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. ken

    The main reason that most believe is that they are afraid not to.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      Same can be said about those that don't believe. Atheists and agnostics have given their position tremendous thought. This isn't decided on a whim! The implications of arrogance would be my eternal soul, right? Do you really believe anyone took that lightly when we first heard it as children? I didn't. I was scared of H ell. Then I asked, "Why would God want me scared like this?"

      June 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  2. Jley

    I fit in the polling demographic and recently turned Atheist myself. There's alot to this poll that isnt accounted for. Most Atheists, like myself find it hard to find middle ground once we take the stance of being atheist. You see, the initial issue with being Atheist to most people is that you are automatically placed in the "if he doesnt believe in Christ, then he must believe in Satan" bracket. My family is about 98% catholic and I admit more than half of them don't know that I'm Atheist. I think more people would find it easier to explain that they are Atheist by simply eliminating Satan from that stupid concept.
    If you dont believe in one then the same goes for the other. Well, that problem may not be applicable to all but it is to me.
    What really speaks about the ignorance of religion is that as soon as rumors swirled around at work that I was atheist, almost all of my coworkers stopped hanging out with me. I mean here you have the bible which teaches several good principles say "judge not less ye be judged" yet as soon as they heard, I was placed into that "If hes not for Jesus then he's for Satan" bracket. To top that off, I'm pretty successfull in my career so in their mind I made some sort of pact with someone I dont believe in.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • MJB

      Same thing happens to Christians, Jews, Blacks, Asians, midgets, tatooed people, long haired people, etc. The hardest part of being anything these days is the morons we are all surrounded by.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • PaulieJ

      It's sad that it worked out that way for you.
      On the other hand, those are the types of folks I would occasionally mess with just for the laughs at their foolishness. I'd place a copy of something like Slayer's "God Hates Us All" or "Christ Illusion" CD on my desk or change my work PC's background wallpaper to a nice Dimmu Borgir themed one or perhaps one of HR Giger's pieces from his Necronomicon collections. And then wait to overhear the little chats going around. 😛
      I will say though, those with such a shallow basis for a friendship you're better off without.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  3. Flying Spaghetti Monster

    Worship me mortals.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Scott

      L<AO sorry spagetti monste, but im currently worshipping the cookie monster PBS provided me with moref of him on TV. More proof than of Jahova or Allah as well.

      lol Religion is so brainless....

      June 14, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Do not mock his noodely appendage! LOL.

      June 14, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Scott

      LMAO sorry spaghetti monster, but im currently worshipping the cookie monster PBS provided me with more proof of him on TV. More proof than of Jahova or Allah as well.

      lol Religion is so brainless....

      (gotta watch the fast typing too many typos)

      June 14, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  4. Reality

    Good ole Stephen P, never saying what his beliefs are but making much text over what others think. CNN should require that he come clean about his own visions of the deity (deities). Of course, Boston U might not want an atheist in its theology department.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  5. Rational

    We are becoming a more secular society, and for the better. Only when we realize that this is the only life we have, can we assign a much stonger value to human life and well-being. Sorry Stephen, but doubt is corrosive to faith, thankfully.

    As Hitchens said, it should not be admirable to be a person of faith...to believe something with virtually no evidence for it. Time to end this nonsense and move forward.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  6. erik

    Get Rid Of Hatred
    Get Rid Of War
    Get Rid Of Religion – created by Satan to enslave believers and ensure there can not be world peace. Look it up. God did not create religion.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  7. RC

    Religion is always "evolving" Most Americans, even today, don't realize how Christianity looks very different today than it did in the first century christianities. Most Americans don't realize that all religions change as society changes. Christianity is very different today than it was 50 yrs. ago. Doubt has a very long history trailing all the way back to ancient times. In some eras doubt was more free to be expressed and in others (Crusades, Inquisition, ancient judiasm) it was supressed by those in power. Even well known names in American History like, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, third President, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, and more were doubters. It is good to doubt because that means you are thinking and not letting others do the thinking for you. Religion plays many roles in society not just a belief in a diety. So long as humans have a need for these services and as long as education is not sufficiently instilled in our society, religion will persist. However, I do believe it is possible in a few generations, that religion will become less and less important as people find different ways of fulfilling their emotional and spiritual needs through different avenues. As we mature as a society I do believe more people will see the beauty in living life more freely without the constraints of religion telling you how to think and feel. We will more easily identify with our innate moral compases as more knowlege is made available to the masses on how our brains work and what it trully means to live a fulfulling life without the need of a diety.

