Pod people: On converts to atheism

We have another podcast up and running. This one is a follow-up chat, with me this time around, about the new wave of data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life — the “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.”

For me, this was a chance to explain some of the views I expressed both here at GetReligion and in my most recent Scripps Howard News Service column, which is up now at tmatt.net — right here.

The key for me is that most atheists and agnostics are, in their own way, CONVERTS to a new faithless tradition. Anyone who knows anything about religion knows that converts tend to be very passionate people when it comes to practicing their faith and learning more about it. Passion drives people to knowledge.

The same thing is true with atheists. Most of them have been raised in a faith tradition and then they have chosen — for reasons of experience, reading, academics, etc. — to convert to a faithless stance.

When it comes to gaining knowledge about religion, love is not the opposite of hate — apathy is.

People who love their faith (or now have chosen to hate or reject a given faith) tend to know more than people who are apathetic. People who practice their faith the most also tend to have more knowledge. Duh. A Catholic who goes to Mass several times a week is, most of the time, going to know more about Catholicism than someone who goes once a year. A Southern Baptist who goes to church several times a week, including Wednesday night missions classes about world religions, is going to know more about religion than someone who goes two or three times a year on Sunday morning, period.

There are many other details in the survey and in the coverage that come up in this podcast discussion.

Oh, and brace yourself for “Catholic vote” coverage in the coming weeks. How is that related to the Pew Forum study?

Give it a listen.

I hope GetReligion readers are giving this new project a try. It’s easy to simply click the “direct download” link and listen to the short program right on your computer. We are coming soon to iTunes, as well. Hang in there with us.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    When it comes to gaining knowledge about religion, love is not the opposite of hate —apathy is.

    Must atheists hate religion?

    Atheists are often painted in purely negative terms, but it’s always seemed to me that atheists as a class tend to have a positive passion for only believing true things, and understanding how they know something’s true or not.

  • Bram

    Buddhists love Nothing. Atheists hate Something — i.e. God.

  • http://exm.nr/a7LFfo Demetrius Hawkins

    I think in a sense that “religious people” have to take some responsibility for atheism. Like the article said,

    “Most of them have been raised in a faith tradition and then they have chosen — for reasons of experience, reading, academics, etc. — to convert to a faithless stance.”

    When those that practice the religion, or better yet faith, don’t understand it they begin to teach this fantasy world and God becomes a myth, because what is taught is not real. Atheists are people who don’t understand the spiritual side of things, but understandably don’t agree with the pie in the sky teaching that Christianity has become.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    You are focusing on a very small minority of atheists for whom atheism is a hobby. In my world atheism is the norm: people don’t even talk about “atheists”–they talk about people’s being “theists,” a strange, surprising aberation.

    The atheists I know don’t make an issue of atheism and aren’t interested in religion, which they regard as at best an interesting historical phenomenon, like Ptolemaic astronomy. They don’t proselytize. They simply get on with their happy godless lives without giving religion a thought–except when it’s deployed in support of right wing politics.

    As far as being converts, according to Robert Putnam’s latest, _American Grace_, an increasing number of the Nones (individuals who give no religious preference) are not converts but are rather the children of unchurched Baby Boom parents who dropped out of religion in the ’60s-’70s.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Demetrius –

    Atheists are people who don’t understand the spiritual side of things…

    Well, as the study showed, there’s a difference between ‘not understanding‘ and ‘not agreeing with‘ something…

    Bram – You can believe that about atheists… but as we say, believing something doesn’t make it true. :)

  • Steve S

    @H.E. Baber:

    There’s a difference between the “Nones” and the atheists.

    The Pew survey had self-professed “atheists” doing well on the test, and the larger group, “nothing in particular” doing poorly. People who aren’t interested in religion will be more likely to fit into that second group.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Norwegian Shooter

    The issue isn’t the relative knowledge of converts vs. passives, practicing vs. non-practicing. The issue that needs attention and explaining is why religious people know so little about their own faith? Daniel Dennett has the best take I’ve seen. Can you do any better than that?

  • http://exm.nr/a7LFfo Demetrius Hawkins

    @Ray Ingle, I agree 100% with your comment,

    “there’s a difference between ‘not understanding’ and ‘not agreeing with’ something…”

    I am a believer and don’t agree with half of what is taught today. My reasoning is that religion has to take some responsibly for people being turned of from living a life of faith. People don’t become atheist or however we tend to classify them just because they decide today is a good day to not believe in God. There is a reason and that reason usually starts in church.

  • Dave

    Believers who use terms like “faithless,” “hate” or “don’t understand” are projecting their own feelings about atheists onto the latter, not reporting what is out there. (Yes, atheism is a faith — a faith that there is no God.) This kind of projection makes for poor journalism.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Wow, I go to class and all heck breaks lose.

    Read the Scripps column or, before commenting, listen to the actual podcast — what a concept — and you’ll see that many of these concerns are addressed.

