Fact Check, Please August 7, 2011

Fact Check, Please

This is a guest post by “Bob,” Executive Director of the Skagit Secular Student Alliance.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend the 2011 Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference. Among the speakers was American Atheist president David Silverman, and it was a speech I enjoyed. His talk focused on inspiring us secular youth; emphasizing how we are the future, and how the future looks good. I couldn’t agree more, and found the talk pretty inspirational in this sense.

His talk came together focusing on the sleeping giant…the “30 under 30”. That is, that 30% of people under 30 years of age are nontheistic. He stressed that within 20 years, we all will be out of school, and be the leaders of our country. Needless to say, that got me super excited about the future. I mean, as a nation we’re FAR behind when it comes to rationality and ridding ourselves of these ancient magical stories, but looking at trends like that provides hope.

During the speech, no sources were provided for the “30 under 30” statistic. Not the worst thing in the world, but being at a skepticism related conference, I personally expect all statistics cited. So, upon arriving back home and catching up on things, I looked into the source of the statistic. I was eager to read up on it more in depth.

And. I. Found. Nothing.

I still can’t. No published study I’ve found comes close to supporting the “30 under 30” claim.

I emailed Silverman inquiring to his source, and while he was unable to immediately find the original source for his “30 under 30” point (he said he’ll look more when he has time, in which I’ll add to this post later if so), he did link me to the Pew Research Center with statistics saying that 25% of those 18-29 years old were religiously unaffiliated.  Bumping that to 30 is quite the rounding, but we’ll see if he finds his original source. I would have expected him to have an easier time finding a source for something he has been claiming for about a year though.

But I even found problems with this source he provided me with. This “unaffiliated” category he cited for his statement about young nontheists is…misleading. The definition of “unaffiliated” is something that needs to be established before we can even have any useful discussion about it. Four labels fall under this category according to the report; atheists, agnostics, the secular unaffiliated and the religious unaffiliated.

According to the above table from Pew, “the ‘religious unaffiliated’ category includes those who describe their faith as ‘nothing in particular’ but say that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.” Should we really be counting those who are religious, but just unaffiliated with any specific religion, in our secular movement?

Of course fucking not. Go read that definition of the religious unaffiliated again. That is antithetical to most of what the secular movement is about.

Luckily for us, the Pew Research Center breaks down this 25% of 18-29 year olds statistic into the subcategories. The atheists, agnostics, and secular unaffiliated make up a total of 16 of the original 25% claim. We shouldn’t be including the religiously unaffiliated in the secular movement, and when we don’t it ends up being barely half of the original “30 under 30” Silverman claimed.

I hope he’s right. I want him to be right. But his claim is currently unsubstantiated. His enthusiasm is unmatched, and that alone was inspiring for us students. The secular movement is indeed winning, but it doesn’t seem to be at the pace he claims. The younger generations do believe in less of this archaic bullshit that plagues society, as can be seen in the above table. Belief is going down. The trend doesn’t seem to be stopping. “…the Nones increased in numbers and proportion in every state, Census Division and Region of the country from 1990 to 2008,” according to another report, the American Religious Identification Survey.

To clarify this definition of “nones”, the nones in the ARIS included those who responded with their religion as “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, Secular”. The ARIS does come a lot closer to Silverman’s claim, with 22% of 18-29 year olds identified in the None category in the ARIS report. While over 22% of societies up and comers is something to be proud of, it’s certainly not the 30% that was being claimed. “22 under 30” doesn’t exactly flow as well admittedly, but it’s actually a claim supported with evidence.

The evidence/logic is on our side and people are beginning to realize that. There is no need to skew our numbers and we must be careful of letting statistics that sound great cloud our skepticism. We demand sources in our discussions among those who disagree with us; we should do the same for those that do agree with us.

We should think critically about our demographics and figure out how we may best increase them. Saying they are one thing when they are not only give us an exaggerated rate of success. I’m confident that with honestly looking at the statistics regarding belief we can make Silverman’s “30 under 30” claim a reality.

***Update*** (8/16/2011): I’ve been informed of the source from readers of this blog post, and I confirmed with Silverman that this was his original source. No survey is mentioned as to where the actual percentage comes from, but even ignoring that issue there is enough details stated in the article to dismiss it. His supporting statistic comes from this sentence:

“Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.”

I hope your red flags went up…there’s that “no religious affiliation” thing again. While this article doesn’t give us the specific breakdown of the sub-categories like the Pew source did, it does go on to clarify the statistic slightly in the next paragraph:

“Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology.”

So maybe not all the “nones” call themselves atheists, not a huge deal. But those with conventional beliefs about God and theology? Those are certainly not non-theists, and should not be used to inflate our numbers.

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  • Silverman has done a great job and will continue to great things but the last thing the reality based movement needs is bullshit to fight bullshit. 

