More on Religious Diversity among Atheists

[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.

References:

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.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM.

    It certainly seems like a fair number of atheists aren’t really atheists as the word is commonly used.

    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.

    The Unitarians already exist.

  • grung0r

    Divergence from strict adherence to allegedly essential beliefs is common enough and can affect atheists too.

    Atheism is not a religion, dingus. It doesn’t't have essential beliefs. The Greek works just fine as a descriptor, which is all it is. If can make an argument that atheists can believe in God, then you can just as easily argue that their are vegans who eat meat, Or stamp collectors who don’t collect stamps. Because you can talk yourself into such stupid arguments doesn’t mean that they are meaningful or rational. Which shit like this it’s bad enough, but when you verge into your Imminent ultimate creative power of tautologies(Does the Immanent ultimate power of being manifest itself in tautologies in your view? It would be interesting to find out), it just turns stupid.

    • MS

      An interesting sentiment, the points of which I largely agree with.

      Although they could have been more politely (and eloquently) stated.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      grungor is one of several commenters who think being abusive is the same thing as being persuasive

    • grung0r

      Well, that’s true, but it depends on who you think I’m attempting to persuade(Hint: it isn’t you or Eric)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Ohhhh, I see, you’re trying to persuade those who respond to chest-thumping bullying and aggression rather than reason. Maybe that will work.

    • grung0r

      Ohhhh, I see, you’re trying to persuade those who respond to chest-thumping bullying and aggression rather than reason.

      The issue is not whether my arguments use reason. The commenter to whom you were responding “largely agreed” with the points I made, they only disagreed with the tone in which I made them. If you feel my arguments aren’t using reason, feel free to show me how. I have not made a single ad hominem in my comments here, and the implication that I have is offensive.

      Re: “bullying”.You and Eric have the front page and academic titles. I have a few tiny, pseudo-anonymous comments buried way down here. If you or Eric feel bullied by me, then grow a thicker skin or get out of the game. The power dynamic is no contest. You can bully me, but it can’t really happen the other way around.

      As for who I am trying to convince with the tone of my arguments, it’s quite simple: People who read the comments. I would never try to convince Eric of anything, because if Eric has demonstrated anything with this series, it’s that he can talk himself into any conceivable position. Up is down, black is white, immanent creative powers of all being describe something non-trival, etc. Attempting to persuade him of something contradictory to his worldview would be folly. Instead, I attempt to persuade people who read the comments, now or in the future. I’m sure that there will be some who think my arguments are wrong because I am rude(Fallaciously, I might add). There will be others, like the commenter above, who will agree with me despite my rudeness. There will be others still who only want the arguments, and don’t care at all about the tone in which they are made. Either of the last two work for me. I’m never going to convince anyone by being polite. This is not to say that it’s impossible for anyone, but it doesn’t work for me. When I make an effort to be polite, I end up being conciliatory. Fuck that. I’d rather be rude and get my point across, then have people think I made a different point all together.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      *shrug*

      Offer an argument which is based on empirically validated reality and not on word-twisting, eclecticism and pure invention then your argument will get all the respect it deserves.

      Up till then, your, and especially Eric’s, arguments are nothing more than, well, theology renamed.

      I am certainly not going to pretend that the emperor’s clothes are going to keep you warm in winter.

    • grung0r

      I apologize for my impoliteness and lack of eloquence. If it helps, for my part, your comment was the most eloquent, polite tone troll I have seen Since Karen Armstrong’s last book.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Not every request to act like a respectful human being interested in discussion rather than belligerent contempt is “tone trolling”.

      But, keep telling yourself that that’s the way it is all while telling yourself you’re just the smartest person in the world and no one really wants to deal with your superior insight. But you won’t learn anything alienating the people who won’t bother with you because they only engage with rational people.

    • grung0r

      But, keep telling yourself that that’s the way it is all while telling yourself you’re just the smartest person in the world and no one really wants to deal with your superior insight.

