A very recent poll reports that 91 percent of Americans believe in God. That is compared to 51 percent of people in the world. So the logical conclusion from that is that nine percent of Americans are atheists. Pollsters may point out, though, that there may be some “not sure” votes in there. Other polls show that 16 percent of Americans do not have a religious belief. Contained within this 16 percent are atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and simply those claiming no official religious affiliation. But I claim that all 16 percent of these people are atheists by the strictest definition. What’s more, I believe that the number of atheists in America is far greater than even the most generous interpretation of the poll numbers.
First, let’s define what it means to be atheist. When it comes to a god there are only two possibilities: Either you believe in God (or a god, or gods) or you don’t. What about the one’s who answer “I’m not sure” to the question of “Do you believe in God”? Well, those who believe in God are called theists. That’s the definition of the word. So if someone asks you if you believe in God and you answer with “I don’t know,” then you are not a theist, because theists would all answer “yes.” Since you didn’t answer yes, then you are not a theist. And, by definition, if you’re not a theist, then you’re an atheist.
Of course, there are different degrees of atheism. Some atheists actively believe that there is no god. These kinds of hard atheists can not only answer “no” to the question, “Do you believe in God”? They can answer “yes” to the question, “Do you believe that God does not exist?” It’s an active belief in the non-existence of any god. Other atheists (though they may call themselves agnostics), the ones who are not sure, will answer “I don’t know” to the question, “Do you believe that God does not exist?” This person is still an atheist, because he has the same answer to the question about whether he believes that God does exist. And, as previously stated, if you can’t answer with a “yes” you are an atheist.
Some people will call themselves agnostics, secular humanists, or freethinkers in an avoidance of the word “atheist” because of the negative connotation that comes with it. But they shouldn’t be afraid of the word, because it simply means, by definition, a lack of belief in a god. There should be no political or ideological baggage associated with it.
So with that in mind, and using the technical definition of the word, all those 16 percent of Americans who are not active theists are atheists, whether they call themselves that or not. But what about my contention that there are even more atheists than will admit to it, using the real definition?
I contend that it has something to do with a tipping point moment that people would really like to avoid. Let me give you an example: Before I entered college I had to take a survey put out by the Admissions Office. I attended Franklin College of Indiana. It is affiliated with the Baptist Church, but its educational program was secular. At the time, I was a Christian, but certainly not an evangelical one. I believed most of the bible, but I knew all the stories in the Old Testament that dealt with worldwide floods, talking snakes, and living for days inside a fish were allegories. They were not to be taken literally.
There was one question on this survey that had me stumped. It asked, “Do you believe in the Second Coming of Christ?” The response choices were only “yes” or “no.” At that moment I had to make a choice. Was I a REAL Christian or a Christian in name only? Real Christians, even mainline ones, believe in some kind of Second Coming. But I had always feared predictions of the end of the world and Jesus’ return when I was a child. And there were several of them that had me worried. So I didn’t want to justify that fear by marking “yes.” I also wasn’t really sure if I believed it or not. On the other hand, if I marked “no,” that was admitting to myself, and to God, that I didn’t believe that part of Christian dogma. And if God does exist, I may have condemned myself to hell at that very moment.
So how did I answer? I left it blank and pretended I had not been asked that question.
It is my belief that there are many Christians out there who are Christians in name only. People tend to know for sure if they are a Muslim or not, or a Jew or not, or even a Catholic or not. And, although most Protestants are probably truly faithful (After all, most fundamentalist religious zealots are Protestants.) many Protestants choose that category only when no other category seems to fit. They don’t want to take on the term atheist, but they know they are not a Muslim, Jew, or Catholic. So on surveys and forms they pick Protestant. Maybe they only go to church once or twice a year. Maybe they don’t go at all. Maybe they pray only when they’re in deep trouble. Maybe they never pray. But they are still counted among the Protestant Christians. They are still part of that 74 percent who are theists. But by the strict definition of the word, they are not. They are atheists. They just will never be counted as such.
If you are one of these non-descript Protestants who simply choose to be Protestants because you don’t want to cross the tipping point, maybe it’s time to face the reality. Next time, choose what you really, truly believe. Unless you can stand tall and say proudly that you believe that God is real and involved in your life, then you are either an atheist or a deist. And really, in practical terms, there just isn’t much difference. So don’t wimp out; cross the tipping point and come down on the side of reason and rational thought. Be counted as one of the atheists.