist or agnostic than are firm believers (as would be expected, though when I was looking it up I wouldn't have been surprised to see otherwise). Most say they believe in some higher but impersonal power.

Jake said...

What if people are being born with religion genes, but who have been turned off organized religion, but an underlying religious mindset is still being expressed in other secular ways? E.g. people who believe (i.e. have faith) in the paranormal, think they can talk to animals, belive in astrology or karma, etc.

gwern said...

> To avoid racial and generational confounding, only whites under the age of 40 are considered:

As August says, this procedure sounds like it's going to confound with childlessness: tons of people become religious for the sake of their kids, so this increase (which isn't that big looking) could be nothing but the delay in childbirth.

Audacious Epigone said...


Do people go from atheism to theism for the kiddies?

I get the increase in church attendance, especially while kids are young, but I'm skeptical (though I don't know) that people's belief systems undergo that sort of internal change.