Surveys of Americans ask about people's belief in God with a variety of different questions and wordings. The more simplistic the questions, the higher the percentage of Americans who say they believe in God. The more alternatives that are offered, though, the more people are willing to express doubt, skepticism, and even outright disbelief.
This suggests very strongly that results from simplistic survey results should be distrusted and that future surveys offer people more options to choose from. More complex surveys are harder to do and report on, but I think they will provide far more accurate (and interesting) data about what Americans really believe.
A Gallup survey conducted May 3-6, 2010 asked "Which of the following comes closest to your belief about God?" and produced the following results (margin of error: +/- 4%):
Believe in God: 80% Believe in universal spirit: 12% Don't believe in either: 6% Other: 1% No Opinion: 1%
That's 92% of Americans who believe in "God" or a "universal spirit". In 2011, 91% of Americans reported believing in God or a universal spirit. Since traditional Christianity doesn't accept describing God as a "universal spirit," we can conclude that this group doesn't subscribe to traditional Christianity. Thus at most only 80% of Americans subscribe to anything like traditional, orthodox Christianity — and certainly quite a bit fewer.
A different Gallup survey conducted May 10-13, 2007, asked about belief in God with different options, this time focusing on how certain or uncertain people were:
Believe in God: 86% Not Sure About God: 8% Don't Believe in God: 6% No Opinion: *
Because so many Christians proclaim the doctrine that belief in their god is necessary for morality and patriotism, it should be difficult for them to even express doubt in the existence of God, much less disbelief. Providing an option like "not sure about God" gives people implicit permission to express doubt about their belief in God, something that isn't highly regarded in American society but which may be more common than is usually assumed.
A Gallup survey conducted May 8-11, 2006 offered even more options for people to express how certain or uncertain they were about the existence of God:
Which comes closest to describing you?
Convinced God exists: 73% God probably exists, have a little doubt: 14% God probably exists, have a lot of doubt: 5% God probably does not exist, but not sure: 4% Convinced God does not exist: 3% No opinion: *
Traditional, orthodox Christianity is incompatible with doubting the existence of God. Temporary doubts may be acceptable, but persistent doubting shouldn't be because a good Christian is supposed to have strong faith — not just faith in the existence of God, but faith in the truth of all the promises made by God.
In that case, at most 73% of Americans' belief about God would be compatible with traditional, orthodox Christianity — and once again, certainly fewer since some of those are Jews, Muslims, etc. This means that the numbers of adherents to traditional Christianity are far lower than many Christians seem to believe because far fewer people are completely convinced of the existence of God than is generally assumed.
How strict we want to be about that dividing line, though, depends on the context of our discussion. There are probably many with doubts but who also claim to be Christians. Who are we to say they're wrong? Well, conservative evangelical Christians may say they're wrong and if it's their claims about America that are being discussed, then a stricter dividing line may be reasonable.
Perhaps more important is the fact that such numbers tell us that there are a lot of people out there who may be open to ideas that would encourage further doubt and skepticism about the existence of gods. They may be reluctant to admit their doubts publicly, but that doesn't mean that their doubt can't be encouraged privately.
Encouraging Doubt & Skepticism of Gods
If doubt about the existence of gods is already more common than many people realize, what do you think the best methods would be to encourage this doubt further? What can be done to get someone who already has a little doubt about gods to become more skeptical — and perhaps not just more skeptical about the existence of God, but also skeptical about religious doctrines, institutions, and leaders as well?