Religion & Philosophy

How many American christians are really atheists?

I’m not the first guy to raise this question and I won’t be the last, but what the heck, let’s talk about it.

A lot of Americans think of themselves as “progressive christians” or “liberal christians,” and I count a good number of them among my friends and colleagues. Not long ago I was talking to one of these friends and we wandered into the subject of religion. Dawkins and Harris were invoked, as might be expected. Anti-Dawkins and -Harris resistance was encountered, also expected. So I finally decided to ask some questions that I had always wanted answers to, but had never actually asked.

The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Me: Do you believe that Mary was a virgin?

Friend: No, of course not.

Me: Do you believe that Jesus was resurrected three days after he was crucified.

Friend: Literally? No.

Me: How about that he turned water into wine or raised Lazarus from the dead?

Friend: No, those are just myths.

Me: Do you believe that he literally ascended into Heaven?

Friend: Please.

Me: Do you believe that there’s a Heaven and Hell as described in the Bible or as described by contemporary christian ministers?

Friend: No.

Me: So what happens when you die?

Friend: I don’t really know.

Okay, at this point we need to understand what we mean by certain terms. An atheist is “someone who denies the existence of god.” An agnostic “is not committed to believing in or disbelieving in the existence of God.” Theism is more literal: “Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.”

And “christian,” well, that’s a word that can apply to everything from genocidal literalists to intelligent, good-hearted people like my friend in the Samologue above (“Samologue” is “a dialogue with Sam,” by the way). The issue here, though, is whether liberal christianity and atheism or agnosticism are mutually exclusive. Fundamentalist christians are theists – they believe that god is a literal being, and nearly 50 years of close personal experience with them suggests that a large number of Americans, if not an overwhelming majority, take doctrinal issues like the virgin birth and the resurrection as literal fact.

Let’s have a look at the definition of christian.

1. Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
2. Relating to or derived from Jesus or Jesus’s teachings.
3. Manifesting the qualities or spirit of Jesus; Christlike.
4. Relating to or characteristic of Christianity or its adherents.
5. Showing a loving concern for others; humane.

1. One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
2. One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.

Both #1 definitions open the door to something literal and supernatural with the “as Christ” formulation, and “based on the life and teachings of Jesus” leaves quite a bit open to interpretation, as well, given that a lot of what Jesus is alleged to have taught sounds kind of literal. But the rest?

I realize that resorting to online dictionary definitions of religious terminology lacks a certain theological nuance, but I’m abstracting for a reason. It appears to me that any number of liberal christians believe that Jesus lived and that his teachings represented a powerful code for living a productive, humane life. Further, I think they’d be comfortable asserting that this code makes a solid foundation upon which to build communities and societies. However, they don’t seem to believe that he was literally a supernatural being and they’re more inclined to read stories about his “miracles” as myth, not journalism. On the afterlife, they acknowledge that there’s not really any way of knowing, despite whatever beliefs or feelings they have.

If you’re a liberal christian and you’re reading this, do I have it about right?

I know lots and lots of atheists and agnostics who believe in pretty much the same principles. Many of them are willing to believe that Jesus, or someone very like him, existed and taught things that were pretty similar to what we have represented in the New Testament. I’ve known pagans to say that they have absolutely no problems at all with what liberal christians believe.

This all suggests that one can be an atheist and a christian at the same time, doesn’t it?

If so, we arrive at a question that I would love to see addressed by a national survey (preferably conducted by Pew): how many American christians are fundamentally agnostic or atheist when it comes to what they believe (or don’t believe) about the supernatural realm?

For me, at least, it’s interesting to ponder the idea that liberal christians have more in common theologically with certain atheists and pagans than they do with the christians down the street…

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27 replies »

  1. You are exactly right in your hypothesis. If you had spent much time with fundamentalists, you might know that to many of them a liberal christian is worse than a satanist because the satanist at least knows he’s serving the devil while the liberal Xian (or God forbid- a Unitarian!) mistakenly considers oneself an Xian while denying the important fundamentals.

    In some of my atheist reading, I’ve seen a few atheists claim liberal Xians as there own- so you’re not alone in your thoughts!

    I have a related question- to which it would be difficult to answer- how many of the “christian” elite politicians and powerbrokers are really christian or do they just subscribe due to the power it wields with the public and the electorate?

    • Erica: I grew up with lots and lots of people who went to church but you’d have no way of knowing, from watching how they conducted their lives, that they were Christians. A step down from that were the people who didn’t go to church. Many of them lived lives like premium hellspawn, but if you asked they’d tell you they believed in god, etc. So it’s hard to answer your question accurately, but my guess would be “more than a few.”

