Why Do Atheists Believe in God, Prayer and Heaven?

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.

Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers, doesn’t doubt the veracity of the numbers. She offers up her thoughts on all this:

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.


[tags]atheist[/tags]

  • http://blargen.com/blog/ postsimian

    *smacks forehead*

  • John

    This is what I posted at her essay:

    Americans as a people have become supremely ignorant about and indifferent to the specific meanings of words

    Pfft, gimme a break. This is not unique to Americans (although English could be more prone to such stretching than other less elastic languages) and it’s certainly not new. Words change meaning ALL THE TIME. Read through some etymologies in your dictionary. Words turn into their opposites, abrasive words become benign, benign abrasive, figurative becomes literal, literal becomes figurative, words come into and out of style like hemlines. Mistranslations, mistranscriptions, and misspellings are built into languages like junk DNA.

    Yes, mistaken definitions lead to confusion. But ultimately, there’s nothing you can do about it, and really, it’s not that big of a deal. Everyone on the planet can and will use language however they see fit. What are you going to do, legislate it? Good luck with that.

    As a rabid fan of Language Log, I’m come to believe that most claims of The Death of Proper English are greatly exaggerated. Especially when everybody clings to some simulacra of a “pure” language.

  • David D.G.

    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.

    This is a subject about which I am extremely passionate. I jumped into a debate on this very topic in another forum recently, and I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand why a number of otherwise very intelligent people kept insisting that “nobody else has the right to dictate to” them what words mean!

    To them, if they want to put a new meaning on a word that it never has been used to communicate before, that’s perfectly legitimate, and if people misunderstand you, that’s somehow their fault. IT ABSOLUTELY IS NOT LEGITIMATE to do this, at least not without acknowledging that that is what you’re doing and then leading your readers with information to that effect (as Susan Jacoby does when she coins the term “Pew Paradox” and defines it).

    True, words change meaning over time, or at least acquire additional meanings; just take a look at cool, gay, and tubular, for example. But you can’t force that change unilaterally; if you want a word to mean something it doesn’t, you’re better off finding out what the right word is and using that, rather than trying to use the WRONG word and insisting that it means whatever you want it to mean. Words have conventional meanings, and if your goal is to actually communicate with people meaningfully, it’s best to use terms in ways that they are already prepared to understand them.

    ~David D.G.

  • Joe L.

    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.

    this type of thinking is pervasive in society now, and it is related to the way Chrisitians would prefer to make everything a “matter of opinion”. “You believe in evolution? well… that’s your opinion, i guess”. Well, no, it’s not “my opinion”, just as it’s not “my opinion” that the earth is round. They want to turn everything into opinions and beliefs, because when people believe whatever they want, then facts and truth (and science) become irrelevant.

    News reporting has turned to this too, most visibly by Fox News’ mottos of “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide”. Because of this, people who watch the news now think that everything has to be presented as a dichotomy – left vs. right, bad vs. good, etc. There are no “facts”, just “events”, then you can make up your mind about what those events mean. Again, no, sorry – sometimes news really just is facts, and there’s no “deciding” about it. Obviously, there are other times when multiple sides of a story need to be presented, but really not as often as we have been led to believe.

  • David

    Man o man some of the comments there read like a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s soap.

  • Jason

    I’m guessing Kirk Cameron is one of those 21% and 10%.

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  • http://blog.myspace.com/johnpritzlaff John Pritzlaff

    I agree with Susan Jacoby. I am increasingly frustrated by our wishy-washy, relativistic, nothing-means-anything-anymore culture. I’ll tackle the three problems head on.

    God:
    It could be the Spinozan God that Richard Dawkins and most atheists believe in, but it’s sort of misleading to affirm that obscure type of God when you’ve just said you were an atheist. Maybe it was the way the questions were framed. For example, a Poseidon believer is an atheist with respect to Yahweh, Allah, Thor, and all other gods, except for the single case of Poseidon.

    Prayer:
    If you define prayer loosely, then pretty much everybody prays every now and then, including atheists. You could say that whenever you say “Please let this work out” or “I hope this works out” you are praying, even if you’re not really intending to speak to a god. And we all slip up and naively ask something of the universe or fate from time to time.

