After the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was released, we discovered that 21% of atheists believe in God and one in ten of us pray once a week.
To say that you’re an atheist who believes in God and prays is the equivalent of saying that you’re a vegetarian who loves to scarf down barbecued ribs and T-bone steak. Or a Christian who rejects the teachings of the New Testament. Or a religiously observant Jew who also believes that Jesus was the Messiah. Or a Muslim who believes that Jesus was God.
Americans as a people have become supremely ignorant about and indifferent to the specific meanings of words, and they are equally confused about important historical distinctions.This is a serious cultural disease throughout our nation. A majority of Americans, in what is supposedly the most religious nation in the developed world, cannot name the four Gospels or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Why shouldn’t some American atheists be as ignorant about the meaning of atheism as many religious Americans are about religion?
I suppose it’s possible that some of the atheists who said they believed in God were operating under the misapprehension that atheism means something like deism — belief not in a personal God but in an overarching providence, or spirit, that gave rise to the universe but plays no direct role in the affairs of humans. I suppose it is also possible that some of those polled, aware that atheism is greatly stigmatized in American culture, wanted to make nice by saying that they did believe in God in the same spirit that some women say, “I am a feminist but….” The “but” is always followed by some silly, ingratiating statement like, “I don’t want to burn my bra” or “I like men.”
But atheism is not a flexible word…
She even coins a new term:
But too many Americans are convinced, and have been convinced by the sloppy speech around them, that words mean anything you want them to mean. They really do believe that “I see what I eat” means the same thing as “I eat what I see.” And that mistaken idea probably lies at the heart of what I will call the Pew Paradox.
The full essay can be read at On Faith.