Perceptions of Non-belief and Morality

Seal of the President of the United StatesYet another Pew Research poll appears to confirm that in the minds of many, non-belief equates to being wicked and evil. When it comes to what attributes would not be voted for in 2016, the winner was supposedly “Atheism”.


Potentially yes, their press release explains

On the other side of the ledger, not believing in God and never having held elected office before are the most negatively viewed traits of those tested. Just over half (53%) say they would be less likely to vote for someone who does not believe in God, while only 5% say this would make them more likely to support a candidate.

OK, so what does this actually mean, especially when you come across media hype that spins this as follows …

Now that makes a great headline, but the ever so slight flaw here is that is not what the poll tells us at all. What the poll actually does is to measure various attributes in isolation …

  • “Pot Smoking” = 30% less likely to vote
  • “Extramarital Affair” = 35% less likely to vote

What the poll did not consider is the combination of those … vs … somebody who does not actually believe, so I suspect if asked to choose between a “philandering pot smoking guy” vs “somebody who is simply not religious”, then I suspect the non-religious guy would in most minds have an edge and come out ahead.

In other words, the headline is complete fiction, because that is not what this poll tells us at all.

In fact, I seriously question the idea that this survey tells us anything meaningful because it is asking questions that are very fuzzy and undefined. For example, when people were asked about “pot smoking”, what image does that bring too mind. Does it mean, as perhaps some would assume, a guy who gave it a go once as a student, and would it make a difference if it was somebody who indulged every day for the past 30 years? The thought of having a president sitting in the oval office with a joint is not something I suspect most would find acceptable.  As for “Extramarital Affair”, once again what does that mean? Are we talking about a once off event twenty years ago, or an ongoing issue, because that also might make a huge difference to the percentages in play here.

So when it comes to comparing “pot smoking” vs “extramarital affair” vs “atheist”, then I suggest that the results are not reliable. The problem is that when asked, different individuals will invoke distinctly different understandings when answering, so if we do not grasp what people understand these terms to mean, then we quite honestly do not have a measure that is in any way meaningful.

Additionally, it also did not measure a firm “Yes” or “No” for anybody with any of those attributes, and instead recorded a willingness or not to cast a vote, but did not determine the strength of that willingness in any way. If, for example, the choice came down to a raving lunatic with bat-shit crazy policies, or somebody who had quite sensible policies but was not religious , then I suspect the sensible guy would win, and that belief would not be a decisive factor.

When considering “pot smoking” some might not be too bothered with that, and perhaps might have suggested “less willing to vote for”, but would not consider it to be a decisive factor. In contrast, that same individual might feel very very strongly about not voting for somebody who is simply too elderly for the job.

I simply can’t take these results seriously and can see too many problems. It may indeed be a poll that is great for headline writers to mine, but does not really tell us too much, so please digest with a rather large grain of salt and retain an appropriate degree of skepticism for the claims that some may try to draw from this.

One more Observation

Finally, one other nugget in there is this …

The survey finds that at a time of increasing acceptance of homosexuality, most Americans (66%) say it wouldn’t matter if a presidential candidate is gay or lesbian; 27% say they would be less likely to support a gay or lesbian candidate while 5% would be more likely. In 2007, nearly half (46%) said they would be less likely to vote for a homosexual candidate.

We have a comparison here between the same measure from 2007 and now, and so we can clearly see a very positive trend here

– 46% less likely then vs only 27% today.

Now that is indeed a good marker that points towards the world becoming a less intolerant and far better place to be in, so at least there are a couple of gems here.


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