    Heaven:
    Some people define heaven as “The good life”, or Nirvana, or nonexistence after death, or they say that “Heaven is here on Earth”. Most of these are misleading, but the problem with polls is that they don’t get to the complex and obscure thoughts of the individual. No one likes to be boxed in.

    There is also the problem of younger nonbelievers, who aren’t always very thoughtful about the issues. For some of these people, atheism is just a rebellious fad (but I would scorn to say that very many young atheists are like this; most of them aren’t, and I’m certainly an example of one who isn’t.)

    This kind of language is what happens when your culture becomes too overly-”tolerant”, relativistic, and unreasonable. I can’t wait for the day when conversation, conscience, and reason become important concepts in America once again.

  • Gabriel

    Day’s like today make me wish that I could still cry.

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

    Hey, I was just talking about this topic here:
    http://friendlyatheist.com/2008/06/29/imagine-no-religion-at-least-the-ones-we-know/#comment-193473

    Great comments above too btw.

    How about:

    1. God is love.
    2. Love obviously exists.
    3. Presto! I’m now NYCtheist!

  • Julie Marie

    sloppy communication frustrates me very much! I realize I can take it to the extreme sometimes, holding people responsible for what they have said – rather than taking the time to let them communicate what they really meant, but geez. I think the world would be a better place if people would just think things through before they open their mouths.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    In the interest of rooting out double standards, allow me to place this quote side-by-side with a quote from another essay that was well-received here at Friendly Atheist.

    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.

    I am…

    I am a person who despises labels and categorizing. I am a whole person with many beliefs and views (some of which are contradictory and conflicted), hopes and dreams, worries and fears, qualities and quirks, delights and aversions.

    Surely, readers can see that the sentiments expressed by Susan Jacoby and by Derek contradict… at least superficially.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    As a rabid fan of Language Log, I’m come to believe that most claims of The Death of Proper English are greatly exaggerated. Especially when everybody clings to some simulacra of a “pure” language.

    Hooray for Language Log!

    I find it interesting that Susan also harps on about the idiom “could care less”. Oh, whatever!

    True, words change meaning over time, or at least acquire additional meanings; just take a look at cool, gay, and tubular, for example. But you can’t force that change unilaterally; if you want a word to mean something it doesn’t, you’re better off finding out what the right word is and using that, rather than trying to use the WRONG word and insisting that it means whatever you want it to mean.

    I agree that we are morally obligated to communicate efficiently. I also agree that we can’t and shouldn’t change meanings unilaterally. But that’s exactly the problem with prescriptive language. It attempts to unilaterally change such phrases as “could care less” despite the empirical evidence that such “illogical” phrases are quite common and well-understood by speakers. Speaking of which, have you ever noticed how illogical it is to say “couldn’t care less”? I mean, that’s just plain exaggeration!

    Although, admittedly, the phrase “god-believing atheists” is far less common than the phrase “could care less”. However, it might make more sense if we consider that the Pew survey asked if they believed in a God or a universal spirit. I could definitely see people calling themselves atheists and yet believing in a universal spirit, especially when you consider non-Abrahamic religions. I think it is also easy to underestimate the diversity of definitions of atheism. Have you ever heard the heated arguments that “agnostics” and “atheists” often have over definitions of atheism? That could be just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Darryl

    I think the world would be a better place if people would just think things through before they open their mouths.

    This would be heaven.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    NYCatheist,

    How about:

    1. God is love.
    2. Love obviously exists.
    3. Presto! I’m now NYCtheist!

    Ah, but what is love? ;-)

    Darryl said,

    July 2, 2008 at 12:15 am

    I think the world would be a better place if people would just think things through before they open their mouths.

    This would be heaven.

    According to some experts, those would just be one type of people… who think first and open mouth second. Another type would open mouth first and think second.

    “Let’s think it over” vs. “Let’s talk it over.” Just different ways of problem solving and communicating…

  • http://heathendad.blogspot.com/ HappyNat

    To them, if they want to put a new meaning on a word that it never has been used to communicate before, that’s perfectly legitimate, and if people misunderstand you, that’s somehow their fault.

