Atheists Should Stop Believing in God So Much

Seriously, what’s up with this?  According to a new Pew study on religion, 21% of atheists believe in God: either a personal or impersonal force.  And 8% are absolutely certain that a God exists. 12% even believe in heaven, and 10% in hell!

Either we have here a very lousy study, a heck of a lot of joke answers, or a fair number of people who are remarkably confused about what “atheist” means.  I very much doubt that the bulk of these contradictory responses represent the sort of sophisticatedly confusing theologies of people like Paul Tillich.

29 Responses to Atheists Should Stop Believing in God So Much

  1. Was that Pew study filtered through The Onion?

  2. I’m checking out the link now. My knee-jerk reaction is that there was no option on the form for someone who believed in God but was not affiliated with any given religion – but I’ll wait to see before I pass judgement.

  3. Hmm… My gut reaction tells me that the people who chose ‘atheist’ did so because the use of the terms ‘secular unafilliated’ and ‘religious unafilliated’ are kinda confusing.

    My guess is that the ‘I don’t knows’ in the atheist column were probably atheists that considered themselves 99.9% sure that there was no God. So they can rightly call themselves atheists, but in totall honesty they have to admit that they’re ‘not sure’.

    I also guess that the ‘personal god’ people who marked themselves as atheists were confused about what ‘secular unafilliated’ and ‘religious unafiliiated’ meant (I’m a bit confused about what they mean). It’s not too unreasonable to see how such a person could eschew ‘agnostic’ if they were not even remotely open to becoming members of any given religion, and then rest on ‘atheist’ as the ‘best’ answer to the poll, only to turn around and say that they did beleive in a personal God, and they should have been in one of the other three ‘unafilliated’ camps after all.

    Just a couple of guesses, but it would explain the anomaly.

  4. Bad says:

    Maybe: as good a theory as any. But it’s hard to tell without Pew cluing us in. It’s pretty darn odd that they don’t really comment on what is a pretty glaring discrepancy. If people were that confused by something that should be pretty straightforward, what else about the results are misleading due to confusion and ambiguity?

  5. mtbrooks says:

    Well, 70% of statistics are made up on the spot.

  6. Grendel The Martyr says:

    I believe that’s 90%. No, no. You’re right. 70%.

  7. Grendel The Martyr says:

    BTW, was there any data on how many theists don’t believe in God?

  8. 6% believe in a personal god and 12% in an impersonal one.

    See? When theists talk about atheists hating/rebelling from God, it’s this 6% that they’re talking about! It’s 18% if you include the “impersonal god” atheists (deist rebels?). It is odd that we never see this sizeable minority at our secret meetings (y’know, the ones with scientists, liberal elites and activist judges).

  9. Zachary says:

    Is it safe to conclude that since the percent of belief in God by theists was not 100% that there are theists who don’t believe in God?

  10. Bad says:

    Is it safe to conclude that since the percent of belief in God by theists was not 100% that there are theists who don’t believe in God?

    The problem is that there was no “don’t believe” category, only an “other/don’t know.”

    At least with theists who don’t believe in God, you could make a case that panatheists could have straddled the category.

  11. Teapot Army says:

    Haha, well if there wasn’t even a “don’t believe” category, I suppose we can’t really expect accurate results from the study in the first place. If they want a realistic illustration of people’s religious beliefs, they need to have ALL the options on the board.

    I realise this was an American study, but out of curiosity, did they include results for religions OTHER than Christianity?

  12. Grendel The Martyr says:

    The grandest assumption is that poll respondents tell the truth.

  13. Tom says:

    I can’t wait to see the study on eating habits so we can find out what percentage of vegans eat meat.

  14. Tom says:

    Is “impersonal force” really the same as some kind of god? Isn’t gravity an impersonal force?

  15. Atheists do believe in God. How else do you explain the contempt they have towards God? Come on, we’re not gonna have contempt on something if we believe it doesn’t exist. Ever heard of anyone having contempt for the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  16. underthefloor says:

    Vasanth has a point. I consider myself atheist, but I do believe in God, somewhat. No, I’m not agnostic. It’s not something I am uncertain about.

    It’s like rebellion against your parents. Something like that.

    But anyway, the God I believe in is an impersonal one, so being atheist or not should not matter.

