The other day I noted a Pew poll where 1 in 5 self-identified atheists said they also believed in God, and likened it to similar number of vegetarians who say they occasionally eat red meat — these folks aren’t atheists or vegetarians, but rather clueless. Anyway, the Secular Coalition for America has a slightly different interpretation. This isn’t cluelessness, they claim, it is an example of the fear people have in contemporary America to admit they don’t believe in God,
“When atheists are telling you they believe in God and Catholics are admitting they don’t, that’s evidence of the stigma our society puts on nontheists,” said Lori Lipman Brown, Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “Americans repeatedly tell pollsters that an atheist is the last person they’d want their children to marry, the last person they’d vote for as President. This prejudice also appears in the widespread impression that atheists lack ethics and values.”
Atheists afraid to admit they believe in God? Give me a break. In fact, I think one of the reasons many Americans have such negative views of atheists is that a good proportion tend to want to talk about their irreligious views exclusively and incessantly (see, for example, Michael Newdow).
Just look at popular culture for goodness sake — the objects of ridicule and prejudice in movies, television shows and news broadcasts are the evangelical Christians (and often, frankly, for very good reason). For example, I just watched HBO’s Friends of God documentary for the third time. There is a Christian comedian featured in the documentary who complains, rightly I think, that evangelical Christians are one of the last groups that you can openly make fun of. And, of course, the entire point of the documentary itself seems less to understand Evangelicals than to simply make fun of them (which is hard not to do when you see adults singing ridiculous “Behemoth Was a Dinosaur” songs to convince children of the inerrancy of the Bible visa vis evolution).
If anyone had reason to conceal their true views for fear of ridicule it would be evangelical Christians, and yet they are hardly shrinking violets. If there are a bunch of secret, scared atheists, I suspect that says more about those individuals than it says for any lack of tolerance of atheism in America.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently published the results of its survey of 36,000 people regarding their religious views. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t break out what percentage of respondents were atheists but rather lumps them into the 16.1 percent of Americans who didn’t express any religious affiliation.
Of those who do call themselves atheists, however, 21 percent said they believed in God. Three precent of the atheists told Pew that religion plays a very important part of their lives. Pew chalks this up to Americans being “non-dogmatic.” I guess…if “non-dogmatic” is the new synonym for “clueless.”
This reminds me of similar surveys which ask people about their dietary habits. In a 2003 survey of UK consumers, for example, fully 25 percent of people who identified themselves as vegetarian also reported that they ate red meat on occasion. Perhaps they were simply “non-dogmatic” about their vegetarianism, but more likely — much like the “atheists” in the Pew survey — they simply weren’t paying attention or have a different meaning for the words in question other than the common usage (one hypothesis about vegetarians who eat report eating meat is that there are people who think the word “vegetarian” means little more than “I like to eat vegetables.”)
I guess if Pew ever calls me, I’ll describe myself as an Evangelical Christian who just happens to not believe in God. After all, I end up in a church once a year or so for a wedding, funeral or some other ceremony. That qualifies me, right?