  2. “For me, at least, it’s interesting to ponder the idea that liberal Christians have more in common theologically with certain atheists and pagans than they do with the Christians down the street…”
    As Erica said, many of my more conservative Christian friends would agree with that statement. As St. Paul said, “Have a form of godliness, but denying it’s power.” or something like that. I wonder why someone would call themselves a Christian, but deny so many of the basic beliefs?

    Personally, I would answer “yes” to you all your questions in the Samologue. I don’t think I’m a Fundamentalist though. Evangelical is more where I fall. Pretty conservative, but not as exclusionary as Fundamentalists.

  3. Well haven’t you opened up a can of worms?

    Some of the tenets of theological Christianity are agreed upon by most theist Christians: the birth and incarnation of Jesus, his differences with contemporary religious and civil authorities, his attraction of dedicated followers, his eventual condemnation and execution. The problem is that even the theist, traditional Christians cannot agree on what the details are.

    An example: Immaculate Conception.

    A lot of Christians don’t understand the concept of the “Immaculate Conception” at least as it is considered an infallible doctrine of the Catholic Church. I found out about it while teaching in a Catholic school and I asked a friend who taught theology why we celebrated the Immaculate Conception about 3 weeks before Christmas. Was it a really short gestation? Another sort of miracle? A REALLY LONG gestation? After a few choice swear words, she explained that it’s not a celebration of Jesus’ immaculate conception but MARY’S. That’s right, the Virgin Mary was ALSO the result of an immaculate conception–in other words, her conception was untouched by “Original Sin.” I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

    I actually converted briefly to Catholicism in the 1980s–I must have missed that whole Mary-had-to-have-an-immaculate-conception-to-be Jesus’-mother discussion because I sure was shocked when I heard it. Actually, it seems that a lot of priests seem to downplay that particular point of infallibility and it seems to be optional for other Christians.

    Does doubting the doctrines of the immaculate conception, or water-into-wine, or descended into hell/resurrected three days later make one an agnostic? I thought being an agnostic meant one doubted the existence and an atheist denied the existence of a divine being (and you have confirmed this). I didn’t realize it meant questioning doctrine. I thought just questioning doctrine made me a heretic.

    Wouldn’t that make us all agnostics or atheists because everyone probably questions or denies something about a divine being–yours or someone else’s. Or is it only agnosticism/atheism if you reserve your skepticism for your own religion?

    BTW, disclaimer: I’m now a Unitarian-Universalist and have been for well over a decade. I’d put myself in the “I’m pretty sure that there are higher powers in the universe partially because I’d hate to think that humans are as advanced and intelligent as it gets.”

  4. Given that Jesus is purported to have said, “The kingdom of heaven is within,” yes, it’s possible to be a Christian without believing in the literal interpretations of a highly edited book with no first-hand accounts of Jesus, assembled under the leadership of a Roman Emperor for the express purpose of lashing Christianity to the decadent end of the Roman Empire (at least in the Western half of it).

    Categorically proving things one way or another on this issue is basically impossible, but there’s certainly evidence that early Christians didn’t take the whole lot as the the literal truth anyhow. Empress Helena (Constantine’s mom) probably started the literal push with her grand expeditions to the Holy Land to find splinters of the True Cross and whatnot.

    There were certainly groups of Christians who took the Jesus story metaphorically, but they and their texts were pretty systematically – and with extreme prejudice i might add – wiped out by the Church.

    And we shouldn’t underestimate our ancestors. As Christianity spread, it came in contact with a lot of people who would have recognized the motifs it presented. They would have thought, “Oh, this guy’s a lot like Mithra or Dionysus.” Who, btw, is represented as crucified long before Christ tried out the whole dying-on-the-cross gag. The Indians would have thought, “Ah, so you know Krishna too?” For all we know, Jesus was consciously attempting to replay the older myths for a Judean audience…and some have argued that he was doing so in an attempt to return Judaism back to its roots of Abraham and Moses who both had very close ties to the Egyptian mystery school.

    So, yeah, i think it’s quite possible to be a follower of Christ without Christian literalism. It gets sticky calling them basically agnostics or atheists though, if only because all these terms are now realistically defined in relationship to Christianity. It’s no stretch to believe in the moral/social teachings of Jesus without being so sure about a mean old honky on the heavenly throne. Personally, i don’t believe in atheists…because they always end up sounding like true believers. And they tend to believe in human rationality which has been proven only slightly better than the bearded honky hypothesis. Not to mention that their intellectual fore-bearers tended to tie reason to wisdom to Sophia/Isis and the ancient, Egyptian mystery schools which led to stuff like making sure the nation’s capitol is aligned with specific risings of Sirius.

    What it comes down to is that the Church has spoiled spirituality for the sake of political power, and to do so required ossifying beliefs and great feats of intellectual dishonesty…not to mention making streets run as rivers of blood on too many occasions to count. IMO, the “liberal Christians” are trying to access the spirituality at the root of the Christian message, which makes them enemies of the Church.

