March 03, 2006

The beliefs of Americans

In response to an earlier post about the surprisingly high percentage of Americans who believe in the rapture and other things, there was some skepticism about how reliable the numbers and how they broke down depending on age, etc.

I have not been able to find further documentation to support the figure of 44% who are either certain or think it very likely that the rapture will occur in their lifetimes. But there are other interesting breakdowns.

For example, in this Harris poll from July 6, 2005, 47% do not believe that apes and humans have common ancestry, which is a key tenet of evolution, while 46% believe it. A similar number 45% do not believe plants and animals evolved from other species. So we can pretty much conclude that slightly less than half the population reject pretty much all of evolution.

Curiously, only 22% believe that humans evolved from earlier species, while 64% believe that humans were created directly by God. I am not sure how this squares with the above answers. Maybe people are interpreting the phrases "common ancestry" and "directly created" in ways that are different from me.

In general, evolutionary ideas gain ground the more education you have. You are also much more likely to find support for evolution from those who identify their political philosophy as liberal and whose political affiliation is Democratic or independent.

The strongest support for evolution can be found in the northeast and the west, with the least in the Midwest and the south.

Support for evolution also declines with age. I am not sure if this is because as a person ages he/she becomes less evolutionary minded or whether this is due to the current group of older people being educated at a different time from the current group of younger people. I am not sure if anyone has done a longitudinal study following people as they age to find out if their views on evolution change, and if so why.

Another interesting Harris survey was done in December 2005 that breaks religious beliefs down another way. This shows solid majorities for a variety of religious beliefs: god (82%), miracles (73%), survival of soul after death (70%), heaven (70%), Jesus is God or the son of God (70%), angels (68%), resurrection of Christ (66%), devil (61%), hell (59%), and virgin birth of Jesus (48%).

Significant numbers believe in ghosts (40%), UFOs (34%), witches (28%), astrology (25%), and reincarnation (21%).

More women tend to believe in all these things than men (sometimes in much higher numbers) except, interestingly enough, for UFOs and witches. UFOs are a kind of kind of sci-fi thing that traditionally has had more appeal for guys, while one can understand women being leery of the witch issue, seeing as they bore the brunt of the cruelty arising from allegations of witchcraft.

Again Democrats are more skeptical than Republicans, with Independents easily being the most skeptical, although a majority of all groups still believe. Perhaps Independents, who are skeptical of both major parties, tend to carry that skepticism over to religion as well.

In the categories of ghosts, UFOS, witches, astrology and reincarnation, the numbers did not differ by much according to political affiliation.

Again, the more education you had, the less you believed, with the numbers decreasing dramatically when you got some post-graduate education.

So what does this all mean? One can interpret these things many ways but for me, the take-home lesson is that education matters.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart interview

Is Jon Stewart the only person who really knows how to answer a TV interviewer's stupid questions? Watch how he responds "Are you insane?" to Larry King.


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You've given me something to ponder Mano.

The obvious conclusion for most people I would assume is that education makes people more "intelligent, more able to think critically and gives one the ability to decipher fact from fiction(1)".   And that the higher in the educational system you go, the more (1) you get.  Yet the only problem with that is, in my experience, the following formula is not a mathematical axiom: "brain" + "formal education" = "intelligence(1)".  In fact, I believe the formula to usually equate otherwise.  So that leads me to wonder...

Jon Stewart is really starting to look like a "messiah", to lead our fellow americans out of stuporous bondage.

Posted by Mary on March 3, 2006 11:50 AM

I always thought it was strange how liberal my high school was- I went to a very expensive private school in Dayton, in a very conservative area. The amount of wealth would stereotypically imply that there would be many conservatives among the parents and students. Eventually I came to conclude that my classmates (and their parents) were so liberal because they were so well educated. While most everyone was rich, they were self-made wealthy people with tons of education, mostly doctors and lawyers who worked for what they had using their minds. I've always thought that there is some sort of correlation between liberalism and education, even outside the setting of academia. This somehow ties into this post for me. People tend to interpret this to mean that conservatives are less intelligent, but I don't think that's true...
I'm not sure what my point is, but it's an interesting post, Mano.

Posted by Katie on March 3, 2006 02:51 PM

I can't say I'm really surprised by those numbers, I guess it's more of a "I don't want to accept them" kinda feeling.

This is more of a rhetorical question, but how can more people believe in heaven than in hell, and even fewer believe in the virgin birth of their Lord? Last I checked, you can't just pick and choose which tenets of the religion to accept. This isn't Christian Mad Libs, is it?

As for Mary's comment, I didn't understand what she was saying about the "equation" - I would say that equation is dead on. Obviously, it's not a hard and fast rule as our President has an M.B.A. from Yale and refuses to accept global warming, but it seems like a generally good rule of thumb. You can be a good thinker without formal education, but won't necessarily be intelligent.

I don't like saying conversatives or Christians or any group of people is less intelligent, but would prefer (depending on the situation, of course) closed minded/ignorant/etc. I'm sorry, but if you (plural "you," not directed at anyone) are going to that the Earth is 6,000 years old, I'm going to refer to you as ignorant. I'm using the word properly no matter how much offense is taken.

Posted by Barry on March 3, 2006 03:07 PM

I think it might help to disentangle "education" from "formal education" and "intelligence." There is no equation that says:

more education=more formal education=more intelligence.