    No one said that all atheists HATE religion (although some do). And as for the NONES, that is not the same thing as the Nothing in Particulars, who themselves are either secular (virtual agnostics) or people who are actually religious, but it’s a religion of their own creation or choosing.

    That’s the whole Sheila/Sheilaism thing that has been around since the work of Robert Bellah.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=bellah%2C+Sheilaism%2C+religion&hl=en

    None of this is simple, is it?

  • astorian

    First, would most regular readers of Get Religion agree that the 32 questions asked in the Pew survey were extremely easy ? I mean, I got all 32 questions right, and only had to guess once (I was pretty sure that both Buddhists AND Hindus believed In the concept of nirvana, so I wasn’t 100% sure when I guessed that “Buddhists” was the answer they wanted). So, can we all affirm that the quiz was a piece of cake?

    Yes? All are in agreement? Good.

    Now commentators have made much of the fact that atheists scored better on this quiz, overall, than religious people. But let’s loo ka bit closer- how many right answers do you think most atheists got?

    30? 29? 28?

    Try 20.9, which is a failing grade by any standard. Better than religious persons, yes, but still a mighty pathetic score, in my opinion.

    Christians SHOULD be embarrassed that they know so little, but atheists sure don’t have anything to crow about.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, BRAM:

    Your comment is out of line and has nothing to do with the post or the podcast, in terms of journalism.

    However, since I was in class, was not around to spike it before others reacted to it.

    Journalism. Journalism. Think journalism.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    My point wasn’t to explain why atheists scored well on the test, and I do realize that the majority of “Nones” aren’t atheists. I just wanted to point out that atheism is the norm in lots of subcultures–e.g. in Academia and, I suspect, amongst educated upper middle class people generally. Most don’t call themselves “atheists” because that suggests those cranky hobbiests who go to humanist conventions and make a fuss. But that isn’t to say that they believe in God. They don’t–but don’t make an issue of it.

    Some of these atheists are “converts” and some aren’t, but they aren’t in some mad rebellion against their upbringing. They just don’t do religion, assume that no educated person would take it seriously, and are contemptuous of those of us who are religious believers, though most regard it as bad form to openly ridicule us because that would be like other “disadvantaged” people.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    Sorry, that last sentence should read “…that would be like ridiculing other ‘disadvantaged’ people.”

  • Jerry

    However, since I was in class, was not around to spike it before others reacted to it.

    You need to get with the program and respond to cyberspace ahead of anything happening in meat space. So of course your pocket computer, aka cell phone, should have alerted you to the post and you should have stopped what you were doing to respond. Beware! You could be accused of not being in touch with the zeitgeist.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Tmatt – Well, I listened to the podcast, even though I hate podcasts. (I read much faster than anybody talks, so I hate devoting 20 minutes to something I can read in under 5.)

    It did not address my concerns. It aggravated them.

    Atheists “have a faith position”? They are “religious believers of the strongest type”? (If these aren’t exact quotes, well, there’s another reason I hate podcasts.)

    I thought you were an advocate of reporting what people actually believe, and of using what they say – their own words – as much as possible?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    RAY:

    Of course atheism is a faith position. So is theism. Agnosticism is, essentially, “this cannot be tested in a test tube in a definitive manner, so I plead the fifth when it comes to ultimate issues.” But theism and atheism are by definition faith-based stances.

    Did I say “strongest type”? If so, I meant that they are a minority in history, even with the years of the Soviet bloc.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Norwegian Shooter

    tmatt – I’m with Ray, let atheists define themselves. And do you really think “of course” and “by definition” are actual arguments? If you’ve addressed the issue before, link to it, otherwise, you’ve only made the most clumsy attempt to side-step a question I’ve seen in a while.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Tmatte –

    Of course atheism is a faith position. So is theism… theism and atheism are by definition faith-based stances.

    What if one’s position is, “faith is not a valid method of determining truth”? That’s a stance about faith, but is it a ‘faith-based stance’?

    Did I say “strongest type”?

    I don’t care with what strength you qualified it – it’s classifying atheists as ‘religious’ at all that I have a problem with. Is “bald” a hair color?

    One thing you said in the podcast that I can agree with: ‘People who are strongly motivated to study religion tend to know more about it’. That’s true.

    Now… is ‘being religious’ the only conceivable reason one could be motivated to study religion?

  • Jerry

    Agnosticism is, essentially, “this cannot be tested in a test tube in a definitive manner, so I plead the fifth when it comes to ultimate issues.”

    Go argue with the dictionary which says something else.
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agnostic

  • Bill R.

    tmatt, I kind of agree with Ray, actually, depending on the definition of “faith”. If by “faith”, you mean “accepting a proposition that cannot be proven beyond all doubt”, then yes, atheism and theism are both faith-based stances (even Dawkins admits this, IIRC). But that is not the way most believers use the word faith. When I say, “I have faith in God”, I’m not primarily saying “I intellectually affirm God’s existence”, but rather “I trust God and rely on Him for meaning, direction, salvation, hope, joy, etc.” Now, while individual atheists still trust in things/people (inc. themselves) for many of the same purposes, atheists as a group are not united by a common “faith” of this kind.

