Religious Diversity among Atheists

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducts the US Religious Landscape Survey.  The second report in this survey tells us that:

Among atheists, 21% believe in God; 12% believe that God is an impersonal force; and 6% believe that God is personal.

Among atheists, 12% believe in heaven while 10% believe in hell.

Among atheists, 10% pray at least weekly while 18% meditate at least weekly.

The atheist community appears to have considerable religious diversity.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Erp

    And obviously some differing definitions of atheist. The report also has some 8% of Americans don’t believe in the existence of God or an Universal spirit though their religious affiliation varies from atheist through evangelical Christian (apparently 1% of evangelicals don’t believe in God).

  • John Morales

    Among atheists, 21% believe in God

    How quaint.

    Religious Diversity among USA’s self-identified “Atheists”

    Fixed that for you.

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

      What other kinds of atheists would there be in a survey?

    • John Morales

      Um, the non-theistic sort?

      You don’t find it problematic that they accept someone who believes in god as an atheist?

      (I eat meat at almost every meal, and I can’t wait to be in a survey about diversity among vegetarians!)

    • grung0r

      How about people who fit the virtually universally accepted definition of atheist as “one who does not believe in god and or gods?” Couldn’t they have asked that instead of just asking for what label people would like to affix to themselves? Ever noticed that every evangelical preacher ever was somehow an “atheist” at some point? It’s not because the definition of “atheism” is fuzzy, it’s because people tend to lie about it to show they believe in their god despite being oh so totally open minded.

    • Erp

      They asked both questions (and a few others such as how sure they were and whether personal or impersonal). How did people identify themselves and then what their actual beliefs were. This is useful as it shows that some people identify themselves as Christian but don’t believe in god and that some people who identify as atheist don’t use the definition we use (be interesting to know what definition they do use). It also gives a breakdown on what those who say they are unaffiliated believe (if they are religious but unaffiliated 6% don’t believe in a God or Universal Spirit, if secular unaffiliated about 34% don’t believe in a God or Universal Spirit) or Jewish.

    • grung0r

      that some people who identify as atheist don’t use the definition we use (be interesting to know what definition they do use)

      It would be more than interesting. In fact, It is actually rather critical to this discussion. The point of the OP was to show that The “atheist community” is “religiously diverse”. Unless we know why these people are making a seemingly contradictory and nonsensical claim(The religious doing the opposite is not the same. If Eric has shown us anything, it’s that you can support any conceivable theological position of you throw enough nonsense and metaphysics at it), then we can’t very well include them as part of the “community”. The problem, though, is that any resolution of the contradiction,save the assuredly rare social pressure situation(Sure Honey, I’m an atheist *secretly prays to Jesus*), will render either the “religiously diverse” aspect or the “atheist community” aspect untrue.

    • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

      @grungor, “Ever noticed that every evangelical preacher ever was somehow an “atheist” at some point? ” Actually I don’t pay enough attention to enough of them to notice that, but I have noticed that many evangelical atheists were highly religious at some point (and there has always been a popular notion that converts to any faith tend to be the most fervent believers).

    • Guy

      what exactly is an “evangelical atheist”? an atheistic that speaks his mind? One that’s proud he’s left behind the quarrels of religious sects over who’s invisible god is more awesome?
      I’m sure some atheists like to boast and feel superior to others, even without justification. it’s called ego. everybody’s got one.
      It doesn’t mean that not believing in god is a religion, because it doesn’t IMPLY any dogma.

    • abb3w

      Those people who do not believe in God, but who do not use the appellation “atheist” for their religious identity. See here for the Pew Forum results in the other direction.

    • http://www.phatjmo.com Justin Zimmer

      The kind who think it’s funny to screw up statistics by responding ironically. If you asked me a question about how I identify myself and I said “Atheist” and then ask me if I believe in God, I’m probably going to give you a funny look and say “Yes, yes I do.” When asked if I pray and how often, I’ll probably say something like “yes, and about 10 times a week, twice in traffic.”

    • sailor1031

      Like 21% of self-identified vegetarians eat meat.

  • http://www.FederalCrimesDefender.com David Kaloyanides

    Perhaps this is an indication of illiteracy among Americans who don’t know what “atheist” means?

    • Indeed

      Indeed. The blog should say “21% of self-identified atheists need to buy a dictionary.”

  • grung0r

    The atheist community appears to have considerable religious diversity.

    The only thing this is evidence of is the intellectual depths you will sink to to try to prove yet another one of your stupid, inane points.

    The Pew study on religion is *highly* flawed and probably deeply biased. It has found, again and again, for instance, that religious people give more to charity than secular people, but the evidence for this is as follows: 1: religious people get to count giving to their church as charity, and 2:They are counted as giving to charity if they say they did. It may be recording nothing more than religious peoples higher propensity to lie about having given. Despite these flaws having been pointed out numerous times, they continue with the same absurd methodology, and trumpet it from the roof tops every time they come out with their “survey”. Your discovery that 26% of the people they include in the category of “people who don’t believe god” believe in god is just further proof that this study, very simply sucks. That you would be taken in by it though, is hardly surprising.

    • Erp

      Can you give some references for your allegations? I’ve read about this particular survey before (the full report not just this piece) and it seems to be fairly well thought out and supported and it asks no questions about charitable giving (it does ask about volunteer work through their place of worship but not about total volunteer work or giving).