    If you’re following Jesus’s teaching that the kingdom of heaven is within, why would you need a bishop? If you don’t need a bishop, how will the church get/maintain political power and earthly riches? And so we can kind of see why earlier manifestations of “liberal Christianity” like the Cathars would A. call the Church “The Church of Satan” and B. be violently repressed by the Church.

    • As a side note to some of the comments here, I always remark that Christians like atheists and agnostics better than they like pagans because at least atheists and agnostics don’t believe in THEIR god.

  5. That’s quite true. By just about any standard Christians are polytheists, believing in at least four gods: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Satan. One can probably make an argument that Catholics have saints who at least demi-godish.

  6. The whole polytheism thing is where it gets dicey. Do we REALLY want to get into both the discussion of “is there a divine” and “how many divinities are there” since addressing the latter assumes acceptance of the former? “One essence of god in three persons” is tough since it does acknowledge the possibility of three divine beings (polytheism) but most Christian churches claim to be monotheistic (“we believe in one god”).

    Are we trying to be definitive about something that the practitioners can’t fully define?

  7. Knowing what I know about the act of translation as an inexact process of interpretation, I’m highly skeptical about taking the Bible literally. The writings in it have been translated and retranslated and retranslated, in some form or another, for almost two millennia. Add to that the various political agendas that have shaped those translations, and the end product gets even sketchier.

    Point that out to any True Believer, and they can counter with the church’s perfect argument: Trust us. Have Faith. Anyone who raises questions, anyone who looks at the process, obviously doesn’t have enough. It’s a with-us-or-not attitude that willfully shuts out human reason and encourages a Tupperware-tight self-contained system.

    I do believe the tenets of Christianity must go beyond human reason and that such a thing as true Faith exists. But churches exploit that for their own purposes. A church, like any powerful institution, will look to perpetuate its own survival by any and all means. One way to help ensure that is to keep the flock in line. The Bible serves as a useful tool to that end.

    I had a Franciscan priest once tell me “Don’t let religion get in the way of your faith.” It was some of the best advice I ever heard in church.

  8. cwmackowski, That’s a very apt description of so-called ‘faith’ – “a Tupperware-tight self-contained system”!

    I think atheists don’t have ‘faith’ that there’s no ‘God’, but they find the churches’ notions are absurd and make no sense. Because you have no answer for how our world can have come about, gives no evidence for the ‘god’ idea. For me, this crystallized while praying and trying to reconcile the religion of Christianity I was being taught as a child. I became convinced that:
    1. I can’t believe in the Christian ‘god’, it is not my nature; my nature is to be skeptical and question everything.
    2. I do believe in living the way my ‘Christian’ parents lived, because it brings me joy, and produces results I can see and feel.
    3. The things Jesus was supposed to have said are true, but not because he said them. He said them because they are true.
    4. Jesus’ sayings are drowned by the churches.
    5. All Judeo-Christian religions are male ego trips; they were started to bring women down, and they do.

  9. Another thing I am sure of: The vast majority of so-called ‘Christians’ do not believe any of it, especially not the things jesus was supposed to have said. They don’t believe you can live that way. They just say they believe for social reasons, and personal weakness.

    I told a teapartier that I could not support the wars because of my belief that war is evil, and asked if she didn’t think so, too. since she said she’ s a christian.

    “Doesn ‘god’ say,”Do Not Murder” in the ‘Commandments’?” I asked her.

    “We’re not God” was her answer. You had to hear the conviction with which she answered – the absolute conviction that you cannot live according to the laws of her god. ?!

  10. > An atheist is “someone who denies the existence of god.”

    No, that’s a strong atheist.

    also see

    From :

    “Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist”

    Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive (one is a position on belief, the other a position on spritiual knowledge). See, for example (also called weak atheism or negative atheism).

  11. “…Christians like atheists and agnostics better than they like pagans because at least atheists and agnostics don’t believe in THEIR god.”
    Really? Lots of Christians explicitly take the opposite position. (Well, some do, and my version of the statistics says they’re lots.) These people are much more comfortable about people who believe something even if they don’t get it right, than with people who don’t believe in anything, which they find incomprehensible and rather creepy.

    The idea is widespread enough that Charles Schulz, devout member of a smallish Christian sect, took the trouble to mock it.

    Again, “By just about any standard Christians are polytheists, believing in at least four gods: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Satan.” Which Christians are these? (Answer below) Hardly anything can be more clear in Christian orthodoxy than that Satan is not a god, but a created being like us, if a lot stronger and smarter. To think of him as co-ordinate to God, an Ahriman to Ahura Mazda, is a terrible error; so says pretty much any commentator who is accepted as orthodox by the orthodox (not meaning Eastern, just orthdox). (Which is intentionally circular. That’s life.)