      You did notice the person in question agreed with my points, right? This discussion is about tone. It ain’t about my ability to reason, or people failing to deal with my my “superior insight”. Even if I did feel that way(I don’t, for the record, although he ad hominem is noted) it wouldn’t matter, because if any persuasion on my part was necessary, it worked, seeing as how they “largely agreed”!

    • Nathair

      Exactly.

  • No One

    bullshit

  • Stacy

    I sometimes feel a sense of awe and wonder about life, the universe, and everything. For a while that kept me from calling myself an atheist (though I actually was one).

    I think for someone who values such feelings, yet doesn’t believe in a deity, the term “God” becomes a semantic point of reference; a placeholder. It can mean “the universe” “reality”, or “the unlikely fact that I exist as a unique consciousness”.

    Anyway, the apparent contradiction in that survey now makes a little more sense to me, especially if they asked a lot of questions and put people into categories based on more than simple self-labeling.

  • anat

    The same goes for both the practices of prayer and meditation. The possibility of an atheistic religion is supported here by real data.

    Atheists who seriously pray, not as an acknowledged engagement in self-talk, but because they are expecting ‘answers’ from an external source are not the kind of atheists I’m interested in being in any kind of community with. I expect your attempts at ‘atheist religion’ will attract too many of those types. If that’s what I wanted I could have joined a liberal theistic group. The point of being involved in anything specifically atheistic is to stay away from that kind of thinking.

  • Dan

    Eric,

    I’ve meditated a couple times, as have many atheists I’ve read (including Sam Harris, who even goes on meditation retreats). Why do you consider meditation a symptom of a possible ‘atheistic religion?’ For some people it’s a practice to help calm the mind and focus on the present. It’s not really my cup of tea, but I don’t see how it is necessarily religious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MarvaDasef marvadasef

    Yep, atheist here. I only WISH there was a god because he’d blast all the know-nothing religious bigots to hell. Yeah, just wishful thinking.

    Now, if I die and go to hell because I didn’t believe in god despite being a pretty nice person, then my disbelief in a god will be totally justified. No god would throw anybody into hell just because they didn’t believe, and no god would send someone to heaven despite being a nasty, lying piece of crud but given a pass for praying to jaysus or allah or jehovah or whatever. A god should act like a god, and approve or disapprove based on how people behave, not in how they believe.

  • http://www.imagesandmeanings.com Gary Hill

    I’m an atheist (a 6 on the Dawkins scale)who experiences a “deep sense of wonder about the universe” and (sometimes)a “deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being”.

    I don’t see a problem with that, except perhaps for use of the word ‘spiritual’. That’s too heavily loaded. These are simply the emotions that result from particular patterns of neuronal activation, just as excitement or melancholy or ecstacy or creativity or frustration can be. There is no need to attribute a supernatural causation and no need either not to fully experience and enjoy what our evolved nervous system is capable of.

    I also meditate, using a Buddhist technique, because I find it eminently effective at relieving stress and giving me a feeling of contentment. What I cannot understand is why theists persevere with prayer and not meditation techniques when empirical research shows no effect whatsoever of prayer yet a growing body of studies suggest demonstrate measurable beneficial effects from (some forms of) meditation.

    It should be the role of theists, not atheists, to throw the baby out with the bathwater….

  • Marella

    What this survey proves it that lots of people don’t understand what the word ‘atheist’ means! I know plenty of religious types don’t understand it, but I’m surprised that so many who call themselves atheists also don’t understand what they’re talking about. I would guess that a lot of them think that ‘atheist’ means without a formal religious affiliation such as Christianity or Islam. ‘Atheist’ must be amongst the English language’s most misunderstood words, which is funny since all it means is the lack of a belief in gods of any kind. This sort of ignorance needs to be combated not encouraged, if atheists can believe in god and Christians don’t have to, then we’re in danger of words losing all meaning and conversation on the subject becoming impossible.

