Empirical evidence on the content of American religiosity

If 80-90% of Americans believe that “chanting their wishes to the sky might get them granted by a magic being,” as P.Z. Myers insists, then why did none of the Democratic candidates express that belief when the question was put to them squarely?

P.Z. Myers prides himself on his scientific spirit. Presumably, that involves trying to shape your opinions to the facts. In one of his anathemas directed at religious believers, Myers asserts:

80-90% of this population, which is not hypothetical at all but is the entire US, believes that chanting their wishes into the sky might get them granted by a magic being


In support of this, Myers demands that I “talk to some real people,” because:

The majority of religious people in this country do believe in a completely non-metaphorical god, who acts non-metaphorically, who has non-metaphorical desires and plans, and who non-metaphorically wants their high school football team to win the championship, if they pray hard enough.

All right, let’s go to the tape, shall we? At the Drake University debate, the Democratic candidates, all (save Gravel, I think) professedly believing Christians, all of them needing to appeal to the American electorate, were asked precisely that question:

My question is to understand each candidate’s view of a personal God. Do they believe that through the power of prayer disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?

Not a single candidate offered the frank “Yes” that Myers’s claims would have suggested would have been politically expedient.

1. Hillary Clinton said that prayer was important but that she didn’t claim to understand God’s actions.

2. Dodd said that prayer was important but never answered the question.

3. Edwards said “No.”

4. Gravel ignored the question and gave a sermon on love.

5. Richardson ducked, with an answer about religious freedom.

6. Biden said he prayed for strength “to bear the cross.” “All the prayer in the world will not stop a hurricane, but prayer will give you the strength to deal with the devastation.”

7. Obama said that prayer could help people develop “empathy and compassion and the will to deal with the problems that we do control.” “We may not have the power to prevent a hurricane, but we do have the power to make sure that the levees are properly reinforced.” “What I pray for is the strength and the wisdom to be able to act on those things that I can control.”

8. Kucinich gave a sermon on the Biblical injunctions toward “good works” and social justice.

Eight candidates, and not a single one would even pretend to believe in the power of petitionary prayer to change natural events other than through human agency.

And Myers thinks 80-90% of the population believes in “chanting their wishes to the sky” to have them “granted by a magical being”? Can you say “disconfirmation”? I was sure you could.

Now we get to find out whether Myers is prepared to apply scientific standards to his own dearly-held beliefs: in this case, the belief that most of his fellow-citizens are boobs, and that churchgoing is positively correlated with boobitude. If he’s a scientist at heart, he’ll simply say, “I was wrong.”

Based on limited non-experimental observations, I’d rank that probability somewhere between slim and none. But I’ve been wrong before.

Footnote A reader of my earlier set-to with Myers inquires, politely, about my own religious commitments. That’s a fair question, though one to which no answer can be full and brief at once. My response (adapted from my email back to the reader) is neither, but it’s more brief than full. This is complicated stuff.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com