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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. Jack

    Hello everyone. If you have some time, please visit my web site... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • owl96

      I do not have time visit every website people post. I am too busy posting responses.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • PlumberJoe

      Jack Off!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  2. Pastor Evans

    As long as religion continues to be promoted and portrayed as the real thing and people keep falling for its lie, they will continue to be lost, but the worst part is they will ultimately be destroyed forever. God of the Bible did not create any religion or religious system, but an eternal spiritual kingdom, inhabited by his children. God is spirit, and He desires and expects us to have an eternal spiritual relationship with Him. This is a great mystery to most, especially in America, because most fall under one of two categories; religious or nothing at all. Therefore, until an individual comes into a personal reality of what I'm saying, they are lost! Man of God! "The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ" evanspraise@verizon.net

    June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Astra Navigo

      If all of that works for you, I'm happy for you.

      Just please don't try to sell it to me.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  3. Budda

    Believing what you want won't change reality, it will only distort it for you.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  4. God at my sh•t out of my butt hole

    God is a toilet that gobbles sh•t and drinks up urine.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "God is a toilet" Too harsh, man. Christians do a great deal of good; plenty of them spend their lives serving the poor and helpless like their prophet commanded. The rest of them come here and lie about what other religions say, or about what atheists think, or about where the president was born. Being a Christian must be incredibly boring.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • polemicist

      You do atheists proud.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • ii

      Hear-hear!

      June 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  5. LouAZ

    The use of supernaturalism to manipulate and control people is the world's oldest confidence scheme, it relies on the ritual abuse of children at their most impressionable stage by adults who have themselves been made childish for life by artifacts of the primitive mind.- Your Mom on a CNN comment.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  6. Mark

    Why does the author believe
    "But does this data really say what many atheists want it to say? Is American religion really heading for a fall?"
    I am an atheist, and I have no interest in converting anyone to my views. I'm just annoyed at the Christians who want to convince me, and (more importantly) a little angry with the Christians who want to send my kids to other counties to kill people (and let's face it, it was for two reasons, they have oil and they aren't Christians). Many Christians clearly benefit from their believe, and when they make them behave (as it often seems to) I'm all for it. If you want to believe in Santa Claus, I just think it is cute, especially if you think he knows who's naughty and nice. As long as you aren't using it as an excuse to bomb someone, I'm happy to support your views.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "As long as you aren't using it as an excuse to bomb someone, I'm happy to support your views." Stop restricting my freedom with whacky laws about sky people and I'll go away. I don't chastise Elvis-worshipers because they never force my children worship Elvis. Followers of Mithras and Druids are no problem, either.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  7. Astra Navigo

    My name is Astra, and I don't believe in 'god'.

    Whatever the rest of the world chooses to call me is based on their point of view. To that end, it's their problem, not mine, if they choose labels which aren't correct.

    I have many believing friends. They practice many differing religions. They're all good people. Then again, they're not trying to 'convert' me, either. To me, what a person believes – or not – is their business.

    That said, I don't know what the author was trying to say here – because he quoted a lot of statistics and other articles, and reached no conclusions. Perhaps a little logic is in order here:

    1. Lack of a religion does not mean a lack of belief in a 'god'.

    2. Lack of belief in a 'god' does not mean a person is not otherwise-spiritual.

    3. Belief in a 'god' does not make a person religious – nor does it make that person 'good'.

    4. Practicing a religion does not make a person a believer – and, as we've seen by the comments above, it doesn't make a person wise, kind, decent, or even smart.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  8. Texas Atheist

    I have no reason to be wrong, because I do not propose that I am right. There could very well be a God. Highly unlikely, but possible. But the idea that he/she/it is a supernatural being is slim. How many supernatural beings do you know? Probably not many. It doesn't mean that a God is an organic creature though. I do have a belief that energy plays a large role in the universe and some of us live on as energy after we are dead. But this belief system does not make me religious nor does it make me have faith there is a God. Personally when I die, I'd rather be pleasantly surprised that a heaven exists that to be sorely disappointed that there is nothing after life.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • polemicist

      why is the possibility of the universe having a creator "highly unlikely"? Based upon what we know about Rees' 6 constants, it looks more plausible that the universe is fine-tuned for life, and that would imply a creator.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "it looks more plausible that the universe is fine-tuned for life, and that would imply a creator." That's sadly anthropocentric, and also implies the existence of life elsewhere which we haven't found. Besides, only tiny parts of the universe would be habitable by humans; we sure can't live on Saturn like Sun Ra. So how fine-tuned is it? We'd freeze in winter without fire and shelter, so how hospitable is Earth?

