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.
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.