June 14th, 2012
12:40 PM ET

My Take: More doubts about God doesn't mean religion is weakening

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

When it comes to doubt, sometimes a little skepticism is in order.

As CNN's Dan Merica reported earlier this week, a recent Pew Research Center survey sees doubt rising sharply inside the millennial generation. Between 2007 and 2012, this survey says, the portion of young Americans (those 30 and uner) who say they never doubt the existence of God dropped sharply between 2007 and 2012, from 83% to 68%.

This report has stirred up a chatstorm in the blogosphere, with 2600 comments and counting on Merica's Belief Blog post alone. But does this data really say what many atheists want it to say? Is American religion really heading for a fall?

Look carefully at the survey question. What this data is tracking is the percentage of young people for whom doubt has never creeped into their faith. I don’t know about you, but most of the religious people I know experience both doubt and faith over the course of their spiritual lives. So the fact that more than two-thirds of young people say they have never doubted God’s existence seems to me evidence of America's extraordinary religiosity, not its disbelief.

That suspicion is supported by the fact that this same Pew survey found that millennials who identify with a religion is not declining. Moreover, according to Pew's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, only 3% of millennials are atheists.

The takeaway, it seems to me, is not that religion is declining in America but that it is changing. Or, to paraphrase my Boston University colleague and sociologist of religion Peter Berger, what is shifting here is the how of religion. In short, doubt is a part of the spiritual lives of more young people than it has been in the past.

I have been spending way too much time lately with Google’s Ngram Viewer. This website allows you to see how prominent certain key words are in books published in various languages from 1800 forward. It’s also possible to see how these key words match up against one another over time.

I searched the Ngram database for the words “faith” and “doubt” in American English from 1800 to 2008. Here’s what I found:

For much of the nineteenth century, “faith” won out over “doubt.” But as Biblical criticism, evolutionary theory, and comparative religions started to chip away at traditional understandings of Christianity, “doubt” ran past faith in the late 1880s. For roughly the next century, the two terms tracked rather closely. During the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, however, faith bypassed doubt.

What matters here is not the horse race. More significant is the fact that, since the late Victorian period, doubt has become part of the landscape of faith in America. To see doubt as a denial of faith is to misunderstand how most Americans live their religious lives.

The fact that doubt is now a part of faith for a significant minority of American believers strikes me at least as a sign of faith’s maturity, not its demise. Perhaps, like the millennials themselves, American religion is growing up.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • Faith • Polls • Trends • United States

soundoff (1,804 Responses)
  1. tybee

    the catholics retain less than 20% of their youth and the southern baptists are in the same boat as far as keeping their pews filled but prothro says the younger generation hasn't lost faith. someone is lying...

    June 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Reality

      Look more at the long term studies. Yes, many young people go to college or leave home and stop attending church. Many engage in a life of sin for many years. It's more about the seed that was planted, do they feel a conviction for their lifestyle? Do they return to church when they start a family? I did, and I pray each day that my kids will be firmly rooted in their faith as we can't go to heaven on what our parents believe, it has to be a personal relationship. Jesus Loves and died for You! 🙂

      June 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Tony

      "the catholics retain less than 20% of their youth"

      -and that's by age 25. By 65, they show a lot more aging.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Kafir

      My leaving the church was due to education, not "immoral living". the two are decidedly different.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Reality

      Not from the original Reality.

      June 15, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  2. Rahul

    Religion without God, god or goddess is legitimate. Original (Theravadin) non-theistic Buddhism, for example.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Seriously

      Are you serious? That's the funniest thing I have heard in a while.... 🙂

      June 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Kafir

      The same goes for Universalist Unitarianism

      June 14, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  3. Reality

    AGREED, I hate when survey questions are 'grey'. I've had my valleys of doubt but still firmly stand as a child of God saved by the blood of Jesus Christ!!!!!! May he change each one of you as well, bless you!

    June 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Frank

      Are you equally certain that the Christian religion is correct as you are in the existence of a deity?

      June 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Reality

      If you saw 'bigfoot' would you ever doubt his existence? If you have felt depression or an addiction, would you ever doubt its ability to drag people down? I have experienced the transformation through Jesus and felt the Holy Spirit's presence while on a trip to Ethiopia (sharing his love with over 500 kids in poverty)....so YES, YES, YES, I am completely convinced in my savior! Please don't allow the actions of man (some claiming to be christian) to get your eyes away from the promises of God!!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Steve the Goat

      Did you see the son of your space ghost? No, you didn't. Things turned a different way for the positive, and like so many of you mindless dolts you just attributed that to the almighty jeebus. Stop deluding yourself and grow up.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Christ loves you too

      I have felt the power and witnessed it as well, YES! I pray that you can deal with your hatred and just remember, Jesus still loves you!!! Praise Jesus!! Obviously you have only witnessed pain in your life and I'm sorry for that. What I have witnessed and KNOW, noone can change.......