  • Simon

    FYI if you’re ever looking for a knowledgeable speaker on the demography of unbelief I highly recommend CFI’s Tom Flynn. I don’t believe there is anyone who has looked at this more out there. Incidentally his Trouble with Christmas talk is also excellent: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/speakers/flynn_tom/

  • 30 shy 30 under 30?

    30% – 30% of that under 30
    or (30% * (1 – 30%)) under 30

  • Sally

    Wow, good for you to stand up for reason! Wonderful.

  • Paul

    Exactly, ChristopherTK, we need to be as sure as we can that we always deal with facts, that is our calling card, is it not?  I support Silverman, too, but not any action by him or anyone else that is bullshit or not supported by the facts.

  • He may be using the evidence that americans over-report their religiosity.  http://www.slate.com/id/2278923/

  • Yay for fact checking! Double yay for fact checking people we agree with! Nice job.

  • Great blog entry.  And I, too, believe the worst thing we can do is to begin playing word games when we talk about who we are.

  • Tyler! Thank you for a clear and easy to read post! This is probably my favorite of these recent student posts. Your passion and logic are obvious.

  • Ben Crockett

    I wondered about that statistic as well. As encouraging as it was to hear, citations are indeed necessary. Cheers to Tyler Curtis for taking the initiative on this.

  • Emma Pease

    Pew actually asked multiple questions but two apply.  One was affiliation which led to the above figures.   The other was on belief in a god.  Apparently 21% of the self-proclaimed atheists believe in a god or universal spirit  with some degree of certainty.   To counteract that 1% of Protestants and Catholics don’t believe in a god or universal spirit (10% of Jews and 19% of Buddhists also lack belief). 

    may have something closer to the figure: only 64% of the 18-29 are absolutely certain of God’s existence.

  • Luc Duval

    Excellent call-out.

  • I attended a religious studies conference on Religion in American Culture recently, and there was a LOT of talk about the “nones.” And you are correct, “nones” are not synonymous with “secular.” In fact most of the discussion revolved around the interesting religious aspect of the nones – “spiritual” but not “religious.”

  • This is purely anecdotal and i’m curious if it’s like this for everyone and for every era, but of the 30 or so people I work with around 28 of them (long story how we came to this discussion and counted) are not affiliated with any religion and/or actively despise them. During conversations where I found this out I was surprised and excited…then when I said i’m an atheist they backed off. These people believed in God, but not religion. They believed religion is either silly or a conspiracy to control people. Some of these people also believed in Bigfoot, ghosts etc. I think it’s possible the younger generation has seen past religion, but they have not necessarily accepted skepticism or critical thinking.

    The same also goes for the majority of my friends. I’m 24 and of the 60 or so real friends I have on Facebook maybe 3 people believe in any sort of religious god. I’m unsure about the specifics of the other friends who might be deists. I’d imagine it’s quite similar to my work environment.

    I even have a friend who doesn’t believe in ghosts, psychics etc and think it’s all silly. He thinks religion is dumb, but doesn’t quite know if there is a God or not. However, he hates it when I give these things labels or when people create groups to combat them. The very idea of something like TAM or people who debunk physics annoys him. In his mind these topics shouldn’t even be discussed. He annoys me more than anyone I can think of on this topic.

    Again though this is purely anecdotal, and i’m from Seattle so this is probably different other places.

  • dauntless

    Good work, Tyler. The real triumph is yet to come and will be when Silverman stops referring to this bullshit statistic in his talks. If he doesn’t, then he’s no better than the creationists who continue to parrot the same tired, old, debunked falsehoods over and over again. In fact, his reactions of “I’ve lost the source” and “I’ll look for it later this week when I have some free time” sound like direct quotes from creationists when they are confronted about false claims they’ve made.

  • Anonymous

    It can vary a lot by place, the nature of the group, and any number of other factors. I am in a casual writing group (novelists from NaNoWriMo who wanted to keep writing outside of just November lol), and I discovered over time that nearly everyone at the particular place I attend write-ins is an agnostic atheist.

    Though both are anecdotal, they both serve as examples of how we should interpret statistics — as global averages, and never as local facts, at least prior to confirming that they apply to whatever local situation we might be interested in examining.

  • Excellent post Tyler!  I agree that we must, if you’ll excuse the expression, practice what we preach. Touting the virtues of critical thinking while spouting wishful thinking disguised as “statistics” is a self-defeating practice.  It can cause embarrassment and disillusionment, and also a false sense of security. We all certainly need encouragement, but we should also stay sober, not getting giddy with a fantasy about remarkable success.  Turtles and hares, and all that.

