When an Atheist Is Not an Atheist

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted June 03, 2019

When is an atheist not an atheist? Answer: When they call themselves a Christian.

Confused? That’s understandable, but there’s an explanation. A recent multinational survey of atheists, agnostics, and other “unbelievers” revealed that in six nations, including the United States, a significant percentage of people who say they don’t believe in God or in any other deity also say they identify as Christians. Scholars from several departments at four British universities have come together in a four-year “Understanding Unbelief” survey funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

In Denmark, that number reaches 28 percent, while in Brazil it’s 18 percent. The United Kingdom is next at 15 percent, followed by the United States at 12 percent. China and Japan round out the survey at 7 percent and 1 percent respectively. (Eight percent of Japanese atheists identify as Buddhist, the survey also revealed.)

In Karma They Trust

The study also revealed some other interesting data: For a group which, by definition, professes no belief in the supernatural, large segments of the “unbelieving” communities in the six nations surveyed said they also believe in life after death, in reincarnation, or in astrology. Between 15 percent and 50 percent of agnostics and atheists surveyed said they believe there are “underlying forces of good and evil” in the world, while between 10 and 40 percent of those surveyed from both groups said they believed in karma, a spiritual cause-and-effect principle where “the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence [is] viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.”

Numbers for the “general population” in the six countries were all over the map: Vast majorities in five of the nations (Japan excluded) affirmed a belief in life after death, but only China topped out in supporting astrology. A similar pattern among the general population was seen in measurements of belief in the forces of good and evil, the survey revealed: China and Japan were at the bottom, while the other nations expressed high percentages of belief in this.

An explanation? “While ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief’ are normally used in relation to God (or gods), there are many other supernatural beings and phenomena that substantial percentages of the general population believe to exist. Logically, unbelief in God need not entail unbelief in these other things,” the survey report stated.

Apart from contrasting the percentage of unbelievers who subscribe to a given theory versus the general population, the survey drew no specific conclusions. There’s no verdict here on whether or not believing in karma or astrology makes one less of an atheist. What the survey does show, however, is that it’s vital to identify—and understand—the kinds of unbelievers in the world and that painting them with a broad brush will lead to misconceptions, and missed people: “As previous studies have shown, many people who are de facto atheists or agnostics do not choose to identify themselves, either primarily or at all, by these terms,” the study’s authors write.

It also appears that unbelievers aren’t as dogmatic about their non-belief as might be expected. According to the survey, “contrary to some popular suppositions, being an atheist does not necessarily entail a high level of confidence or certainty in one’s views. All six of our countries’ atheists express overall levels of confidence in their beliefs about God’s existence either notably lower than (Brazil, China), or broadly comparable to (Denmark, Japan, UK, US), the general population’s. For instance, the comparatively high level of confidence exhibited by America’s atheists matches more-or-less exactly the high ‘religious confidence’ of Americans-in-general.”

Filling That “God-Shaped Hole”

In one sense, it's not surprising that a percentage of unbelievers identify with a given faith. Sometimes religious identity is assigned by parents at birth and it's too great a hassle to change it. (In some countries, renouncing religious identity can be fraught with real-life challenges, as is witnessed by the 2015 murder of an atheist blogger in Bangladesh.)

During the course of his 39-year life, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal shared an important thought: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know[n] through Jesus Christ.” Those of us who are believers know this to be true: Having a direct relationship with God makes life make sense.

Meeting the challenge of atheism and agnosticism—helping these people fill that “God-shaped vacuum” is perhaps a bit easier when we realize that large swaths of this demographic group may actually believe in something, and that could be the starting point for a discussion.

It is possible for unbelievers to find faith! Pastor Doug Batchelor has shared his story of coming from a non-Christian background to finding faith while living in a cave. And in 2007, God used that testimony to reach Santosh, an Indian raised in a mixed-faith home but who was an atheist.

One useful resource to share is Pastor Doug’s presentation “Can You Prove That God Exists?” This is a reasoned, Bible-based outline of how to share faith, and it can also be the entry an unbeliever might need.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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