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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