Some U.S. atheists seem to be confused, Pew survey shows

June 23, 2008

Christopher Hitchens, 14 Sept 2005/Shannon StapletonThere seems to be some confusion among self-described U.S. atheists, at least according to the second part of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that was issued today.

It found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, with 71 percent of those surveyed saying they were “absolutely certain” on this score.

Curiously, more than one fifth — 21 percent — of those who counted themselves as atheists said they believed in God while eight percent expressed absolute certainty about this state of affairs.

One thing does seem absolutely certain: at least a few U.S. atheists must be confused.

My “Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions” (Wordsworth Reference Series, 1992) begins its definition of the word “atheism” in the following manner: “The denial of the existence of God or gods.”

One wonders what dyed-in-the-wool atheists like Christopher Hitchens – no confusion about his stance — would say about this lot. Probably nothing very kind.

Among U.S. agnostics, 55 percent professed a belief in God and 17 percent were absolutely certain. The dictionary cited above though says that a defining characteristic of an agnostic is that they “claim ignorance” on such matters and so one wonders how they can be so certain.

America’s high levels of belief and spiritual devotion do set it apart from most affluent nations, a trait that is often commented on. But could it be that its levels of “belief” are also higher among “unbelievers?”

Talk about confusion! What do you think of results like this?

15 comments

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Makes me embarrassed to be an atheist. We’re supposed to be the group which has managed to avoid being confused by unwitnessed claims of ancient supernatural phenomena and magical powers. But now we discover that a significant segment of this usually clear-headed group doesn’t even know what it is that they don’t believe. Again, it’s embarrassing. Granted, believing in an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent god is more embarrassing, but this still isn’t a good showing by my fellow atheists. With the majority of the country committed to running their lives according to mystical unseen powers and the supposedly divine but contradictory tales of the Bible, we need as many atheists as possible to prevent the country from becoming even more gullible than it already is. NOTICE: To all atheists who believe in god — your “Clearthinker” membership cards have been hereby revoked.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Actually, I’m prezident of a group called “Non-Believers who Believe Quite Strongly”

Our aim is to provide a “safeplace” for atheists who claim to be theists, to shield them from discrimation by their militant atheist counterparts.

Where else can non-believers pray and profess their beliefs, but in such a place?

Never let anyone tell you non believers “Don’t believe” They do believe, and are often stronger supporters of god and gods than so called theists. We have a slogan here, “Atheists are true believers”

Contact me to join this exciting new group.

Petey
“Thank God I’m an Atheist!”
Seattle.

God please say us from religion and those who practice it. By the way “God” is an atheist too and who are we to judge him for that!

Posted by Headly Lamarr | Report as abusive

Despite what Ed Stoddard might think, “Some U.S. atheists seem to be confused” it is, in fact, Mr. Stoddard that is confused. Anyone professing a belief in a god or gods is no atheist. Duh! The title should be: “Some U.S. theists hopelessly ignorant and confused.” If that isn’t clear let me spell it out: belief in God == theist regardless of whatever you happen to call yourself.

Posted by none | Report as abusive

The results of this survey speak to the intellectual level of us Americans more than anything else.

It seems that the “atheists” don’t know what they believe in. They have to believe in something, don’t they?

In a tribute to George Carlin, watch his “Religion is bull$hit” video on YouTube,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj 9o

It puts it all in perspective.

Posted by Jim Kraushaar | Report as abusive

It seems to me that the people who claim to believe in God, but consider themselves atheists are probably disbelieving in the traditional image given to them by traditional religion. Philosopher such as Feuerbach, an atheist, felt what made God so unbelievable is all the projections that people put on (like a child project the image of a grandfather with a long white beard onto God).

To say that theists are embarrased about believing in God, however, is not merely a insult what an unneeded statement in an intellectual debate. I will not bring myself so low to insult an atheist–as I know many, and so many of them do wonderful and good things.

Many wonder, “what would society be like without religion,” and I encourage you to ponder that question from a intellectual standpoint. But I do not think that religion is bad, the root of all problems, or for that matter “magic.”

If Paul studied the difference in history, he would understand that magic, religion and science are three different things. There are people who claim to be withces (with magic), but claim that no God exists.

Religion is an instintual things–try to get rid of what we have and another thing will be put in its place.

And while some people worship the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, among others, others worship the god’s money, greed, lust.

Interesting topic, never will be solved–especially with ignorance.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

Corrections made:

It seems to me that the people who claim to believe in God, but consider themselves atheists are probably disbelieving in the traditional image given to them by traditional religion. Philosophers such as Feuerbach, an atheist, felt that what made God so unbelievable is all the projections that people put onto God (like a child who projects onto God the image of a grandfather with a long white beard).

To say that theists are embarrased about believing in God, however, is not merely a insult but an unneeded statement in an intellectual debate. I will not bring myself so low to insult an atheist–as I know many, and so many of them do wonderful and good things.

Many wonder, “what would society be like without religion,” and I encourage you to ponder that question from a intellectual standpoint. But I do not think that religion is bad, the root of all problems, or for that matter “magic.”

If Paul studied the difference in history, he would understand that magic, religion and science are three different things. There are people who claim to be withces (with magic), but claim that no God exists.

Religion is an instinctual thing–try to get rid of what we have and another thing will be put in its place.

And while some people worship the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, among others, others worship the god’s of money, greed, lust.

Interesting topic, never will be solved–especially with ignorance.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

This is just trying to make atheists look bad. Maybe it’s just Christians, not atheists, who are too stupid to know what the word “atheist” means.

