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. Hombre

    This is not true, that "American religion is growing up." What IS true is that we are living in the year 2012. It is getting more and more difficult for people to believe in things that are at such odds with science. We know the earth is not flat, that doomsday did not come around last week, and that humanity was not created 10,000 years ago. As science continues to evolve, so will we.

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

      I challenge you to put forth examples where the general themes of religion are at odds with science. Most people with this position have no idea how little science disproves religious beliefs.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  2. Rob- Texas

    I can't actully believe CNN would post this article. Its how against the nornal anti relgion stance.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Rob- Texas

      so against...

      June 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  3. BFD

    For a very long time people "believed" the earth was flat.

    For a very long time people "believed" the earth was the center of the universe.

    You can believe anything you want. But when one group decides that everyone should be living their lives according to only one groups beliefs then we're going to have a big problem.

    Belief discounts the ability of people to think and reason.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Rob- Texas

      "Belief discounts the ability of people to think and reason." Maybe for you BFD. For many is the exact oposite.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Steve

      That's right Rob. The 9/11 hijackers were such awesome wise men.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Rob- Texas

      Many not all. I don't know they 9/11 high jackers so I don't actully know what they believed or did not believe. I didn't say it was a universal law or that it has the effect on some.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Brent

      This is an absurd post... belief is the end result of people "thinking" and "reasoning." Basically all your post describes is that you don't like the thinking and reasoning of the people who come to the conclusion or "belief" that there is a God.

      Giving examples of where human belief was incorrect in the past lends no credibility to disproving human belief regarding God. Unless you are suggesting that human belief has never been correct about anything...

      June 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  4. Duke

    In my mind, anyone who has NO doubt in the "truth" of their religion is simply intellectually lazy or just stupid. Simply imagine if you had been born in Mongolia instead of Atlanta and been raised with a different paradigm and had simply never heard of Jimmy Swaggart. Would you believe as strongly in that case? Would you be wrong? Would you go to some form of "hell" for being raised in the wrong place?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  5. Steve

    I agree with Stephen. What is disconcerting is all these people who claim to never have experienced a doubt in God's existence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It looks like most people think that the claim of God existence is quite ordinary. It is everything but. God does not talk, prayers don't work (ever saw an amputee get his limb back?), everything that we see can be explained using natural processes, lot's of things in the Bible makes no sense (Jesus loves you but if you do not believe in him, you'll burn in hell for eternity??), etc. So where is the extraordinary evidence? Most people really ought to have experienced doubt. If not, does that not mean they are brainwashed?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  6. Jack

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

    June 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  7. gruessgott

    Even though the most influential living apologist lives and works in atlanta (ravi zacharias), cnn never seeks his opinion. Instead, we are peddled leftist revisionist posing as Christians.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Ravi is the man! I would love to see him write here!

      June 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  8. tom LI

    I think atheists – like me – like to see that doubt is on the rise, because we have always understood that DOUBT must exist alongside Faith. People who claim no doubt in their faith/worship are either lying, or crazy. Doubt is part of the whole thing, its just that atheists move their doubt to the other end of the meter and realize its okay to have a whole lot of doubt about what MEN say about their Gods. A supreme Being/s may exist – but I simply do not believe that anything so far described by Believers of any Religion, or quasi Religion, etc – is telling any truth whatsoever about this or those Beings.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Rob- Texas

      Agree to a point. If someone says they have never doubted thier faith, that would be an issue. If someone says they no longer doubt their faith because..... I see no issue there.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      or, perhaps they HAD doubt at some point, but no longer do. Ultimately, faith can only be decided on, not acquired by any other means, and coming into it from a position of former doubt is the norm. To regain one's faith after thoroughly questioning it, usually strengthens it immensely, to the point that it would not be put in doubt again.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Marco

      Exactly!!! Couldn't have said it any better myself. Although, I tend to go with the tag "agnostic" than "atheist" because it's not that don't think there could be some sort of "god", but neither side can convince me of there being data to support their argument. I'm of the "show me and I'll buy it" ilk.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  9. SDFrankie

    So he's a scholar of religion? Great. Even if you know everything there is to know about leprechauns it doesn't mean they're real. You can study Mickey Mouse for your entire like, but he's still a cartoon character.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Redford

      One thing I've never doubted for a moment is the corruption of the human heart and the stupidity of the human mind. No wonder people look, hope, long for a higher intelligence.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Brent

      Are you implying that religion doesn't exist? What an odd assertion. It didn't say he was an expert in God....

