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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. MandoZink

    The day my doubts unchained my mind and allowed me to think, my science knowledge suddenly rose up and became as solid a foundation as my belief system previously had been. I was amazed. I'll never forget the actual moment. I swear I heard a beautiful symphonic crescendo reflecting the magnificence of the event as I "crossed over".

    The clarity with which you are then able to see the true beauty and goodness within others, and yourself, is starkly more direct without a temperamental god in the way.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  2. Francois P.

    You can discuss and argue all you want... Religion is just a neurological disorder.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      A rigid certainty is the hobgoblin of small minds

      June 15, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  3. hawaiikaos

    So the author uses Google ngram to track the frequency of two words that have alternative contexts outside of religion and uses the results to support his argument. That's about as useful as consulting tea leaves. This author has extremely frail critical thinking skills.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I agree with your assessment. He has often used those marginal talents to dissect religious issues that are out of his depth. It's interesting that he has to slant towards belief in order for the "non" crowd to invalidate him though when he is typically taken at face value when he deconstructs the faith.

      June 15, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  4. Brooklyn Boy

    Sorry Stephen, but I am afraid I am fresh out of patience for the proponents of the Big Fairytale. Maybe I need to stop looking at the Belief blog. Every time I do, I am stupified at the number of allegedly educated and intelligent folk here in the 21st Century who believe in talking snakes, zombies and 900 year old men who collected hundreds of millions of species of life in a boat of his own construction to save them from a non-existent flood.

    The sooner we are rid of religion, the better off we will be. It's all made up. It's purpose is to control thought, control behavior and take people's hard-earned money under false pretenses. You can play with numbers and stats all you like but the fact of the matter is that one of the fastest growing segments is the number of Americans who identify themsleves as "non-reliigious". They are our only hope.

    I was raised as a catholic. But when I was 12 or so, I came to the realization that it was all just a scam. Everything I have learned about catholicism and religion in general since then merely confirms my opinion. My wife was raised as a jew in Israel where she had a front row seat to people slaughtering each other by the bushel because (in the words of the late, great George Carlin) god told them it was a good idea.

    We have three young sons and we're raising them to believe in REALITY. If they want to base their lives around some make-believe boogy man who lives in the sky when they grow up, that will be up to them. But it isn't going to happen on my watch.
    I am very encouraged that people are finally starting to wake up to the fact that the emperor is buck naked and I hope even more people will speak out about it.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Dliodoir

      How do you explain the fact that in atheistic societies and communities, bad things still happen, people still do horrible things to each other. I suggest to you that all systems of ethics, whether they be rooted in the natural or supernatural, evolve to restrain our base instincts which can and will motivate interpersonal conflict and violence. The bottom line is that people are capable of horrible things. We are of course capable of very good things too. Our system of ethics, theistic or atheistic, should inspire the good and restrain the bad. Religious people have done great and wonderful things and they have done horrible awful things. Atheists have done great and wonderful things and they have done horrible awful things. The common denominator is that they are all people.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  5. Yakobi

    How about you theists first convince radical muslims to live and let live. Then we'll talk.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  6. hippypoet

    only going on the ti.tle of the article :

    YES IT DOES!

    reasoning: doubts about god does mean religion is weaking... explaination – religion is in existence because they , the people who believe god exists, believe that if they do this and that- in this way- on that day- this is the correct way to worship THE god...and if you don't, your wrong.....thats religion and religion is (again) in existence because they (those in a group doing the same thing) do the same thing in order to show a lower status towards a being they ( backwater, inbreed morons) believe is better then them in all ways including the bad ways (duh) but is either immortal or just the creator...however when given to the creation of things one should never speak of IT as dead no matter its status of life or death...when immortal, it surprizingly changes to the likes and dislikes of a ruling nation or overwhelming number of one race of human percentage per capita...death is then nearly always the result – ironic isn't it!

    🙂

    just some things to think about! 🙂

    June 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Ron from Jersey

      Not necessarily. Death to the true Christian is overcome.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Marc

      Holy lack of spelling, punctuation and capitalization Batman! Please tell me you typed this on a Jitterbug.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • hippypoet

      if spelling, punctuation and capitalization are the message you seek, go to a different blog site – why would someone come here to read proper spelling, punctuation and capitalization? – these are folks whom conscribe to an iron age belief system!!! – seriously, you give them too much credit.... lol

      if intelligence was what you seek, why then would you end on the BELIEF blog!!!! MORON!