    I would even amend your statement, “The secular movement is indeed winning…” Gaining is not winning.  A very small percentage gaining size is an encouraging fact to know and will help us to continue our efforts, but let’s not talk about winning until we’re a very large majority and our gaining is rapidly accelerating. I’ll work for freethinking and secularism for the rest of my life, and I expect that I’ll see more gains. You’ll work for it long after my life is over, and I expect that you’ll see much better gains. Whenever “winning” actually happened will be determined by historians long after it actually did happen.

    A real conversation I recently had:
    Me: “Did you know that 95% of all claims mentioning statistics are made up by the speaker right on the spot?”
    The other guy: “Really? Wow!”
    Me: “Yeah. Not only that, but so far, 100% of the people to whom I’ve told this fail to recognize that I’m demonstrating the practice of making up statistics right on the spot.”
    The other guy: “Really? Wow! …….Huh?”

  • only 19% of Buddhists lack belief in a god? Doesn’t Buddhism explicitly reject the idea of a creator?

  • I was at an skeptic conference this weekend and a girl in the audience brought up the possibility of atheist extremism, saying that she saw David Silverman at the SSA conference talk about our movement as a war in which we are all soldiers. She said it especially worried her because he was one of the few people at the conference who got a standing ovation. I’ve been trying to look this up but I can’t find any blog or article that mentions this at all… I’d think a talk at an SSA conference that gets a standing ovation would be talked about more. Seemed odd to me. Can anyone who went to the SSA conference tell me if this was bullshit?

  • Charon

    While it’s important to make use of this correction factor, if we can, it also introduces more questions. Such as, what if 18-29-year-olds are just as religious as those 70+, but there’s a huge overreporting bias affecting the latter group but not the former (perhaps because of evolving views on equating religious with good, or on religion as a part of one’s identity).

    I highly doubt that’s the case, but I’d be surprised if the correction factor had no age dependence.

  • Edward Clint

    Many forms of Buddhism have various gods, demons, ghosts and spirits. Few if any have “creator god” but that’s a bit of hair splitting to me. 

  • Edward Clint

    Seconded. Mr. Flynn was good enough to come to UIUC and he was incredibly knowledgeable and entertaining.

  •  “The real triumph is yet to come and will be when Silverman stops referring to this bullshit statistic in his talks.”

    Or if he backs it up with evidence, of course. Your assertion that it’s bullshit is no less requiring of a citation than his is that it’s not.

  • Kookoo4

    Ya, I’m not a fan of Silverman. He quite often comes up short in debates or stammers and stutters when trying to back up his opinions. He also comes off smarmy many times, although I can’t blame him for that because its usually when he’s on FAUX news trying to squeeze a word in edge wise with those dolts. He wouldn’t be my first choice for an atheist representative though.

  • Anonymous

    … she saw David Silverman at the SSA conference talk about our movement as a war in which we are all soldiers.

    I seriously hope he’s not using this kind of terminology.

  • Excellent. Most of the sources I’ve seen average out to about 18%.

    I think more discussion on the idea of “winning” is called for. When do we win? What do we win when we win? If we don’t win until after I die, did I still win or is it a group win a part of which includes me?

  • Anonymous

    This is great! Chris Stedman and I are working on a post about this very issue – the misuse of statistics to inflate our numbers is very widespread in our movement, sadly.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I wonder, though, if Silverman might be right (in a way) without having any evidence.

    There has been a seed of atheism in me for a really, really long time – but it took me getting out of the PHYSICAL place of worship to be able to think and analyze it for myself. 

    I think there are lot of people out there like me, but a lot of practicing Christians (specifically, since that’s what I dealt with) feel trapped by family and church “family” pressures. Also, especially in high school, I didn’t know where to go for information. I had the vaguest notion that the Bible was contradictory and that it championed a lot of things I was morally uncomfortable with, but I didn’t know anyone who would sit down and have frank conversations with me.

    Thank God for the advent of broadband.

    Moral of the story: I suspect that there are a lot of “sleeper” atheists out there who might join and become vocal once the movement gains momentum. My guess is that these numbers will change drastically in 10-15 years (for the better! but I’m an optimist).

  • dauntless

    How likely does that seem in light of the evidence that’s already been presented?

  • From the GSS data, the COHORT-versus-RELIG trendline seems to be following a logistic curve, which would suggest that if you include those under 18, they will end up making the 1981-2010 cohort run almost 40% “Nones”. Contrariwise, my (subjective, non-GSS supported) impression is that a transition is frequently made in the college years (when kids finally get out from under their parents’ thumbs). As such, while I expect many will eventually end up swelling the ranks of the NONEs, I also expect many still self-identify based on their parents’ choices. 
    Also worth noting is that the “Nones” are not all atheist. If you use COHORT-versus-GOD, it looks like the generically deist “Some Higher Power” segment is about equal to “Don’t Believe” and “No Way To Find Out” together; counting the latter two only, non-theists would be circa 13% of the 1982-1992 bracket.
    30-under-30 is thus more marketing spin than substance… but less than spin than Christian Fundamentalists would like to believe.

