>Atheists and God

>I was finally able to read the summary of key findings of the U. S. Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. My sabbatical research has not allowed me to do much blogging nor extra reading outside my area of research.

The survey conducted by the Pew Forum is a major study on how Americans view religion and how they approach their faith. The survey was taken among 35,000 Americans of all faiths and ideologies in order to ascertain the beliefs and practices of religious and non-religious people.

Both Duane Smith and Iyov have already commented on this survey. I invite you to visit their blogs and read what they have written about the survey. What I want to do here is give my perspective on the survey. My post will be divided into two sections. In the present post I want to comment on what the survey has to say about atheists and God. In an upcoming post I will discuss what the survey has to say about evangelicals and God.

The U. S. Religious Landscape Survey reports the following results:

1. Do you believe in the existence of God?

21% believe in God. Of these:
6% believe in a personal God
12% believe in an impersonal force
3% don’t know

55% believe in God. Of these:
14% believe in a personal God
36% believe in an impersonal force
5% don’t know

Secular people not affiliated with a religious group
66% believe in God. Of these:
20% believe in a personal God
40% believe in an impersonal God
7% don’t know

2. Certainty of Belief in God or Universal Spirit

21% believe in God
8% absolutely certain
13% less certain

55% believe in God
17% absolutely certain
38% less certain

Secular people not affiliated with a religious group
66% believe in God
24% absolutely certain
42% less certain

3. Belief in Heaven and Hell

12% believe in Heaven
10% believe in Hell

18% believe in Heaven
12% believe in Hell

Secular people not affiliated with a religious group
32% believe in Heaven
23% believe in Hell

4. Prayer and Meditation

10% pray at least weekly
18% meditate at least weekly

18% pray at least weekly
25% meditate at least weekly

Secular people not affiliated with a religious group
19% believe in Heaven
22% believe in Hell

These numbers are very revealing. Granted, there may be different ways of understanding these numbers. However these numbers are interpreted, the information they provide is still very revealing. How do we interpret these numbers? In what follows I offer several ways of understanding what the Pew survey says about atheists and God. I believe the same could be said about agnostics and secular people.

First, it is possible, as Iyov has suggested, that the survey was poorly designed and that the results are distorted and do not really reflect the views of those surveyed. Second, it is also possible, as Duane has suggested, that questions, methodology in polling, and the sample size of those surveyed also skewed the results. It is even possible, as Iyov also suggested, that many people “have problems with polysyllabic words.”

All of these possibilities could have influenced the answers of those polled by the Pew Forum. However, I have a different perspective on the results of the survey.

Let us for the moment accept the view that the survey presents reliable information, that the numbers truly confirm the beliefs and practices of those people who were surveyed. If the survey presents reliable information about what Americans believe about religious issues, then, what the survey says about atheists should be taken seriously. This is how I view the answers:

1. It is possible that many atheists pray or meditate regularly. Their prayers would be addressed to some impersonal force considered to be the giver of life, the ground of being, or some manifestation of eastern religious or philosophical idea.

2. Some atheists believe in heaven or hell but not the kind of heaven or hell that is taught by Christianity. One good example is provided by a reader of my blog who is an atheist who said he believed in heaven. He wrote: “I am comfortable with the fact that there is nothing after this, but I do believe in Heaven. Only my heaven is what I’m living everyday I wake up, and when it ends, it was worth it.”

3. It is possible that some atheists and agnostics when confronted with their mortality or when dealing with the issue of death look at the possibility of the existence of God and life after death with more realistic eyes. This is what I believe happened with Robert Ingersoll, “the Great Atheist.” In a speech at the time of the death of his brother, Ingersoll’s eulogy was a wish for the existence of a God, a request for someone who could answer prayer and provide hope after death.

