QnA: Faith Matters

I’m a huge fan of ‘QnA’. For those who don’t know it’s an Australian panel show where the audience is permitted to ask questions of the panelists. The show is usually centered around politics, but every now and then they dip into different topics. One of the more common topics is religion, and last week was such an episode.

I was thrilled to find out the ABC allows people to watch the show after it has been aired via their website, so if you missed the episode you can catch it here:


If you like this episode you can catch the episodes live at 9:30, Monday night on the ABC. For those not in Australia you’ll be limited to the webcast.

Now that I’m done advertising let’s get on to the actual point of this blog post.

One of the questions asked by an audience member was:

” A university study concludes that religious people are more generous, more altruistic and more involved in civic life than their secular counterparts. They are more likely to give blood, money to a homeless person, financial aid to family or friends, a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is ”a bit down”. If religion contributes so positively to society, why then are we so quick to distance it from politics and don’t want it influencing our policies and society in general?”

Most of the panelists gave their responses, but the answer I identified best with was given by Cristina Rad, an outspoken atheist and video blogger. In essence her response was to ask who conducted the survey, under what conditions and with what sample size.

Having heard of many other studies that have come to completely the opposite conclusion I wanted to get answers to these questions myself.

My first port of call was to read the comments available on the ABC page. I was happy to find one that perked my interest and led me to further investigation.

MizJ said:

“The ‘Faith Matters’ study by Putnam et al was conducted in America and had a sample population of 3000 (out of a total population of 300,000,000). Of the 3000, only 5 – that’s right, 5 – people identified themselves as agnostic or atheist. So they are drawing their conclusions about atheists/agnostics on a sample of 5 out of 300,000,000.”

This was enough for me to want to press further and find the truth to this study. After a bit of Google searching I was happy to find the details of the study are available for anyone to read. You can find the details and data from the survey here:


The survey itself is pretty interesting and asks some good questions. I think it would be worth a read. However it’s also 334 pages long, so I wasn’t going to read through the whole thing! Fortunately I was able to do a search for “religion” in the document and pull out the questions that related specifically to religion. Here’s a couple of questions and answers I found interesting (you can use the bolded text to search for the question and answer in the document):

relstrng  Would you call yourself a strong believer in your
religion or not a very strong believer in your religion?
no religion: 9
not very strong: 522
somewhat strong: 64
strong: 1994 
System Missing: 497 
Don’t Know/No Opinion: 18
no Answer/Refused: 4

And just to throw in another slightly related question:


trthrel Which of the following statements comes closest to your
views: One religion is true and others are not OR There are
basic truths in many religions OR There is very little truth
in any religion.
One religion is true and others are not: 371 
There are basic truths in many religions: 2439
There is very little truth in any religion: 176
Can’t choose: 55
Don’t Know/No Opinion: 56 
No Answer/Refused: 11

So these answers are interesting, although it’s hard to pinpoint from these just where people stand. One question suggests there are only 9 atheists/agnostics, another 176. That’s a pretty large margin of error. But what if we do a search for “atheist”.


relig What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, another type of Christian, Jewish, some other religion, or nothing in particular?


Protestant: 995

Catholic: 726

Another type of Christian: 526

Jewish: 68

Some other religion: 296

Nothing in particular: 473

Don’t Know/No Opinion: 8

No Answer/Refused: 16

Again this question seems to suggest there is something around 470ish non-believers. But it’s the next question that directly follows from this one that is the clincher.

denom What church or denomination is that?

There’s a whole heap of denominations listed here and I’m not going to bother to post them all, but here’s the interesting part:

Atheist/Agnostic: 5

Yeouch!  Here I was thinking MizJ had been exaggerating, especially after doing the search for “religion” but apparently not.

Now, we need to be honest here. All of these answers appear to give us very different results. Personally I give the most weight to the final question which specifically asks people to put themselves into a denomination. But you also need to take into account that some people consider ‘atheist’ to be a dirty word and won’t use it, even if that is what they believe. There are 77 listed as ‘other’, 35 who either ‘don’t know’ or have ‘no opinion’ and 14 who ‘refused to answer’. It’s quite possible some of these people could be listed as atheist but chose not to.

So here’s the honest truth. This study doesn’t really seem to give us an accurate number of atheists/agnostics. What we can be pretty sure of though, is that the number of non-believers questioned was pretty low.

MizJ’s comment and Cristina’s initial fears about this study seem to be spot on. Although there’s plenty of useful information this study can give us, figuring out how charitable atheists are is not one of them.

Forgive me for getting bitchy, but I’m really fucking sick of seeing this. Every time (and I’m not exaggerating here) I see a theist make a claim like this and I go and research the study I find they’re either talking complete crap, or the study is very questionable.

To be fair I seriously doubt the individual who asked the question on QnA was deliberately lying, but it does point to two things. Firstly, either he was lying about the study or had been too damn lazy to look it up himself. I guess there’s also the possibility he was just so deluded he missed the lack of atheists surveyed, but that’s a level of stupidity I’m not willing to assume.

But this leaves us with the other possibility that the questioner got his information from someone else. Maybe it was a website summary, maybe it was a lecturer. Either way, it means it’s likely there’s someone else out there who’s spreading misinformation for the sole purpose of making their religious views seem more plausible.

The worst part of all this? This lie was told on national TV, on the ABC, to thousands of viewers. The vast majority of them will never bother to look up this study and will spend the rest of their lives believing what they heard.

I, on the other hand have a small number of readers, most of whom are friends that won’t have seen the show. This is the problem; it takes seconds to tell a lie and hours to correct it. And so often those who talk out of their arses have the larger audiences.

At least for now there’s very little I can do to spread the truth. But it needs to be spread. Hopefully the little I do on this blog will make a difference. Please try to spread these truths further. The more people who learn this stuff the better.

-Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.


About Jamie D
I'm an entrepreneur and small business owner working in 3D animation and multimedia. I also have a keen interest in technology and education.

One Response to QnA: Faith Matters

  1. Smeagan says:

    *Headdesk* I think if I was a sensible theist of any kind and my brethren were walking around misquoting studies, or quoting studies that don’t stand up to any kind of peer-review (even by a casual science enthusiast) I would be really really annoyed because it just gives all theists a bad name and unfortunately many of them do it.


    Every time I hear about something like this I lose a little more faith in humanity. Why do people have to take things on face value all the time, why do they have to be so darn ignorant of the story behind the “facts” they’re spewing? Why do people regurgitate (often incorrectly) stuff they “heard on TV” or “read somewhere” as gospel? Ugh, it’s just really annoying, and it’s obviously not just theists that do it. I know plenty of people with many differing faiths that do it all the time.

    Thank god for you, Arch. You are like a little beacon of learning in a world of ignorance!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: