Harris Poll: In the U.S., a Clear Win For Rationality — Belief In God and Heaven Declines December 17, 2013

Harris Poll: In the U.S., a Clear Win For Rationality — Belief In God and Heaven Declines

This Harris poll — under the headline “Americans’ Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines” — is a great holiday gift.

It finds that

… [W]hile a strong majority (74%) of U.S. adults do believe in God, this belief is in decline when compared to previous years as just over four in five (82%) expressed a belief in God in 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Here are some other popular superstitions, according to the poll, along with their adherents.

Miracles: 72% of Americans believe, down from 79% in 2005.

Heaven: 68%, down from 75.

The virgin birth: 57%, down from 60.

Jesus is God, or the son of God: 68%, down from 72.

The resurrection story: 65%, down from 70.

The soul lives on after death: 64%, down from 69.

The devil, and hell: 58%, down from 62.

At the same time, more people — 47% — are swayed by the evidence of evolution, up from 42%.

The other good news is that the strongest belief in God and other superstitions is concentrated at the top of the age ladder, where it will — excuse the coldness of the observation — die away the quickest. By contrast, “echo boomers,” a.k.a. millennials, are the least likely to believe in God, heaven, the soul, and so on. If they carry that skepticism forward, and raise their kids with secular values, rational thought could begin to expand dramatically rather than glacially.


The groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), Matures (62%) and Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).

Perhaps more noteworthy is that only 37% of Americans now believe that God keeps an eye on us but does not control what we do. That’s down rather impressively from 2003, when 50% of Americans expressed belief in God as a chess master rather than a mere voyeur. Also,

Just under half of Americans believe that all or most of the Old Testament (49%) and the New Testament (48%) are the “Word of God,” representing declines of six percentage points each from 2008 findings.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people who believe in creationism is now the same as those who believe in UFOs, at 36%. Maybe Ken Ham ought to put a UFO landing pad on the deck of his embattled Noah’s ark attraction. That should draw ’em in.

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  • God’s Starship

    That’s a nice sized ding.

  • Gabriel

    This makes me very happy. I really think that the numbers will be dramatically improved in 10 years. In 20 years we will be a majority secular society. That means a majority liberal society. Which means when I’m old I will be living in the type of society that I have wanted to live in for a very long time.

  • Stevie

    Thanks for these stats. Really refreshing.

  • God’s Starship

    That would make me one happy old fart.

  • Yay!

  • compl3x

    The only thing you’ll have to yell about is the neighborhood kids running on your lawn.

    …And politicians. Everyone will always complain about those bastards.

  • WalterWhite007

    The trend is with us…..well, with you. In Canada we are trending away from superstition a little quicker. From the last Gov’t survey in 2011:

    Nearly one quarter of Canada’s population, 23.9 per cent, had no religious affiliation – up from 16.5 per cent a decade earlier, as recorded in the 2001 census.

    I think it really matters how these survey questions are phrased as well.

  • Gehennah

    Just another reason I love my friends up north.

  • Rain

    47% — are swayed by the evidence of evolution

    Not a good number. Kinda unbelievable actually. I sure didn’t believe it the first time I heard it when an internet creationist troll quoted the number to me. Went and looked it up and sure enough he was right…

  • Louie

    There is still much work to do, and it will not be easy. The religious-minded become more dangerous the more they feel threatened.

  • Aleister Gates

    I think just one more generation might do it

  • Gary

    Actually, the US is moving faster in that regard. Mentioned in the press release (but not the article above) is the finding that 23% of Americans identify as “not at all” religious, up from 12% in 2007.

  • From the poll, Table 1a:
    All adults: Believe in god, 74%. Don’t believe in God, 12%. Not sure, 14%.

    I have a couple of thoughts:

    That 12% seems much larger than recent polls (if I remember correctly) that asked people if they identify as atheists. I think this might reflect the curse that the word “atheist” carries, and also public misconceptions of what the word means. So many ugly and scary connotations have been smeared all over that word that people who are quite clear that they don’t believe in gods still won’t use that word to describe themselves. I think that for greater accuracy in measuring what people actually believe, future polls and surveys should avoid using the “a” word entirely, and just ask people what they do and do not believe.

    Of the 14% who answered “not sure” I think not all, but many of them are not unsure in an intellectual way, but are emotionally hesitant to make the final commitment in their minds by saying “I do not believe” on a survey, even if it’s anonymous. There can be a long time in between the intellectual acceptance that one does not believe in the god or gods of one’s childhood upbringing, and the final emotional acceptance. During that guilt and anxiety-ridden time, they’ll say “I’m not sure,” but it’s not about becoming more convinced of their disbelief, it’s about getting over that guilt and anxiety. Admittedly, this is my supposition based on my own experience and from hearing so many people tell of their journey out of faith and into rationality.

