An interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald caught my attention today. One thousand Australians were polled by Nielsen on the subject of faith. You can read the whole article from the link above, but a few things made me shake my head.
Firstly, it’s worth remembering that 85% of statistics are made up on the spot. Including that one right there. You can pretty much bend any figures to suit your point of view. Another key point is that 1,000 people is a very tiny fraction of Australia’s 22 million head population. A really good poll would have tried for at least 220,000 people to get a decent cross-section of the country. These polls are always based on very small numbers though. Take a different 1,000 Australians and I bet the answers would vary greatly.
What interested me more than these mere technicalities though was the nature of some of the questions. Simply put, this poll largely identified Australia as a nation with a Christian past and a fundamentally Christian culture. Well, no shit. About half the population calls itself Christian. Of course, around 6 percent call themselves Jedi. You can call yourself whatever you like, it doesn’t make it true.
Some of the questions and answers really made clear the underlying bollocks of all this. Matters of belief are very personal, largely a person’s own method of grappling with their miniscule position in the great big universe. Take the fact that 56 per cent believe in Heaven, but only 38 per cent believe in Hell. That’s a bit convenient, no? You can’t have one without the other. And while 38 per cent believe in Hell, only 37 percent believe in the devil. Who does that 1 per cent think is running things down there?
Then there are questions like: Do you believe in witches? That’s not a matter of belief. Show me someone that follows Wicca and I’ll show you a witch. No belief necessary, they’re demonstrably present. They’re usually really annoying too, going on about the Goddesses and completely misinterpreting the tenets of their ‘faith’, but they exist. A better question would have been: Do you believe in magic. But then you’d have to define magic. Like the question: Do you believe in miracles? Broad definition applicable there too.
Then there was the question: Do you believe in UFOs? What, Unidentified Flying Objects? Every time you see something in the sky that you can’t identify, that’s a UFO. Presumably the question meant: Do you believe in aliens? We’ll have to take it that most people interpreted it that way. 34 per cent said Yes, incidentally. More than the 22 per cent that believe in witches. Even though you can go and shake hands with a witch, but you’d be hard pressed to actually find an alien.
Of course, you also need to check in with the atheists. 30 per cent agreed with the statement: There is – or seems to be – no god. Apparently the number of atheists is rising while the number of faithful is falling, but it’s a slow transition. We seem to poll very similar numbers to the UK, far behind the more skeptical and secular Scandinavians, while being way ahead of the US. 92 per cent of Americans believe in the existence of god or a universal spirit. Interestingly, and contradictory once again, out of the 30 per cent of Australians that believe there is no god (or doesn’t “seem to be”), ten percent still said they believe in heaven, hell, angels, witches and the devil. What the fuck? Also among those there is a fair amount of faith in astrology, UFOs and ESP. As the article concludes, “a third of the nation’s atheists, agnostics and doubters have turned their back on God, but not on magic.” I don’t find that entirely strange. It’s just entirely human.
Also interesting is that just 42 per cent believe in evolution. You can’t believe in a scientific theory. You either accept it as correct, partly correct or incorrect. Then there’s the whole grey area of how much of a part some god or other may or may not have played in the process of evolution.
Just further proof that you can’t distill these things down with extremely limited polls of extremely limited numbers. Here are the main results from the poll:
BELIEF IN A GOD: 68 per cent
BELIEF IN LIFE AFTER DEATH: 53 per cent
BELIEF IN HEAVEN: 56 per cent
BELIEF IN HELL: 38 per cent
BELIEF IN THE DEVIL: 37 per cent
BELIEF IN ANGELS: 51 per cent
BELIEF IN WITCHES: 22 per cent
BELIEF IN UFOs: 34 per cent
BELIEF IN ASTROLOGY: 41 per cent
BELIEF IN PSYCHIC POWERS SUCH AS ESP: 49 per cent
BELIEF IN MIRACLES: 63 per cent
THE HOLY BOOK IS THE WORD OF GOD: 34 per cent
THE HOLY BOOK IS LITERALLY TRUE: 27 per cent
THE TEACHINGS OF MY RELIGION HAVE ONLY ONE INTERPRETATION: 21 per cent
EVOLUTION: 42 per cent
THERE IS – OR SEEMS TO BE – NO GOD: 30 per cent
Use the link at the top to read the whole article. It’s quite fascinating, even though it’s a load of shit.