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. Scott

    CNN's belief articles=the porch light which draws all the moths during summer

    June 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Lady In Grey

      Great comparison. 🙂 I guess I'm a moth like the rest, not for warmth but for drama!

      June 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  2. Michael500ca

    Two major problems with this article from a clearly biased writer and clearly biased source. 1) The Christian run Pew Research Center (Family Research Council) is a biased organization that uses disinformation tactics to back Republicans. 2) From the US Census in 2010, the number of Agnostics and Atheists is 15% and growing, not 3%. The world UN numbers back this up doubling these numbers in the past 20 years. In Canada the numbers went from 18% to 30% in the past 20 years. In the UK and the Nordic countries, Agnostics and Atheists now make up 50% of the population and in the Czech Republic, they are the majority and growing. Face it people, these ancient religions are dying and for a good reason. It is time for you think for yourselves.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Earl

      Where do you get your info? The Pew Center is not a religious organization.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Walter

      It would be odd if the Family Research Council was associated with the Pew Research Center since the Family Research Council has attacked the data gathered by the Pew Research Council on numerous occasions.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Michael can't be wrong though. He thinks for himself.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • steve

      Its going up everywhere else though. Africa

      June 14, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  3. Ech

    Need...more...science. My started to drool while reading this.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Ech

      my butt*

      June 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  4. Nichol

    Jesus may have said all of those things but Elvis did say "I'm a hunk a hunk of burnin' love."

    Yes, it's just as relevant in your arguments.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  5. Gary

    People like to pretend that surveys are of one single group and that there is one 'truth' in the statistics found by the survey. This is rarely the case. Most surveys reflect several different events, often contradictory, occurring in one or more groups.

    It is likely atheism is on the rise and on the decline in the U.S. It just depends on which group in the U.S. you are talking about.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Bob

      Lol of course. Go to New York and Atheism is on the rise. Go to Missouri and Christianity is on the rise.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  6. Rob- Texas

    Think about this for a minuate:
    If there was a global claticisum, all of the technology we use in our daily lives and to store information could be wipped out is a second.
    Without a google seach:
    Do you know how to grow your own food?
    Do you know how to pick cotton?
    Do you know how to make your own clothes, shoes, etc.?
    Do you know how to start a fire without a lighter, matches or anything other than sticks and rocks?
    Do you know how to ride a horse?
    Do you know how to drive a wagon?
    Just becuase we have advanced technology, does not make us smarter than the generations that proceeded us. Don't assume they were ignorant and we are so smart. Get a grip on yourself. Its not impossible that things have happened that you have never seen, so there for you don't believe.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Steve

      Not necessarily smarter but certainly more knowledgeable.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • sam

      Aside from the fact that your point is useless...yes, I can do all of those things.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • DrJStrangepork

      We have advanced on their shoulders. We have their knowledge and beyond. Of course they were ignorant to many things, we are ignorant to many things now. You can't make and argument that because we do not actively practice the same way of life as our ancestors, that makes them more knowledgeable. If you are implying that we should not overlook what they gave us... I agree. If you are saying that we need not investigate our world, and educate ourselves further, then I will say never. I want to know more.. it is far more interesting than pretending to know it all ready.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • BlackMan

      > pick cotton


      June 15, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • imrepostingthis

      He is from Texas, what can you say....

      June 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  7. Wim

    A healthy dose of doubt and skepticism is never a bad thing, whether religious belief is maintained or not. My hope is that the US is well on its way to becoming a nation of nominal and cultural adherents of religion.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  8. Ernie

    I don't care what you believe. It'd be great if you didn't care what I believe either.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • sam

      That would be nice.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • earthling

      Sure about that? I believe anything and everything is valid, that there is no right or wrong, that you dont even have a natural right to the molecules in your own body. The only sensible way to live is without any rules whatsoever. Anarchy, lawlessness, survival of the fittest, The strong will live and the weak will die, not because they should, just because they will.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      That is why we have these things called "laws", earthling. They protect our individual rights. They make it illegal to kill others, not simply because we believe it's "morally wrong", but because it infringes on our rights.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @earthling –

      Trample the weak, hurdle the dead.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The examples earthling describes are precisely what man deteriorates to without some external guidance. Law or religion, take your pick. The problem being that the law is run by man and so the state ultimately becomes the biggest predator of rights. The ancient Jews believed Jesus was there to overthrow Roman rule and thus deliver them from the unjust laws of man. Meanwhile the religious laws, having become convoluted to the point no one could keep them were oppressing people from the religious side. Any logical and truthful person has to admit, Jesus overcame the world when he triumphed over both at Calvary

      June 15, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  9. Leavemealone

    Atheists don't want OTHER people to lose faith. They just don't want OTHER people's beliefs forced on them.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Bob

      No. I kinda want people to lose faith too. It's just mass delusion. And it can't be good for anyone.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Frank