    This is an important reason why atheists who come out publicly should share the story of their emotional journey, not just their intellectual journey. Hearing that others have had the same emotional obstacles will encourage people to take the final steps out of their so-called “I’m not sure” neutral zone, and be finally free.

  • Terry Firma

    I’m always struck by the easy conflation of atheism and liberalism. FWIW, I’m a hardcore atheist, but not a liberal; and I do not believe that a majority secular country must mean it’s also a liberal one.

  • Jeremiah Traeger

    As a liberal leaning person, I look forward to the day when I can talk to conservatives about politics without the particular batshit crazy social conservative ideals that come from a result of religiosity (gay marriage, abortion, etc). Economically, It’s good to have opposing sides to keep a balance, but the religious right is doing the secular conservatives no favors in making the conservatives look credible.

  • usclat

    Seriously, this is fantastic. Perhaps my children and grandchildren can enjoy a much more rational society in the United States than I’ve known. It IS gratifying to know that after decades of countless debates (nay, arguments) with the “faithful”, non-belief is growing and I may have contributed a small part to that! For so long as I’m alive on this planet, I will continue to contribute in my small way.

  • james

    Atheist arguments are making headwinds in what used to be considered a Christian nation.

  • Pofarmer

    I’m with you Terry.

  • Pofarmer

    Those numbers mean there are as many non believers a Catholics. There is hope.

  • diogeneslamp0

    That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

  • Armanatar

    Liberal in general, no, but liberal on social issues? All but guaranteed. There are plenty of fiscally conservative atheists, but not nearly so many social conservatives.

  • momtarkle

    “Onward, Hitchens’ soldiers, marching as to war,

    with the mind of Dawkins going on before.”

  • I wish I could agree with you, but some of the nuttiest MRA types I’ve ever had the displeasure of speaking to on the Internet were atheists.

    I also came across one anti-procreation guy who was … scary. He attacked all the parents for being selfish and creating suffering. Unfortunately, atheism doesn’t necessarily mean skepticism or introspection or the willingness to abandon privilege.

  • Anat

    In order to keep a balance the US needs a real left. Some socialists or at least social-democrats.

  • WalterWhite007

    That’s great but religion and the religious are far more vocal and get their way more often in the USA. Most of the time here we aren’t even aware of what faith, if any, our politicians have. No one cares and more often than not it would probably hurt a politician to blather on about his/her religion and how it will affect how they govern.

  • Black Leaf

    But I think they’re also in a way just like the religious fundamentalists – really loud so it’s easy to think that there’s more of them that there really are.

  • David McNerney

    In 20 years you’ll probably be classed as a conservative.

  • DavidMHart

    Anyone else find it odd that the numbers for ‘believe in Heaven’ are a bit higher than those for ‘believe that the soul lives on after death’? What do those people in the margin think? That Heaven is up there, sitting empty of humans, with God and the angels just sitting about twiddling their thumbs?

  • dandaman

    That all depends on your definition of liberalism, I prefer Webster’s:


    noun ˈli-b(ə-)rə-ˌli-zəm

    : belief in the value of social and political change in order to achieve progress

    what were you referring to?

  • dandaman

    bear in mind, our science teachers have their hands tied behind their backs.

  • allein

    That’d be interesting to see, though they aren’t mutually exclusive. They can think the stories in it are true but that the rules no longer apply. (Well, the rules they don’t like, at least.)

  • I’m not sure how significant these results are and how much is noise. While there is a drop in religiosity compared to the 2005 data, Harris did similar polls in 2007 and 2009, and in those polls, there was a slight increase in religiosity by some of the metrics. For example, belief in Jesus as the son of God went 72,72,73,68 over those years.

    Another thing to note is that in so far as this data is robust it looks like less mainstream religious ideas and superstitions are on the rise. The belief in UFO percentage is 35,35,32,36. Belief in ghosts went 41,41,42,42. Reincarnation went 21,21,20,24 (although worth noting that the last is a more accepted belief in some religious systems other than Christianity). Astrology remained more or less constant at 29,29,26,29, and witches went 31,31,23,26.

    So it is hard to really see any strong trends in the data. I haven’t run any formal statistical tests, but eyeballing it, the 2005 data and 2007 data look pretty similar, substantially more than 2007 resembles 2009, or 2009 resembles 2013. I’d wonder if there was any methodological change from 2005 to 2007.

