A Riotous Diversity

Much head-scratching has been occasioned by the Pew Forum’s latest report from its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which found, among other things, that 21% of atheists claim to believe in some sort of god. I’ve linked to a press release from the Secular Coalition for America on this finding, and I’d like to add some comments of my own.

To explain this, one could make a sarcastic quip that 21% of atheists either didn’t hear the pollster correctly or else need to consult a dictionary for the correct meaning of “atheist”. Less frivolously, we could also postulate that some self-described atheists are actually still theists, but are choosing to identify themselves this way to cast a vote of protest against organized religion. It’s also possible that these people hold a non-standard definition of “God”, such as the human potential to do good or Spinoza’s sum total of the laws of physics, that permits them to give an affirmative answer to this question even though they still consider themselves atheist. The real answer is probably some combination of all of these.

There are other findings from this study I also want to discuss, however. Judging by its results, it’s not just atheists who hold views divergent from the commonly accepted definition:

For example, 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did.

Catch that? A majority of Christians said that religions other than Christianity can lead to salvation. Even a majority of Christian evangelicals said this, even though, as Steven Waldman of Beliefnet observed, “one of the most important teachings of evangelical Christianity is that salvation comes ONLY through Christ”.

What this shows, and this is very good news for religious liberty, is that in America, religious tolerance is still the norm. Although the intolerant, exclusivist religious right is overrepresented in the media, they do not speak for a majority of Americans or even a majority of believing Americans. Their attempts to weld all American Christians together into a homogeneous, controllable voting bloc have been a failure.

It’s not just the Pew Forum that’s found this. A similar study by Barna Research found that only half of Christian pastors (!) held a “biblical worldview”, which Barna essentially defines as agreement with their own, fundamentalist version of the faith. Among the population in general, only 9% of all born-again Christians held such a worldview.

The truth is that religious diversity is, and always has been, rampant among humanity. The idea of a fortress-like community of believers, all of whom are of like mind, has never existed and will never exist. Conformity can be maintained for a brief time in the hothouse environment of a small, isolated sect, but when a religion begins to expand into society in general, its teachings will inevitably begin to be reinterpreted and loosened. Rather than being a brick church, with every component identical and indistinguishable, American theism is more like a diverse jungle, with huge numbers of varying individuals that are grouped as the same religious “species” only by convention.

Again, because of the outsized influence of highly placed and influential agents of intolerance, many people say they conform, to fit in and to escape social censure. But scratch the surface, and you’ll see just how many things they believe differently from each other.

This riotous diversity arises, in part, because religious beliefs are based on faith rather than evidence. When theists come up with their own varying interpretations, there is no way for anyone else to prove them wrong. Is God an anthromorphic being who demands worship and dispenses miracles? Is God an impersonal, overarching cosmic force? Is God an utterly transcendent Other about which nothing can be said? Is God the sum total of the laws of physics? Is God the capacity of human beings to do good for each other? All these beliefs have been and still are held by large numbers of people. With no facts to decide among them, religious diversity will persist, and we can hope this will stand as an obstacle to any one sect seeking to impose its will on society.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Juan Felipe

    I would llie to see what specific questions were asked and how they were asked, how can 21% of atheist believe in God? Makes one wonder how many bachelors are married XD

  • http://agnostiChicagOkie.blogspot.com DAM10N

    There are so many notions of ‘God’ that even atheists can believe in some of them, like love or compassion in action. I’m not making this up, I swear! People like to call whatever they value most ‘god’ or something vaguely goddish. Remember Julia Sweeney’s “force of love?”

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    A majority of Christians said that religions other than Christianity can lead to salvation.

    That’s not so clear from the question asked. They may have been responding that another Christian denomination could lead to heaven. I guess it depends on how the respondents interpreted “religion”.

  • Samuel Skinner

    The stupidity of the American public nows no bounds. Am I being to cynical?

  • John Nernoff

    Any one Christian sect may not turn out to be dangerously dominant. Catholicism is now largely effete with its large populace distracted by kneeling and bowing. The latest religious juggernaut is the 1 plus billion strong Islam armed with more billions of oil money. Twenty years ago this barbaric horde was unperceived and ignored. Now what? Are we overreacting from the few barbs of 9-11 and circumscribed suicide bombings in Iraq? Or is something monumental on the horizon? Any predictions? Any advice?

  • He Who Invents Himself

    Samuel Skinner: Of course there are limitations to America’s stupidity. If there weren’t, then we all would have been swept into that “homogeneous, controllable voting bloc” that Ebonmuse referred to.

