Jewish Journal

How many atheists believe in God?

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 23, 2008 | 11:12 am

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life today published the second half of a massive study on American spirituality. (The first, which found Americans change faiths frequently, appeared in February.) The new portion is full of information; some, like the fact that religion is “closely linked to political ideology” and that many Americans consider themselves spiritual but not dogmatic or even belonging to a specific religion, is not that surprising. Neither really is that 42 percent of Americans consider the entertainment industry a corrupting cultural influence.

But what about the 21 percent of Americans who say they don’t believe in God but aren’t sure of his non-existence?

FaithWorld explains this potential double-speak:

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.

This is significant, not because nearly a third of Americans don’t believe God, with two thirds of them maybe believing in God, but because the evangelical-atheist movement has tried to go big tent in the past few years, and has added agnostics in its fold. It’s a political move meant to foster a larger no-longer-silent minority. But it seems a bit insincere, even for politics, if 55 percent of agnostics actually believe in God.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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