    Jell-O rocket ship refrigerator fork apple blossom!

  • cipher

    I could definitely see people calling themselves atheists and yet believing in a universal spirit, especially when you consider non-Abrahamic religions. I think it is also easy to underestimate the diversity of definitions of atheism. Have you ever heard the heated arguments that “agnostics” and “atheists” often have over definitions of atheism? That could be just the tip of the iceberg.

    To which I’d add that I disagree with Jacoby when she says, “an atheist is, by definition, someone who does not believe in God or in the supernatural”. The Webster definition of atheist is “one who believes that there is no deity”. A disbelief in the supernatural may be implied, but is by no means necessary. As I recall, Sam Harris has said that he is open to the idea of a transcendent reality.

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

    Linda,

    Love is an emotion (as far as I know), which exists as much as any other emotion. (Brain patterns).

    HappyNat,

    Fork apple monkey! Apple fork, ship slope socket blossom…

    Cipher,

    I agree. Atheists could believe magic or psychic powers exist, etc. (I think I have met one who believed ESP claims…) However if they think they have good evidence for such a belief, they would probably claim the phenomenon is in fact natural. (But that is only my guess, I can’t speak for such atheists.)

    I’m not a fan of that Webster definition though. Maybe one day dictionaries will catch up with the majority of atheists’ preferred “lack of belief” definition, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Wes

    George Orwell is my all-time favorite critic of language-abuse. For those who haven’t read it, his essay “Politics and the English Language” is great (it also shows that the problem Jacoby is pointing out is nothing new).

    You don’t have to be a “purist” to acknowledge that words mean something. It’s not redefining words or changing meanings that’s the problem. There’s nothing wrong with altering the meaning of a word so long as you clearly state what the new meaning is, and everyone in the conversation agrees to use that word with that meaning.

    Problems arise when words are made vague and/or ambiguous in order to obfuscate meaning and avoid committing to any position. Some people will deliberately avoid making it clear what they mean specifically so they can back out of a claim without admitting they were wrong. The most frustrating discussions are the one where you challenge something someone says and, rather than defending a clear position, they instead blur the meaning of their own statements and make it impossible to figure out what they really mean. Since I’m not a mind-reader, if someone claims they have their own special “private” meaning for some term, that’s equivalent to saying there will be no communication between me and that person.

    As Orwell pointed out 60 years ago, these types of meaningless, noncommittal, vacuous statements are what demagogues rely on. Language deprived of meaning isn’t merely “impure”, it’s a dangerous tool in the hands of unscrupulous people (I’m looking at you, Karl Rove).

    There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with changing the meaning of the word “atheist”, so long as everyone can agree on what the new meaning is, and the new meaning is used clearly and consistently. But if we give the word a blurry, shifty meaning which no one agrees on and everyone uses differently, communication breaks down and a door is opened for people to exploit the confusion.

  • http://www.bernerbits.com Derek

    Ha! I’ve just been juxtaposed with Susan Jacoby!

    Surely, I have arrived.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    There’s nothing wrong with altering the meaning of a word so long as you clearly state what the new meaning is, and everyone in the conversation agrees to use that word with that meaning.

    I don’t think agreement is necessary, at least not totally. As long as the people in the coverstaion understands how the particular person is using the word and genuine attempts are made for clarity, I think communication is always possible. We are not shooting for complete agreement. That would be impossible.

    Languages evolve, just like anything else in life. To me, the purpose of language is to make communication/understanding possible. It’s the closest thing to reading minds. And no two minds think alike. Being creative with the tool that we’ve been given, the wonderful gift of language, is a way to better understand each other.

    It is a choice that each person has to make. We can either decide to use the tools for attempt at understanding and unity, or use them for judgment and division.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Well, NYCatheist,

    Love can mean many different things to many different people. In order to understand each other, we cannot merely focus on the meaning of the word itself. Instead, we should focus more on the person who is describing the word. As we can only use more words to describe and define the word in question, we have to continue the communication. Unless, of course, there is no desire for understanding.

