“Abandoning” God

BuzzFeed and Business Insider aren’t the only sites with some questionable headlines this week. One of my favorite sites, TPM, offers this jarring header:

Belief in God Plummets Among Youth


And this even more jarring lede:

Young Americans are abandoning God in droves.

And then there’s this conjecture:

The results suggest that a new movement of atheist or agnostic thinking during the the last decade — spearheaded by high-profile authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — is steering younger people away from traditional beliefs long held by their parents.

I dunno. Are Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris that broadly influential? I would have guessed they were mainly read by people who agree with their irreligious views to begin with, but then I’m no expert on any of these gents.

Turns out the underlying “story” is a finding from Pew longitudinal survey that (rather clumsily, IMO) seeks to measure religious attitudes over the last 25 years and across generational lines. The question all the excitement about is framed this way: “I never doubt the existence of God.” The “young Americans” in question are those under 30.

“Never” is a pretty strong word, particularly for people at a stage of life highly associated with questioning, well, everything. I’m a fairly religious person, and I would have probably answered the question with a “no” up to the age of 30, and maybe beyond. Perhaps belief in God is “plummeting,” though Pew only has 10 years of data, and the percentage of milennials answering “no” to this question dropped from 83% to 66% over that time. Perhaps one of those two numbers is an outlier; perhaps “doubt” (a better term than “unbelief,” given the wording of the question) is at much higher levels among a sub-generation. It’s hard to say.

What I mainly learned from the TPM story and the poll is that we need more precise polling about religious attitudes before jumping to any conclusions.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.