Please Fact Check Sources, Including When They Support Your Position…
August 6, 2011
This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend the 2011 Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference. Among the speakers was American Atheist president David Silverman, and it was a speech I thoroughly enjoyed. His talk focused on inspiring us secular youth; emphasizing how we are the future, and how the future looks good. I couldn’t agree more, and found the talk pretty inspirational.
His talk came together focusing on the “30 under 30”. That is, that 30% of people under 30 years of age are not affiliated with any religion. He stressed that within 20 years, we all will be out of school, and be the leaders of our country. Needless to say, that got me super excited about the future. I mean, as a nation we’re FAR behind when it comes to rationality and ridding ourselves of these ancient magical stories, but looking at trends like that provides hope.
During the speech, no sources were provided for the “30 under 30” statistic. Not the worst thing in the world, but being at a skepticism related conference, I personally expect all statistics cited. So, upon arriving back home and catching up on things, I looked into the source of the statistic. I was eager to read up on it more in depth.
And. I. Found. Nothing.
I still can’t. No published study I’ve found comes close to supporting the “30 under 30” claim.
I emailed Silverman inquiring to his source, and while he was unable to immediately find the original source for his “30 under 30” point (he said he’ll look more when he has time, in which I’ll add to this post later if so), he did link me to the Pew Research Center with statistics saying that 25% of those 18-29 years old were religiously unaffiliated. Bumping that to 30 is a quite the rounding, but we’ll see if he finds his original source. I would have expected him to have an easier time finding a source for something he has been claiming for about a year though.
But I even found problems with this source he provided me with. This “unaffiliated” category is…misleading. The definition of “unaffiliated” is something that needs to be established before we can even have any useful discussion about it. Four labels fall under this category according to the report; atheists, agnostics, the secular unaffiliated and the religious unaffiliated.
According to the above table from Pew, “the ‘religious unaffiliated’ category includes those who describe their faith as ‘nothing in particular’ but say that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives.” Should we really be counting those who are religious, but just unaffiliated with any specific religion, in our secular movement?
Of course fucking not. Read that definition of of religious unaffiliated again. That, by the very definition, is antithetical to most of what the secular movement is about.
Luckily for us, the Pew Research Center breaks down this 25% of 18-29 year olds statistic into the subcategories. The atheists, agnostics, and secular unaffiliated make up a total of 16 of the original 25% claim. We shouldn’t be including the religiously unaffiliated in the secular movement, and when we don’t it ends up being barely half of the original “30 under 30” Silverman claimed.
I hope he’s right. I want him to be right. But I don’t think he is. His enthusiasm is unmatched, and that alone was inspiring. The secular movement is indeed winning, but it doesn’t seem to be at the pace he claims. The younger generations do believe in less of this archaic bullshit that plagues society, as can be seen in the above table. Belief is going down. The trend doesn’t seem to be stopping. “...the Nones increased in numbers and proportion in every state, Census Division and Region of the country from 1990 to 2008,” according to another report, the American Religious Identification Survey. To clarify this definition of “nones”, the nones in the ARIS included those who responded with their religion as “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, Secular”. 22% of 18-29 year olds identified in the None category in the ARIS report. While over 1/5 of societies up and comers is something to be proud of, it’s certainly not the 30% that was being claimed.
The facts/evidence/logic is on our side and people are beginning to realize that. There is no need to skew our numbers and we must be careful of letting statistics that sound great cloud our skepticism. We demand sources in our discussions among those who disagree with us, we should do the same for those that do agree with us.
We should think critically about our demographics and figure out how we may best increase them. Saying they’re one thing when they are not only give us an exaggerated rate of success. I’m confident that with honestly looking at the statistics regarding belief we can make Silverman’s “30 under 30” claim a reality.
About the Author: Tyler CurtisTyler Curtis is a sophomore at Skagit Valley College in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, currently studying biochemistry. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Skagit Secular Student Alliance, and is outspoken about the need for skepticism in the public arena.
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