    Meditation has nothing to do with gods, I do yoga and meditate occasionally, I consider this a brain exercise not an attempt to contact the supernatural.

    • Erp

      Strictly speaking atheist has had several different meanings over the centuries, most of them pejorative (e.g., as a synonym for immoral). It is perhaps one reason the word ‘agnostic’ was coined in the 19th century. I suspect the Pew people were also surprised at the number of self-describe atheists who believe in a personal god (though the 6% probably has a fair margin of error given the small number of people who described themselves as atheists in the first place). Perhaps they’ll do a another survey to find out what atheists think atheist means (and what other people think atheist means).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

    Yep. Eclectically choose the definition of the term which fits best to your goals and draw your conclusions from that. The science of make-belief country, where up is down and light is dark… Pft.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      To elaborate a bit and to give just one random example for the sloppy conclusion and the lack of conceptual precision which is so predominant in Eric’s texts. (I am going to say more on this problem in more general terms in the second half of my response):

      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 report says that “37% experience weekly or more a ‘deep sense of wonder about the universe’”. I would certainly include myself in that number, simply because I think the universe is a pretty cool place and I deeply admire the beauty of astronomical photographs, the fantastic ways in which animals adapt to their environments, or the intricate complexity of chemical and physical processes. And I deeply enjoy walking through the cold of a winter forest or to lie on a sunny meadow and to watch the clouds. Nothing mystical about that. Does Eric discuss the possibility that a substantial part of the people interviewed in the poll could have had this idea in their minds? No, he doesn’t.

      And what is meant with “spiritual peace and well-being”? Is it necessary to assume that the people in the poll actually refer to something comparable with religious solace? Or could they simply refer to practices like meditation, auto-suggestion, or other this-world strategies to calm your mind and induce well-being? Does the poll tell this? I don’t know, but Eric certainly does not discuss this possibility. No he doesn’t.

      But what he does, is to spontaneously identify these statements with “mysticism”. I consider this a shooting from the hip, because, contrary to the statements from which he draws his conclusion, the word “mysticism” does invariably contain the concept of a relationship to a god or to something beyond human existence. But the introduction of this term is also the spring-board from which he jumps to his conclusions about “everything is holy” and “atheist world-experience is the same as theist-world experience” and so on. Sorry to sound tedious, but this reduces Eric’s train of thought to one long chain of associations, adorned with “sciency” footnotes and big-sounding names and phrases.

      This is just one example, but – and this is what, to be impolite again, pisses me off – Eric has been applying this strategy over and overy again in his series of articles. The above example is only one of very many. It is not that the problem hasn’t been pointed out to him quite a number of times by commentators – but Eric seems to have to decided not to react on these points of criticism with improving his method of inquiry; this is why not only his choice of terms but also his whole methodology is eclectic. The many footnotes only produce an appearance of “Wissenschaftlichkeit” because they shift the responsibility for the concpetual and terminological eclecticism from Eric to the authors he quotes. The basic problem remains the same – conclusion are drawn from ideas which are invented or arbitrarily chosen, not from empirically gained data points. And this, sorry to be tedious again, Daniel, IS the one central problem of philosophy as a research field.

      I have been wondering, why Eric is doing this stuff; taking into account that he seems to be a very late neo-platonist or something like that, I am increasingly under the impression that he simply does not understand how language works, that there is no “real meaning” of words. Words and phrases mean what they mean in their historical and cultural context. What there is of a common denominator of their meaning is the result of a negotiation, which you may call “epistemological” or a “disposition discoursive” if you feel the need to show off. Eric’s basic methodological mistake is, that he does not take the conceptual dynamics of language into account – although this problem is pretty damn obvious especially in the data used in this article? Why doesn’t he do so? After all, the idea of the linguistic turn and its important consequences for all branches of the humanities have common knowledge for a couple of decades?