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

      You realize the first half of what you wrote basically states that most Americans are idiots and then in the second half you try and teach them. Funny.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • just sayin

      The more ignorant the society, the more religion thrives. Religion has always thrived in ignorance. The core of faith is ignorance of reality. Religion will always thrive in the 3rd world countries....as we progress we will have to deal with these cavemen who have weapons.

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

      Yes, but I was trying to be as polite as possible.

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

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

    June 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  9. science 101

    I am an atheist and I can't prove what does not exist but I intuitively do know what cannot exist – a giant god in a toga with a magnificent gray beard sitting somewhere up in the sky – who sometimes gets jealous and sometimes gets angry. He writes a book. He creates the universe and then he rests. Where supposedly did this god come from and why?

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

      I know what can't exist either – The Big Bang. According to all physics and cosmological theory, the Big Bang should never have happened, yet it did. The Big Bang was discovered/proposed by a devout Christian and the very name The Big Bang was given in derision by atheists. As evidence piled up that it happened, alternate theories were proposed and discarded (steady state, cyclical big bang, etc.) because the thought of a unique incident in which a universe sprouted into existence from nothingness is anathema to atheism and "science only" folks. Many of the top scientists whose work gives us the understanding of our cosmological origins are/were devout believers in God. To claim that God cant exist is to side against many of the top scientific minds in the history of the world, but you go on and assume you are right on this one.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Scott -spelt the same but different person -

      Scott that is blatantly wrong.

      Please watch the Steven Hawkin video on the Ted Talks website, where he explains how physics has explained the mystery of creation. In some situations time can behave lin the same manner as other spacial dimensions and can travel forward and backward. Thus the resulting conditions can bring about the initial state. All of which is based in physics and has testible predictions that can be confirmed.

      June 14, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  10. Jake

    Whatever you have to tell yourself to help you sleep at night, Mr. Prothero.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  11. littleblackcar

    I don't see the point of this essay, nor why he made a point of directing at atheists. I don't know any atheists who are complaining/crowing about the decline of religion; it's my religious friends who are worried about that. Furthermore, I think the biggest change is that it is safer to express one's doubts now than it was a hundred years or more ago. There was certainly enough sin, crime, and evildoing in the past to suggest that most people weren't literally living in fear of God then, as they obviously don't now. Believed in Him, sure, although I think most people believe out of habit and to fill an intellectual vacuum that they don't have the education or inclination to fill by other means, but they couldn't have been that worried about Him and His wrath. How many of you "believers" are giving all you have to the poor and setting out on pilgrimages? I didn't think so. Talk is cheap.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  12. pandaa

    @dreamauthor : I don't know what your religion is or if you even have a religion. But GOD gave us the ability of free will. We could think and say what ever we want. God doesn't want to force His laws upon you, but wants you to acknowledge the errors of your ways & come back to Him. The fact that you say that it would be good for Him to appear in the sky or appear in our dreams to know that He exists is not what He wants. If He did do something like that everyone would believe & there will be no free will, what would be the point of our creation?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Steve

      That's right. Instead, God is a little prankster. He created a world that looks exactly like a world where he does not exist, just to confuse the hell out of people. And if they get it wrong and do not believe in him, they'll be in hell for eternity because he loves them. LOL, so funny.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • just sayin

      People I give you mythical ignorant person.............Pandaa
      Modern day caveman.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  13. Jesse

    Atheists twist data? Hardly. Almost every religion is quick to thank "god" when a favorable event occurs, yet they deny "god's" involvement when a horrific event occurs. Truthfully, there is no evidence that shows a correlation between a god and an event, no matter if the event is favorable or unfavorable. Therefore, one cannot credit "god" for every good thing that has happened on Earth without also crediting him for the bad ones. If your "god" is loving, then he cannot be all-powerful. If he is all-powerful, then he is surely malicious.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  14. John in Oakland

    As usual, religion is about saving the appearances. It's not a decline; it's a maturation. Faith = doubt. George Orwell would be proud.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  15. GayAtheist

    Christianity is stoopid.

    I think, Therefore I am...Atheist.

    No gods, no masters.

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

    How can you make any analysis by comparing uses of "faith" to all uses of the word "doubt?" I can doubt many things other than faith. I can doubt that I am smart enough. I can doubt that my husband is faithful. I can doubt that my political party will win. Your analysis has no grounds.
    Talk about stretching data...