      June 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Robert


      No, and I'm ok with that.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Kafir

      Maybe it was Mohammed. Let's not forget that jesus would've looked middle eastern to the untrained eye. 😉

      June 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • wow

      The mind can be a powerful delusion. Instead of thinking that, maybe your mind made you feel that. You can have that same feel on drugs, in love or just in a really good mood.

      June 14, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Reality

      Not from the original Reality------.

      June 15, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  4. dkinabq

    How about a debate about what type of god(s) people believe in. A personal god? Or one that does not affect our daily lives? One that is an external force? Or one that is some part within us? And why is there only one? Are we talking about a white haired guy in the sky or some unseen force?

    June 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Complete Belief

      I believe that God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent and thus could never be 'a man'. I believe that man fell into sin and God knew that we could not overcome this and loved us so much that he came in the form of man and lived a perfect life and died as a worthy sacrifice for our sins if we accept it. I also believe as Jesus did that the Holy Spirit can change a man's life if you allow it (Trinity). It's hard to explain if one doesn't believe in the bible or hasn't felt the presence of God but WOW when you speak to someone who has or witness the transformation yourself! All doubt is erased immediately! I hope you find Christ and hold fast to the promise of eternal life!!! In Christ love, D

      June 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Like the Bible, your faith is internally inconsistent. You contradict yourself

      June 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Christ loves you too

      The Bible is not inconsistent nor does it contradict itself. Read it..study it 1. historically, 2. grammatically, 3 contextually before saying this doesn't look right. The New Testament doesn't contradict, it fulfills the promises. New Law vs Old Law. I pray that you will spend some time in it and be educated. In His Love, D

      June 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Adam

      How can you study the bible gramatically? It wasn't written in English originally.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • alex

      PSA 145:9 The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.

      JER 13:14 And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the LORD: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.

      EXO 15:3 The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.

      ROM 15:33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.

      MAT 1:16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

      LUK 3:23 And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli.

      JOH 10:30 I and my Father are one.

      JOH 14:28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.

      1KI 4:26 And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.

      2CH 9:25 And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen; whom he bestowed in the chariot cities, and with the king at Jerusalem.

      ISA 14:21 Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers; that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities.

      DEU 24:16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Not Blind

      @Christ loves you too: Actually the Bible does contradict itself multiple times, most churches have admitted to that, the only ones that don't are the ones that want to believe in Adam and Eve which is simply debunked by the use of DNA tests. We are not all alike and we would have to be to come from one original DNA strand. And then there is the Noah Ferry tale. which most Religious types will say "well not all stories in there are literal" This would be a HUGE red flag for someone of even moderate intelligence, because then you can not take any of it literally, which makes it all nothing more than story. I feel sorry for you living your life with delusions in your head that some mystical being is going to make death all better. Dead is dead... Nothing more, nothing less... There is no Hell, there is no Heaven, there is nothing... And in the event that we do find an Alien life form of any kind anywhere that will really shoot your Bible down... Live long and prosper though....

      June 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • alex

      Here are some more contradictions.. sorry but there are just SOOO many.

      PSA 92:12: "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree."

      ISA 57:1: "The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart."

      II SAMUEL 24: And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

      I CHRONICLES 21: And SATAN stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.

      "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham." (GEN 22:1)

      "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man." (JAS 1:13)

      June 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  5. MD

    Having doubt is ok. It means you are willing to expand your mind and soul.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Robert

      I think it's healthy.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  6. dvn

    This is the "Decalre Victory and withdraw" equivalent in Theology. I'm sure if the survey told you that MORE young people never doubted the existence of god you would say THAT was evidence of the increase in religiosity.... Can't have it both ways.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Rich

      ARE you sure he'd say that? Or are you just using a straw man argument to placate yourself?

      June 14, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Huebert

    "Perhaps, like the millennials themselves, American religion is growing up."