There’s also a hell of a lot more than 8% of Americans who don’t believe in a god. I’d be interested to see the age demographics of those surveyed.

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

Wow Paul…how pretentious do you sound? How? This is why people get sick of atheists. People like you make one or two good points but then you carry on and then just become outright irritating. You all act like you’re all high and mighty and that you can do no wrong. Dawkins, Hitchens, and so many others get on this pedestal and talk down to everyone else who either chooses to believe in a higher power or were born believing. I’m not a hardcore Catholic, not by a long shot, but what I don’t like is the sheer arrogance that atheists like you carry just like how I don’t much care for overzealous missionaries. You know, sometimes religion does provide people with a moral code and there are good people that happen to be religious and not primitive as you seem to think they are.

If faith gives people hope, then who are you to tell them they’re knuckle-draggers or cretins? Remember Paul, people do fight for other reasons outside of faith. It just so happens that religion is the flavor of the month this time in conflict.

Posted by CPM | Report as abusive

Just remember, 78.3% of all survey statistics are complete bull$h|t. It’s all about how the survey questions are asked. You can make a survey go any which way you like based on phrasing.

Posted by Darron S | Report as abusive

Another note of interest might be this:

I cannot get over how harsh that SOME (not all) atheists are. Circumstances may dictate the reasons as to why this is so, however, both atheists and others should still give dignity to the beliefs that others hold. Religion is one of them.

Just because one cannot physically see “God” or “Spirit” or “the Orderer” or whatever it might be, does not mean others should degrade others of their beliefs.

Lets take an example:

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Believed in Freedom. One cannot hold freedom, put it in a bag, shoot it out of a gun. It was his belief in this idea, which he felt was more than a mere idea, but a true, possible entity.

Ghandi: Believed in Peace. Ghandi could not create peace out of lumber or concrete, he could not force it on others, he could not see it in his presence many times. But it was his belief in this seemingly mere idea that led to the illumination of peace.

Mother Theresa: Believed in Dignity. You get the idea I bet.

I am NOT trying to convince anyone of the existence of any kind of God, but merely stating how people of tolerance tend to be intolerant of others. This is a mere repeat of history, but it is true. People see freedom, peace, dignity, and even God as more than a mere idea or fantasy, and despite the intolerance and ridiculing of others, the press on.

I for one am thankful for King, Ghandi, and Theresa. Why do we accept their ideas so easily? And may it be noted that these people were influenced by their own faiths.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

It seems Reuters can’t bother to report the survey accurately; the survey itself asked, and reported people who believed in a god OR A UNIVERSAL SPIRIT. Now, since “universal spirit” is not equivalent to a “god,” and doesn’t appear to have been defined as part of the question, there’s no real way to know what people saying “yes” meant.

But Reuters did NOT report the results accurately, since “god or a universal spirit” is not the same as “god.”

Posted by Brian Westley | Report as abusive

Agreed with Aaron & Adam.

Before giving my view, I found the headline hilarious and his assertion also so- simply because he forgot the theists. What about the theists who weren’t “absolutely certain”? Wouldn’t that mean, by his criteria, that they are confused as well- seeing as he states at first, they claim a belief in (a) God, so he doesn’t mean that they become agnostics or something else?

He gave results that were similar to both sides, with both having those who weren’t “absolutely certain”, but then proceeded to mock ONLY HALF- I don’t care which he picked- he paints only one side as being undecided or confused, when he HIMSELF said this “undecided” quotient is on BOTH SIDES of belief!

That is, as clear as you can get, a smear on one side. That is the only intention of his words, or he would have mentioned this of both sides. It’s basically like questioning the meaning of both the pot & the kettle, but then saying only one is black. It’s so blatent I can’t believe he was paid to write this.

Last- I don’t believe ABSOLUTELY in God, Gods, or anything. Why can’t I just say, “I don’t know, I’ll find out when I die, so I don’t have an opinion on it!”? I can. It’s a viewpoint called “fatalism”. Why does everyone have to paint proclaimed uncertainty as stupidity? Socrates hinted that intelligence can exist in not knowing something- “I know nothing, therefore I know something”. Why is everyone so afraid to just say, “I don’t know? I guess I’ll find out when the rest of you will- after I’m dead!” ?

Posted by Joe | Report as abusive

At first glance I was taken aback – for about a minute – then I realised I’m probably in the group that is ‘atheist’ but open to the idea there could be a creator. It really depends on how the question is worded. I wish I could see the questions to understand the answers. As an open minded person, I can’t discount the possibility that ancient astronauts tampered with our genes, or that an incredibly advanced computer was such a creator. So my openness to a ‘god’ is nothing to do in the supernatural – there is no evidence of such a thing. So the definition of atheist is not at stake here. The definition of god is.

Posted by veggiedude | Report as abusive

Now I am only assuming, and I have been told that one should never assume, but nevertheless, that each person that writes in here has not just read this article, among the many others that exist, but has taken some time to look at the website which houses all the data.

http://religions.pewforum.org/

Now, it might take some time, probably took me 30 + minutes to briefly go over many of the results, but it is laid out in a very nice format, with graphs, comparissions, and even the questions, among other things such as “personal god” verses “impersonal god,” etc.

As a Catholic, I also found it ineteresting to see many of the results that were given concerning some very hot issues in the USA today.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

[...] In the comments, a few of you noted one particularly odd statistic from the survey. Here’s how Ed Stoddard of Reuters put it on the news service’s [...]