More Deplorable Reporting on Religious Belief
June 13, 2012 — 13:30

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , ,   Comments: 11

In a previous post I threw some primate feces into a rotating blade after reading an article which had the following properties. 1. The story was about religious belief. 2. The story was on the impact of some “scientific” study on religious belief. 3. It was terrible reporting. 4. The headline had an implication, entailment, or assertion that was unsupported by the data. 5. The implication, entailment, or assertion in the headline was just what a CDR (cultured despiser of religion) would *wish* to be true.
I think that, in general, trait 1 is highly correlated with trait 3, but when traint 2 enters, things only get worse. I have now had the misfortune of seeing yet another article which displays these five qualities in spades. In this case, though, I want to focus not on how ridiculously bad the reporting is, but on an important item of religious epistemology it highlights.


First, the details in brief. The title is the following assertion.
(T) “Belief In God Plummets Among Youth”
The opening assertion of the piece is a more inflammatory version of (T).
(A) “The younger generation is abandoning God in droves.”
I’m not sure 15% counts as “droves” but whatever. Then we get the author’s second-hand summary of the data.
(S) “A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that belief in the existence of God has dropped 15 points in the last five years among Americans 30 and under.”
One would expect that the assertion in (S) would have the following content.
(C) According to the survey, where t is today and n is the percentage of the sample that believed that there was a God at t-5years, the percentage at t who believe that there is a God is n-15.
But it turns out that (S) bears no obvious relation at all to (C). So then how are the numbers in (S) arrived at? Here is a report of the actual results of the survey.
(R) “Pew, which has been studying the trend for 25 years, finds that just 68 percent of millennials in 2012 agree with the statement “I never doubt the existence of God.” That’s down from 76 percent in 2009 and 83 percent in 2007.”
The article has the following topical tags: “Atheism, God, agnosticism.” Well, one out of three isn’t terrible. The story does have some relation to God.
So here are some equivalencies which would be required to be true for (T) and (A) to be true. Ahem.
(E1) S believes in God only if S never doubts that there is a God.
(E2) If S had a doubt about God, then S has abandoned God.
(E1) and (E2) are, of course, obviously false.* In fact, I dare say they are ludicrously false, if you will, or egregiously false. But rather than focus on the consequent ludicrously and egregiously bad reporting of Mssr Kapur, our CDR de jour, I instead want to focus upon the egregious use of (E1) and (E2) by *religious* folk. But first a caveat on the social epistemology here.
The last piece examined and this one are drops in the bucket. The Secular Industrial Establishment’s publishing arm (whether through malice or wish-fulfillment) routinely displays headlines which make anti-religious assertions not backed up by the data. It is natural that we trust headlines pretty spontaneously. It is hard to estimate how much public doubt rests on this spurious “evidence.” Add to that the confident bombasticism of Ivory Tower types and hoi polloi begin to get misleading evidence that religion is somehow intellectually deficient. And those rebels who don’t accept the headlines or the talking heads are branded as Neanderthals and assimilated to the Grand Secular Narrative. But thinking about this too much will “angry up my blood” as Grandpa Simpson said, so I’ll return to the critique of my own house.
Here is a quote that hangs on my wall. I copied it down long-hand when I was a Southern Baptist Youth Minister (long trek from there to Rome, but a pretty typical one).
“Lucille has no joy because of the doubts and questions in her heart. She does not take the Lord at His Word…but allows all sorts of questions to burden her mind. She must know the why and how of everything instead of taking the Word of God by Faith.” From _Dear Princess_, by Mary M. Landis, 1973. #Gagreflex
It could well be that Mssr Kapur was in fact raised in a religious milieu where this kind of pious nonsense was propagated, and this would partly exculpate his utter inability to discern basic distinctions in the subject matter upon which he appoints himself to comment so authoritatively.
I have preached the gospel of fallibilism high and low, but I think it bears repeating. Mature belief in God is perfectly consistent with doubt. Doubt comes in degrees and too much doubt will drive out belief. But it is natural, normal, and maybe even *necessary* to doubt. This latter point brings us to what might be the greatest irony of the reporting. For it might not just be obviously false and biased but actually inverted. That is, it might indicate that belief in God will be on the rise or that it can be expected to remain strong. Here’s why.
Undue certainty (which, from my perspective is all certainty) is likely to precipitate unbelief. No one’s belief is more likely to be overthrown by doubts than the person who is over-confident and disconnected from the evidence (as anyone who is certain of anything substative must be, I say). But someone who, reasonably, maintains belief in the face of doubts (as we all must, if we believe anything at all) is more likely to have that belief persist, because it is in proper touch with the evidence and is the result of at least some ratiocination.
So, yes, the reporting is terrible; yes, the reporting is biased (whether maliciously or soft-headedly); yes, it is part of a vast network of such biased nonsense which supports the CDRther’s (trying to play of “birthers” etc) self assurance; but we should take care of our own house first. Let’s try to eradicate infallibiisms from our religious circles. Let us embrace the faith-strengthening power of doubt (Gary Habermas has a great little book on doubt, and there are others). Let us always remember what Aquinas kept reminding us of: Christianity is true, so it is never, ever at odds with the facts (though we can have misleading evidence that it is).
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*There is an literature in which the term “doubt” entails inability to assent which occurs often in pre-20th Century Catholic thought, but that is clearly not the context here.

