Atheism and the Pew Report

The Pew Report on Religious Affiliation.

Last Sunday, naturally enough, the subject of atheism and disbelief came up in conversation during a late afternoon sandwiches and soup session; as did the curious finding of the Pew Report on Religious Affiliation based on surveys conducted in the United States in 2007. It claims that 21% of atheists believe in God, and 6% of them in an actual personal God as opposed to an impersonal force.

The findings provoked amused smiles all round, but caused a somewhat bemused and reflective pause in the exchange, as each of us considered the why and wherefore of this seemingly contradictory snippet of information. With my customary tact and good manners I suggested that maybe some atheists were stupid. My companions disagreed.

The ensuing debate was enough to send me to my Concise Oxford Dictionary just to make sure that there wasn’t some arcane meaning of atheist that I had hitherto overlooked. But the good book confirmed that it was from the Greek atheos (without god); godlessness. So it is with a certain degree of puzzlement that I mused over the apparent contradiction of self-professed atheists confessing to a belief in God.

I went trawling around the internet and the blogosphere to see what others had to say about this and found a range of opinions. Lori Lipman Brown, then Director of the Secular Coalition of America, suggested that they might have felt they were under social pressure to make this statement “When atheists are telling you they believe in God … that’s evidence of the stigma our society puts on nontheists”. On more outspoken atheist websites such as RichardDawkins.net the prevailing attitude seemed closer to my own; that some respondents didn’t have a clear concept of what an atheist is. There may be something to this when one considers the range of positions surrounding nonbelief and disbelief.

It is possible that an agnostic (one who does not know whether there is a God or not) might believe in a God while admitting that she cannot know whether God in fact exists. An antitheist could by definition, I suppose, also be a believer. Being against God does not disqualify one from acknowledging Her existence; although I have yet to meet an antitheist who is not also an atheist. A deist would also acknowledge that there might exist some Prime Mover, the “Impersonal Force” suggested by the Pew Survey. It is possible, although I find it unconvincing myself, that faced with a number of similar options a few participants simply made a mistake.

Sam Harris mused in the Washington Post “It may well be that some atheists, lacking the requisite fear of hell, find it amusing to maliciously waste a pollster’s time.” He went on to argue that it is the stuff that error bars are made of.

I still find it fairly astonishing that anyone claiming to be an atheist would also claim a personal God, unless they were referring to a newfound belief in chocolate, which I doubt. But perhaps this apparent anomaly should be less surprising given the large varieties of personal Gods we have managed to amass in our short history on this planet.

by Grania Spingies

Atheist Ireland