    John Nernoff: It’s hard to tell if there is something monumental on the horizon. The fact that Islam has only started actually getting into the masses’ consciousness might make our just-emerged speculation a little bit jumpy. I suppose the fact is that Islam and its manifest theocratic system have been spreading, gradually gaining more influence and power, so eventually some escalation will happen. But we’ve just started to take a look at where the Muslim world is right now, and we have yet to see truly where it’s going.

  • bestonnet

    John Nernoff:

    Any one Christian sect may not turn out to be dangerously dominant.

    Probably true, but then again, the USian religious right is composed of many different Christian sects (and they’ve also got some Jews as well).

    Religious people seem quite good at getting over their differences if a ‘bigger’ enemy appears, Catholics and Protestants can put aside their differences if they are fighting Muslims while fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims can put aside their differences to fight against secularity (and there are people from both religions who have suggested doing exactly that).

    John Nernoff:

    Catholicism is now largely effete with its large populace distracted by kneeling and bowing.

    In the first world, yes, there are still some third world countries where the Catholic church has some real power to cause problems.

    John Nernoff:

    The latest religious juggernaut is the 1 plus billion strong Islam armed with more billions of oil money. Twenty years ago this barbaric horde was unperceived and ignored. Now what? Are we overreacting from the few barbs of 9-11 and circumscribed suicide bombings in Iraq? Or is something monumental on the horizon? Any predictions? Any advice?

    To a degree I think we are both under-reacting and over-reacting.

    I’m not expecting it to be of the scale as WWII and the Cold War but there are going to be problems in store for us. Eventually secularists are going to decide that they’ve had enough at which point the fundamentalist Muslims won’t have a chance.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    To explain this, one could make a sarcastic quip that 21% of atheists either didn’t hear the pollster correctly or else need to consult a dictionary for the correct meaning of “atheist”.

    Y’know what, let’s not do this: Let’s not parse and slice and cast aspersions on people that they aren’t “real” atheists. No trend among religious people is more tiresome than their tireless-and-tiresome efforts to separate sheep from goats. Let’s just shrug and accept that genuine uniformity of thinking among any two specimens of sapiens sapiens is going to be rare.

  • Twazzi

    To explain this, one could make a sarcastic quip that 21% of atheists either didn’t hear the pollster correctly or else need to consult a dictionary for the correct meaning of “atheist”.

    Y’know what, let’s not do this: Let’s not parse and slice and cast aspersions on people that they aren’t “real” atheists. No trend among religious people is more tiresome than their tireless-and-tiresome efforts to separate sheep from goats. Let’s just shrug and accept that genuine uniformity of thinking among any two specimens of sapiens sapiens is going to be rare.

    Well said, none of us think exactly alike and maybe that’s a good thing.

    Comment by: J | July 3, 2008, 12:02 pm

  • Samuel Skinner

    Uh j- this isn’t a difference of opinion. This is the words very definition! It would be like calling yourself a communist when you are against socialized health care. It doesn’t fit!

  • velkyn

    I emailed Mr. Green at Pew and he kindly replied to me. It does seem that there are people who are just too stupid to know what atheist is, but they had to report what people told them. Unfortunately, it is true that fully 50% of humanity is below average intelligence, and a good percentage of what’s left is willfully ignorant.

    A local “faith forum” had a post about this study. Oh, the thrashing about by the fundies that “how dare they consider people who think that Christianity isn’t the *only* way to be Christians at all!”. I find it hilarious that they are constantly insisting that the US is a “Christian Nation” because there are supposedly 90%+ Christians in it, but when it is shown that these Christians don’t agree perfectly with them, suddenly they forget how their first claim is impacted the second.

  • http://wordsthatsing.wordpress.com/2008/02/22/reliable-signposts-for-personal-growth/ Lirone

    Seems like a very badly-designed survey to me… Lumping “god” or “a universal spirit” into one question seems designed to cause confusion.

    And I don’t think it’s ridiculously inconsistent to believe in “a universal spirit” and call yourself an atheist… I agree it’s not easy to see how they fit together, but it’s not impossible. It could describe many buddhists and, at a stretch, some humanists and unitarians. In fact universal spirit is such a vague term it’s difficult to be sure what it means! (I’m rather more worried about the 6% who considered their universal spirit a personal god!)