  • Rationalist1

    The numbers are dropping and that for me is good. But this may mean more backlash from some believers as we’re increasingly challenging their world view. When most of the community believes in a God you feel comforted but as more and more people stop accepting those beliefs it can get disquieting.

  • Terry Firma

    To the liberalism that gave us Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid … And to the notion that when we send drones into foreign territory and obliterate another gaggle of brown wedding guests, it doesn’t matter and we’ll look the other way — unless it happens under a Republican president, in which case we’ll all denounce him with great dedication and fury.

  • Note, the wording for the Harris Poll version of the question on Creationism is different from the Gallup version, so the two can’t really be directly compared to each other. Harris has asked their question in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and got 39-40%; a drop to 36% seems likely to have some marginal statistical significance range, given the sample N around 2200. However, it’s based from those who’ve agreed to participate in an internet panel, and it’s not clear the previous years used the same methods, both of which add a fuzzy degree of increase in uncertainty.

    Still, even with the required high sodium intake, it’s better news than a shift in the other direction; and most of the other highlighted shifts are larger and more significant.

  • Mikey Nails!

    After seeing Neil DeGrasse Tyson at a local University (in Michigan, USA) a few weeks ago, my daughter and I were discussing the less than 50% of Americans accepting evolution. Then I pointed out that something like 70% (I think it’s more, though) of Americans believe in angels. She had a look of absolute astonishment. “That’s… That’s… That’s RIDICULOUS!!!”
    She’s 13.

  • Mikey Nails!

    Seeing all these numbers: 72%, 68%, 57%, 65%, 64%, 58%, in favor of Bronze and Iron Age myths and superstition, then evolution at a lowly 47% is SOOO disheartening.

  • That seems overly optimistic. The GSS data seems to suggest the (logistic curve fit) midpoint on the “rise of the nones” will be circa the 2007 birth year cohort, but even so the (very marginal) increase in belief in UFOs and reincarnation points out that disbelief in God does not inherently preclude having other silly beliefs. The Pew Forum data suggests atheists and agnostics are a rising fraction among the unaffiliated “Nones”, but still a minority; and the “NIPper” nothing-in-particulars tend to have a lot of silly beliefs of all sorts — in God, ghosts, reincarnation, UFOs, what have you.

  • GentlyUsed

    Yes, the steady (but too slow) progress toward saying goodbye to mythology always brightens my day. But a quick scan of the numbers gave me a cause for concern. The movement seems to be away from religion(s) but not necessarily toward critical thinking. I get this from the numbers that do not show a corresponding decrease in acceptance of astrology, ghosts, reincarnation etc. So the poll may not suggest so much a change in thinking as an increasing recognition of church & religious abuses. Nevertheless I’ll take the new numbers and smile.

  • Rule of thumb, the 95% confidence interval for an N person random sample of a much larger population is ±(100/sqrt(N))%; for N circa 2200, that’s about 2%. That there’s possible changes in sampling methodology and use of an internet-based panel (for at least 2013) increases that some unknown fuzzy smidge. As you note, the shifts on UFOs, ghosts, Astrology, and reincarnation are negligible. (The drop in witches 2007 to 2009 looks significant; I wonder how much is from failed experimentation….)

    However, the shifts in belief in God, heaven, angels and miracles look to be rule-of-thumb significant in themselves; the combination of declines in the other religious beliefs that Terry highlighted also seem suggestive in aggregate (though not individually); and the combination of all of them does seem to suggest that religious belief is on the decline, though decline (if any) in belief in the paranormal is lagging.

  • The Pew Forum has a bunch of data on how self-responses of “atheist” and “don’t believe in God” overlap — incompletely in both directions. Yes, a large part is because of negative associations. (Another part is that humans aren’t particularly self-consistent.) However, since there’s no way to dictate to all pollsters what manner of questions they ask, the best that can be done is to bear in mind when looking at such survey outcomes that the nuance of wording matters.

    If you’re interested in the transition process, you might find Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s “Amazing Conversions” study worth tracking down at a library.

  • Only if you count the uncertain in as nonbelievers (which would be sloppy); the US is about 25% Catholic.

    However, there’s likely about as many uncertain as Catholics who say they attend mass more than twice a month, and about as many nonbelievers as as Catholics who attend mass more intermittently.

  • ansuz

    On behalf of people who don’t have the stats knowledge/spare brainpower to figure out how we should be interpreting this, thank you!