      The only ones I do not want to lose their faith are those who actually beleive that the fear of their god is the only thing that keeps them from raping and killing. As an atheist I've actually had Christians ask me what keeps me from doing these things.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • earthling

      Speak for yourself. I'm an atheist and I would prefer a world devoid of all religion and faith. But its just a preference, I would never advocate legislating an end to faith.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      So judging by this sampling 50% of atheists want to force their beliefs on others.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • earthling

      Check your math. I didnt see anyone advocate force.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Why would I want to coerce anyone else into believing what I do? As long as people of faith keep their beliefs away from my rights, I don't care whom or what they worship.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I'm sorry, my humor is obviously to skewed. I'm simply pointing out the fallacy of deriving truth from polls and samples. Faith is a personal journey with societal implications, agreed. Truth however is truth whether anyone believes it or not and does not stand on proof or faith.

      June 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Huebert


      "Truth however is truth whether anyone believes it or not and does not stand on proof or faith." Half right. Truth does not stand on faith. Truth is established by evidence, what you erroneously call proof.

      June 15, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • imrepostingthis

      @Frank – that is pretty scary.... I guess if you have those thoughts, it is better to believe that you will be damned. Now Atheists don't believe they will be damned and still don't have those thoughts... funny world....

      June 15, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      "Truth does not stand on faith. Truth is established by evidence, what you erroneously call proof."

      Truth does not rely on evidence to support it. Neither I, nor anyone else, can provide concrete proof of the existence of aliens. By your statement, because no one has evidence, the truth is, aliens don't exist.

      Therefore, simply because there is no scientific evidence (please note, I said scientific. I am purposefully excluding the millions and millions of testimonies that assert an experience with God) to prove the existence of God, does not imply that God doesn't exist, it simply states we have no scientific evidence to support it. All it means is no evidence, means no evidence.

      It's a logical fallacy. Check out "Appeal to Ignorance."

      June 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  10. Scott

    Doubt has become "a part of faith" in the part 10 years through the likes of those like Rob Bell's 'Velvet Elvis' , Brian McLaren's ‘A New Kind of Christianity’, et. al. and the Emergent Church which branded itself as more 'authentic' by drifting away from historic orthodoxy and in the process they lost their way.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  11. Tom J.

    I do not usually comment on such articles, but after reading a number of them lately, i thought i would include my thoughts on the matter. While science continues to chip away at the unexplainable portions of our existance, it will probably never be able to prove that a god does or does not exist. That being said, this is not a "horserace" as Mr. Prothero eludes. It isn't a us vs. them situation. Sure we all believe one way or other, with thoughts that the opposing view is wrong. What really matters is that each indivdual be true to what they believe. Just because 100% of the earth's population someday believes one way or the other doesn't mean that anything has been proved. Moreover it probably weakens humanity as a whole. The differences in belief keep everyone searching and challenging their faith (or lack there of) which truly strengths their affirmation in the end. Yes, differences in belief has been the leading cause of war in the history of human existance, but the reality of everyone coming together to believe in one idea or another is non-existant. What we should be doing is looking for ways to bond as a civilization and quit looking for things that divide us. Only then can we work together to make this a better place to live. Keep searching for how many people are this and that and it will continue to lead us down a path to oblivion. Our personal beliefs in a diety or not is not makes this world a hard place to live in, it is our attempt to make everyone believe what we each individually think is the only way, that continues to hurt us as a species.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Tom Paine


      June 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • mdc

      Great post!

      June 14, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  12. Jack

    All Atheists. – Please view video #2 @ – thestarofkaduri.com

    June 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Gods Shepard

      or try prolapsed.net and mudfalls.com, they are affiliated with Jack.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  13. joe12

    Truth is not dependent on belief.

    God exists and will judge the living and the dead in holiness and righteousness.

    Irregardless of how many people doubt God or how unpopular God is.

    Isaiah 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Bob

      Prove to me God exists, and I will prove to you Zeus does too.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Ron

      Your first sentence is good, then it goes downhill from there.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Craig

      Delusion is apparently not dependent on truth.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • jamest297

      Did you just really write the characters: "irregardless"?

      Just goes to show you that it is true what they say: Mathematically, it's a demonstrated fact that 50% of Americans are below average intelligence.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Jesse

      I don't think GOD has the time to judge individuals let alone I don't think a supreme being would care if you worshiped him. How sad of a being would you have to be to have to create your own followers.....pathetic really.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • MR T

      I have seen the growth at our church multiply year after year. One of our partner churches has went from 40 members to 2000 in less that four years. Faith is growing regardless of what the media or anyone else wants to say. Come with me on a Sunday morning when we have 10 new guest walk through the door and you can ask them for yourself. Also these are educated people Doctors, Professors ect.. Some of whom have never believed in God prior to visiting church.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      James, Isn't that because the median point would fall at the 50% mark?