      June 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  10. SillyMan

    You original comment didn't talk about what people "should" do, you were asking about "why" people were hard wired for religion. And I told you. And I also pointed out that this was very basic and the fact that you didn't know shows a total ignorance of both history and science.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  11. j

    "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." Thanks for the laugh, I literally couldn't stop my little giggle from turning into a full blow chuckle.

    You plainly stated most people you know *do* have doubt and question, and that this seems normal and natural... and in your next statement you imply NOT doubting makes you extraordinarily faithful. You can't really have it both ways...isn't doubt a function of intelligence? We question authority, question the status-quo, re-examine old thoughts.. that is how you improve and better yourself and society. To sit here and say "You sure are faithful because you've never put any thought in to it" just makes you sound desperate. If I never questioned the flat-earth theory, that doesn't make the flat-earth theory more true.

    More people are questioning, which means they will talk about it, as people talk about it, more people will realize it's all fantasy. I'm seeing it in my life regularly, and I'm 30. Even older people I know have come to realize it's all rather silly.

    Think of the many, many religions throughout our history... can you look back at any of the ancient religions and say they were correct? The answer is no... the same will happen to religions of our day. Eventually they will look back and find them as ridiculous as *we* find ancient religions. (Not that they aren't interesting!)

    June 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Brent

      The author did not change positions. He did not say that 2/3 who say they never doubt have more faith... he said they have more religiosity. Basically they feel social pressure to conform their beliefs as opposed to genuine faith.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  12. Rynomite

    LOL. Typical strawman set up by a religious person. He takes two words and put them into google and searches for how often they are used. He then makes a conclusion based on the fact that one of the words becomes used more often in books than the other. Nevermind little detals like the fact the words "faith" and "doubt" can be used in contexts that have absolutely NOTHING to do with religion. The pitcher had FAITH the catcher would not drop his pitch. I do not DOUBT that Stephen Prothero has brown hair. Of course, he is right about what he says at the beginning of the article. Doubt in the existence of a god does not necessarily imply anything about how religious society is. When times are bad people will doubt their mythical sky fairy, but it does not mean they will proceed to the next logical steps of education and disbelief.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Aletheya

      How do you know Prothero is religious? The article says he's a scholar of religion – that doesn't mean he practices religion, it means he studies it. According to wiki, he describes himself as "religiously confused". Doesn't sound like a bible thumper to me, but you couldn't be bothered to do any research on him, could you?

      June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  13. Shane

    Religion makes death easier, but it also makes life a lot harder.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • WOW

      @Shane: Only harder if you do not have faith. With faith so much can be overcame.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • imrepostingthis

      So you give all that money away to a business (church) so you feel better. I will take my money and give it to my family and feel much better.

      June 15, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  14. happyprimate

    The more atheists I get to know and their numbers are growing by leaps, the more I hear that the biggest force that lead them to become atheist was their quest to learn more about their religion which lead to them to actually read all of their scriptures from beginning to end and then go digging into the origins and early history of their scriptures. That quest has always lead the believer to the conclusion that they have been duped and lied to. The ideology, tenants and dogma taught in religions today have little to no resemblence to factual history. The scriptures they were taught infallible are toilet paper flimsey at best. Then a little knowledge of what is known in science is the complete deathnell for any sort of supernatural belief. This is the age of accessible knowledge and information for anyone at their fingertips. Religion doesn't have a future, but it won't go without kicking and screaming.

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

      Scientifically speaking the assertion that religion will die is completely illogical.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Rynomite

      For a lack of a better word: Amen brother.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried – Albert Swietzer

      June 15, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  15. dreamauthor

    As I go through each post, all I see is the constant bickering between groups of people that led to countless deaths and agony, if you need me to point out what I am talking about go back to school, as long as that is something you believe in. . If God exists, and it was important for you to know he exist,don't you think he would appear in the sky (or your ceiling) every night as you went to bed smile and say good job (or the opposite if applicable). Faith is exactly that, belief without need of proof. This debate is great part of us being "a political animal", but imagine just once thinking what you believe is what you believe and its fine as long as it harms nobody else.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • WOW

      The sword of God:

      For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      Not if God wanted us to truly have free will. If we knew for a fact that God existed, our behavior would be dictated largely out of fear, not out of altruism, empathy, etc. We'd live a Pavlovian existence, not in true freedom. To ultimately understand what is truly good, we have to have free will.