    This post has got me thinking though. Doesn’t atheist mean someone who doesn’t believe in a God? So what do you call someone who believes in a God – somewhat – but doesn’t care or want to do anything about it? An agnostic?

    Here we go again. Tut tut.

  17. underthefloor says:

    LOL Zachary.. Man.. I bet there are many theists who don’t really believe in a God. Oh, you know, people like the character Constantine from the movie Constantine – in the first part of the movie at least. The part where he doesn’t believe, but hopes to buy his way into heaven.

    I never want to be like that.

  18. Tom says:

    What makes you think that atheists hold god in contempt?

    A person who believes in a god that has no effect on humans is a deist. 3 of our first 5 presidents were deists, The other two were a Unitarian and an atheist.

  19. Bad says:

    Which was an atheist? I don’t think any of the founders were atheists.

    underthefloor Says: This post has got me thinking though. Doesn’t atheist mean someone who doesn’t believe in a God? So what do you call someone who believes in a God – somewhat – but doesn’t care or want to do anything about it? An agnostic?

    A desist. Definitely not an atheist.

    Vasanth Seshadri Says: Atheists do believe in God. How else do you explain the contempt they have towards God? Come on, we’re not gonna have contempt on something if we believe it doesn’t exist. Ever heard of anyone having contempt for the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    The fallacy in your thinking is that people can hold an idea in contempt without believing the idea is true. As such, plenty of theists have contempt for the FSM, which they consider an unserious straw man.

    Generally though, when theists claim that atheists hold God in contempt, it’s not because of any accurate description of the atheists’ position, but merely the theist believing that not believing in God (which they think of as a real person) as an act of spiteful contempt. In other words, they try to view atheism from the perspective of a theist, which results in a distorted view of things.

  20. Tom says:

    Thomas Jefferson’s writing is rather confusing on the subject and he was certainly accused of being an atheist but he liked to describe himself as a materialist. He probably was really a deist.

  21. Vir Dolorum says:

    Well, it’s interesting because in Pew’s methods descriptions they claim to have conducted phone interviews… I would hope that those who were making the calls would be able to clearly explain a category of choice if there was any question as to its meaning… Who knows. 35K people surveyed is still a pretty good population. Too bad some of the survey’s results are skewed in this way…

  22. vasanth Seshadri “Atheists do believe in God. How else do you explain the contempt they have towards God? etc”
    It’s not God that we hold in contempt. It’s the people that profess to know His (or her/it’s/their) will that we do. In lots of cases this “will” is at least partly compatible with modern civilization (most of that stuff that Jesus said. Y’know, the Golden Rule-type stuff), and receive our blessings, as I don’t care why you do good, only that you do it.
    Others, unfortunately, (the first six books of the O/T, Paul’s “issues”, Peter’s “issues”, Daniel/Revelations), are fundamentally incompatible with the long-term health of modern, secular, science-centric, pluralistic society. The Rapture concept, alone, deserves nothing but scorn. Faith-based sex-ed…faith-based environmental policy…faith-based public school science class…faith-based support for Israel…faith-based suppression of gay rights. I could go on. There are so many bad ideas that don’t get the short shrift they deserve simply because people think that it’s what their version of God wants.

  23. Bad says:

    Jefferson was undoubtedly some sort of theistic believer. He did not go in for what he considered to the superstitious aspects of Christianity, but he was a member the unitarian church. He’s really too complicated to be summed up easily, but he was definitely no atheist.

  24. Keith says:

    Jefferson was never a member of a Unitarian church or congregation. Adams was a full-fledged Unitarian (as was his son, John Quincy Adams, the 6th President). It seems fairly clear that Jefferson was not any sort of “standard issue” Christian – he created a edition of the Christian Bible in which he removed all of the superstitious
    ‘rubbish”, which included all the miracles including resurrection, so I can’t see how anyone could shoehorn him into a Christian label. Many in his time DID accuse him of being an athiest, however. I wonder how he would have resonded to a Pew phone call…

  25. Bad says:

    That’s splitting hairs: no he never entered the rolls, but he did attend services and converse with other Unitarians plenty, with letters we can read, that basically show him to be simpatico with the church. He liked them, their teachings on Jesus, and he even declared that “there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian.”

