Social Science Lesson: What Americans believe

Today’s news delivers a great lesson for anyone who doubts that Americans are very, very religious. Here’s how religious Americans are: Only 73 percent of the athiests don’t believe in god.

Massive study finds most Americans devout” says the headline in the June 23, 2008 Boston Globe report. Other media reports echo that.

The study, performed by the Pew Foundation on Religion and Public Life, is online. The statistics mentioned above are from the section called “Belief in God or Universal Spirit By Religious Tradition.” The pertinent part is reproduced here:

Social scientists and journalists are always careful, to some degree, in gathering and interpreting statistics. We trust that all the statistics in this report are as believable as the one mentioned here.

UPDATE, several hours later: What should you believe when something unexpected turns up in a survey? Believe that the people being surveyed are stupid. So implies Gregory Smith, a Pew Foundation researcher quoted in the Washington Post:

Twenty-one percent of those who describe themselves as atheists expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit, and more than half of those who call themselves agnostic expressed a similar conviction.

Smith said some people may identify with the term atheist or agnostic without fully understanding the definition, or they have a negative view of organized religion, even though they believe in God.