      June 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Because proper grammar is the basis for communication?

      June 15, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  7. creative36

    Religion is a sickening plague on humanity. Religion has flourished because slaves procreated and masters died off.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  8. Quay Chang

    A doubt is not even valid if the person making it knows little of G-d. I wonder how many of the people doubting...or believing- for that matter, have actually read even a significant portion of the bible or of the history of religion. Most people have little religious knowledge

    June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • KK Denver

      The history of religion is many many many thousands of years older than the bible.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  9. Shane K. Bernard

    Perhaps the trend is toward agnosticism (neither believing nor disbelieving in God) and not necessarily toward atheism (not believing in God)?

    June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Rob

      I agree. I see more friends that lean towards other religions for the short term (Budhist, Pagan, Hindu, etc.) then look back at where they came from and decide that, between science, other religious experiences, and poor representation by many churches in communities, that they're happier believing in a God that exists, but believing that mankind has no proper view of God in any current religious format.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • TheDukeOfHighwayJ

      I'll agree with this .... sort of.
      Agnosticism comes in 2 flavors. Those that say that the knowledge that god exists is unknowable. And those that dont know and dont care. I suspect both are growing, relative to those with traditional "faith".

      June 14, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  10. Bad Religion

    Seriously, this article sounds more like he (the author) is trying to convince himself that god, religion, and all the b.s. that goes with it is still relevant in a world that has completely surpassed all of it. Whatever it takes for you to sleep easy at night, you do that, and for the rest of us living in reality, we have no need, desire, much less time for it or the sanctimoniousness of it's followers.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  11. Yakobi

    There are no gods or goddesses, demons or devils, ghosts or goblins. Religion was invented by man to control the masses.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • KK Denver

      and explain the weather

      June 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Quay Chang

      That may be the excuse that your understanding has led you to accept for freeing yourself form adult responsibility. There is no valid proof for your mistaken view.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • sam

      @Quay – there's no valid proof against it, either. There, you get to be mistaken too, isn't that fun??

      June 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Bad Religion

      at Quay Chang: Really? I think the belief in the supernatural is what people use to try and free themselves from personal accountability and responsibility. I mean look at so many of the followers, they attribute just about everything to being "of god's will" complete disregarding the fact they and they alone made decisions that led their own lives inexorably to where it is today, be it good or bad. To me, and my observation of the "faithful" is they use and want religion to fee them of accountability.. otherwise why do you think the people who refuse to give their children medical treatment b/c of their beliefs argue that same flawed reasoning in court??? just to name a example.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • RGCheek

      Yeah, thats why Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, using pure reason came to a belief in a monotheistic universe because guys like you are so much smarter than they were and can tell people exactly how these dummies got it wrong, right Sherlock?

      ROFLMAO

      June 14, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Scott

      You are right but watch out for the Trolls!! =-)

      June 14, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @RGCheek
      aristotle also proposed that the heavens were literally composed of 55 concentric, crystalline spheres to which celestial objects were attached and which rotated at different velocities (but the angular velocity was constant for a given sphere), with the Earth at the center.
      Do you believe in Geocentrism?
      Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians did. It makes perfect sense if you believe that The One God, shaper and ruler of the universe, is anthropomorphic and antrhopocentric.
      Do you think the Earth is the centre of teh universe?

      June 15, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • No one gives a sh it

      what some Canadian knows ...keep it to yourself ass hole !

      June 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Hi Cap'n Sayin" Atheism Isn't an Angry Failing Pervert Sh!t
      How ya been?

      June 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Hitchens

      what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof

      June 15, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  12. JAEZUS

    My take: You're an idiot.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  13. JakeAZ

    the flying spaghetti monster is real. prove me wrong.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Morpheus

      What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. This is the world that you know. The world as it was at the end of the twentieth century. It exists now only as part of a neural-interactive simulation that we call the belief blog. You've been living in a dream world, JakeAZ. This is the world as it exists today... Welcome.. to the suck... We have only bits and pieces of information but what we know for certain is that at some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in ho.mose.xuality. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to unicorns.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Neo

      Whoooooooaaaaaa

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

      I can prove you wrong!!! The flying spagehetti monster can't be real!!!

      Well at least not anymore, because I ate him. Prove me Wrong!!

      LOL =-P (all kidding aside religion is nonsense!)

