Atheist Boosters?

December 12, 2011

CFI recently held a conference on the work of Daniel Dennett and the scientific investigation of religion. It may be the best conference I’ve ever attended. The presentations of the speakers were of uniformly high-quality—and I say that even for the speakers with whom I had some substantive disagreement. Interestingly, one such speaker was Gregory Paul, the independent researcher who has done some excellent work on the sociology of religious belief. Unfortunately, Paul seems to be in the camp of those who tend to inflate the number of atheists in the United States.

Before I go any further, let me emphasize that I respect Greg Paul’s work. He’s a great researcher. That said, on one issue he seems inclined to put a spin on some survey data.

Paul argued that, interpreted correctly, polls indicate that 20 percent of Americans are atheists. Excuse me? What was that number again? 20 percent? If that were an accurate representation of the number of atheists in the United States, we must be the most docile minority in the history of humanity, as politicians and the general public show little hesitation in heaping abuse upon us. Moreover, unlike blacks in the 1940’s and 1950’s, we can vote with no problem, so we could register our displeasure with those politicians who treat us as second-class citizens. But Gingrich and Perry, to name just two examples, don’t seem to be losing any sleep over a possible backlash.

Paul arrives at that number by first defining “atheist” broadly to include anyone who doesn’t believe in God. Some agnostics, doubters, or even some Buddhists, might take issue with that broad definition, but leave that point aside. His biggest move is to argue that belief in a universal spirit or higher power does not disqualify someone from being an atheist.  (I am basing this post on my notes from his talk, but a check of his website confirms this is his view.) Sorry, but I don’t buy that. I don’t think you can call yourself an atheist if you accept transcendent spirits, whether you call the transcendent spirit God, the Demiurge, or the Unmoved Mover. (Note: the implication of Paul’s position is that atheists have been mistaken in complaining about Alcoholics Anonymous’s insistence on belief in a Higher Power—so don’t argue with the judge if you’re sent to AA for a state-mandated 12-step program.)

This is not a merely semantic objection. Admittedly, some who say they believe in a universal spirit may be tepid deists, functionally indistinguishable from atheists. However, many people who are “spiritual,” turn to the spirit world for guidance. We’re not moving any closer to a secular society if our morals and our public policy are being influenced by spiritual intuition instead of mandates from traditional deities.

Of course, once Paul counts those who believe in a universal spirit as atheists, it’s not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that atheists make up close to 20 percent of the population. Without a hint of irony, Paul chastises the Gallup organization for misinterpreting their data when they report that more than 9 in 10 Americans believe in God. Paul states, correctly, that although 92 percent of Americans answer affirmatively when asked “Do you believe in God?,” when given a choice between belief in God and belief in a universal spirit, only 80 percent pick God, while 12 percent go for the universal spirit. Hence the basis for saying 20 percent of Americans are atheists.

Since the traditional God of theology is supposed to be omnipresent, one could ask precisely what the difference is between God and a universal spirit, other than the sensibilities of the person answering a question about their religious beliefs. Presumably, some in the universal spirit crowd would claim that they do not believe in an anthropomorphic, personal God. Their belief is more sophisticated. OK, but a sophisticated spirit is still a spirit and there’s no room for spirits in atheism.

For what it’s worth, I find the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey and the Pew Forum Religious Landscape survey of the same year the most accurate and precise surveys for measuring disbelief in God. Both concluded that 10-12 percent of Americans do not believe in God, although many of those are unsure whether there is a God, so they might not qualify as “atheists” as some define that term. No matter, even including them doesn’t get us anywhere near the 20 percent trumpeted by Paul.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. As atheists we pride ourselves on being empiricists and hard-headed realists. We criticize theists who can’t intellectually justify their beliefs but nonetheless cling to God for comfort. What’s the difference between clinging to God (or a universal spirit) for comfort as opposed to finding comfort in numbers? I don’t need validation from the masses.

Of course I want the number of nonbelievers to increase—for very practical reasons. A greater percentage of nonbelievers should result in greater acceptance of nonbelievers and reduce the influence of religion on public policy. And it is undisputed that our numbers are increasing. That is a fact.

But we should not exaggerate our numbers. We don’t need pep rallies any more than we need hymnals.