Many Atheists Still Believe In Higher Powers—Whatever Those Are

A new report on atheists is of interest. It’s “Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and agnostics around the world: Interim findings from 2019 research in Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States” by Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Lanman, and Lois Lee, at a slew of different universities.

Now there is no such thing as unbelief per se: everybody believes in something about the purpose of life, even if these beliefs shift and bounce around in time. I bounced. I went from Catholicism, to embracing for many years the Naturalism Fallacy, to grasping that fallacy and so coming home. This experience at least gave me insight into a common form of atheist typically found in and around universities and in the lower-upper levels of organizational life.

The report’s authors say (ellipsis original):

Our use of the term ‘unbelief’ follows that provided in The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism (Bullivant and Lee 2016): ‘The state of lacking (especially religious) faith or belief… unbelief is often used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods.’ It is chiefly employed, along with its cognates (unbelievers, unbelieving) as a convenient shorthand term, incorporating much of what is commonly termed atheism and/or agnosticism.

What might surprise is that many atheists and agnostics consider themselves Christian, just as some Jews consider themselves Jewish, and some other atheists consider themselves Muslims, and so on. Religion is seen to a certain extent an ethnicity. Perhaps this attitude will strengthen in Europe as Christianity fades and other religions take precedence.

Some fun is to be had in what atheists like to call themselves in different countries. By vote, Americans prefer atheist, while Chinese and Danes like non-religious. The ghastly seeker, you’ll be glad to learn, came in last.

The real proof atheist does not mean non-believer comes in the large number of self-identified atheists who believe in life after death. Some 30% of Chinese do, and even about 18% of Americans do. Could this be partly explained by belief in strong AI? Or maybe some kind of pantheism? After all, more than 50% of Chinese atheists believe in astrology and so do just shy of 20% of American atheists.

Other supernatural topics are reincarnation, objects having mystical powers, people with strange powers, fate, supernatural beings, a “universal spirit or life force”, karma, and the one with the biggest support, “underlying forces of good and evil.” About 40% believe in these on average.

The USA doesn’t even reach half of atheists who are complete naturalists; only 35% strongly agree with naturalism. In China it’s only 8%.

Naturalism is a radical philosophy. Thinking about it, really understanding its implications, can scare most atheists straight. That’s what worked with me. Grasping the universe can’t explain itself, that if naturalism is true then there is no good or evil, that there is no self, that there is nothing if naturalism is true is sobering. Because none of that makes any sense.

This is why only 30% of American atheists strongly agree that the universe is “ultimately meaningless”: Brazil is the highest at 47%. If the universe is ultimately meaningless, so then is the phrase ultimately meaningless. Indeed no phrase has any meaning. Everything is not only not opinion—opinion would be an improvement—but nothing at all.

Another curiosity is that only 80% of American atheists are evolutionists, which is tad higher than the rest of the world. If a purely material naturalistic evolution of humans is true, then you can’t trust thought. Anything you believe is nothing more than random impulses in chemicals. And you can’t even believe that!

It’s well only some 36% of American atheists believe “In the long-run, society becomes better over time.” But I suppose the same kind of reasoning that leads to atheism leads to believe in progress. It’s also the same type of thinking that causes one to agree that “What is right and wrong is up to each person to decide”, which a whopping 46% of American atheists agree to.

This is what in philosophy is known as an academic belief. That kind of theory is fun to say, makes you seem like a good guy at the cookie tray before the seminar, but it’s utter nonsense. Hold a knife to the throat to the next professor who says it and see him suddenly become a Realist.

“Bye bye, pal. I’ve just decided it’s right for me to slit your gullet.”

“But…but…”

“Didn’t you say what is right and wrong is up to each person to decide?”

“Yes, but—-”

“So long.”

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10 Thoughts

  1. Some naturalists claim that belief in God is an evolutionary quirk, “hardwired” into the body’s largest ganglion (a mass of cells with no wires). So, it appears, the naturalism of these naturalists is an unnatural belief. Or super-natural, as predicted by some old, allegedly discredited, documents.

  2. Appears someone is trying to draw comfort from limited data suggesting that self-proclaimed unbelievers are really believers of some sort after all. Why that makes any difference to anything?

    The real issue is proper belief- the two main “recent” monotheistic faiths used to persecute believers of the wrong beliefs, heretics, for a reason. Now it appears that any ole belief, come one come all, aimed in the general direction with the basic trapping & nomenclature is simply okey-dokey.

    Jesus vomit, that.

    Better to be ice cold (atheist) than luke warm for a reason.