      June 14, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • when you arrive at atheism

      you have plumbed the depths of stupid

      June 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • LOL!

      "when you arrive at atheism

      you have plumbed the depths of stupid"

      And when you lie you show you don't even comprehend the real teachings of the bible proving your own stupidity. LOL!

      June 15, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  14. Jack

    thestarofkaduri.com

    June 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • imrepostingthis

      Just another cult...

      June 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  15. denver2

    Here's a fun game: Name a first world, industrialized nation that has become *more* religious over time!

    June 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      pakis...no. umm...Ira...no. wait, is it Afgani...no thats not it. Damn, i can't.

      good point!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • denver2

      That's right, the number only goes down.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You seem to imply that this means something. I'm not convinced that it does. Neither am I convinced it means what you imply.

      June 15, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • when you arrive at atheism

      you have let stupid run its course

      June 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • a few of the nations that are in the process of becoming more Godly

      United States of America
      Russia
      Ukraine
      Poland
      East Germany
      Czechoslovakia
      Hungary
      Canada
      Israel
      Uganda

      June 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Yo!

      "United States of America"

      Ok that's just stupid when there is an article showing the younger generation believe in god just dropped in the US and another article that stated more people are leaving the church. Thanks for showing the stupidity of Christians. Yo...look to the right...there's the article.

      June 15, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Jen

      What?????????? Where did you get that list of countries from???????? As a Canadian I burst out laughing.....Canada is about as secular as a country can be.......

      June 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Can you cite the source for this list? I'm interested, seriously.

      June 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • James!

      @a few of....

      Cite your source to back up your claim, moron.

      June 15, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  16. 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 2:38 pm |
  17. Dliodoir

    The strain of evangelical atheism exhibited in these comments is astonishing. The new atheism is evangelical in that its adherents do not tolerate non-belief and they seek to convert all to their philosophy. We all live our lives according to some set of guiding principles. Some root their guiding principles in the supernatural. Others root them in terms of "humanism." They are essentially the same across the spectrum of belief. . .be a good person, treat others well, be fair, etc. Evangelism starts when you do not tolerate others basing their guiding principles on something different than you and you seek to convert others to your set of guiding principles. There are many very good people who are believers and there are many very bad people who are believers. Just as there are many good people who are atheists and many bad people who are atheists. If I believe, it does not effect them. If they don't believe, it does not effect me. In the marketplace of ideas we are all free to express our beliefs and advocate for their adoption whether those beliefs be theistic or atheistic. What we can not do is coerce or force other to adopt them. Religions have done this in the past and it was wrong. Atheists have done this in the past and it was wrong (e.g. French Revolution, Soviet Union, China, etc.). Don't care why someone is good, just be satisfied that they are good. They are not bad people simply because their goodness is not rooted in the same worldview that yours is.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Noocrat

      "adherents do not tolerate non-belief" – Atheism is the absence of belief so I find that unlikely.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • D

      Well said. Now if only the Xtian evangelicals would simmer down a little, we could all get on with life.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • KK Denver

      But the evangelicals beliefs DO affect me in that they want a theocracy.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Dliodoir

      Noocrat, but atheists do have a set of beliefs. . .just not belief in the supernatural. Do you not believe in the theory of evolution? Do you not believe that killing is wrong? Do you not believe that the sun is at the center of the solar system? Of course atheists "believe." And they can be intolerant of others who don't believe in the same things they do just as theists can be intolernat of those you do not believe in the supernatural.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Jake

      Dliodoir, I strongly disagree with your statement that, "If (you) believe, it does not effect (atheists)". There are all kinds of atrocities that take place in our country and around the world in the name of religion. We have some laws that are completely immoral, but exist because of religion. The fact that so many people believe in religion absolutely does have a major (and negative, from my perspective) impact on the rest of us.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Tony29inDallas

      @D: you complete missed Dliodoir's point with your little Christian dig. Why don't you give "simmering down" a try.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • D

      Well, considering as there are a LOT more of those evangelicals, I think they should start the simmering down first. Thankyouverymuch

      June 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Jake

      Dliodoir – It is incorrect to say that atheists have a set of beliefs. Atheism is a lack of a belief in a god – nothing more, nothing less. Yes, people who think in a way that leads them to be atheist tend to be open-minded, intelligent, logical thinkers, so they tend to agree on things like evolution as well. But one could be atheist and also deny evolution, for example.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • some guy

      being right for the wrong reason is still dubious...if I told you Satan told me to save a child, you'd immediately question the underlying purpose.

