Sunday, August 28, 2011

Atheist and Tea Party Favorability Ratings

By Gary Berg-Cross

I’ve seen this good news/bad news type of statement in a number of places now:

Across the larger American political spectrum, the Tea Party is even less popular than “Muslims” and “atheists”. You can see a chart rating favorability of groups (poor (65%), Blacks, Catholics…down to Muslims, Christian Right, Atheists (37%), Sarah Palin (32%) and on the bottom the Tea party with around 32% favorability).

First the longer story on the good part.

It’s fine with me that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. Earlier surveys like the New York Times/CBS News one found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Tea Party, only 21 percent had a favorable opinion while 46 percent thought that they didn’t know enough to judge. Not knowing how to gauge the Tea Party may partially do to the fact they some Tea Members don’t really expose themselves to deep discussion. Former candidate Christine O’Donnell walked off the Piers Morgan Tonight show not wanting to answer a question about gay marriage. She said she hadn’t come on the show to deal with “a rude talk- show host” (or I guess hard questions that critical thinking produces), but to promote her book and, I guess, the way it pro-packages talking points.

So people are getting onto the Tea Party dodge, but its support numbers have slipped only slightly to 20 percent. So there are true believers out there who like to talk as it the Tea party is a really new animal. But outside of this core its unfavorable ratings have more doubled to 40%. This may be because the Party now has elected spokesman who have taken uncompromising positions that yield visibly negative consequences, such as the US credit downgrade or anti-union laws. They are also increasingly seen as anti-gay and too eager to mix religion and politics. That’s a conclusion supported by the 2 researchers who found atheists and Muslims are more popular than the Tea Party movement. More on that in a moment.

David E. Campbell, political scientist at Notre Dame and Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard analyzed data from a survey sample of 3,000 Americans for their 2007 book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" “.”By going back to many of the same respondents, the researchers gleaned several interesting facts about the tea party (beside the fact that atheists and Muslims are more popular than the Tea Party movement). The recent update provides some empirical evidence for the real nature of the Tea Party. Polling before and after the rise of the Tea Party, Campbell and Putnam identified the two characteristics that were likely to turn someone into a Tea Partier. It’s no real surprise these are:

  • being strongly active in and identified as Republican politics and
  • identifying with the religious right which is consistent with the February Pew study that found that 69 percent of white evangelicals agree with the Tea Party.

Here are some of the other characteristics that Putnam & Campbell report:

  • Tea Party supporters are typically: white and unfriendly toward immigrants and Blacks, as well as self reportingly “deeply religious”.
  • Tea Party supporters typically want religion in government.
    • It’s not a wild assumption that they want to this religion to be of the Christian fundamentalist variety (no Muslim influence allowed).
  • They approve of religious leaders engaging in politics and political leaders engaging in religion.
    • So besides Rick Perry’s event, Tea Party supporters typically approve of things like the National Day of Pray, and formalizing the national motto to: “In God We Trust”.
  • Despite using the Constitution in their talk they have little or no sympathy for the Constitutional Principle of Separation of Church & State.
    • The survey suggests that, Tea Party supporters don’t believe that that this is really stated in the Constitution as a Principle.
    • Instead that is just an idea invented by liberal, secular, atheistic agents to keep religion ( and “True Americans” such as graduates of Bob Jones University) out of government
    • Putnam and Campbell also report that Tea Party rank and file is much more religious than the Tea Party's leaders of say their overriding concern is a smaller government. "But not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government."
  • Tea Party supporters idea of a good presidential candidate in 2012 is: a white, fiscally conservative, Christian fundamentalist who prays earnestly and in public (could be from Texas).

As I said, the good news is that the survey shows that while Americans in general have become somewhat more fiscally conservative over the past 5 years, they are typically opposed to mixing religion in politics the way the Tea Party prefers. Even this America growing more conservative believes that mixing religion with politics is too extreme.

The same survey put the Tea Party below 23 other entries including Barrack Obama, Sarah Palin, Republicans, Democrats and Atheists. That last part if the disappointing part. Atheists were rated higher that Sarah Palln and the Tea Party but were right there on the bottom with less than a 40% favorability rating. At least the category of “non-religious” scored higher at 51%, just below Democrats and above Obama.

A 75 year old atheist wrote in on the American Grace Blog asking about the rating and wondering if a different term like non-believe would have faired better since atheist may be identified with “people who are confrontational/militant and want to get a rise out of people or choose deliberately to alienate religious people.

It was interesting to hear Robert D. Putnam’s reply:

“ It’s useful to distinguish three different sorts of people who are, like you, not into religion. First, some people use the term “atheist” to describe themselves and their beliefs. That was what Paul Solman asked me about in the excerpt that appeared in the video, and as I told him, only about 0.1% of Americans describe themselves that way. (I’m drawing on a large nationwide random survey that accurately represents the whole adult population. Ours were entirely confidential, private, and non-judgmental interviews. Many other researchers have found the same thing.)

Second, exactly as you say (and as I explained in a portion of the longer interview that was not broadcast), some people say they don’t believe in God, whether or not they call themselves “atheists.” That’s a larger group, but still not very large. We asked people “Are you absolutely sure, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure you believe in God or are you sure you do not believe in God?” (We asked parallel questions about heaven, hell, life after death, and horoscopes.) Of all American adults. 3.6 % say they are sure they do NOT believe in God, another 2.2% say they are “not at all sure” that they believe in God, and 4.6% say they are “not quite sure” they believe in God. So somewhere between 4% and 6% of Americans could reasonably be considered atheists, and another 5% might be called agnostics (though very few of them would use that term). You may be surprised to find that a substantial minority of those atheists and agnostics (in this second sense) are found in the pews on Sunday-that is, they attend religious services even though they have doubts about God. (St. Augustine put himself in that category.) Again, all these figures are entirely consistent with the results reported by many other researchers.

Third, a significantly larger group of Americans (17%) say that they have “no religion,” when we ask them what religion they identify with, if any. Moreover, this third, larger group is heavily concentrated among younger Americans (27% of Americans under 30 say they have no religion), so we (and other researchers) call them the “young nones.” As I explain in the book and in an op-ed that will appear in the L.A. Times this weekend, the young nones are a very interesting and important group, but only a minority of them are really “atheists,” since virtually none of the nones use that term themselves, and many of them say they DO believe in God. In short, alienation from organized religion is not at all uncommon, especially among younger Americans, but atheism itself actually is uncommon.”

Putnam says there is more in the book, but it certainly is a chilling idea to be lumped in the bottom portion of the scale.

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