You may not realize this, but there’s a lot of dispute about how many atheists are out there. I mean, sure, there are polls (such as this one by the Pew Forum) about the topic, but it may surprise you to know that there are a lot of differences of opinion over how to interpret them.
In a sense, it comes down to definitions.
Sure, look at the poll data, and it says very clearly “Atheists: 3.1%.” That should be it, right? Atheists are 3.1% of the population. But is that actually true? Because polls like this don’t tell us what we are, they ask us how we describe ourselves. And that is going to run into some problems with what you understand the definitions to be. If your understanding of what an atheist is matches your self-description, then you might identify yourself as an atheist (if your comfortable accepting the pejorative baggage that comes with that label). So it’s very likely that the 3.1% number under-reports people who actually are atheists… for certain definitions.
The definition gets fought over all the time, though. The one I use is “someone who does not believe that a god (or gods) exists.” And since I don’t claim to know a god doesn’t exist, but I don’t believe one does, that definition fits me. This is different, by the way, from the definition “someone who believes that gods do not exist.” That definition doesn’t really fit me. And while those are the two that get argued over the most, they aren’t the only ones. Some people (usually theists trying to define atheism into absurdity) define it as “someone who claims to know that no gods exist.” I know atheists who claim the label, not because they have any particular position on whether gods exist, but because they don’t believe gods should be worshipped, irrespective of whether they exist or not. It’s not a popular definition, but is it invalid?
But let’s look at my definition, and relate it to the other categories presented in the poll. Because it has implications.
For example: where do agnostics really fall? According to the poll, they make up 4% of the population. But, again, definitions matter. What does someone mean when they say they’re agnostic? Do they mean they don’t know if a god exists? Well, that’s kind of a different question from whether you believe a god exists. I fit that definition of agnostic. By those definitions, I am both agnostic and an atheist – they are not mutually exclusive categories. So does that mean I get to claim that extra 4% of the population as being atheists (as some atheists are wont to do)? Hardly. Because some agnostics will say they don’t (or even can’t) know that a god exists, but they believe one does. Or they might use the definition of atheist that is the claim that gods definitely don’t exist, in which case it’s obvious why they might not identify as an atheist.
And what about the fairly large (15.8%) group that identifies as “nothing in particular?” If they don’t believe anything in particular about gods, are they actually atheists as well? Under my definition, maybe. Perhaps they don’t believe a god exists, but don’t want to use the atheist label or don’t define it the way I do. Or maybe they do believe a god (or gods) exists, but have no particular beliefs about what that god is like or what (if anything) we ought to do in response to it.
What about Buddhists? There are forms of Buddhism that don’t feature any gods at all – are those people atheists? Some will say yes, some will say no.
Or we could venture further afield into the people who identified as members of particular religions that unambiguously center around gods. Might there be some atheists among them? I know of more than a few people who would identify as Jewish for cultural, philosophical, and ethnic reasons, but who don’t actually believe the Jewish god really exists. The same is true among Christians, and among Muslims, and for many (if not all) of the other religions listed in this poll. Are those people atheists, too? What percentage? Who knows? When we’re talking about demographics, do we get to claim any of those people?
It gets to be kind of a mess. Depending on how you define it, you could have anywhere form under 3% of the population to over half being atheists. But language can be like that. When definitions are unclear (and on controversial topics, unfortunately, people frequently go to great lengths to keep them that way), people don’t hear what you mean; they hear what they would have meant if they had said the same words. So the purpose of this article, for the most part, is to try and clear up any remaining confusion about how I’m using some of these terms. When, in the title of this post, I asked “are you an atheist?” what I was really asking was “are you someone who does not believe a god (or gods) actually exist?”
And I don’t necessarily expect you to answer me, one way or the other. I don't expect you to identify as anything other than what you already do. It’s just something to think about, and maybe worth answering to yourself.