The relationship of intelligence to education is tricky and will be the basis of a series of posts later. Nothing that was posted above relates to intelligence, as far as I can tell, so it may be good to leave that aspect out of the discussion for the present.

So really the question is why does more formal education lead to less belief in the things listed?

I think that at least one thing that formal education does is it exposes students to some basic things such as looking for evidence for things and seeing multiple perspectives. I can see how this could lead to greater skepticism. This is especially the case in graduate school where the use of evidence is front and center in all discussions..

Of course, this argument is a kind of statistical one, not a deterministic one. It is quite possible to have a lot of formal education and be very narrow-minded and dogmatic. And it is quite possible to have very little formal education and be very thoughtful and open. I know many people in both categories.

But I think it is safe to say that the more formal education you have, the greater the *chance* that you will be exposed to different perspectives and become used to the idea of weighing them using evidence and of examining the evidence for validity.

This would, I think, explain the greater skepticism of fundamentalist beliefs with increasing levels of education.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 3, 2006 04:36 PM

Education itself does not make someone automatically smart, or intelligent. I know some very highly educated idiots. One could go to Oral Roberts University, get highly educated, and still be very likely to believe many of the irrational things that, as you point out, many Americans believe.

I think the factor involved, more than simple education, is exposure to new or different ideas. The more exposure an individual has to other ideas, cultures, and opinions, the more one has a tendency to think about one's own beliefs. It seems that many people who believe scientifically absurd ideas tend to surround themselves with others who agree with them, and shut out any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Functional MRI studies have shown that when considering such things as political concepts, highly polarized people do not use the decision making/thinking parts of their brains, but focus on the emotional circuits. Rejecting information contrary to one's firmly held opinions (also known as righteous indignation) stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, in a similar fashion to addicting drugs.

If one is exposed to enough other people and their ideas, one finally must come to the conclusion that any one of us may be wrong, including ourselves, about anything, and even our most deeply held beliefs must be held lightly, and reconsidered regularly. I think that foreign travel, especially if it involves interacting with people of other cultures, helps make people more "intelligent" or "smart" more than sitting in a classroom or reading a textbook.

In addition to simple exposure to new ideas, however, an individual must also be able to rationally consider this new information, rather than just rejecting it out of hand. I don't know how to get people to actually question the beliefs they already have, even when confronted with clearly contradictory evidence. However, with enough exposure to new ideas, presented in different ways, ignorance has a tendency to slowly crumble in the light of reality and reason.

Posted by Bob on March 4, 2006 01:06 AM

Very interesting discussion in regards to Mary's equation. From coaching soccer for many years, I have observed players and their decisions that they have made on the field. It seemed to me that they were made up of "reactors" and "thinkers." I am not sure if this phenomenon is innate or learned.
I am also not sure that a "reactor" can become a thinker. So how does additional education benefit these two types of people? I believe in many cases the "reactor or hip shooter" fortifies his one choice of decisions while the "thinker" is given more alternatives to ponder and ways to arrive at a decision. Possibly maturity and exposure to other educational persuits convert "reactors" to "thinkers."

Posted by Tom Maley on March 5, 2006 08:20 AM

I think—like Steve Pinker—that our intelligence is probably innate, but I also think that a liberal (in the old fashioned sense) education that exposes us to quantitative and analytical reasoning as well as diversity of opinion can teach us to use our intellects more effectively.

I can actually pinpoint such a change in my own though processes. During my senior year in high school I took a class in Philosophy and found myself getting C's rather than A's on what I had thought were actually decent papers. It took me about three months to get a grasp on what was required of me.

Prior to this class I took a linear approach to the writing of papers for English and History classes. That had always worked just fine. But philosophy required a much more tangential approach. To ponder a work of Faulker meant understanding the text, subtext, perhaps history of his era and his life. To ponder the work of Plato meant examining the whole human experience and questioning the writings from a variety of vantage points.

Thankfully Dr. Hawley made very pointed comments on my papers so that I eventually came to understand and appreciate this method. Now I use this approach in pondering everything from politics to web page design.

But I think if one is not at some point taught to question and challenge the ideas put before them, then one is far less likely to approach anything, especially something seemingly pleasant, with a skeptical eye.

Posted by cool on March 7, 2006 03:49 PM

I'd just like to point out that strictly speaking, unidentified flying objects and witches do exist.

Hopefully the survey mentioned asked responants' beliefs in UFOs piloted by aliens, and witches with supernatural powers.

Posted by annon on March 17, 2006 12:50 PM

Very interesting. I would also like to know how religious beliefs change with age. In other words does support for religion increase with age? I was also surprised the astrology was that high (25%)

Posted by on November 16, 2008 10:50 PM

I think they never saw a witch or an ufo. They also never saw an angel or god but they believe in an religion without evidence of the truth about it.Thats wierd but humans have to believe.

Posted by Ufo Hoax on April 1, 2010 07:15 AM

Nice John Stewart plug! Does belief in Witches change with age?

Posted by HP Bryce on July 31, 2010 05:41 AM

I think it is time for more chlorine in the gene pool kids. Fewer believe in evolution the older the group... Either a generation gap thing or degrading mental ability....

Posted by John Milferd on July 31, 2010 05:47 AM

I was very much surprised by the fact that approximately have of the population reject or turn away from evolution. I would have thought that by now, even religious zealots would realize that science is here to stay and that scientists have something valid to teach us.

Posted by Ida Topps on November 25, 2010 11:14 AM