      If, as Christians believe, God gives us free will, then his existence cannot be obvious. I know that from a pragmatist point of view, that is indistinguishable from a universe where God does not exist, and that's fine. But for those who believe, the very definition of faith dictates that faith would be impossible in a world where the existence of God is obvious and prominent.

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

      I have no words.
      My voice is in my sword. Thou bloodier villain
      Than terms can give thee out!

      June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  16. WOW

    Thank you Jesus for being my Saviour!

    June 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "Thank you Jesus for being my Saviour!"

      .......from an evil god, that raped a woman, then killed it's own son and built a hell to torture you in if you don't believe. You're one messed up person for thanking such an evil thing. LOL!

      June 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  17. sweebach

    it is a higher place to behave well than to believe . . .

    June 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      works doctrines are not sustainable

      June 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  18. Atheists get out

    atheists get the hell out of my country and take your commie pinko liberal friends with you! you are unAmerican and don't deserve the blessings God bestowed on this nation

    June 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Religion is controlled insanity


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

      i never believed that anyone is stupid enough to actually make the statement that you just made.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • steveinmi

      Get out of the country? My family helped FOUND this country. And if I understand my great+++ grandfather's writing from Plymouth Plantation correctly, they settled here to advance the cause of religious freedom.

      If you think there should be a minimum religious requirement for a person to be considered American, you're doing it wrong.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Frank

      Is that you George H. Bush?

      June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Tony

      I doubt the Native Americans agree.

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

      I'm sorry, I didn't know this was your country. I am an atheist, and I have served in this countries armed services and have fought for this country. The best thing about this country is that it is a melting pot of citizens from all over the world that have different beliefs and non-beliefs. I believe it is you, sir, that is un-American. Read a history book, and stop thinking you have the correct answers. Thankfully our founding fathers were enlightened. Sadly, it seems that trait is fading from the masses in this country.

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

      Dear Christian: Get the hell out of OUR country. Signed, believers in the native religions that were here long before you were...

      June 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • The Atheist

      Treaty of Tripoli: Article 11 :
      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion"
      Passed unanimously by congress on June 7th 1797 and Signed by Founding Father and then President John Adams. Became Law June 10th 1797.

      Facts have a liberal bias.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • gtt1999

      ...and you do sound like a blessing of God to this country????? May be they are atheists because of people like you supposedly representing God and their country. Have a little respect for God and other people, at least don't say you're a Christian. You just shamed 2000 years of Christian faith!!!! Think about it...

      June 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • JC

      You're a frightened angry little zealot who doesn't claim one virtue taught by legitimate scholars of theology. If you believe in a Christian faith, God does not like the primate aka "atheist get out", your hateful sentiments belong in your lower intestine, that's why you have bad breath. People like you are the reason I turned to the study of Buddhism, a pure philosophy on life, and eternity now holds a different meaning, a new definition.

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

      I can honestly say I feel sorry for you. Saying not believing in your grown up fairy tale is UN-American? Are you kidding me? You need a reality check. God isn't real and no matter how much you kick and scream like an idiot he will never be real.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  19. snowboarder

    it is good to hear that the stranglehold of religious brainwashing is loosening in our younger generations.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Matthew 24:6-8

      6 And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
      7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
      8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.


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


      And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled:
      - Duh... has been happening for eons.

      7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom:
      - Duh... has been happening for eons.

      and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
      –Duh... has been happening for eons.

      We're on Our Own.

      Make the best of it.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  20. joe

    Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar
    Stephen, let's say 68% of Iranians believe in Allah. Does it make it true? If not, then what's your point?

    You are obviously an atheist yourself-- as am I. I just believe in one less God than you. When you understand why you dismiss all those thousands of other Gods you don't believe in you'll understand why I dismiss yours.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • LKJ

      "Allah" is the Arabic term meaning The God. Arab Christians also pray to Allah. I think most of us believe in the same Creator, no what name we use.

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

      What a defensive response. The author didn't even claim he believes in a God....

      June 14, 2012 at 4:25 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.