      Be good and do good things because those things are inherently good, not because you expect to be rewarded with an infinite, second life or because you fear eternal punishment if you do bad things. Even Socrates understood that we ought to do good things because they are inherently good, not because they are god-loved or because we expect some reward.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • sam

      Isn't evangelical atheist the greatest oxymoron ever?

      June 14, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Talking Snake

      I stopped reading at evangelical atheism because I realized you were projecting the negative aspects of your beliefs on those who do not believe in an effort to bring them down to your level.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Dliodoir

      Jake, how does another person's belief effect you? What horrible things are allowed to happen to you because of it? Horrible things have been done in the name of atheism, does that discredit atheism? I say no. All people fail to uphold the highest ideals of their guiding principles in some way. When an adherent fails to fulfill the ideals of his ethical standards, it does not discredit the ethical standards, it discredits the adherent. Thus theists do horrible things that are prohibited by their religion. Just as atheists do horrible things that violate their ethical standards (e.g. French Revolution, Soviet Union, etc.). It is people who are flawed and weak and scared and selfish and bigoted. . .believers and non-believers alike. We look to our guiding principles to help us overcome those base intincts. If you are a good person that doesn't do bad things because of your adherence to a non-thestic philosophy, I am happy that you're my friend, neighbor, countryman, etc. If you are believer who does bad things, I don't care that you believe the same things as me, you're still a bad person.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • some guy

      @Dliodoir I don't "believe" in evolution, I've studied it and understand it. Evolution is a fact, straight up. I don't "believe" the sun is at the center of the solar system, I can (and have) made quantifiable observations and have determined that it's pretty close to the middle of the solar system, and that the planets revolve around it.

      I do have morals and opinions on ethical questions- killing in cold blood with no motive is wrong, but there are cases where it is merciful, not evil; where it is prudent and the death of one or a few may save a great many; some crimes are so vile and heinous, some criminals so beyond rehabilitation, that justice can fairly require the criminal forfeit his life.

      It's not that I'm intolerant of your beliefs, I'm intolerant of willful ignorance and the desire to spread it to other people. Want to convert an atheist? Here's a simple way: prove your god, and only your god, exists. That's all we need to believe your selected brand of mythology.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Dliodoir

      Some Guy, So. . .you'd prefer awful atheists to good theists? That makes no sense and would make for a very dysfunctional society. You express an intolerance for people who's logic or intelligence you find flawed or wanting. Isn't that the very thing that atheists dislike about theists? To believe differntly than another is not intolerance. To demand that they believe the same things that you do is intolerance. There is a huge difference.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Dliodoir

      Some Guy, " I'm intolerant of willful ignorance." That is EXACTLY the same as believers being intolerant of people not believing just like them. Don't you see that it is the INTOLERANCE that is bad and motivates mistreatment of others and NOT the difference in guiding principles.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • some guy

      expecting you to understand science is different from asking you to believe the same things I believe. I believe blue is a better color for a house, you're free to disagree. Aesthetics is wide-open for debate on differences of opinion.

      Provable fact shouldn't be. You can't prove your god exists any more than I can prove that there's a flying invisible pegasus on the moon. You're free to believe ridiculous things, but I'm free to call them out as ridiculous.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Jake

      Dliodoir, there are endless ways that other peoples’ religious beliefs effect me. For example, I can’t buy beer on a Sunday because a group of people believe in a religion that says that they’re supposed to rest on Sundays. They aren’t happy with choosing not to buy beer themselves, they insist on making laws to prevent me from buying beer on their day of worship. That’s not an atrocious example, but it’s a clear one.

      It’s important to remember that atheism is not a religion or a set of beliefs. It is simply a lack of belief in a god. I am not aware of any horrific events that have occurred in the name of a lack of belief in a god / atheism. Certainly a lack of a belief in god was not the driving force behind the French Revolution or the Soviet Union any more than it was a factor in the forming of the United States (since most, or at least many, of our founders were atheists).

      June 14, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • imrepostingthis

      God is an imaginary friend for grownups...

      June 14, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  18. KK Denver

    I believe in the floating fetus from 2001

    June 14, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  19. PlumberJoe

    I don't care what you think.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  20. mrTestosteroni

    Denial: Still not a river in Egypt.

    June 14, 2012 at 2:35 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.