      If he actually had regarded e.g. the possible meanings of the word “atheism” as intermediate results of an ongoing, dynamic negotiation, he could have arrived at interesting results how the strange data of the Pew-poll could possibly be interpreted. That the data itself quite obviously is the result of self-contradictory understandings of the word “atheism” (e.g. atheists believing in a “personal god”) should in any way have been an issue of discussion. Just choosing a definition of atheism which somehow fits best is certainly not the way to do it. A methodologically more sound and more careful approach to the issue actually could have gained some insight into the question how the cultural practise of atheism actually works, what implication this has for the understanding of atheism as the basis of a social network etc. Well, Eric chose to let the chance slip by.

  • John Morales

    Eric conjectures:

    …both atheists and theists have similar types of raw spiritual experience

    I guess some do (or so they claim).

    I certainly don’t. Never have.

    Perhaps Chet Raymo (2008) is right: when God is gone, everything is holy.

    Alternatively, nothing is.

    (I find nothing sacred)

    • Tony

      John:

      I guess some do (or so they claim).

      I certainly don’t. Never have.

      -Nor have I.
      I went on a date recently and the subject of religion came up. I explained my views and my date said he was against organized religion (a theist trope I hear enough that I’m tired of hearing it), but felt there were things he had experienced that couldn’t be explained. He attributed those experiences to “something more” or ‘supernatural’. My response was that while those are possible answers, without adequate testing, there is no way to determine an objective truth about his subjective experience. He also informed me that there are things in the world that we can’t explain and that I should keep an open mind. My response was that we shouldn’t jump to any conclusion until the evidence is in, that ‘I don’t know’ is ok to say, and that my mind is open. I just need proof. I not sure I got through to him.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/ James Gray

    One, the poll could be biased. Two, people taking the poll might not understand the questions. Three, people taking the poll might not be paying attention. Four, people taking the poll might not be honest.

    When a poll proves that some atheists are theists, then we have a reason to question to accuracy of the results.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/ James Gray

    Here’s information about another (probably invalid) poll used to prove that atheists are creationists and so on: http://atheistself.blogspot.com/2007/04/misleading-polls-nearly-half-of-all.html

  • Anubis Bloodsin the third

    I get the stark impression that there is an underlying agenda to this survey…

    It is seemingly a concerted attempt to promote atheism as an errant and misguided religion…it is saying…or trying to say…’see all atheists believe in a god they are just confused’

    This would sit quite neatly next to theist assertion that atheism is religious and does not mean that for some god is a fictional character.

    In other words it is a damage limitation exercise designed to placate the sheeple…or more specifically that tier of witch doctor/church clone that have no clue as to how to explain to folks about those that do not drool for jeebus.

    As an explanation it plugs into theist pre-conceived assumptions and encourages the warriors that they are dealing with just another religion..and they know how to sink that ship…it is what they have done for at least 2000 years…eradicate, subvert and replace!

    Seems that they need a moral booster… times must be rather depressing for the delusion.

    But the clue is in the word..A-THEISM…a non-belief in god or gods.
    You cannot be classed as an atheist if you do…simples!

    This survey is just jerking on the end of theist strings!

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    On the one side, a pre-conceived ideology about the true meaning of atheism.

    On the other side, empirical data which falsifies the pre-conceived ideology.

    The conflict between the two sides causes tension.

    The first solution is to deny or to explain away the empirical data.

    The second solution is to attack the person who presented the empirical data.

    Those two solutions are manifest in these comments. They are both invalid. And it’s remarkable to see them advocated by people who otherwise claim to be so deeply loyal to empirical data.

    The third solution is to conduct another survey.

    • Brian F

      Another possibility (and I think the most likely answer) is that there are a significant number of people who self identify as atheists who do not understand the common meaning of the word. That my answer in a survey to the question “Are you an elephant” is “Yes” does not mean I AM an elephant.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      On the one side, a pre-conceived ideology about the true meaning of atheism.

      On the other side, empirical data which falsifies the pre-conceived ideology.

      False dichotomy, false representation of the criticism against your interpretation of the data.

