Posted by: searcygr | February 16, 2009

Reliability and Use of Statistics and Polls

As part of my final project, I will be examining recent trends in religious belief/disbelief and their correlations with a number of other descriptors, including: political stance, education level, and economic standing. While some might simply say that I am trying to proliferate stereotypes, I believe that examining correlations may help us to more fully understand the “big picture” of religious belief. From the outset, it is necessary to explicitly state that I am not claiming that a causal relation exists between religious belief and any of the other categories previously mentioned. In undertaking this project, I seek to show that before examining the religious/atheist debate one must try to understand the worldview of the average proponent of each stance.


In my initial research, I have come across several resources that seem to be fairly reliable and thorough summaries of recent religious statistics. For example, Phil Zuckerman’s article, “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns,” provides a statistical summary of numerous religious polls conducted in over fifty countries across the world. As the statistics are helpfully summarized in a chart, generalities are easy to spot. This source shows that the highest levels of non-belief are seen in the relatively modern, educated, and wealthy nations of the West, such as: Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, France, and Great Britain. At the same time, atheism is almost nonexistent in the third-world countries of Central America and Africa. Although these trends are easy to see, two nations stand out as exceptions. Interestingly, Vietnam ranked as the second most atheistic nation while in the United States there are far fewer atheists than one would expect based on its prosperity. If my work is to be useful, I must propose possible explanations for these exceptions. Does anyone have any possible explanations for these trends?

Also, the following link contains similar research findings.

My other research has included psychological analyses of atheists and believers. Interestingly, both atheists and believers of various denominations can be generalized as to their stances on various issues and overall outlook on life. For example, as contained in the article, “Atheists: A Psychological Profile,” atheists are more likely to be politically liberal, younger, male, and more unhappy than believers. However, one stark exception was presented in the presentation of atheists versus the religious. Followers of Judaism were more like atheists in their worldviews and outlooks than believers in the many categories examined. Clearly, I must seek to explain this finding in my research. Any hypotheses here?

In beginning my research, I have come to believe that no polls or statistics will ever satisfy me. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the problems inherent in polling and statistics from classes taken in the social sciences or other disciplines. Due to non-response, dishonesty, a lack of appropriate responses on objective surveys, political pressures, and other problems, I am left wondering if my research here will even be based on reliable statistics. Does anyone have any feelings on the reliability of statistics or the usefulness of including trends and statistics in my project?



  1. This is an interesting research topic. I am very intrigued as to why the US a relatively educated society is so religious compared to its counterparts such as Great Brittan. One hypothesis that I can think of, off the top of my head, relates to the individual countries foundation. Deeply religious pilgrims escaping Brittan populated the US, and our country is founded in biblical teachings, as seen in the constitution. In addition, there seems to be more focus on current conflicts between fundamental Christians and the New Atheists, which could place cultural pressures on agnostics or fair weather Christians to proclaim that they have deep Christian religious beliefs. This cultural pressure, if true, would obviously skew the statistics, also if the polls were taken is rural communities vs. urban areas there would be more cultural pressure to proclaim Christian beliefs as well. I hope this helps you with your paper, good luck!

    • Brooke, I think that you have good insights into what is going on here. Briefly, I will share some of the additional ideas that I have found. Some claim that the discrepancies between belief in the United States and Great Britain can be traced to the founding of these countries. While Great Britain has the official religion of Anglicanism, the United States has no official religion. Also, the United States was founded by those seeking religious freedom which they were not allowed in Europe. I believe that this situation shows the “if it’s your choice you will be more interested…” or “it means more if it’s not forced upon you…” mentality. Next, because Great Britain is associated with the Anglican Church, problems that one has with the British government or life in general in Great Britain can become synonymous with a critique of the faith. (I explore this idea in my paper in regards to the French Revolution and its effect on French Catholicism.) However, because the United States does not have an official religion, critiques of the United States government are not transferred onto any specific religion.

      Domestically, in my paper I am also addressing the finding that more religious states tend to be those in the Midwest and South. Many seek to draw correlations between the high religiosity in these areas and other stereotypic views of these states. For example, these areas of the United States tend to be less educated, less wealthy, and more politically conservative. For me, these generalities are important to consider, because I believe that in studying religious trends, one cannot separate religion from the total experience of a person’s life. If one wants to understand religion, he or she must make an effort to understand other associated descriptors that help to form that person’s worldview.

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