The God You Don't Believe In
"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?"Other respones are here: What atheists believe.
I love this question and the reality to which it points, namely, that people are complex and perpetually surprising. What the finding about atheists suggests to me is something that I came across many times in my work as a pastor: when people call themselves atheists, they often mean not that they don't believe in any god at all as the term would indicate, but they don't believe in a particular version or description of God.
I think of a fellow who attended my church for several months and then told me how much he enjoyed my sermons. "I agree with everything you teach," he said, which surprised me since I was pretty sure my wife wouldn't say that! Then he quickly added, "Except for one thing ... I don't believe in God."
A small detail apparently? I asked him to tell me more about that, and he replied, "It's my sister. She has always been annoying, but a few years ago she became a fundamentalist Christian, and now she's completely unbearable. She constantly causes family fights and seems determined to make everybody she meets feel guilty."
I replied, "So you're afraid if you believe in God, you'll become a pain in the neck like your sister."
He replied, "Yes. That's it exactly."
I took a risk: "Do you think I'm a pain in the neck, since I obviously believe in God?"
"Oh, not at all," he replied. "You and the people at the church are wonderful."
"So, if you could find a way to believe in God the way some of us do, and not the way your sister does, maybe it would be OK?"
"Wow, that really helps me," he said. A few months later, he did come to a deep faith in God, which continues to grow today. A lot of pastors have learned from similar experiences to ask people, when they say they are atheists, "Tell me about the God you don't believe in." More often than not, we can say, "I don't believe in that kind of God either. I can't blame you for being an atheist if that's the understanding of God that you're rejecting."
Of course, many people are more "orthodox" atheists of the naturalistic sort, refusing to believe in anything beyond physics and mathematics. But according to the Pew data, there are a significant number out there who at first seem to be simply illogical by claiming both atheism and belief in some sort of deity ... but with further conversation, it turns out they have an interesting spiritual story full of unresolved tensions, and that story isn't finished yet. Which is true of us all.