    With this statement Prothero is as.suming that doubt and faith will remain in equilibrium. However, if doubt begins to out pace faith it is likely we are hearing the first notes of religions requiem.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  8. Melissa

    lol. No, we don't have our doubt wrong. You just don't want to admit it. I don't "doubt" there's a god. To doubt says that you actually believe. I simply don't have a lack of belief in any deity. Period. And the very fact that more people are "doubting" than ever in this country means the country is starting to grow up. Question everything or become a simple minded sap that believes there are monsters under your bed.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  9. Stu

    just like Europe's not walking from religion... the smarter we get, the less credible the idea of a Creator becomes.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Raven

      Scientists are proving daily while trying to disprove a creator, just the opposite.

      By creating things themselves in test tubes they are re-creating Gods handiwork. give them another thousand years
      and maybe they will claim themselves Gods.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Stu

      Yes, this is true if you're willing to ignore everything they are actually proving.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Teri

      Said the serpant to Eve....

      June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  10. junior

    "More doubts about God doesn't mean religion is weakening"
    People are subscribing to the church of "If it hurts my feelings I turn toward something that doesn't require effort: the belief in no God"

    June 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • UltraAtheist

      As opposed to believing in something because you want it to be true. You want to live forever in a fantasy land after death. You want all your misgivings absolved by simply believing in a 2000 year old zombie. Religion is the easy path.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Christ loves you too

      Actually 'UA', the real christian life is not easy! Look at Paul's life in the New Testament. Also remember that "the path is narrow and few shall pass", so this christian faith that you are evidently viewing is not 'real'. We are called to serve, love and share His love with others! So to do my part.....Christ died for you too and loves you! I hope that you allow him to move in your life!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Paul's life was not easy because he was trying to spread a new faith. Thus he was oppressed by the current dominant faith of the area.
      Now, the Christians are the oppressors. The atheists are the new "Pauls" roaming the country-side telling people that they don't have to follow the currently popular mythology.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Christ loves you too

      Paul could have easily accepted his faith and stayed with the disciples in the 'local church'. This would have been very comfortable. He had many opportunities to live an easy life. Actually take a look at the comments from the atheist...... putting down our faith, calling us morons, saying we believe in something stupid, etc, etc, etc. And they are doing this on a 'faith blog' of all things. Go into the streets of your local city and begin to share the love of Christ and you will quickly see that you are greatly outnumbered and the faith is not easily or quickly accepted (JUST LIKE PAUL). If you do what you are called to do. Have you helped the homeless or poor in this country much less the really poor countries? Emotionally and physically exhausting (but of course I would not trade it for the world).

      June 14, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • alex

      It baffles me that these idiots use text from 2000 years ago to try and relate it to todays problems.. we live in a completely different world now. please wake the f up from your delusions.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I'm an atheist and I do go into the streets and do good works. I help feed the homeless, I work with youth, I work to improve the environment, and I don't believe this will do anything for me in the long run. I don't do this for anything more than the satisfaction I get in knowing that I didn't sit on the sidelines observing.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Kafir

      The problem is simple: without evidence, belief is not only unachievable, but any sort of faith or attempt at belief would be irresponsible. I can't believe something when there's insufficient evidence. Doesn't matter the perceived duty, practicality, or rewards.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  11. Robert Brown

    I agree with Mr. Prothero. Doubt can be a great faith builder. What did Jesus mean when he said, "Ye of little faith"? Faith with doubt.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Kafir

      Couple doubt with education, and you've got a killer combination that will allow you to weave through rhetoric, to arrive at the meat of the argument, where you can determine if it's supported or not.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  12. sam stone

    HS is a troll.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  13. Parth


    June 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  14. The Captain

    Don't worry, the Titanic is not sinking. We're taking that water in on purpose to clean out our lower decks. When we start listing heavily to one side we're just maximizing our efficiency. Please go about your business.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Bob

      Too funny.

      Aye, Captain.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Haps

      Perfect analogy Cap. "A little water in the lower decks is a good thing, we want it there, it needs to be there."

      June 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  15. sally

    Nice spin, but doesn't explain the rising numbers of those who identify as atheists or agnostic.

    Personally I miss me some polytheism! Bring on the gods and goddesses!

    June 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  16. Mass Debater

    Until a creator proclaims his/her/it's existence to all the universe doubt is all the religious have.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Speak for yourself. I know Jesus exists.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Stu

      really? How?

      June 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • jkflipflop

      I believe in Zeus. And Ra. At least I can see Ra everyday.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • solex

      No – you do not know that Jesus or God exists.

