Of Atheists, Vegetarians, and the Pesky Meaning of Words

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?

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