The devil or lack thereof is in the details

So 21% of atheists believe in God?

That’s the way the San Francisco Chronicle reports it in a front-page story based on the new Pew Foundation on Religion and Public Life report, but that’s not what the study actually says.

See, the survey didn’t ask “Do you believe in God?” It asked a very different question: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?”

That boils down to “do you believe in something more than yourself,” basically. Believe in Gaia? You’d answer “Yes” even as a wholehearted atheist. Believe in human consciousness as something greater than the individual? Another “yes.”

Improbable Research reported on this in a post yesterday, “Social Science Lesson: What Americans Believe.” But IR quoted a story in the Boston Globe–and the Globe seems to have labeled its graphic sidebar correctly, even if the story turns “God or a universal spirit” into “God.” The Chronicle–and, I suspect, most media–just reduces it to the one word.

Ask everyone in my household, “Do you like apples or some other fruit?” You’ll get 100% “Yes.” Ask “Do you like apples?” and you’ll get 100% “No.” But if you ask the first question and rely on typical lazy journalism, you get headlines all over–“Everybody likes apples.”

Oh, Improbable Research updated the post–quoting a Pew Foundation researcher who essentially says atheists and agnostics are stupid:

Smith said some people may identify with the term atheist or agnostic without fully understanding the definition, or they have a negative view of organized religion, even though they believe in God.

Or maybe they answered the question that was actually asked.

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