A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

Theistic Atheists?

Pew God Belief

Because of a tweet by Pew Research’s Conrad Hackett (and a puzzled response by David Creech) I was reminded of the fact that surveys often show a very small percentage of self-identifying “atheists” also claiming various beliefs in god(s). Conrad was tweeting a result of the Religious Landscape survey, that 21% of “atheists” also profess some manner of belief,  which on it’s face sounds like a strange contradiction. The table pictures appears in Pew’s report #2 from the Religious Landscape survey.  It breaks down three levels of belief based on religious self-identification. Much of what it shows isn’t particularly head turning. That some Christians don’t believe in a personal God, or any god at all is to be expected because people do identity with Christianity culturally. The same is true for Judaism, which in fact has a long tradition of “secular” (that is non-believing) sub-culture(s). But what are we to make of the believing atheists?

I would argue that the “atheists” who believe in an “impersonal force” are not that strange, after all the Christian church has in the past labelled anyone who didn’t believe in their one true, personal God an atheist. The point being that there is a tradition of using atheism as non-belief in the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths alone, or perhaps more specifically Christianity. But what about those 6% of “atheists” who believe in a “personal God?” I have to admit that I’m completely stumped on this one. Essentially these people are theistic atheists (whereas the “impersonal force” folk are deistic atheists). So how does one explain this conceptual contradiction? Pure error in the survey taking or something more interesting?

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9 thoughts on “Theistic Atheists?

  1. I can only answer personally, and with nothing sociologically informed. But the word “god” can mean “beyond human” meaning that which is beyond human comprehension, meaning that we can fall short of a belief in God and still believe in a personal god in which there are things outside the consciousness of human minds that keep us humble, compassionate, & sure of our fallibility. That six percent of atheists believe in a personal god sounds low, not high. But personal thoughts here, nothing more.

    • Mark I found the question they asked:

      “Question: Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF BELIEVE IN GOD, ASK]: Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with
      whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?”

      So that spells it out as the traditional meaning of “personal God”–an entity that one can relate to like a person. So it’s not a god personal to us, but a god that is like a person. That’s what I still am having trouble understanding how 6% of atheists are answering yes to. If it’s not a mistake what does it mean?

      • interstitcher on said:

        Maybe they mean “apostasy” rather than atheism. The term “atheist,” of course, has a long history of being deployed for political purposes (“anyone who isn’t a member of my sect, by definition, is an atheist”). So maybe these “atheists” have left the churches (or whatever) they grew up in and have internalized the label, even if they retain belief in a personal God.

  2. I think it’s much simpler, though may be hard to accept for people who take this stuff seriously. A small number of people don’t really know what they believe or don’t hold their beliefs very strongly, and certainly don’t take the poll very seriously. So, for some, when asked to pick the choice that best describes them, they say, “atheist,” but, having said that begin to wonder if it’s really true, and by the time they get to the other choices, “personal god” sounds OK. “Whatever, good enough, what’s for dinner?” Still others may have even more chaotic or inconsistent beliefs about their own beliefs. Who knows what “personal god” means to someone who has never even heard the term before. Maybe it evokes some vague feeling of individualism: God, but the way I understand it, or different for every person but valid in its own way. Maybe this isn’t even a “wrong” way to think about it. Maybe we’re all “theistic atheists” in one way or another or from time to time.

  3. Is it possible that 6% were saying their conception of God — which they don’t believe in — is a personal God?

    The phrasing of the question makes it sound like atheists shouldn’t have been asked, so I’m a little confused.

    • Don’t know if it will be helpful in anyone’s interpretation, but, having looked at the questionnaire, people are asked at Question 16 to describe their beliefs, with atheist a possible prompt for people who report no religion but do not volunteer “atheist.” At Question 30 and then 32, they got this:

      Q.30 Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
      Q.32 Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?

      So, even if some inattentive respondents may have been describing “the god you don’t believe in,” the questionnaire is designed to ask for distinctions from believers about their own beliefs. So, it looks like you have people at Q16 affirming atheist, and a small number of the same people at Q32 affirming belief in a person-like God, eventually broken out in the table. So, it seems either they don’t get it/don’t care/are inconsistent/are nuts/are dim, or, not quite the same thing, don’t define the terms the way we might wish they did.

  4. I could say, e.g., I don’t believe “pegasus” is an entity that exists. “Pegasus” means a white horse w/ wings. I do not believe that any such thing as a white horse w/ wings exists.

    It’s possible, I think, that MacLeod is right, and this demographic should be understood as don’t know/care, but I think it’s arguable that they heard the question as “describe the God you don’t believe in.”

  5. Results are very interesting, and with the sample of 35,000, if methodology was well thought out (it seems it was), statistically representative. The result you are mentioning shows that among 500+ actual persons who declared themselves as atheists, over 100 of them (21%) are some kind of ‘atheist god-believers’. To suggest that this unusually high number of atheists don’t really know what they believe or don’t take such polls seriously is to suggest that a relatively high percentage of atheists in the US don’t really know what they believe, or are not at all concerned with any social or political importance of belief or unbelief etc. That would mean that not all that many atheists are ‘brights’, which is probably true.

    • That was an awfully long windup for so little snark – I’d say your “Wittgensteinian framework” precludes a sense of humor (or maybe I have the causality reversed…)

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