      The conflict between the two sides causes tension.

      The first solution is to deny or to explain away the empirical data.

      The first solution should be actually to have a look at the data, and how the data was gained, in order to determine whether criticism voiced by several people is valid or not. As has been explained to you numerous times – I won’t do it again – the data quite obviously indicates possible problems in the questionnaire of the polls and your faulty interpretation only adds to these problems.

      The second solution is to attack the person who presented the empirical data.

      Whether you choose to be offended by robust criticism or not is of no relevance to the question whether your argument is valid or not. But the inversed ad-hominem fallacy is noted.

      Those two solutions are manifest in these comments. They are both invalid. And it’s remarkable to see them advocated by people who otherwise claim to be so deeply loyal to empirical data.

      “Because I say so.” Not very convincing, not very convincing at all. Could it be that you actually don’t know what people talk about when they apply empirical methods in the humanities? Allow me to say only this much, speaking as a historian – the data you gain from the utterances of people and societies has to be analysed with utmost care and scrutiny. Every text – it doesn’t matter of what text sort – has to be understood in detail; and that means that we have to understand what the specific word or phrase means in the specific context. As a historian, you have first to understand what a word means IN THIS TEXT, only then you can even start drawing conclusions; and only at this point your argument is based on empirical research. Broad, sweeping conclusions and empirical research are mutually exclusive.

      As a historian it is quite clear to me that this basic requirement of hermeneutic scrutinity is unfortunately not met in this text of yours. Not even by a wide margin. But why should I explain “Hermeneutics 101″ to you, normally I should expect you to know the basics of the trade.

      The third solution is to conduct another survey.

      Not yet necessary. As I said above, the first step would be to have a closer look at the way the statistical data was gathered and to see whether you gain any more knowledge to meet your critics. But that would be your job, since it’s your responsibility to defend your own argument.

      What certainly won’t do is the fourth solution to leave the whole issue aside and to pour out a new heap of words on another topic but in the same style.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      the data quite obviously indicates possible problems in the questionnaire of the polls

      On which page(s) of the full report are the problems obvious?

    • John Morales

      In Page 9 of the PDF:

      A Note on Defining Religious Affiliation
      In this survey, we rely on respondents’
      self-reported religious identity
      as the measure of religious
      affiliation. Catholics, for instance,
      are defined as all respondents
      who said they are Catholic, regardless
      of their specific beliefs
      and whether or not they attend
      Mass regularly. Similarly, atheists
      and agnostics are defined here
      as all respondents who described
      themselves as being atheist or
      agnostic, even though some of
      them may believe in some notion
      of God.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      You really don’t get it, do you? The data itself clearly implies that contradictory definitions of the word “atheist” are used.

    • grung0r

      What certainly won’t do is the fourth solution to leave the whole issue aside and to pour out a new heap of words on another topic but in the same style.

      Given Eric’s response to criticism thus far, it will have to.

  • Steve Schuler

    What’s that bit about, “No True Scottsman…”?

  • Brian F

    I find this all a bit disconcerting. My atheism seems to be very simple compared to all of those who simultaneously self identify as atheist yet seem to believe in a God, an afterlife, angles and demons and prayer (to whom I can’t imagine). My atheism is based on the simple concept that there is insufficient evidence (i.e. no evidence) to support the claim that a God (or any sort) exists. I assume that whatever feeling of awe or “deep sense of wonder about the universe” I experience are all responses to the natural world generated in my own brain as a result of being at the end of a couple of billion years of evolution.

  • sprocket

    Also, 21% of virgins have had sex.

    • Anat

      Well, depends on definition of ‘virgin’ and ‘to have sex’. Consider someone who only ever had oral sex – does that person ‘count’ as a virgin or not? As someone who had sex or not? I suppose there are some other, unfamiliar to many of us, definitions of atheist that some people use to define themselves. If so, then what? Those aren’t the atheists I am interested in being grouped with.