A fascinating detail from this Pew survey, my favorite data point from which is the fact that 18 percent of self-described atheists believe in a higher power or spiritual force. Which isn’t strictly contradictory, I suppose. You can believe that there’s something afoot in reality beyond human comprehension without believing that that something is “divine.”
But you would think anyone on the fence about that would categorize themselves as agnostic rather than atheist. It’s a strange thing to feel confident enough in the possibility of a higher power to answer “yes” to that question but also confident enough that that higher power is assuredly not “God” to put yourself in the atheist column.
Anyway, here’s the red-letter figure from the poll. Americans remain a “spiritual” people but less so a theistic one, and much less one that believes in the Bible’s idea of God.
An amazing footnote to that 56 percent: While 80 percent of Christians believe in the God of the Bible, just 33 percent of Jews do. No typo. A majority of 56 percent of Jews say that they believe in a “higher power” or a “spiritual force” rather than the book on which their faith is based. That would be easy to explain if Pew had phrased the question by emphasizing the New Testament, i.e. do you believe in Jesus, but a question about “the Bible” would be read by most Jews as a question about the Old Testament, one would think. Even so: 33/56. Yikes. In America, at least, Judaism may be more a culture than a faith at this point.
The juiciest political tidbit from the data comes in the breakdown of Christians who say they believe in the God of the Bible. It’s true that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats agree with that statement, but not all Democrats are created equal. Check this out:
Solid majorities of black Democrats as well as Republicans of all races describe themselves as Bible-believers, but the numbers fall off the table for white Dems — so much so that the number of white Dems who don’t believe in God at all is slowly catching up to the share that counts themselves as Bible-believers. In fact, if you count the share that believes in some vague “higher power” or “spiritual force” as not belonging to a “faith” in any meaningful way, then fully two-thirds of white Democrats are post-religious. The share of white Dems that describe themselves as Bible-believers is so low that, even with a strong contingent of black Bible-believers, just 45 percent of Democrats overall say they believe in the God of the Bible. Effectively, the Democratic Party is post-Christian.
But if you follow polls like this one, you know that’s not really news. Last year a PRRI survey found that the share of white Christians in America had dropped to a mere 43 percent of the population. Partly that’s due to familiar phenomena like growing numbers of Latino Christians and people of non-Christian faiths but it’s exacerbated by the steep decline of Christianity among white Democrats, particularly younger ones. Quote: “Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. Only 14% of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. Forty percent identify as religiously unaffiliated.” Read that again. Among younger Democrats, unaffiliateds outnumber white Christians by nearly three to one.
Exit question: When will America see its first openly atheist/agnostic Democratic presidential nominee?