    Are atheists “religious believers”? Depends on how you define religion. Ray, on his website, defines religion with reference to the supernatural, and answers “no”. Stephen Prothero, in the coda of God Is Not One, gives a more sociological definition of religion, and answers “yes”. In this situation, which has parallels with how the media uses “fundamentalist”, I am inclined to let atheists define themselves with respect to the label “religious”.

    Oh, and Norwegian Shooter: while I agree that “of course” and “by definition” are not actual arguments, judging by your latest blog post, you seem to apply that criticism very selectively. The quotes from Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Meyers contain some of the most egregious question-begging and category mistakes I’ve seen in a while.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    OK….

    … a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.

    Tmatt wrote, off the cuff:

    “this cannot be tested in a test tube in a definitive manner, so I plead the fifth when it comes to ultimate issues.”

    What is the huge difference in emphasis between these two?

    If anything, I would be more cautious about the “probably unknowable” part….

  • Bill R.

    Ray -

    What if one’s position is, “faith is not a valid method of determining truth”?

    For us faithful, faith is not a method of determining truth. Rather, faith is the attitude, or posture, that allows one to use such a method. Truth itself is revealed by God (in nature, the Bible, and human experience), and that truth is accessed by humans via certain methods (science, theology, and relationship), which are, in turn, enabled by faith (i.e. trust in the method and object of investigation).

    Using any method requires faith. To “use” science, you must have faith that nature is real, regular, and rational. To “use” theology, you must accept that God truthfully revealed himself in the Bible. To “use” relationship, you must trust that the other person is communicating truthfully with you. The debate is not really over whether faith is useful (everyone uses it, all the time, unless you’re a logical positivist), but over what and who are worthy of our faith.

  • Mark

    I wasn’t converted to atheism. As an atheist I don’t actually have faith in my “lack of faith.” I have simply come to understand that all gods are improbable. I don’t discriminate against the current dominant god; I don’t have faith in the Egyptian, Greek or Roman gods either. I hope this helps you to understand some of us atheist better.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Bill R. –

    Using any method requires faith.

    At which point all statements are ‘faith-based’, so meteorology is a ‘faith-based stance’, and journalism is a religion. (I guess there was no need to distinguish between freedom of the press and freedom of religion.)

    If all that’s meant by “faith-based stance” is that it’s a “stance”… well, I guess I can’t object to that. :)

  • Bill R.

    Yes, meteorology requires the same kind of faith as any scientific endeavor. And yes, all statements and stances are faith-based, in some form or another. That was, indeed, my point. (I believe GR has seriously addressed the idea of journalism-as-a-religion in other posts).

    Obviously, when people use phrases like “faith-based stance” in colloquial speech, they are usually referring to faith in a particular deity. I’m not saying that meteorology requires faith in God; I’m simply saying that people who claim they are without any faith at all are either deluding themselves, or using a definition of faith that is foreign even to the faithful.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    And yes, all statements and stances are faith-based, in some form or another. That was, indeed, my point. (I believe GR has seriously addressed the idea of journalism-as-a-religion in other posts).

    And now, here comes the key question: in your epistemology, is “religious faith” a distinct type of faith? In short, is there a real distinction between ‘freedom of the press’ and ‘freedom of religion’? (I’m not joshing or being sarcastic, I’d honestly like an answer to that question.)

    My epistemology is a lot more like C.S. Lewis’: “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.” I have a huge amount of faith in my wife… but we’ve been married more than a dozen years, so I have a lot of evidence that I can trust her. (Nor am I exceptional. How many songs are there about the difference between saying you love someone, and actually acting like it?) Same with science. For me, it’s “First, evidence. Then faith.”

    Feel free to email me if you want to get into foundationalism and whether accepting basic axioms like ‘reality exists’ or ‘knowledge is possible’ require faith or not. We’ve strayed far from journalism as it is. (In any case, thanks for looking at my website and actually thinking about it!)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, I’ve let this go on an on.

    Could someone please try to get back to the actual content of the post and the podcast?

    Spiking away

  • http://preacherofthenight.blogspot.com Chris

    I have to admit, tmatt, your story is the most thorough analysis of the data and what it really said. The other articles I saw just went for the headlines. This might be due to the “quick read” culture of modern news coverage but I think it reinforces the fact, much commented on in this blog, that the media doesn’t understand religion well enough to realize that there are details and nuances to examine in stories about religion. I wonder how well the majority of reporters would do on the Pew quiz.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Tmatt –

    Could someone please try to get back to the actual content of the post and the podcast?

    Well, my questions in comment #19 weren’t rhetorical…


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X