What's Up With the Atheists Who Believe in Gods?


The corporate-owned news media in the United States is an easy target for criticism. Much of this criticism is valid and deserved, especially when it comes from those of us who are old enough to remember how a functioning news media used to operate and then to contrast that with so much of what takes place today. For this post, however, none of that sort of context really matters. No matter how young you are or how little you remember about what it was like to have a functioning news media, if you have even a basic understanding of atheism, I suspect you'll grasp where I am coming from with this particular rant.

What is with the news stories on atheism in which the author refers to atheists who believe in some sort of god(s) or atheists who pray? I do not have one of these dreadful pieces in front of me right now. Even if I did, I probably wouldn't link to it because I wouldn't want to reward the author in case it is primarily about click-bait. No, I found myself thinking about it because of a recent conversation in which a religious believer mentioned that she had read an article in a mainstream news magazine saying that some atheists pray. She accepted this claim uncritically and was attempting to use it to argue that atheists believe in her preferred god.

Atheists Who Believe in Gods

It seems to me that anyone with even a basic understanding of atheism can agree that no atheist believes in gods. That's what atheism means. "I am an atheist, and I believe in gods" makes about as much sense as saying, "This is a circle, and it has four straight lines and four 90 degree angles." The meaning of atheism precludes the possibility that one believes in gods in much the same way that the meaning of a circle precludes the possibility of having straight lines and 90 degree angles. No circle has 90 degree angles, and no atheist believes in gods.

So why do we keep hearing about this? These articles are almost always reporting on some sort of survey. The author typically reports the number of respondents identifying themselves as atheists and then notes that some percentage of these atheist-identifying respondents indicated that they believe in god(s). If this is really what the survey shows, it is clear that some of the respondents had no idea what atheism means when they identified themselves as atheists. It would be nice if the author of the articles would point this out, but I have yet to see one do so. Failing to point this out strikes me as misleading.

Atheists Who Pray

If I pray to you, does what I am doing still deserve to be called prayer? Assume that you have no ability to hear my prayers and that even if you did, you'd be powerless to provide whatever sort of assistance I was requesting. If I were to lock myself in my bedroom tonight and pray to you, would my action really count as prayer? I don't think it would. Suppose I were to pray to a rock. Would that count as prayer? Again, I don't think it would. But what if my car broke down on the side of the road, and I prayed to it - not to some supernatural entity to help me with it - but to the car itself. Would this be prayer? I don't think so. I think that prayer - in order to count as prayer - needs to be directed at a deity of some sort. I suspect most religious believers would agree; I am not sure most atheists would agree.

If the results of the surveys I've mentioned above are to be believed, some atheists report that they pray. If I remember correctly, there are far more atheists who report that they pray than there are who report that they believe in god(s). Who or what are these atheists praying to? If they are praying to gods, they are not atheists. If they are "praying" to something else, is it meaningful to call what they are doing prayer? I don't think so.

Suppose that an atheist who accurately understands the meaning of atheism and does not believe in gods were to tell you that he or she regularly prays. Would it make any sense for such a person to claim that he or she regularly prays to an entity in which he or she does not believe? No, of course not. So the only other option we'd seem to have is that this person regularly prays to someone or something else besides gods (e.g., the universe, nature). I have a difficult time seeing this as prayer.

Some Advice for Reporters

If someone is writing summary of survey results and recognizes that the results don't make any sense, I think it is okay to note that. In fact, I think the author is doing us a disservice when he or she does not note it. My suggestion in these cases would be to accurately report the results of these surveys in which self-identified atheists say they believe in gods or pray and then to follow it up with some speculation about what this might mean. Hint: it might mean that some of those surveyed who identified themselves as atheists have no idea what atheism means. Explaining this might be better than giving the public the impression that some atheists believe in gods and/or pray to them.