  • lmern

    If you’re interested in a compelling and provoking story of belief to atheism, I would highly recommend this video. It is amazing. Truly.


  • Speaking as a stranger on the internet doing some rule-of-thumb work based on a quick glance at the Harris numbers and my perhaps delusional recollections of patterns suggested by other studies… you’re welcome.

  • Rationalist1

    It’s interesting what people believe, but I’d love to see more studies about what people do. Religion is dying through apathy. Even among believers attendance at religious services is dropping as people are busy, don’t see a need to gather to worship or put off that so few attend services in such big facilities.

  • gparks642

    As a scientist and a Christian I find it interesting that there is so much speculation that my relationship with God is somehow irrational. I am particularly intrigued by the author Terry Firma’s speculation that people of faith are delusional about their moral compass. As a seeker of the truth, I continue to seek and learn more about the truth each day. Others are free to speculate all they want as Terry did. But speculation is a distraction that I avoid because it yields no information.

  • james

    You mean use the word “Agnostic” instead of “Atheist”,Right?

  • Ha

    Might help Rob Ford…

  • Aleister Gates

    not really overly optimistic…especially when you consider the problems with statistics when it comes to atheism or “nons”

  • Aleister Gates

    And believers in new age woo are usually only at a step in the process towards atheism IMO

  • What problems do you have in mind? Oversampling isn’t that hard, and the GSS has a sample size large enough (in aggregate) to be able to get modest resolution on the decade-to-decade shifts in the “nones”.

  • In terms of the work of Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, for those who have been raised in traditional Christian upbringing, and who prepare to exit it, “new ager” is an alternative role source that many seem to try on. Some settle there, others continue and shift to yet other roles.

  • Aleister Gates

    From Wiki….”Statistics on atheism are often difficult to represent accurately for a variety of reasons. Atheism is a position compatible with other forms of identity. Some atheists also consider themselves Agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu, Jains, Taoist, or hold other related philosophical beliefs. Some, like Secular Jews and Shintoists, may indulge in some religious activities as a way of connecting with their culture, all the while being atheist. Therefore, given limited poll options, some may use other terms to describe their identity. Some politically motivated organizations that report or gather population statistics may, intentionally or unintentionally, misrepresent atheists. Survey designs may bias results due to the nature of elements such as the wording of questions and the available response options. Also, many atheists, particularly former Catholics and former Mormons, are still counted as Christians in church rosters, although surveys generally ask samples of the population and do not look in church rosters. Other Christians believe that “once a person is [truly] saved, that person is always saved”, a doctrine known as eternal security.[11] Statistics are generally collected on the assumption that religion is a categorical variable. Instruments have been designed to measure attitudes toward religion, including one that was used by L. L. Thurstone. This may be a particularly important consideration among people who have neutral attitudes, as it is more likely that prevailing social norms will influence the responses of such people on survey questions that effectively force respondents to categorize themselves either as belonging to a particular religion or belonging to no religion. A negative perception of atheists and pressure from family and peers may also cause some atheists to disassociate themselves from atheism. Misunderstanding of the term may also be a reason some label themselves differently.

    For example, a Canadian poll released September 12, 2011 sampled 1,129 Canadian adults and came up with some interesting unrelated data on the numbers of declared atheists.[12] These numbers conflicted with the latest Canadian census data that pre-supposed that a religious affiliation predisposed a belief in a deity and was based on a poorly worded question. A quote from the study:

    The data also revealed some interesting facts about Canadians beliefs:

    A majority (53%) of Canadians believe in God. What is of particular interest is that 28% of Protestants, 33% of Catholics, and 23% of those who attend weekly religious services do not.

    One quarter (23%) of those with no religious identity still believe in God.[13]”

  • Aleister Gates

    i tend to agree

  • All well and good; however, the uncertainty can cut against your thesis as in support. The very piece you quote notes, not all the “Nones” identify as Godless. (There also are godless religious as well, but their absolute numbers tends smaller than of the theist “Nones”.) As happens, the GSS does not only ask about religious identity, but also asks directly about belief in God.

    As I noted, the overall trend in the “Nones” is a logistic curve rise versus generational cohort, with midpoint in the 2007 cohort vicinity (and circa 27 year time constant) — a bit more like one-and-a-half generations for them to age to the median of the polling samples. The GSS trend on the question about God appears to leave those operationally atheist/agnostic/deist (the last counted to be generous) to be rising more slowly than those self-identified as “Nones” — possibly to the two or three generation range before a majority is reached on that trend.

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