In the current “On Faith” forum Rabbi Steinsaltz responds to the following question:
“According to a new Pew survey, 21% of American atheists believe in God or a universal spirit, 12% believe in heaven and 10% pray at least once a week. What do you make of this?”
Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:
I find the results of the Pew Survey very astonishing, though perhaps not for the same reasons as those who designed the survey.
I suspect that if the survey respondents had answered with intellectual and emotional honesty about their faith, the actual number of atheists would be significantly smaller.
Unlike being an agnostic or just disinterested in religion, true atheism has two essential components: a rather rigorous intellectual way of thinking, and an element of emotion.
Intellectual atheism includes the clear definitions of what the atheist says or believes. In many cases, when people claim to be atheists, they are not denying the existence of a higher power, but rather they are merely expressing their ideas in a different language or speaking from a different point of view.
One illuminating example is the ancient Roman writers who categorized the Jews as atheists simply because they didn’t believe in Jupiter, Minerva or Janus.
It is true that the Jews were (and remain) monotheistic and didn’t believe in the Roman deities, but only through the lens of the Roman pantheistic culture could they be defined as atheists.
To me, the fact that so many people identify as atheists actually means that they deny specific names or expressions of God, or just have a different understanding of the man-God relationship.
To truly be an atheist requires a good amount of intellectual rigor and clarity of mind.
As for the emotional element of atheism – one may observe, rationally, that he doesn’t see or perceive a certain thing, but to deny its existence, at any level of vehemence, goes beyond rational thinking and into the realm of an emotional – sometimes very emotional – anti-belief.
As anti-matter is only matter arranged in a slightly different order, anti-belief is almost the same kind of belief, even though it has minuses instead of pluses.
For a person to be a true atheist, his belief system must have both of these qualities.
I believe that the number of people who meet both of these criteria is extremely small; therefore, I doubt that the results of this survey accurately reflect the real American community of atheists.
That so many people prefer to define themselves as atheists can likely be attributed to a desire to belong to certain social milieus – or to a very simple-minded, innocent desire to shock my old grandmother.
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn” http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/