      June 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  14. Ech

    Did I just read "Reagan Revolution"?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Gods Shepard

      no! Mudfalls.com shows the way!

      June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  15. Rick James

    I think that why many people reject science is not only religion, but the anti-intellectualism that religion has fostered, especially here in the US. Yeah I know that there were Islamic and Christians denominational universities back in the day. I also know that most of the those denominational schools have now become secular. The point is that why a lot of people reject science and just accept God is because it's either they are ignorant about science our just choose to be ignorant. Which, at a time, where science is making people live longer and make people healthier, while we as a people are starting to know more about the universe is, is starting to become unacceptable, as this study shows.

    The average atheist or scientist doesn't reject "God" just to be different or make believer feel bad. The reason why "God" is rejected is that if there is no evidence for him, why accept it as a valid fact?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • steve

      Just about every college before the 1800s was there for ministers I believe. I can agree that there is no solid proof of god.
      But to look at the facts that do exist and declare there is no god is also pretty foolish. I'm not saying atheist should turn to Christ or a named god. But to say something cant exist because there is no proof is not really too bright either. Agnostic makes much more sense to me.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Rick James

      Agnosticism is not a true "middle ground" between atheism and theism. Indeed one can be agnostic as an atheist or a theist.

      As to your other point, atheists aren't the ones make the claims here. Theists are. We just reject their claims because they have shaky to no ground to stand one. Theories aren't made from the top down, they are made from the bottom up.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  16. James

    Its not the act of confessing but to be truly repentant and then changing your life.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  17. Gods Shepard

    prolapsed.net speaks the true scripture of our lord and savoir Jesus, son of almighty God!

    June 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  18. PhillySW

    @YeahRight – "Do you know how many people through out history have made the same claims about their gods. The problem becomes in what some would claim are miracles but no one believe in a god."

    Do you know how many through out history have validated the same claim about Jesus? That's the point, I never said anything about you, or any other person that doesn't want to believe Jesus Christ for who he is. I never even said ANYWHERE that you don't have a right to believe in what or who you want to believe in. Never. If you want to say chants in front of a Pit Bull carved out of ivory in front of a shrine with candles, that's your complete right.

    But the same way some are serious about defending people claiming things have occurred without Jesus, then it's just as much a right for people to say the same thing happened because of Jesus. If you don't feel you are wrong, then who are you to tell someone else they are wrong? I've only stated what I know happened before my own 2 physical eyes.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "But the same way some are serious about defending people claiming things have occurred without Jesus, then it's just as much a right for people to say the same thing happened because of Jesus. If you don't feel you are wrong, then who are you to tell someone else they are wrong? I've only stated what I know happened before my own 2 physical eyes."

      Just because you applied the words "Jesus Christ" to it doesn't make it true. Christians only make up 33% of the planet the other 67% have different beliefs than you and "miracles" still continue to happen proving your "Christ" has nothing to do with miracles.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • chrism

      PhillySW, excellent posts (this one and on other pages). Thank you for your courage to witness to Jesus Christ publicly. I'm sure you will be blessed for it. Take the significant number of arguments / attacks / trolling responses as direct evidence that you have posted clearly and rightly 🙂 (Sadly, many here obviously find some kind of perceived gain in trying to derail and bog down others through attacks and arguments)

      June 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • .

      pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Robert

      YeahRight your post is correct but unfortunately Christians like Philly and chrism will deny the logic because their egos can't handle the fact they are being proven wrong.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  19. kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    June 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • DrJStrangepork

      Why is Christianity right and the other religions wrong? Here is the doubt they are talking about. Please provide your point of view...

      June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      If God is merciful, then why did he create h_ell? Was h_ell created before the first human walked the earth? This and many other reasons are why I had to take a step back from the 'fog of religion'.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • doodlebug81

      Was all of that rambling drivel really necessary? The corporeal world is all that matters because it is all we will ever see.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • citizenUSA

      Pfffff! Who made god boss?

      June 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • SoldierM


      June 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • citizenUSA

      If a person follows "god's" way all their life but never worships "god", why should that person go to hell or some other unpleasant place? That's just like "god" saying, "you can be as good as you want but if you don't believe and worship me you'll never see heaven"

      June 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • steve

      People of every religion find the same kind faith Christians do. I don't think god cares about the particulars.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • steve

      Citizen – Thats my take too. Jesus message seemed to be good to each other and help each other....

      That said I was raised catholic, I get to do whatever i want and then go to confession on my death bed and go right upstairs!


      June 14, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Carl

      "This comment is written like an advertisement. Please join the Discussion Page to help re-write this comment from a neutral point of view."

      June 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  20. Cheryl

    The people who say they never have doubts are lying.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • MJB

      Not all of them...some are just imbeciles.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
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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.