    If the purpose is only to find a packaged definition to label and put on a shelf, then we would have to have a discussion about the word “purpose.” ;-)

  • llewelly

    Now cipher has me imagining atheists who travel astrally and use ouija boards

  • David

    Julie Marie says,

    I realize I can take it to the extreme sometimes, holding people responsible for what they have said – rather than taking the time to let them communicate what they really meant,

    Well, you presume that given enough time, they would succeed in saying what they mean.

    You presume they even know what they mean.

    More than likely, they would just rather open a beer and watch American Idol

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    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’m not going to weigh into the debate about linguistics here as I’ve already expressed my opinions about this on other threads. However, when it comes to American ignorance in general, Jacoby is right on. In my experience the average American is supremely non-intellectual and generally uninformed. I attribute this less to stupidity and more to a pervasive apathy in our culture about things of substance. Most people would prefer to be entertained by our modern equivalents of “bread and circuses” and couldn’t care less about the distinctions between “atheism” or “theism”, “evolution” or “Creationism” or most other topics that take longer than a 30-second sound-byte to understand.

    This trend is especially obvious to anyone who has ever worked with teenagers. We’ve entertained our kids to death, and through the constant messages of music and movies, made them think that the most important thing in life are romantic relationships. It’s no wonder then that we can only interest a few of them in things like politics, religion, philosophy, and social justice. And it’s no wonder that these kids then grow up to become ignorant and apathetic adults.

    Okay, sorry… I’ll turn off my cranky old man rant mode now. :)

  • cipher

    Mike, I think you’re correct, although I’d also throw in the absolutely abysmal state of American education. We are the laughing stock of the other industrialized nations.

    (I do think also that many people are, in fact, stupid, but that’s my cranky old man mode!)

    Would you also agree that conservative evangelicals have, over the past twenty years, contributed to the fostering of a climate of anti-intellectualism?

    One last thing, re: kids and tv – I came across something recently about evidence suggesting that constant exposure to television, with its 2D imagery, doesn’t allow for proper neural development, as our brains evolved in a 3D environment.

  • Richard Wade

    When people use language they may want to be understood by someone else or they may simply want to express themselves.

    If I want to be understood by someone else I am going to have to comply with the conventions, the social agreements about the meanings of the words I choose to use. If I want to use words in an unconventional way and still be understood, then I must precede with an explanation to those with whom I want to communicate which of my terms I will be using in ways that do not comply with convention.

    If however, I wish merely to express myself then I am free to use my words any which way I please. For instance, I would not need to warn anyone that heretofore will say ” a horse’s ass” whenever I mean what others mean when they say “plinth.”

    Now before you click on your online dictionary to remind yourselves what a horse’s ass is, consider the significance of a dictionary. It is a collection of conventions and social agreements about the meanings of the words our society uses. When we are not quite sure what a horse’s ass is we trust our linguistic specialists to properly standardize our words into a book that does not change constantly but will remain current and up-to-date for several years. So we can feel confident that what is a horse’s ass today will still be a horse’s ass the next time we can’t remember and have to go look up a horse’s ass. We agree to let this reference authority rule over our language, and that power we give it is no small matter.

    People live and die for words. We hold ourselves and each other very strictly accountable to the socially understood meanings of our words. People are convicted of crimes, imprisoned and even executed because the meanings of their words are taken seriously. When the witness breaks down under Perry Mason’s grilling and says, “Yes! I killed him! And I’m glad, do you hear? Glad, glad, glad!” he’s not going to be able to defend himself later by claiming that by those words he actually meant, “You know, on second thought I’d rather have a latte.” No, he’ll be getting the gas chamber rather than a latte.

    The problem with my merely expressing myself when talking about the architectural uses of a horse’s ass is that someone else may overhear me or may be eavesdropping on my conversation with my friend who also knows what a horse’s ass is to me. Then I can get in trouble because they may take great exception to how I use a horse’s ass.

    I’m all for using our languages “creatively” and for allowing them to grow and evolve, but if our purpose is to actually communicate an idea accurately to another person, then our creativity has to remain within the bounds of the present (and always slowly developing) conventions. Otherwise grope and all words Model T Ford spontaneously change nose chameleons knock first whatever whim dictates, belly button lint understanding will be lost. There will insouciant only self crumpets.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Mike, I think you’re correct, although I’d also throw in the absolutely abysmal state of American education. We are the laughing stock of the other industrialized nations.