      It is only your opinion and means no more or less than anyone's.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • etwright3

      what would that look like?

      June 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Tre D'

      Actually, they have a law book on the trial of Jesus. You can find it in a law library. Jesus actually walked the earth. Just because he is no longer walking the earth, doesn't mean he never did. Pick up a book or two, and you'll know the truth. Ignorance is not an excuse!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Christ loves you too

      Tre D, MY BROTHER FROM ANOTHER MOTHER!! Amen! All we can do is pray, we know that not all will be saved but praise JESUS that he loved us so much.....

      June 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • GT

      Yes, I agree. Why doesn't God simply show himself, and thereby end all the debate and doubt once and for all? This is, of course, going to be attacked as being crazy. But, when theists say that they believe in an invisible man who lives in the sky, that's not considered crazy. In virtually every other aspect of life and thinking, we always demand proof. Religion is the one and only exception. Why does religion get this exemption?

      June 14, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Rich

      @GT: "Why doesn't God simply show himself, and thereby end all the debate and doubt once and for all?"

      He did. We crucified Him. It didn't stop the debate and doubt.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • imrepostingthis

      @GT – Why does religion get this exemption?

      For profit.

      June 15, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  17. mandarax

    This article seems like a lot of desperate rationalizing. Even if what Prothero says is true (that the number of young people who identify a religion remains the same, but the number who have doubts about god has gone up), that would indicate that young people are naming the church their parents took them to, but aren't necessarily believing what is taught. They have been to the store, but fewer of them are buying what you're selling.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • JWT

      And as those that question more and more become parents they will likely not try to brainwash their kids on this topic.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Stu

      ding, ding, ding. We have a winner in JWT. Religion is just a meme. Stop the brainwashing during the early years and watch how religion fades.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Guest11

      "Desperate rationalizing." Spot on. That's all that religion is. In fact, this could be the best description of how religion funtions.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  18. Ecclesiastes 7:17

    One can have polls say anything with the right wording and spin.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Stu

      that sounds a lot like Christians and their bible. It can say whatever they want it to say.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Ecclesiastes 7:17

      Seems atheists aren't immune to that either.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • TheSchmaltz

      There are 3 kinds of falsehoods. Lies, damned lies, and statistics

      June 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  19. sam

    Now we have articles inspired by the response to other articles. Can't we just divide by zero and get this over with?

    June 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  20. heavensent

    Only if the wayward sheep had read gods true scriptures at prolapsed.net, then they would see the love of the lord.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Phony heavensent, you prove your side is a bunch of cowards, just by stealing my handle to write your babble.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • sam

      C'mon HeavenSent – go check out the link. You know you want to.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      sam, it's bad enough having to read half of the nonsense from the non-believers posts. Never mind, looking at another one of your mindless sites.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Who's forcing you to read anything here, HS?

      June 14, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • WASP

      @ tom tom: don't you know god makes heavensent/hellbound get on this evil site and attempt to save our poor souls. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAAHA

      June 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Tommie, Tom, skip.

      WASP, I'm not trying to save your soul, I'm only doing what I'm suppose to do ... ensuring His truth be heard. Other than that, seeds do fall on rock, never to produce. It's Jesus that has mercy on some and others He created for destruction. Take your choice which one you want to be.

      June 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Clint

      "it's bad enough having to read half of the nonsense from the non-believers posts."


      Look in the mirror, and read your own dribble, it's pretty bad when the mythological story tellers start telling everyone else their statements are "nonsense".

      June 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "skip" This cracks me up every time.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      It always cracks me up when HS accuses someone else of being mindless. Also, "it's bad enough having to read half of the nonsense from the non-believers posts" cracks me up because HS has admitted to not actually reading most of the posts from non-believers.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      HG, but she finds it impossible not to respond and then claims she is "skipping" the posts.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • alex

      Hevensent, I commit the unforgivable sin every day.. I'm a science teacher.. and I teach that things happen due to a natural process that is driven by the laws of physics.. I DO NOT give any credit to god.. Also, as many people in the world have done, we have proclaimed the non-existance of god or any deity, therefore we will never be admitted to heaven on the account of blasphemy of the holy spirit, the unforgivable sin.. So what do you say to that?

      June 14, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • imrepostingthis

      @HeavenSent – Are you going as for $1000 a seed so you can plant a seed for a miracle, like that guy on TV? He actually told people to max out their credit cards and it will be repaid, "Yeah, it is called bankruptcy"

      June 15, 2012 at 9:54 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.