    Manicheans, certainly, are another matter, and another matter than Christians. To test this, go looking for Christian commentators who think St. Augustine was wrong to abandon his Manichean faith.

    OTOH, anyone who accuses large number of Christians of being ignorant heretics by the standards of the faith they profess will surely get more yawns than shocked gasps.

    • PJ: Most Christians believe that Satan is aware of everything we do – and that’s a lot like omniscience. He’s able to wreak massive amounts of supernatural influence in our world (just ask Job), and while that may not be full-blow omnipotence, he’s called the Prince of the Power of the Air for a reason. We were taught that Earth was his domain until the return of Jesus.

      No, Christians won’t admit that the devil is a god, but he meets the criteria.

      • Be careful about Job, however – Satan didn’t do all the nasty things to Job, God did. If you read Job closely, it’s clear that Satan is egging God on, but that it’s God who actually does all the torturing.

        There are two fundamental problems with Christianity’s understanding of God, and this discussion brings them both up. If Satan is, as PJ claims, a more powerful but created being who is somehow less than God’s equal, then God is ultimately responsible for all the bad things that happen in the world. This means that he cannot be benevolent, and thus Christanity’s understanding of God as benevolent is incorrect. If Satan is God’s equal, that means that Christianity is duotheistic (and possibly, as Sam say, polytheistic) and Christianity’s understanding of their faith as monotheistic is incorrect. Either way, something’s not right.

        I’m not Christian (although I was raised RC) because logic demands that God, as Christianity understands him, cannot exist. God cannot be simultaneously benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, the three characteristics I was taught God had (at least as of the New Testament – God was a real bastard in the Old Testament).

  12. As to the Immaculate Conception, I think it’s an understatement to say that the doctrine “seems to be optional for [non-RC*] Christians.” Does anybody outside the Roman church believe in it? Or, if you like, the RC church plus people who are more Catholic than the Pope, like the Mel Gibson crowd.

    * RC to distinguish from others who consider themselves Catholic but not in thrall to Rome; e.g., Anglicans.

    In fact, it wasn’t infallible doctrine in Rome for about 18 1/2 centuries. There was a time when serious minds on the Continent saw the idea as an eccentric idea of the eccentric English! Some RCs have said quite unflattering things about Pius IX and the captive church councils through which he railroaded his favorite doctrines, including the one in which he infallibly declared himself infallible.

    But certainly it’s tough, as in impossible, to say what truly is orthodox Christian doctrine. Some people have tried to distill down the essential core, a sort of Mere Christianity; but even C. S. Lewis is not universally accepted 🙂

  13. Good point about Job.

    The rest, though, is point by point what I what I was taught as a young Southern Baptist. The devil very explicitly knew my every thought, for instance.

  14. Wow, I’ve never heard that about the Devil being omniscient – then again, when we went to church it was usually a pretty liberal Methodist place. Singing, praying, potlucks, felt board Bible stories and ixnay on the irefay and brimstone. No mind-reading boogeyman other than God.

    I don’t think even my crazy Aunt Ann (a born-again Southern Baptist FILLED WITH GOD’S LOVE) ever mentioned it. And she did go on and on…

  15. Too many labels. Too much worry about labeling. I suspect things are a whole lot more complicated and vast than the wildest things our limited brains can conjure.

    • Thanks, Lou. I have a question. If we’re talking about different groups of Christians, atheists, agnostics and pagans and trying to distinguish between them and understand what they believe, how would you accomplish this other than be defining your terms?

  16. @Samuel Smith

    Labels certainly are needed, but my second sentence carries the message. My third sentence is where I think it really all goes.

  17. I thought I was the only one who was coming across athiest/agnostic Christians.

    In my own findings, it’s not the doctrine that I find most weird. It’s the fact that there are Christians who are very active in the Church (in my case, the Catholic Church), very vocal, very supportive. Yet, here’s a list of things I’ve been finding out about the beliefs of some very active Catholics:
    1. don’t believe Old Testament (OT) is the literal word of God
    2. In fact, OT is very likely just a collection of stories.
    3. Additionally, the New Testament (NT) is not very reliable as the direct Word of God.
    4. Jesus was not a God, probably a very compassionate person

    Those four points, when I came to those conclusions, led me to conclude that I was not a Catholic and that I was in fact an Athiest. If I don’t believe that the God depicted in the OT or NT is real, and that the Son of God is actually NOT the Son of God, then there’s no God there. I’ll repeat it again: There’s no God there.

    Perhaps if I knew other Christians didn’t believe in Yahweh or Jesus, then I might have remained a Catholic. Thanks for putting this out there.