    That’s true too. If we actually taught kids that learning is fun, rather than a series of hoops to jump through so that administrators can keep their federal funding maybe our kids would be less ignorant.

    Would you also agree that conservative evangelicals have, over the past twenty years, contributed to the fostering of a climate of anti-intellectualism?

    Absolutely… a while back evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote an indictment of this very fact entitled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”. But it’s not just conservative evangelicals but conservatives in general. People who get educated tend to turn “liberal”, so conservatives have decided that education itself is not to be trusted.

  • Darryl

    I wonder if prolonged affluence and general peace tends to make people stupid?

  • Richard Wade

    I wonder if prolonged affluence and general peace tends to make people stupid?

    I think it permits them to become lazy and sloppy about things in general, including their own language. They no longer give their language or even their own statements a place of honor, as one would on a horse’s ass.

  • Darryl

    Didn’t Alexis De Tocqueville predict this about the Americans back in the 19th C.?

  • Aatish

    It seems quite plausible to me that these religious atheists are possibly nutjobs who are into a new-age type religion, and could find no better way to classify themselves in this poll. The kind of convoluted logic that people can hand out when talking about god is quite remarkable.

    Alternatively, they may just not have any idea what atheism means, in which case why do Hemant and Susan go so far as to call them atheists? Anyone is welcome to join the atheist club, but you must accept that there is no god, or that one is extremely unlikely (however you like to put it, but you certainly can’t believe in one). These people are clearly ignorant of this premise, so why call them atheist? Religion may not be well defined, but atheism is.

    Come to think of it, I actually know an atheist who claims to believe in god. What he means is not that he accepts the reality of god as the creator of our universe, but that since other people believe in it, god exists as a mental construct. This always struck me as particularly annoying metaphysical quibble, as it misuses the word believe.

    Another possibility is that these people are using the word god in the Einsteinian sense. In that case, they are pantheists who define god to be the universe, nothing more or less. Also irritating, in my opinion, as it uses a loaded word in a benign context and gives rise to lots of misconceptions.

  • cipher

    Absolutely… a while back evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote an indictment of this very fact entitled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”. But it’s not just conservative evangelicals but conservatives in general. People who get educated tend to turn “liberal”, so conservatives have decided that education itself is not to be trusted.

    I remember that book. I don’t think I read the whole thing; I remember skimming through it in the library one day when it came out. As I recall, Noll’s argument was that the evangelical subculture hadn’t produced an outstanding intellectual since Jonathan Edwards – and you can imagine what I think of him!

    I agree about conservatives in general. Secular conservatives don’t want to spend money on education (or much else apart from the military), and religious conservatives consider it irrelevant. We’re in a lot of trouble.

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

    I just finished John Allen Paulos’s book Irreligion. He gives a mathematician’s response to the various arguments for God. It’s a very short read and I recommend it highly. I thought the following quote was relevant to some of the discussion above:

    (pg. 136) “Is it even clear what “God is” statements mean? Echoing Bill Clinton, I note that they depend on what the meaning of “is” is. Here, for example, are three possible meanings of “is” involving God: (1) God is complexity; (2) God is omniscient; (3) there is a God. The first “is” is the “is” of identity; it’s symbolized by G = C. The second “is” is the “is” of predication; G has the property of omniscience, symbolized by O(G). The third “is” is existential, there is or there exists, an entity that is God-like, symbolized by ?xG(x). (It’s not hard to equivocally move back and forth between these meanings of “is” to arrive at quite dubious conclusions. For example, from “God is love,” “Love is blind,” and “My father’s brother is blind,” we might conclude, “There is a God, and he is my uncle.”)

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

    Wow, WordPress did not like the existential quantifier I pasted in! A whole lot of crazy errors appeared, but I see it was mostly posted OK. Please replace the question mark in “?xG(x)” with the backwards E as seen here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existential_quantification

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com/ NYCatheist

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