  • Franklin Kramer

    I was there. Many speakers got standing ovations, so it wasn’t like he was the only one. I do not think he referred to us as “soldiers,” although I could not be remembering correctly. But regardless that wasn’t what his presentation was about. The theme was that the atheist movement as a whole is winning, and has a whole lot of advantages that other groups in the past didn’t have that still “won.” 

  • Anonymous

    Given that the author has analyzed a few surveys that are at least reasonably respected without finding anything close to the claimed figure, I wonder about the chances of finding a reputable source that backs up “30 under 30”.  I think a simplest explanation is that it’s a catchy statistic that’s possibly too simple to believe.

  • Or, what if the reporting bias is the other way?  What if there’s a small reporting bias among the elderly (who are old enough to not give a crap what people think) but a large one among the college age kids (who are still desperate to fit in)?

  • Drew M.

    I really expected better from someone on our side.

    Thanks for fact checking!

  • I would like to thank the Friendly Atheist people for showing this blog. I personally know Tyler from the same school. I love that small great students have a chance to be well known in the atheist community.

    All this coming from his first real blog post ever.

    Tyler you will be great.

  • Eivind Kjorstad

    I don’t have any facts to add for USA. But I can supply some facts for Norway.

    In 1985, 55% of the asked would answer “yes” if asked “Do you believe in any god?”, meanwhile 88% at that time, where members of a church. From which we can conclude that substantial numbers are members of church, but not actually believers. Many of these are “passive” members that became members in young age, and hasn’t participated actively as adults, but still haven’t bothered actually canceling their membership. (membership is generally free, so there’s no pressing reason to)

    Fast-forward to 2010 and only 43% of the population say “yes” when asked if they believe in any god. Over the same time-period church-membership dropped to 79%.

    These are numbers from Synovates questionaire on beliefs, that’s been held semi-annually every second year since 1984.

  • TheSaintsRevenge

    Bloggers? Ugh, if most of you challenged your local mayors, politicians, local political injustices with the same manner of critique as those who are on your own side, I’d say blogging has a social shaping affect. Until then it is fruitless. I wonder how many of you, beyond your blogs, are this vocal where it matters? As TheSaintsRevenge, one of the most outspoken atheists alive, I challenge all of you keyboard commandos to come out of your blogging closets and direct your efforts, er fingers to your mayors, attend your town hall meetings TO KEEP THEM SECULAR, challenge legislation, and use your “great blog, you’re going to be a rock star” attitude once a blogger exposes a corrupt Mayor/politician. This is where it matters. Blogging to the choir? Give me a break! Muster up that talent children and focus on that which matter most, a secular Nation!

  • Here’s your citation: “As recently as 1990, all but 7% of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, a figure that had held constant for decades. Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new “nones” are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.” – Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campell


  • Tyler Curtis

    I see the same problem in that article, no source for the statistic was provided. Call me picky, but I’d like to see the specifics of the study.

    Especially when in the next paragraph after the part you quoted, it goes on to say “Very few of these new ‘nones’ actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology.”

    While calling themselves atheists is by no means necessary to fall under the “non-theistic” category, individuals who have “rather conventional beliefs about God and theology” are DEFINITELY excluded from the “non-theistic” category. It suffers from the same issue that the Pew citation did.

  • I agree with your analysis about how some of these nones are not atheists, but come on, Putnum, the guy who wrote the book, is paraphrasing his own book. You can look up the citation from here.

  • Tyler Curtis

    I’ll have to look into it, it looks like an interesting read regardless of it being a possible source. Though given that the number includes people with conventional views of God and theology, it can’t really be used to support Silverman’s original claim.

  • Well, this is not necessarily true. Yes those folks who have somewhat conventional views of god will not be comfortable joining American Atheists, but they might join a hUUmanist UU congregation, or join an Ethical Culture community, or a Humanist Community. This was part of Dave’s point – that some of us are going to find certain atheist/Humanist organisations more or less comfortable.

  • Tyler Curtis

    I agreed with Dave on that point, but that doesn’t translate into liberal theism (or religious humanism) equaling non-theism. We definitely have allies in these groups (church/state is a common issue to ally with them, as well as many social issues), but they still come with baggage most of us oppose (such as that faith is a worthy method of shaping a worldview). 

    It’s a step in the right direction, obviously, but they don’t fall under the non-theist category that was claimed.

  • Now you’re fighting over a technicality. I think you might owe David a little bit of an apology, although it isn’t clear to me that HE was aware of this citation. He may have just gotten lucky that someone could back-fill for him.

  • Tyler Curtis

    That statistics on the number of non-theists should not include theists? I’d hardly call that a technicality. 

  • It also may be that I’m just more comfortable embracing Deists and Pantheists as strong allies than you are.

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