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

      Also, I'd be more keen to associate doubt in Reagan's era with the state of the economy. If we could plot the last four years, I bet it would creep up again.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  17. No Religion Thank You

    "But does this data really say what many atheists want it to say? Is American religion really heading for a fall?" As an athiest I resent this remark. I do not care what other people believe in, that is everyone's right and I respect it.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  18. J

    "Wisdom is not proven by argument or debate. Wisdom is proven over time" ~ Henry Blackerby. If I am right about my belief in God, it will be proven for eternity...and if I'm wrong (and I don't believe the Bible is), it won't matter anyway. If you are right, see my "it won't matter anyway." But dear friends, if you are wrong, you will have eternity to regret your decision. For those of you who choose logic...which is the more logical choice?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Kim from Pittsburgh

      The logical choice is to choose not to follow or worship a being who would punish you for eternity for not believing...

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

      Pascal's Wager is not logical, that's your first mistake.

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

      Pascal's Wager, in other words. The logic has only one flaw: which version of God(s) to believe in; which religion has it right, if any of them do?

      Well, there's one other big flaw. You're presuming that we can, through logic, convince ourselves to believe wholeheartedly in God. From what I've observed of my fellow humans, logic can strengthen faith, but it cannot create it where there is none.

      Both of these problems are why my religious views are best expressed as "Theist." I believe in the Divine quite strongly, but I believe equally strongly that no human being can ever understand the Divine. In other words, I believe in God, and I reject Religion.

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

      And yours is not believing QS. Kim, it is a reward for a good choice...like we do with our children and by not chosing a good choice we are left with the penalty for our bad choices. Otherwise, why have jails...why punish people for not making good choices?

      June 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • JP

      That old religious argument is called Pascal's Wager and not a valid argument for belief in god. Here are a few reasons why it's no better that not believing in anything:
      1. There are countless possible god's, so you could be wrong.
      2. There could be a god that doesn't require or doesn't want your belief.
      3. There could actually be a god that punishes you for your dogmatic belief in a false god.
      4. There could just as easily be a god that knows it has not presented us with enough evidence to decide and you will be judged for jumping to conclusions.

      Sleep tight.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • TheDukeOfHighwayJ

      There are many to choose from. What if you follow the wrong god?

      June 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • JP

      J's sure that his/her god is the 1.

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

      I do, JP...I do.

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

      This isn't like punishing your kids or giving them a treat for being good. We're talking eternity here bud. It's not just atheist going to hell. But buddhist, Jainist, Hindus, Muslims, Jews etc. as they do not believe in your "correct" form of god. I understand Islam and Judaism is part of the Arbahamic religions with Christianity but they are totally different. Heck, half of Christianity is a rip off of the hebrew bible, the old testament.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • QS

      Logic is lost on this one.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • J

      Thanks for your posts everyone...even those who may disagree with me. That is what makes America so great – that we can voice our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. Again, as I leave this chat, I only offer that time will reveal who is right. For me it is the Bible and Jesus Christ. Thanks!

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

      Saying you believe in something on the sole basis of not wanting to be wrong when your heart stops beating is cowardly. To reject rational thinking and continue to promote ideas that you know you cannot prove only because your afraid your going to be condemned to hell by an "all loving god," is morally incorrect.

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

      Here we have the "believe in God, because if you're wrong, bad things will happen to you" argument for faith. What a sad, pathetic argument for embracing faith. Turns your God into a playground bully. You should befriend the playground bully to avoid pain. But it isn't a genuine friendship. It's "I like you for not beating me up." Everyone isn't motivated by fear. If you want to impress me with how many believers there are, delete "eternal damnation for non-believers" from the Bible and see if you have more or fewer professed believers.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  19. whatajoke

    religion is actually a personal relationship with stupidity...in its favor, it does provide a constant stream of laughter and embarrassment...

    June 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  20. Goose66

    "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" Heb 11-1.
    Looking for proof that God exists (or does not exist) is a fool's errand. Those that hope for concrete evidence that the God they conceive does not exist are just as likely to find such evidence as those that seek evidence that the God they conceived does exist.

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

      The fools are the ones who give up their little boys and cash to this cult

      June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Mark

      Also foolish is debating with those who use faith as their primary argument. For them faith trumps logic.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • RC

      This was said by Paul. It is just theology made up by Paul in order to persuade people to his particular theological views of christianity. Remember when Paul is writing this, there are many others writing hundreds of other manuscripts and gospels pertaining to their particular sect of christianity. It means nothing. It is just an opinion. So this is not an argument. If your god does not want us to ever find him, then he shouldn't have made us with a brain to think. All gods are made up by human imagination. Do some research into how we got the bible we have today and all the changes that went on and what was left out. It is fascinating and just shows how all religions are just human effort to explain what they couldn't explain and to have power over the people.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:34 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.