[I did a short post on this two days ago; I’ve since dug further into the full Pew report and found more and stranger religious diversity among atheists.]
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducts the US Religious Landscape Survey. The survey is statistically sound, and thus its percentages can be reasonably extrapolated to the general public. The full version of the second report in this survey (which is well over 200 pages) tells us that among atheists:
- 21% believe in God or a universal spirit; 12% believe that God is an impersonal force; and 6% believe that God is personal;
- 37% experience weekly or more a “deep sense of wonder about the universe”;
- 28% experience weekly or more a “deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being”;
- 21% believe in miracles;
- 14% believe in angels and demons;
- 18% believe in life after death;
- 12% believe in heaven while 10% believe in hell;
- 10% pray at least weekly;
- 18% meditate at least weekly;
- 58% believe in “absolute standards of right and wrong”;
- 52% say that “practical experience and common sense” are their “biggest influence[s] on views of right and wrong” while 21% say that “philosophy and reason” are their biggest influences and 20% say that “scientific information” are their biggest influences.
The data indicating that 21% of atheists believe in God or a universal spirit is not as inconsistent as it may seem: atheism in the narrow sense is denial of the theistic deity (a personal transcendent God who intervenes in the universe). Someone who takes atheism in that sense can consistently believe that God is an impersonal force; and such atheists may consistently believe in an impersonal universal spirit. And some atheists in that narrow sense may be pantheists, who identify God with the universe or some larger whole of reality. The 6% who believe in a personal God are more problematic, although they may consider themselves to be deists, and deists to be atheists. Divergence from strict adherence to allegedly essential beliefs is common enough and can affect atheists too.
Focusing on the incongruity of atheists who believe in God is distracting – look at all the other religious activities reported by the atheists in this survey! And note that belief in miracles, in angels and demons, in life after death are all consistent with the denial of God. The same goes for both the practices of prayer and meditation. The possibility of an atheistic religion is supported here by real data.
Most interesting is the report of regular (at least weekly) experiences of wonder, spiritual peace and well-being. If this is right, then atheists regularly have experiences that at least resemble what is traditionally known as mystical experience. The similarities between mysticism (at least in the West) and atheism have long been known. Many avowed atheists have reported profound mystical experiences. The atheist thinker Comte-Sponville reports often having mystical experiences and describes one in detail (2007: 155-159).
The data suggests a three part conjecture: (1) both atheists and theists have similar types of raw spiritual experience; but (2) theists almost always interpret those raw experiences as experiences of persons with whom they are socially involved while (3) atheists mostly do not. Thus in the theist brain, raw spiritual experience flows strongly into social processing networks while in the atheistic brain, that same raw spiritual experience flows only weakly or not at all into social processing networks.
Perhaps Chet Raymo (2008) is right: when God is gone, everything is holy. On that view, perhaps atheism is a protest against concentrating the sacredness or holiness of existence into a thing, and even more protest against concentrating it into a person with whom we have social relations. Thus atheism goes hand in hand with a kind of religious freedom: the freedom to let everything be holy. And, at least in the United States, an atheistic nature-religion might seek legal recognition of and constitutional protection for that freedom.
Comte-Sponville, A. (2007) The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. New York: Viking.
Raymo, C. (2008) When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books.