Operational atheists or perfectly normal believers?

Julian Sanchez has a post titled “Undercover Atheists?” that makes a number of interesting points, but the one I want to comment on is about the number of atheists in government:

I suspect “self-avowed” is a key qualifier in the passage quoted above. Whatever they check off on their census forms, the political class in D.C. have always struck me as pretty secular. Maybe they’re just quiet about their faith—praying quietly in private, regularly attending worship services on the weekend without making much fuss about it. And I certainly wouldn’t claim that people I happen to know socially are anything like a representative sample of “the D.C. political class.” Still, if you asked me to guess what percentage of the under-40 political professionals in this town—hill staffers, pundits, journalists, wonks, and activists—are agnostic or atheist in their private beliefs, I’d hazard a number much higher than 15 percent. If you expand that definition to encompass what I’d call “operational atheists”—people who might tell a pollster they’re whatever faith they grew up in, and might “believe” in some vague abstract sense, but whose nominal religion plays no discernible role in their thinking or everyday life—you’re probably well over 50 percent.

Given that most Americans say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist, I don’t doubt there are plenty of closeted atheists in D.C. But the business of labeling people “operational atheists” doesn’t really make sense. As Hume said:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

Translated into modern English, even bigots don’t believe half the stuff they say. Even people who claim to believe that everyone who doesn’t believe as they do is going to Hell don’t generally act like it. For most people, maybe religion plays a role in their thinking, but does it play a role in their everyday life? Not really. So it doesn’t really make sense to go labeling people “operational atheists” the way Sanchez does.

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  • Mike de Fleuriot

    “even bigots don’t believe half the stuff they say”

    But they still say this stuff, and that is where the problem is. I could be in a mixed race same sex relationship, but that does not mean that I should be allowed to say that white gays are sick and need to be proscribed.

  • jamessweet

    I partially agree… I don’t think this “operational atheists” term is entirely useless, but I do agree that it’s utterly unremarkable that (Sanchez estimates) over half of the political class in DC fit this description. It is, as you say, pretty ordinary.

    But I do still think it’s a useful distinction. Many believers are “operational atheists” in the sense Sanchez describes, but not all are. The “bigots [who] don’t believe half the stuff the say” still say it, they still believe half of it, it still affects their opinions and their actions. So there is a meaningful distinction there, between that type of believer, and the type who consistently uses her own moral judgment and secular reasoning in deciding how to approach the world.

  • Julian Sanchez

    I don’t want to insist on the particular term, but I do think it’s worth recognizing that there are significant numbers of people who will call themselves believers—and mean it—in response to a direct question, but are in no other practical way distinguishable from agnostics or atheists. They’re believers in the same sense that I’m a believer in the proposition that the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066: I’ll say yes if you ask me, because that’s what I remember reading back in High School history, but never really give the question thought otherwise, and would drop it with a shrug if another book informed me that historians had gotten it wrong after all.

    • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

      It’s hard to say that someone isn’t “really” a Christian, since the defnition of a Christian is really, really, vague. It seems like one doesn’t even have to believe in a resurrection anymore to call themselves a Christian, let alone a “physical” or “spiritual” one.

      But than, surely there is some sort of way of making distictions between the christianity of Theologians, and the Christianity of many commoners. Perhaps the difference is in practice. Theologians will try to justify their ethics with scripture, where most commoners just do what they feel like, even if the vast majority of Theologians would call it a sin and say your going to hell for it.

      It’s a shame these people even bother calling themselves Christian. They certainly make Christianities numbers look far more impressive than they actually are.