PRESS RELEASE
For Immediate Release
Contact: Paul Fidalgo
Phone: (207) 358-9785
E-mail: press@centerforinquiry.net

New Report Raises Questions about Much-Touted Baylor University Religious Landscape Survey

February 02, 2009

A report released today by the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine, calls into question many of the findings contained in the widely cited Baylor University Religion Survey of 2008. Baylor, a Baptist university, made headlines when its survey claimed that America is as religious as it has always been, adding that belief in religion is a universal characteristic displayed by all peoples around the world. Baylor researchers recently published their findings in a book called What Americans Really Believe (Baylor University Press, 2008).  The Council's report (available as a .pdf  here ) flatly contradicts these claims, suggesting that Baylor and lead researcher Rodney Stark may have improperly evaluated the data and consequently misinformed the public and the media.

The Council's report points to a growing body of research by academic institutions and major survey organizations that clearly documents a downward shift of religious adherence in the United States. Why does the Baylor study contradict this? Independent scholar Gregory S. Paul, author of the Council's report, and labeled as “public enemy number-one” of the churches by MSNBC, says that Baylor has relied on a flawed methodology. “The Baylor team has adopted a curious way of treating atheism, forms of unbelief short of atheism, and religious belief. This approach places a disproportionate emphasis on convinced atheism – the confident rejection that a personal God exists – at the expense of more moderate forms of nontheism,” said Paul. The report suggests that Baylor has failed to document large numbers of Americans who reject conventional religious beliefs, such as those who self-define as agnostic or “spiritual but not religious.”  The CSH report declares that, “Baylor’s methods largely ignore these doubters, making nonbelief appear less prevalent in society than it truly is. The Baylor team treats almost any deviation from strict atheism as a sign of religiosity. Doing so falsely maximizes the apparent level of faith.”

The Council's report shows how the Baylor survey omitted key findings of major polling organizations such as Gallop, Harris, and Pew. These polls document clear evidence of the increasing secularization of American society. Foremost among these findings are:

  • Numerous Gallup studies show that firm disbelief in God or a universal spirit has risen fourfold since the 1940s. Baylor researchers misinterpreted data from just two early Gallup polls, then combined them with data from a handful of other studies, creating an inaccurate impression that unbelief has held steady for more than 60 years.
  • Respected studies from Gallup, Pew, CBS, the BBC, and others find that between 10 and 13 percent of Americans either reject or doubt God's existence. Two recent Harris Poll studies that used special methods to help unbelievers identify themselves found an unprecedented 21 percent of Americans at least doubting God's existence. The Baylor team makes no mention of this data and relies on significantly lower figures.
  • Data from the Pew Center, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), and the Harris Poll now show that America is entering into the same process of secularization that previously occurred in other Western countries. Baylor researchers disregard this data and continue to maintain -- inaccurately -- that "faith American style" is holding its own.

“The irony is that Stark and his cohorts at Baylor conveniently sidestep two major trends central to the secularization thesis, namely, the increasing level of persons who actively define as secular and, more importantly, the corresponding decline in church attendance and religious faith. The faithful are losing the very ground the unbelievers seize, as our report points out,” Paul said.

“The United States is still the most religious country in the First World, but the Baylor thesis that ‘faith American style’ is holding its own is clearly false,” states the report. “Religious belief and activity in America are trending downward in so many ways that it is simply untenable to pretend that the nation is growing more religious.”

Why does all of this matter? Paul suggests that the Baylor team defended a false contention that religious belief is on the rise. “Baylor has presented itself as an objective source of information about societal trends to the media,” Paul said. “Our independent investigation of their study raises serious questions about the supposed ‘objectivity’ of that research. The evidence for increasing secularization across the West, including America, has long been acknowledged by most survey organizations. Stark and his team at Baylor stand alone in bucking this consensus…. perhaps in service to Baylor University’s roots as a conservative Baptist institution.”

The Council's report concludes with a set of recommendations for Baylor and the media:

  • If Baylor University wishes to be perceived in future as a credible source of advanced, objective research and information, the institution needs to require that its Institute for Studies of Religion reform its program to meet modern mainstream standards of scientific rigor.
  • Because of the above-cited problems in Baylor’s religion-study project, until reforms are undertaken it is suggested that reporters and commentators adopt a more skeptical stance toward its reports. Media professionals should recognize that other major survey and analytical organizations such as Harris, NORC, Pew, and ISSP have displayed greater objectivity than Baylor/Gallup and their products should be considered more reliable.

The full report can be downloaded as a PDF file below: 

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