4. The fact that 21% of atheists and 55% of agnostics believe in the existence of God may reflect the different levels in the spectrum of probabilities about the existence of God that Richard Dawkins developed. In this spectrum, there are seven levels of probability concerning the issue whether God exists. At one extreme is Level 1, where strong theists are. Those who are on Level 1 believe 100% that God exists. On the other extreme, Level 7 is where the strong atheists are. A strong atheist is the one who says for a fact that there is no God. Dawkins places himself at Level 6. Those who are on Level 6 say that there is a very low probability that God exists. Those on Level 6 are the people who say they cannot know for sure but think that maybe God does not exist. It is possible that many atheists are at level 5, 4, or even 3. Thus, as the Pew Survey reveals, deep down in their inner being, many atheists believe in God, primarily those who are at different levels in the spectrum of probability.

Finally, what the U. S. Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life truly reveals is that there is still hope for atheists.

Next: Evangelicals and God

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to >Atheists and God

  1. urooj says:

    >The creationists wear a gotcha look when they ask the athiests/agnostics the famous question, "what if you are wrong?". Well, there are many ways to answer this question and one of them is to answer with a question "what if they are wrong about their God"? Although a good answer, this does not satisfy a believer. They reason, even if there is minute chance of God's existence, they are securing the place in heaven by sucking up to God. Whereas, non-believers are headed to hell if there is any God. This is a very logical way to think, ironically theists are very particular about applying logic to religion which itself is based on illogic. So, after death individuals either become a mass of non-living stuff or if there is god, believers end up in heaven and non-beleivers end up in hell. Seems like a losing proposition for athiests or agnostics!Now, pick one God…hmmm… lets say zeus and try to think how HE would make HIS decision about a christian vs. a non-believer. Zeus will be very mad at non-believer as expected, "why in the world didn't you believe me dude? what were you waiting for? Didn't you see the signs?". Lets assume the book keepers of zeus have come up with ratings to rate the degree of obedience of a person to zeus. A non-believer can't be expected to fair too good and gets a score of 15 out of 100. Lets look at a believer in Jesus, Zeus will not only be very mad for being ignored but furious at being replaced by another God. A believer in christ will get a score of 10 out of 100. Lets say, if the God turns out to be jesus then believer gets 90 out of 100, and a non-believer gets the usual 15 out of 100. There are 100 made-up Gods in history, conservative assumption.It becomes a probability problem. Lets solve itA – event that God turns out to be christA' – event that God turns out to be someone other than christP{A} = 1/100 = .01P{A'} = 99/100 = .99C – event that the person dying is believerC' – event that the person dying is non-believerR – God's score normalized to 1R{C|A} = 90/100 = 0.9R(C'|A} = 15/100 = 0.15Using bayesian statistics, we reach the conclusion thatR{A} = P{A}*R{C|A} + P{A'}*R{C|A'} = .01*.9 + .99*.1 = 0.108 (the chances of a believer 'in any god' ending up in heaven)R{A'} = P{A}*R{C'|A} + P{A'}*R{C|A'} = .15*.01 + .99*.15 = 0.0015 + .1485 = 0.15 (the chances of a non-believer ending up in heaven)So, my dear believer, even if we are wrong, we have a better chance of ending up in heaven (0.15>0.108)!!! But most probably we are right about the non-existence of God, we will all be a mass of non-living stuff like a stone!


  2. >urooj,Thank you for your comment. There are two things that I find wrong with your logic.First, who worships Zeus today? Zeus has come and gone because Zeus was never a god. Any god who exists for a while and then he is no more is a god who never existed.Second, bayesian statistics may not be sufficient to prove the existence or non-existence of God, heaven or hell. Reason alone cannot prove spiritual things. I know you may not believe what the Bible teaches, but here is one thing it says:“But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means” (1 Corinthians 2:14).And that is the difference between a believer and a non-believer.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini


  3. urooj says:

    >zeus was used as an example. The point is there are many Gods.I am glad that you have received the truths from God!! I wish someone can prove that!!


  4. >urooj,Your wish could be granted if you were just willing to open your heart and be willing and allow this wonderful God to reveal himself to you. He can and he will if, notwithstanding all your doubts, you are willing to let him work in your life.Claude Mariottini


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