    If you really want to split hairs, then you could argue that he was an Anglican, since he was raised one and never really fully broke of association with them. :)

    I think this gives the best flavor of things: He once wrote to Benjamin Rush: “To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.” (emphasis added)

    He believed in a God, but not one who acted through superstition. And he believed that Jesus was a pinnacle of moral truth, a paragon of the ideals that a rational God would want, but not a divine being. I still call that a Christian of some sort, and I think a lot of liberal Christians would agree.

    Of course, plenty of people disagreed with that view in Jefferson’s day, as you note. Most amusingly, this guy. It’s amazing to read that sermon and not think it’s of the sort that a right-winger could give today against a modern political candidate.

  26. Perhaps it depends on one’s personal definitions of atheism/theism. If one defines theism simply as a belief in God, then atheism becomes the lack of said belief, which would make the poll somewhat puzzling.

    On the other hand, sometimes theism is defined more narrowly as not only the belief in God, but also in specific doctrines and dogmas. If one accepts this definition, then an atheist could be defined as someone who rejects these doctrines and dogmas. This still leaves room for a belief in some sort of higher power. While I personally think this makes one a Deist, I suppose a lot of it comes down to one’s personal definition when it comes time to answer those questions. In other words, someone might be what I would call a Deist, but consider themselves an atheist.

    Here’s an alternative explanation. If you go to, and look up “theism”, you will find at the bottom, after the traditional definitions, this rather startling definition of “theism” (I’m not making this up):

    “The morbid condition resulting from the excessive use of tea.”

    So if we use this enlightening definition of theism, an “atheist” is someone who simply doesn’t like tea, but could still very well believe in God. ;)

    Not buying it? Well, neither am I, really. The most likely explanation is that the respondents simply didn’t understand the questions, or are themselves unclear on the definition of atheist.


  27. Pat says:

    I’m honestly never sure what people mean when they say “God”. How do you define “atheist” without first very carefully defining what would qualify as a “God”?

  28. Bad says:

    Actually Pat, that’s not quite as huge a problem as it seems, because people only need to know what they do believe in to know that there isn’t any concept remotely like a “God” however defined amongst them.

    The only real problem is if “God” is actually just a word for something I do believe in. This is probably unlikely though. I have no idea what a Heffpereff is, but I know I don’t believe in them unless it’s just another word for something conventional, like an ashtray. If “God” is just another word for “that feeling I get when I hold a newborn baby,” then I suppose I believe in God, but I’m not sure that really gets theists anywhere useful for whatever it is that they want to claim exists.

  29. Pat says:

    Oh, I agree that it isn’t an insurmountable problem, or even all that difficult of one. But even if I know what I mean by “God” and therefore what I mean by “I’m an atheist”, how does someone else know how to interpret that? How does one avoid serious miscommunication without setting this straight? How many people define “God” as something that in fact you do believe in? There is a huge range of meanings that people require of God. For one, I think most Americans implicitly assume that “God” means “personal God”, but of course there are large communities of self-described theists who do not believe in a personal God.

    Tom’s question above – “Is “impersonal force” really the same as some kind of god? Isn’t gravity an impersonal force?” – starts to get at something that seems to me to be really significant to the atheist/believer debate. Over and over, I’ve seen blog debates that basically say, on the one hand, “atheists say there is no God, that’s a belief” and on the other hand, “no, they don’t!”, but the underlying acknowledgment on both sides is often that the definition of God can be abstracted and dehumanized until it does not conflict with any known observations (I’m ignoring of course those debates about beliefs which do in fact differ on observable predictions, like the age of the earth or whether evolution by natural processes is capable or not of leading to the kind of diversity of life we see today). Why do we have confidence that we are talking about the same thing when we say “God” if we start by abstracting the idea so much but then never put limits on it? I grew up in a small community where the accepted definition of God was a very personal God, who interferes directly with your life daily, protecting you from car accidents, healing arthritis instantly because of prayer, etc. Atheists are totally justified in arguing that they look around at the world and find that this God just isn’t there. I took for granted for a long time that when I said I was an atheist that it meant that I thought it was crazy to believe in this kind of God. This is a very far cry from the God that I often see presented when atheists are criticized for being so confident that there is no God (though the argument usually seems to turn into whether or not they made this claim, not whether or not it is justified). That God does not conflict with observation in any way, presumably, but interferes indirectly and a very long time ago and for the most part today just enforces the laws of nature.

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