    • grung0r

      You are correct. I was thinking of the The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. I could have sworn it was done by Pew, but I guess not.

      I withdraw my claim(see, Eric, it’s not such a hard thing to do. You should try it some time, when you are, you know, wrong).

    • Erp

      It still leaves us with the problem of why we have 21% of self-identifying atheists as believing in god or universal force. I’m wondering whether some are theists who use the definition that an atheist is someone who is angry at god (a definition some Christians and others use) and they are angry at their god. Or whether some think an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a personal god and they don’t believe in a personal god but do in an impersonal force. A small percentage may have misheard the question (but that goes both ways).

      The actual text of the questions were

      30. Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
      31. (if Yes to 30) How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?
      32. (if Yes to 30) What comes closest to you view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a personal relationship or God is an impersonal force?

    • abb3w

      First, the methodology includes deliberate oversampling for some groups. I suspect this means the questions were asked in two parts.

      Second, the GSS question includes the option of “sometimes” believing in God. A person might identify as an atheist because most of the time they don’t believe in God, or don’t believe in God as others (particularly Christians) think about it, but have some generic deist “impersonal force” acceptance.

      Third, there’s a small fraction of the population who feel it’s their obligation to give bullshit answers to surveys.

      Fourth, there’s probably a not-so-small fraction who don’t have strongly consistent answers to the question in their own mind.

  • corners

    For those self-identified atheists who say they believe in some god, I propose the term “not very brights”.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Among atheists, 21% believe in God

    They’re not “real” atheists.

  • http://www.mastervoodoospells.com/ voodoo

    Religion is sometimes held to be untrue today because there are so many different and often conflicting claims made about it.

    • John Morales

      Leaving aside that goddism (aka theism) and religion are largely-overlapping but not identical sets, I note that where there are conflicting claims, at most one of those claims can be true.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

    There are various possible explanations for this result:

    1. To the pagan Romans, Christians were reviled as “atheists” and some modern American Christians may have accepted that label.

    2. Just as “I believe in you” is not worth saying as an existence statement and so must mean something else, so it is possible to “believe in” (in the sense of taking comfort from putting trust in) something that one suspects does not exist.

    3. A significant fraction of Americans are sufficiently illiterate as to have no idea of what the term “atheist” actually means.

    There may be more, but I think I already hit the jackpot with #3!

    • Midnight Rambler

      I’m thinking you’re right. My guess is that the 21% are those who left their original religion to become nonreligious theists/deists, and consider that as equivalent to atheism. Quite possibly because it’s what their religious family calls them.

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

    30. Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
    31. (if Yes to 30) How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?
    32. (if Yes to 30) What comes closest to you view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a personal relationship or God is an impersonal force?

    6% of atheists can’t read a questionnaire properly. And as someone who butchers forms constantly (since I can’t “think within their boxes” and constantly misunderstand what they’re asking for one reason or another) I can sympathize.

    I very well could have filled out question 30 with a “no” but then missed the “If Yes to 30″ and when asked at 32 what my view of what “God was” could have specified what I thought the word meant, not meaning to imply I thought the being actually existed.

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

      It wasn’t a questionaire – a phone interviewer asked questions based on a script.

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

    On the one hand, a pre-conceived ideology about the meaning of the term “atheist”. On the other hand, empirical data.

    • grung0r

      Did the survey ask them if they were part of the “atheist community”?

  • Aaron

    I think the problem is that people don’t understand what an atheist is. I suspect that some think an atheist is someone who has rejected the religion they were raised in (likely Christianity) in favor of an informal spirituality akin to deism or a non-specific theism. I also suspect that many of these folks came to this position intuitively, not by the way of rigorous rationalism.

    Seems to me that this survey would have been more useful by proceeding like so:

    1. Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
    2. (if Yes to 1) How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?
    3. (if Yes to 1) What comes closest to you view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a personal relationship or God is an impersonal force?
    4. (if Yes to 3) Do you affiliate with any religious sect out of tradition, habit, or for social/financial benefits?
    5. (if Yes to 4) With what religious sect are you affiliated?
    6. (if No to 1) Congratulations, you’re an atheist!
    7. (if No to 1) Do you affiliate with any religious sect out of tradition, habit, or for social/financial benefits?
    7. (if Yes to 7) With what religious sect are you affiliated?

    This would lead to a more logical presentation of the data, something like:

    25% Atheists
    75% Theists

    Of the Athiests (i.e. those who do not believe in a god),
    80% unaffiliated
    10% affiliated with the Unitarian Universalists
    5% affiliated with a sect of Christianity
    5% affiliated with a sect of Judaism

    This data may well be teasable from the Pew questionnaire, but it’s obviously not how they present it.

    • Erp

      You want
      http://pewforum.org/Not-All-Nonbelievers-Call-Themselves-Atheists.aspx

      Of the 5% of Americans who do not believe in God or a universal spirit.

      24% consider themselves atheists
      15% agnostic
      35% nothing in particular
      2% don’t know or refused to give an identification
      14% were Christian
      4% were Jewish
      3% were Buddhist
      4% were other religions

      Note that self-identified UUs are only .3% of the US population so even if every UU said they didn’t believe in god it would only be 6% of the Americans who don’t believe in god (obviously they didn’t but they probably make a fairly good chunk of the 4% other religions)


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