      June 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  9. rblock7

    faith without fact or evidence is the definition of ignorance

    June 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • disagree

      I think faith is defined by having belief without fact or support.... that's what "faith" means. "Knowing" is having evidence.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • polemicist

      If faith required hard evidence, it wouldn't be faith.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  10. SparkBunny

    Well, in writing this article, he has pretty much told religious people "no, no, it's ok. Of course other people think like you do. There there". Other than that, i actually don't see what this has to do with the actual poll. And what does comparing the words "doubt" and "faith" have to do with anything? Thanks for showing how statistics can be made completely meaningless when applied to ridiculous situations.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • agree

      It seems the author is playing pretty loose with the operationalized terms of the study. Relgiousity is equated with deism in the article, but that isn't true.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      He's trying to hold on to his disappearing congregation by pretending everyone else believes, when we know it ain't so.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  11. wabob62

    Something I beleve put us here, that is superior to us we listen to stories that are told to us and alot of people get all crazy about it start wars, kill people and try to controlthe masses. If you are of faith thats fine with me just don't push that crap down my throat.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  12. Just an Observer

    I truly do hope that there is a God after this life, because it's dismal enough just living it, let alone the thought that this is all there really is. I also hope that there is some sort of leniency for 'confused' individuals, but for those of you that are so certain, "I am all there is and no one to answer to even in the afterlife, so I'm gonna live my life like I'm all that matters" I hope you get your comeuppance.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You are assuming a lot of facts not in evidence. Where do you get the notion that those who doubt the existence of a god live their lives like they're "all that matters"? And if your life is so dismal, why wait for a heaven to be happier? Can't you do something now to improve your lot?

      June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • The Beagle

      >> I am all there is and no one to answer to even in the afterlife, so I'm gonna live my life like I'm all that matters.

      For most of us atheists, the second part of your sentence does NOT follow from the first. We live our lives like other people matter as well - just like believers.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Astra Navigo

      If this truly is all there is (and, regardless of all the verbiage, there's no concrete evidence of an afterlife), then we should begin to live our lives, rather than obsess about something which likely does not exist.

      Make this day the best one you can.

      Treat everyone as if you will never see them again.

      Live now.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      'I hope you get your comeuppance.'

      If you're a xtian, then you're hoping that people will be eternally tortured for thinking differently than you. That's really disturbing. Please stay away from pets and small children.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Shaggy

      So you wish punishment for non-believers? How Christian of you.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • D

      Well said, Mr Beagle!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      ""I am all there is and no one to answer to even in the afterlife, so I'm gonna live my life like I'm all that matters" I hope you get your comeuppance."

      I will leave behind my faithful wife and loving child, and the impressions I've made on thousands of people, and all the stuff I've written and recorded and drawn and created and programmed. Nobody will be able to honestly say that I did more harm to them then, say, call them a loser on teh internets; nobody will come forth when I'm dead and say I cheated them or had an affair. That's because I've lived as if I was going to die forever at the end of my life, and I have no one but myself to blame for my failures and shortcomings. I've been true to the best of my ability. And you, who claim to worship the god of love and forgiveness, hope that I will be tortured forever for living a righteous life without your imp's chrism? You seriously want me thrown into a fire just because I find your dumb cult unbelievable? You are no more christian than my dog.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  13. Jake

    The author is right to point out that even people who claim to believe must at least occasionally question / doubt their beliefs. However, he is wrong to conclude that results of the survey suggest that America is overwhelmingly religious. The results of the survey illustrate something we know very well: religion is very effective at brain-washing children and scaring them into believing, or pretending to believe, things that are insane.

    There is absolutely no way that any significant percentage of young people have never doubted their religion. But it is good news that the percentage of them who are scared into lying about that fact is falling.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  14. Steve

    It will be so delicious when it falls below 50%!!!!!

    June 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  15. God is a cvnt

    prolapsed.net has all the answers true followers of god would die for.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  16. Steve

    Bye bye fake god, we will not miss you!

    June 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  17. Alfred

    "Do not believe everything you read on the internet" ~Abraham Lincoln

    June 14, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  18. patrick

    I believe in evolution. Since that appears to be a mindless process, with no regard to the well-being of any individual creature, I just assumed there wasn't an intelligence making it happen (unless god is cruel.)

    June 14, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • God is a cvnt

      Well he is a cvnt.

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

      Why did ameoba get smarter...to what end , why was there any need to...

      June 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Scott

      In reply to Hadenuffyet:
      Your question displays a deep lack of understanding regarding evolution and what it denotes. It is hard to know where to begin. (There are many intermediate stages between an ameoba and a living creature that will benefit from the complex type of intellignce it seems you are implying, and many causes for the increased complexity that leads to those stages.)

      I recommend reading of Darwin and Richard Dawkins both writers have produced books accessible and understandable to laymen. Also it is worth reading about Self-replicating Molecules and the envitable replication of the best replicators. Evolution is a mindless process with no goals or agenda. It just refers to replication of successful replicators whatever they turn out to be. Human Beings do not sit atop Evolution like some great achievement, we are equally sucessful replicators as any bacteria that is still replicating and passing into the next generation of replicators.

      Happy reading and wish you well..

      June 14, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  19. Dan

    arthurr,

    Please give us some objective information on how you know this. Something that can be verified.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • IAM

      I think he gave references in the article.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  20. answerman28

    Obviousily the headline was aimed at people stupid enough to buy into religion to begin with. Fact,.. church attendance is down and steadily dropping off worldwide. Fact.. people are coming out of the closets in droves and admitting they've always been atheists but didnt want to be ostrisized or considered "different". Fact even preachers are coming out saying they never believed it but kept preaching to survive.. In the authors mind (not a big supprise) religion isnt slipping a bit?.. can I sell you a boat buddy? there's a big flood comin...

    June 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • aarrgghh

      Exactly. Which god specifically do they mean is in doubt? Christians/ Catholics also deny thousands of gods. They are no less deniers than atheists are! An atheist only went 1 god further than any of the 3 major religions did, in their non-belief. When you understand why you dismiss all other gods, you will then understand why I also dismiss yours.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
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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.