“21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit”

There’s an article from AP religion writer Eric Gorski in the Yakima-Herald today: “Religious Americans: My faith isn’t the only way.” Not that much surprising. But I did smile when I read

Another finding almost defies explanation: 21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with 8 percent “absolutely certain.”

I have long thought that a lot of the self-identified atheists I’ve known have actually not been non-theists. They are in fact non-Christians or non-religionists. There are not philosophically against the possibility of a god or of a theistic viewpoint; they simply (often strongly) disbelieve western religious formulations of God, mainly the ones based on the (more traditional) biblical and koranic characterizations.

And I don’t blame them. I almost applaud it, this resistance to traditional western conceptions of God — in moderation. I was actually one of these kinds of atheists for about a year when I was in my second year of college. Philosophical arguments seemed to me to have disproved the possibility that the god of the old testament (it was mainly the old testament that gave me problems) could be a divine being — or, at least, could not be the divine being of the theistic philosophers or theologians. There was just too much contradiction between theists’ propositions and the old testament’s descriptions. Just didn’t work. They sounded like children’s myths.

And, looking back, the philosophy book I read was arguing for atheism not by showing that theism was untenable but that biblical characterizations of God were incompatible with theistic logic. But that argument required those philosophers to first do biblical interpretation, and to then postulate that their interpretation (basically a literal one) accurately and always represented western theism. Anyway, again, they were not arguing against theism as a philosophical construct, but against traditional biblical characterizations of God. At the time, I took their interpretations of the biblical characterizations as the same in essence as theistic arguments. Bible = theism, in other words. Or, one interpretation of Bible = theism. And probably a lot of people still do that.

Anyway! It all comes back to definitions, doesn’t it. “Atheist” doesn’t mean “non-theist” to a lot of people. It’s used as a way of saying, “I don’t believe that religion stuff, but I might believe in God.” That’s the way I used it back in 1981. Actually, when I ever do meet an atheist (in the strict definition of the term), I’m pretty interested to hear her view of things, because I know she’s had to come to a completely non-theistic worldview, not just a non-religious, or non-western-religious one. And that’s always a pretty sophisticated philosophical process.


3 thoughts on ““21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit”

  1. Hmm, what this may suggest is that 21 percent of self-described atheists don’t know the difference between being an agnostic and being an atheist. I think that’s likely, considering what I’ve seen among my friends and a lot of young people I worked with back at Northern Michigan.

    Maybe one day we’ll talk about my little atheist mind. But maybe not. ;-)

  2. I bet you’re right. The term atheist, come to think of it, is probably more well known than agnostic, so for some people it’ll come to mind first to describe a non-religious point of view.

    I was just thinking that I’ve met few true atheists (maybe, none at all, come to think of it). I’ve met people who don’t believe any western god exists (and are definitely against any western religion), but don’t want to go so far as to say that no god exists somewhere in the universe (or, say, whether eastern gods exist). But they don’t seem to realize then that their viewpoint can no longer be called “atheist.”

    So, if you’re a true atheist, I’m glad to know you! It’s a position worth respect, when well thought out, in my view. :)

  3. Well thanks, glad to know you, too! We’ll have to explore our paths into and out of and out of and into religion over a drink when you’re back in town. Hope all’s well in Washington.

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