Comments:
  • Plum

    This post is wonderfully insightful. One of my many favorite lines:
    “The last piece examined and this one are drops in the bucket. The Secular Industrial Establishment’s publishing arm (whether through malice or wish-fulfillment) routinely displays headlines which make anti-religious assertions not backed up by the data”

    June 13, 2012 — 16:07
  • Ben Arbour

    Great thoughts, Trent. I enjoyed your last post on this, and I think this post points out the mistakes in reasoning and the issues of media bias even more clearly than the last piece did. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to think/write on these themes. Please continue to do so.

    June 14, 2012 — 9:57
  • Helen De Cruz

    Trent: doubt may be central to faith, but perhaps not central to belief.
    Having faith that p requires some degree of doubt that p, even though having faith that p is incompatible with belief that not-p (as you say, too much doubt destroys belief, and it also destroys faith).
    It would be odd to say “I have faith I will land a TT position” if I am absolutely certain this will happen. It’s more appropriate to say this when in fact I have doubt that I will land such a position. This relates to the discussion of Audi’s new book, which I initiated in NewApps a few weeks ago:
    http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/06/faith-as-an-attitude-distinct-from-hope-and-belief-are-aesthetic-reasons-sufficient-reasons-for-faith.html

    June 14, 2012 — 10:17
  • I take it that this is the link you’re referring to: http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/06/belief-in-god-plummets-millenials.php?ref=fpb
    Most of your criticisms are good ones.
    1) However, look at the graph at that link. There is a clear and severe downward trend among Millenials in response to the survey question, especially when compared to previous generations’ track records. It’s not inaccurate to call the trend a ‘plummeting’. Granted, had it been even more severe it would deserve that label even more.
    2) Here’s another thing to consider. Alternative headlines might have been more cumbersome. (Also would’ve gotten fewer clicks on the link, as well.) Some candidates:
    /Failure Ever to Doubt God’s Existence Decreases Among Youth/
    /Youth Doubts of God on the Increase/
    Both a bit awkward and cumbersome.

    June 14, 2012 — 14:01
  • Trent,
    Even if you’re wrong (and I am inclined to think you are, though it is also possible that we may be using “doubt” in different senses) that doubt is normal and healthy, and Christian faith calls on one to lack of doubt, one still can’t reason reason from the presence of doubt to the lack of belief.
    After all, Christian faith calls on one not to sin. But one can’t reason from the presence of sin to the lack of faith.
    Likewise, being a professor calls on one to be a good teacher. But one can’t reason from the claim that X teaches badly to the claim that X isn’t on the faculty.

    June 14, 2012 — 18:25
  • There are non-cumbersome but accurate titeles like “Millenials less certain about God”.
    Furthermore, it is very, very bad journalism to choose an utterly inaccurate title over a cumbersome one.

    June 15, 2012 — 13:04
  • Kyle

    “It would be odd to say ‘I have faith I will land a TT position’ if I am absolutely certain this will happen. It’s more appropriate to say this when in fact I have doubt that I will land such a position.”
    Hi Helen,
    I wonder how significant these sorts of observations are. It may be to do with where one is trying to place the emphasis. For example, people sometimes say ‘I don’t believe p, I know p’.

    June 18, 2012 — 8:55
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Kyle,
    I’m sure pragmatics play a role in how exactly we use words like believe and have faith. I am one of those people who thinks that belief and knowledge are distinct doxastic attitudes (see e.g., work by Tim Williamson on that). And I think belief and faith are also distinct doxastic attitudes. So while doubt may be a feature of beliefs as well (in the example you mention) it is more central to faith. For instance, I may believe that the Greek economic crisis will get resolved, and this belief may be accompanied with substantial doubt. But since my belief doesn’t have particular features that are central to faith (such as a positive attitude towards the whole thing, an effect on my behavior etc) it is a belief and not faith.
    I think, btw, that faith is not incompatible with knowledge, even though both are distinct doxastic attitudes.

    June 19, 2012 — 1:22
  • Helen De Cruz

    It is interesting that the recent study that showed that people with autistic spectrum disorder are less religious has been announced with a lot less catchy titles.
    For instance, Daily Mail calls it a “controversial study”: Is atheism linked to autism? Controversial study points to relationship between the two (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2039690/Atheism-autism-Controversial-new-study-points-link-two.html#ixzz1yF2hhQAx)
    Or “mentalism constrains belief in God” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-imprinted-brain/201206/mentalism-constrains-belief-in-god)
    If we’d lived in a different day an age (less secular-is-the-norm) we would have seen different headlines. Or if it turned out that being religious was linked to autistic, the tone of the headlines would be very different as well.

    June 19, 2012 — 7:30
  • “Let’s try to eradicate infallibiisms from our religious circles. Let us embrace the faith-strengthening power of doubt ”
    “Let us always remember what Aquinas kept reminding us of: Christianity is true, so it is never, ever at odds with the facts (though we can have misleading evidence that it is). ”
    I fail to see how this two statements are compatible, really…

    June 19, 2012 — 13:26
  • Simple: things are not always as they appear.

    June 19, 2012 — 13:32
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