    Actually, the more I think about it, the word God has so many potential definitions that any question which includes it will almost certainly be a bad survey question. It might have made more sense if they had asked about more specific things e.g. sentient being who loves and takes care of me, sentient being who knows everything and judges me, sense of wonder at the beauty and order of the universe, feeling of connection to other human beings, feeling that there’s more to life than the material….

    Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer!

  • Nurse Ingrid

    bestonnet and John Nernoff:

    “Catholicism is now largely effete with its large populace distracted by kneeling and bowing.”

    “In the first world, yes, there are still some third world countries where the Catholic church has some real power to cause problems.”

    Listen, the Catholic church is still causing plenty of problems right here in the U.S. I agree it’s tremendously worse in, say, Latin America and Africa. But what about Catholic hospitals that don’t provide contraceptive or abortion services — and they’re the only hospital left in the county? What about abusive priests? What about how they treat LGBT people? What about the new “pope” cozying up to the American religious right, including creationists?

    Catholicism seems very quaint and outdated, sure, but harmless? I wish.

    And hey, let’s not use “effete” as an insult. Some of my best friends are effete.

  • velkyn

    It’s my opinion that the word “God” means one thing, the Christian God of the Bible. To use it to describe anything else is very confusing.

    however, to say that one believes in a god or a “universal spirit” (which seems to me to be only an attempt to get away from the “g” word) and say one is an atheist, means that one is simply ignorant on what atheist means and one should ask what it means before making such a mistake. However, I can understand why most people are so stupid, they simply don’t read anything that they don’t have to.

  • http://dangerousintersection.org/ Erich Vieth

    BTW, the actual wordings of the questions of this provocative survey can be found at the site of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

    For example, one of the exact questions was “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?”

    The exact wordings of other questions can be found at the bottoms of these data tables.

  • Samuel Skinner

    God has no official definition. It encompasses things as varied as the Pharoahs, the Emperors of Japan, Jovenah, Pelor, Allah, Zeus, Isis and me when I have the orbital death rays in place.

    It has no agreed upon component aside from being supernatural in some way and worthy of reverance and prayer.

    Universal spirit is essentially pantheism, which is a form of theism, esspecially when it is claimed to be able to interact with reality.

  • Joffan

    Because the term “atheist” is so misunderstood, public figures who happen to be atheist will find it inconvenient to admit as much – especially those whose status requires public approval, like politicians and actors. The immediate public reaction is that atheism = immorality.

    Even if they were to hedge their declaration about with descriptive phrases that describe their abiding faith in humanity’s power for good and the strength of social commitment, the detail would still get lost in the general uproar.

    Even if what I just wrote is untrue, and the populace is actually more tolerant than that, the perception is still that admitting to a God-free universe is a high-risk public strategy.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the pirate
  • bestonnet

    Why does anyone expect an atheist to offer proof that there’s no god?

    The theists need to show some proof that there is a god before it’s even worth the atheist for any comments (since atheism is just assumed if there’s no evidence to contradict it).

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the pirate

    Oops, fixed my previous entry (you need a preview mode):

    Obviously you didn’t know that there really are no atheists. This guy can attest to that:

    There Are No Atheists

    On a cross-country flight some years ago, we hit severe turbulence. The gentleman in the seat next to me who had been insisting vehemently that he was an atheist shouted out loud, “God help us.”

    Yes, even atheists pray because the image of God is implanted in us. Independent studies have showed that we yearn to know God. It’s the way we’re wired. So to be an atheist takes a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that which deep down we all know to be true.

    I have, in fact, never met an atheist. When a person professes to be one, I ask him to offer me the proof that God does not exist. I’ve never had anyone successfully respond to that question. Most retreat and say they’re really agnostics. I then ask them if they have examined every religion exhaustively. Their answer is usually no. I explain they cannot be agnostics unless they are sure that God can’t be known.

    There are no atheists. There are simply people whose pride overwhelms their innate knowledge.

  • Jim Baerg

    Corsair:
    It wasn’t all that long ago that some people would exclaim ‘By Jove’. Do you take that as evidence that the god Jupiter exists?

  • bestonnet

    Jim: I think what was posted was intended as sarcasm.

    corsair the pirate

    Oops, fixed my previous entry (you need a preview mode)

    There is one, it may not be good but it does exist.

  • velkyn

    “God has no official definition. It encompasses things as varied as the Pharoahs, the Emperors of Japan, Jovenah, Pelor, Allah, Zeus, Isis and me when I have the orbital death rays in place.”

    No,Sam. It may be that “god” might have those associations, but “God” doesn’t.