Which pew are you in?

By Donald Collins

Don't you love surveys?

The front page of the Feb. 26 Washington Post carried a story about a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It suggested that Americans are fickle about their religious choices.

After the scandals that rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, it shouldn't surprise anyone, particularly Pope Benedict. The Catholic Church has lost more members than any religion practiced here. But it has replaced its losses from the massive immigration invasion by Latinos.

Thus, Catholics still claim 23.9 percent of those polled. The mainline Protestant faiths (18.1 percent) have lost out to the newer Evangelical Protestants (26.3 percent). Mormons and Jews each represent only 1.7 percent of the faithful. Muslims, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses and others register at under 1 percent.

Since I am a member of one of America's smallest denominations -- atheists -- I felt a surge of pride in knowing of my exclusive status. Of the 35,000 peopled polled by Pew, only 1.6 percent are in my pew.

Those "unaffiliated" with any religion have grown to 16.1 percent: 12.1 percent are "nothing in particular"; 2.4 percent are agnostics; and 1.6 percent atheists.

Of course, "belonging" may not correlate with believing. Having lived all over the United States, I have had many opportunities to speak with members of many corporate nomad families who admit that the best way to ingratiate or integrate into many American communities is by joining a church, particularly one that has members with clout in the place the newcomers land.

Many people change churches because they like or don't like the spiritual leader. But many can't seem to throw off the need to have spiritual feelings. Do they like being hectored for dues and warned about being sinners?

While "going to hell" is currently played down quite a bit, death is still a "biggie" in the quiver of outrageously ridiculous arrows the self-appointed righteous religious rulers have to hold sway over their flocks.

"Getting right with God" remains a primary inducement for most people's servitude to the fantasy of an afterlife. As I prepare to enter my 78th year, I read daily the numerous obituaries of people who didn't make that milestone and feel sublimely lucky to have done so in relatively good health.

For many years I have been "unchurched." As a widower, though, I remarried 14 years ago and my bride and I were delighted to call upon a clergyman relative from each of our two families to bless our union. These two are wonderful people, each with a sincere and abiding faith in his religion, whose moral compasses come not from their religious beliefs but from moral parents and the intrinsic goodness of some humans as compared with the intrinsic evil in others.

But as an atheist, I find Oxford don and Darwinian exponent Richard Dawkins' definitions of the various religious permutations enlightening:

"A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. ... He answers prayers, forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think about doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. ... Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism."

None except atheism and perhaps pantheism requires courage or brains to adopt.

I must, however, confess that I evolved from being a "reverent agnostic" even as I became aware of these various standard gradations of belief. So where is agnosticism? Again Dawkins comes to our rescue by describing that position as "fence-sitting." Any doubts about the fact that no God exists, he says, have been reconfirmed by the advance of scientific knowledge and overall human experience. This essentially gutless position avoids commitment and again requires no brains.

A look at the history of religions shows conclusively that religions have done enormous harm and may lead us all to the ultimate downfall of life on this planet. Avoiding apocalypse will involve outgrowing the sway of organized, corrupt and secularized religious power.

What to do? First become an agnostic or a pantheist. Come to believe that there is no power greater than other human helpers that can restore us to sanity.

From there you quickly will graduate to the supremely satisfying comfort of atheism, thus avoiding the quagmire of stultifying belief in any religion, which, to paraphrase Dawkins, is jazzed up tooth-fairyism.


Shaggy Maniac said...

Nice follow up to the Pew survey. I'm intrigued by the 16% that are unaffiliated/no religion in particular. My hunch is that if you could ask them, many would turn out to be agnostic and perhaps atheist. The 1.6% who identify as atheist are really only those who have become comfortable with that designation; my hunch is there are many more. Even among those affiliated with a religion, my suspicion is that there are good portion who really are agnostic or atheist, but who affiliate for social and cultural reasons. If those who are comfortable with the designation "atheist" were to speak more openly about the same, we might help others to be more willing to do so as well.

Anonymous said...

...what shaggy said....

ryan said...

About polls.....can you trust them? When someone comes up to the average American citizen and asks them about their religious loyalty, can you believe them? You are approached outside of Wal-Mart by this babe with a clipboard and a ballpoint pen. Hmm? What do you say?

No, I have passed this way before, and I say that I am an atheist and I keep moving. I suspect that many people dither about their faith, and don't mean a word of it.

There are many of our fellow citizens who wouldn't piss on jesus if he was dying of thirst, and yet would talk like St Francis if confronted with a poll. Listen kids, we have as our enemies these little fakes and phonies; these little shits who are into salvation-by-proper-voting. Many of our fellow citizens are functioning at the moral level of rattlesnakes, and dusting the pews every fucking sunday morning, singing their jesus dittys. And all this while our prisoners-of-war are subjected to the most cruel and unspeakable humiliation.

I have said too much, excuse me. But I just thought I would close with a little humor. I was doing a little snow shovelling just the other day when two JWs showed up. You know, they always work in pairs. This girl approached me while her partner hung back just a bit; and goddamn she was pretty. Damn me, she was pretty. Six feet tall, frosted hair and a dress that looked like she was born with it. And I stand there like a fucking imbecile with a snow shovel in my hand and I tell this babydoll I am an atheist. I really gotta stop being so honest.

Thanks for some great posting. Glad to be here.

Telmi said...

Excellent post, Donald.

Enjoyed reading it. Pl keep posting.

Anonymous said...

ryan said...

"About polls.....can you trust them?"

Oh, I think they would be held up as conclusive evidence that religion was finished, if they indicated that only 1.6% of respondents were believers.

Anonymous said...

I respect people's desire to analyze the word atheism and to subscribe to it.

Personally, I prefer to remain un-affiliated. I suppose that ex-Christian is what describes me best. But when it comes to everything else, I feel free to do and think as I wish. To me, calling myself something attaches to it a stereotype that I may not conform to. I have never fit in anywhere--neither belief wise not unbelief wise, so why bother calling myself anything!

I guess non-religious, non-theist, ex-Christian are generic enough labels for me.

leotracks said...

Responding to comments from both Ryan and Shaggy--

Although you both have good points about the reliability of polls, I have another thought to consider. Of the 16% so-called unaffiliated, I would not assume them to be closet atheists, or of any similar designation. Rather, I suspect this more closely represents the majority of Americans; people who, if asked, identify themselves as Christian, but it goes no farther than that. My own upbringing was similar; for years I knew nothing more about the bible than what one might learn from watching "The Ten Commandments,"

leotracks said...

But in this aspect of American culture I find one of the biggest challenges facing freethinkers; sentimentality. So many of these people, with no real sense of religiosity in their lives will still claim it, and even defend it when a threat is perceived. Because this is what they were told as children, and since it really makes no difference in their lives, why question?

Sorry about the broken post, since I broke my hand a few months back, typing is not quite as simple as it once was.

Shaggy Maniac said...


Thanks for your follow-up. I didn't mean to say that all or even a majority of the "unaffiliated" were necessarily agnostic/atheist. The word I used was "many" by which I really meant a significant proportion, but again, this is only a hunch. My main point was that there really may be more agnostic/atheists in the population than the 1.6% who are willing to embrace the term.

leotracks said...


I'm sure you are correct. And the number is probably higher in practice if not in name. It's much like the gay marriage debate; most people probably do not care one way or another. But if asked whether or not they favor gay marriage, they will say "no" because they think it is the correct answer. In the same sense, many Americans probably would say they are Christian, because they think it to be the right answer, even if they have never given it any thought. And an hour later they return to their normal lives with no concern of what jesus might do.

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