Everyone who has studied polling knows the question asked can influence the conclusions that follow. The question, “Do you believe in God?” provides 80% positive answers but may lead to misleading conclusions about the popularity of Christianity.
Everyone agrees there is social pressure to fit in with society’s norms. One norm is Christianity. So, when polling about Christianity the challenge has been to make respondents feel at least somewhat distant from judgments of those around them.
A new approach by two psychologists at the University of Kentucky took on this problem. They asked respondents of a control group if nine statements were true. They included, “I own a dog.” and “I am a vegetarian.” A tenth statement was included for another group, “There is no God.”
Previous published polls asked directly, “Are you an atheist?” Only about 3% to 5% answered yes. The University of Kentucky polling technique, however, estimated atheists to be around 20%. If this polling technique reflects more accurately the atheist population, current views on atheism have badly underestimated its popularity.
This study would put the number of atheists at about equal to the number of Catholics and three times as large as the largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists.
My guess is that this polling technique will upend the polling industry and more effort will be made to find people’s religious leanings without asking them directly. If we are going to do polling it is imperative we come as close as possible to the truth about peoples beliefs.