Can Atheists Believe in God?

How did the recent Pew Landscape Survey find that one in every five American atheists believes in God?

Are these people stupid atheists, or stupid theists? I believe there is a more rational explanation.

Firstly, the survey question was more nuanced. It was: “do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” And most of the atheists, who answered yes to this, then described God as an impersonal force rather than as a person they can have a relationship with.

It is quite consistent for a person to be an atheist with regard to a personal god, while also believing in the existence of an impersonal force that we do not yet understand. Describing this distinction can be hard, because people attach such different meanings to the words “atheist” and “god”.

Different Beliefs

But, however we each define the various words, 6% of American atheists believe in a personal God, with whom they can have a relationship. Also, 5% of American atheists pray every day, 4% attend weekly religious services, and 3% believe the Bible is the literal word of God.

Even here, there are rational possibilities. Some atheists might attend religious services for purely family reasons. Some might believe that such a god exists, but consider themselves personally to be godless. Some might be struggling with their beliefs, or praying every day for their faith to return.

Some of the reported beliefs seem harder to reconcile. A fifth of atheists believe in miracles and life after death. A tenth of atheists believe in heaven and hell. And two in every hundred atheists say they receive a definite answer to a prayer request at least once a week.

But the same survey also shows similar ambiguities within various religions. A fifth of Christians do not believe in a personal god, and a fifth of Buddhists do. One in every ten Jews does not believe in any type of god or universal spirit.

A tenth of evangelical Protestants do not believe in life after death. Nearly a fifth of Catholics do not believe in heaven or miracles. A fifth of Buddhists do not believe in nirvana, and three in ten Hindus do not believe in reincarnation.

Changing Beliefs

Christians who do not believe in a personal god are similar to atheists who do. They each self-identify with a particular worldview, while holding beliefs that others associate with a different worldview. They might also be in the process of evaluating their beliefs.

Which leads to my most important lesson from the Pew survey: more than a quarter of American adults have left the religion in which they were raised in favour of either another religion or no religion at all. And one in every six is not affiliated to any religion.

When people are moving from one worldview to another, they may not always do so in a single leap. They may hold contradictory beliefs at the same time, or at least switch between them, while they are working through these contradictions.

If, during that process, for whatever reason, a person chooses to describe themselves as an atheist, then that is a significant statement. It is a sign that they can move beyond the beliefs that many people expect them to conform to. We should welcome this.

by Michael Nugent

“Pew Research Center – Millenials” by Adrian Storm is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    Gavin McBride February 18, 2009

    Great entry, thanks a lot! I always suffer from the vagaries of the english language when it comes to terms like atheism, deisn, theism, agnosticism. The words have changed so much in the history of their etymology that no one is fully sure what they mean today or what they meant then.

    An atheist can of course believe in god. It is A theism, not A deism. It simply means that you do not subscribe to a theism based around god. I myself am not a theist or a deist. I also do not recognise myself in many of the definitions of atheism or even agnosticism as it was first coined by Huxley. Consequently I avoid ALL these labels when referring to myself.

  2. Avatar
    Bob Dobbs April 06, 2009

    Been lookin around, this is some great stuff, keep up the good work

  3. Avatar
    Malcolm Dodd May 12, 2009

    Greta contributions. Please set up RSS feeds.
    Best wishes
    Malcolm Dodd

  4. Avatar
    Thesme July 10, 2009

    You must know that your arguments don’t really hold water and that the truth is that many people mix up agnosticism and atheism, and this is the most likely explanation for the findings of the survey you quote. It would probably be a good idea to examine the methods used in the survey.

    You know, the best way to deal with your belief system is just to get on and live it, this community seems a little too……..defensive? belligerent, possibly…. for my liking. Bit too Richard Dawkins, and there’s an example of a man who has projected all his anger on to an external concept, i.e. the existence of Religion.

    I don’t believe in a god, gods any gods or goddesses at all, but I’m not upset that other people do. I would have liked to join this community, especially since that anachronistic blasphemy bill was shoved through the Oireachtas, but it all seems to ANGRY round here. And stop dissing the humanists for [insert nonexistent deity here]’s sake, what have they ever done to you? Don’t go down the hoary old route of slagging off all and sundry and fragmenting into ever-smaller and more bitter splinter groups.

  5. Avatar
    Fatapaft July 13, 2009

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