    Those failing to comprehend why God-incarnate set that standard ought to shut up about moralizing the advantages of alternative standards. If for no other reason than it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  3. Atheism is the belief that there are no gods. This does by itself not rule out other supernatural entities. They would not be as capable as gods are in their culture, or they would not be beings, or persons, or whatever.

    Regarding the American Atheist notion that they are a bunch of impulses running amok in some chemicals, current events clearly show that this is indeed the case. NPC’s is the insult du jour for them, I believe.

  4. Scene in my head

    Random Free Thinker: I am not bound by rigid rules or pre-conceived notions, I am a free thinker.

    Walter Matthau doppelganger: I guess you get what you pay for.

  5. “Now there is no such thing as unbelief per se: everybody believes in something about the purpose of life, even if these beliefs shift and bounce around in time.”

    Wrong. Atheism is unbelief in a god or gods, not unbelief in life having a purpose.

    “Grasping the universe can’t explain itself, that if naturalism is true then there is no good or evil, that there is no self, that there is nothing if naturalism is true is sobering. Because none of that makes any sense.”

    Yes, you’re not making any sense. Since when has naturalism meant “there is nothing”?

    “If a purely material naturalistic evolution of humans is true, then you can’t trust thought. Anything you believe is nothing more than random impulses in chemicals. And you can’t even believe that!”

    Why would these ‘impulses’ be random? We’ve evolved to survive, which is obviously going to work better the more our thinking matches actual reality.

    “Hold a knife to the throat to the next professor who says it and see him suddenly become a Realist.”

    This analogy proves the point it’s trying to refute. The person holding the knife and the person being attacked with the knife both think their perception is the right one, hence our perception of the situation is subjective.

  6. swordfishtrombone writes “Atheism is unbelief in a god or gods, not unbelief in life having a purpose.”

    The comment to which you replied was speaking of “belief per se”, the assertion being that each person believes something. In your case, you believe your definition of atheism; others have a different definition. It is likely that you believe your existence matters in some way for here you are arguing a point.

    “Yes, you’re not making any sense. Since when has naturalism meant there is nothing”?

    Nothing real, objective, permanent, first-cause kind of meaning.

    “Why would these impulses be random? We’ve evolved to survive, which is obviously going to work better the more our thinking matches actual reality.”

    There is no WHY! Things have no purpose of their own making. If I design a cup, its purpose is to hold water (or other liquid), but its purpose is in my mind.

    Now should it happen that you find a rock in the wilderness and it resembles a cup, I believe it would be improper to impute a “purpose” to that rock. It’s just a rock and it might serve the purpose of a cup; but if so, it is your mind that imputed the purpose.

    As to random, yes, that is essential to evolution. There must be mutations; and they are either guided (not random) or random.

    As to “evolved to survive”, well, I suppose so. All animals and every form of life survives already! This says nothing helpful whether life has a purpose and who creates or imputes that purpose.

    Answering the purpose of existence is the realm of religion; science cannot say any life has “purpose”.

  7. Imputing motive is also what minds do, with purposes.
    Of course there is a ‘why?’
    Purpose and value are simply not the realm of naturalist science itself. Science is there because of, due to, values and purposes. Even if that purpose is said to stop with only human ones.
    Some of us do, and always have, taken it right back to the original purpose. Just as it is possible to take the argument from mechanical cause, or how, right back.
    Semiotics (meaning to normal people), exists for computers to work as far as I understand. So this must be true for us as well.

    The naturalist world view seems to imply that purposes and meaning and values evolve over time, through the evolution of language. Which leaves truth still unexplained.
    It’s where the values are, where all the interesting stuff happens.

  8. @ Michael 2,

    “In your case, you believe your definition of atheism; others have a different definition. It is likely that you believe your existence matters in some way for here you are arguing a point.”

    Yes, there are basically two definitions of atheism. I’ve never heard any atheist define it as “unbelief in life having a purpose”. My existence matters to me.

    “Nothing real, objective, permanent, first-cause kind of meaning.”

    I assume that reality is real.

    “There is no WHY! Things have no purpose of their own making. If I design a cup, its purpose is to hold water (or other liquid), but its purpose is in my mind.”

    I agree with your comments about purpose, but I didn’t argue that life has a purpose, and I’m not sure what you mean by “There is no WHY” as I was asking what was the ‘why’ behind Brigg’s (“If a purely material naturalistic evolution of humans is true, then you can’t trust thought”) claim.

    “As to random, yes, that is essential to evolution. There must be mutations; and they are either guided (not random) or random.”

    Mutations are random, but only mutations which help the survival of an organism are selected. Our ability to think wouldn’t have evolved if it didn’t increase our ability to survive, and I don’t see how it would do so if our thought processes don’t correspond to reality at all.

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