Get Religion reports on an odd wrinkle in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's big ol' survey. You may have heard about this survey's results indicating that atheism is the fastest-growing faith in America. But a closer look at the statistics reveals a real oddity: fifty-seven percent of self-identified agnostics and twenty-one percent of self-identified atheists answered "yes" to the question, "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" About the same number said they pray. Eight percent of atheists were "absolutely certain" that God does exist. Which brings us to the title above: What the heck does "atheism" mean, then?
Well, Steve Waldman at Beliefnet theorizes that this means that "Atheism has become a cultural designation, rather than a theological statement. Some are likely declaring themselves atheists as a statement of hostility to organized religion, rather than to God." Which sounds plausible to me.
Get Religion shares some rightful criticism of the survey's question phrasing, methodology, and general tendency to overreach. (I had some similar thoughts, in the context of a bigger criticism of the Atlantic Monthly's religion reporting, in a post for Religion Dispatches a couple months ago.) But nevertheless, there's something odd going on in those numbers-- something that should make anyone pause and think about what the word "atheist" really means in today's culture.