As of 2005, according to a Cambridge study, 88 percent of the world’s population believes in God. This is down from around 90 percent in 2000. Ninety-five percent of Americans still believe in God. Whether these polls are off a slight bit or not, most people would agree that somewhere around 9/10 people have always believed in some sort of deity.
Some may credit the advent of the so-called “new atheism” for the number creeping down in recent years. The “new atheism” is interesting in so many ways. I suppose the fundamental reason why it is called “new” is not because of any new evidence that has been found that profoundly militates against traditional theism, but in the attitude and zeal of the “new atheists.” In essence, whereas the “old atheists” were content to keep their disbelief in God to themselves, not being too concerned about what others believed, these “new atheists” seem intent on converting as many people as possible to their faith. What is “new” is that they are evangelists of unbelief. They truly believe that the world would be better off without a belief in God. Therefore, they want us to be atheist too. In fact, I just saw that The American Humanist Association just launched the largest evangelistic anti-God campaign in history.
However, the fluctuation in the numbers (90 to 88 percent) may not be a very good indicator of the true effect that the “new atheism” is having on people’s beliefs. With the proliferation of atheistic “evidences” among the general public brought about by the “new atheism,” we have something very different. While people are not giving up their confession of belief that God exists and becoming outright atheists, I find that they are more prepared to suspend their belief in God for a sort of accommodating agnosticism. This could be just as problematic for the Christian cause as full-blow atheism itself.
Let me explain.
Belief is not black and white. In fact, the anatomy of belief is very complicated. There are various degrees and ways which people believe things. When it comes to a belief in God, people can lose their conviction without completely losing their faith. When you ask someone whether they believe in God and require a yes/no response, you are assuming that belief in God is either something that you have or you don’t, with little regard for the complexities and variations in between. To put it in a very elementary way: some people kinda believe in God. Others just believe in him. Still, others really believe in him. And some really believe in him. You see the difference?
But, it is even more complex than this. In fact, there is a fundamental difference between believing in God and believing that God exists. You cannot have the former without the latter, but you can have the latter without the former. One can also have varying beliefs about God. Confused?
How about some Patton graphics to confuse things more (don’t pay attention to where the dials are at on the first one here)?
This meter represents faith. There are three individual meters that contribute.
1. Correct information: This has to do with orthodox information or data.
2. Intellectual assent: This speaks to the level of intellectual conviction that a person has that the information is actually true.
3. Trust: This speaks to the action of resting in the truths about which one is convicted.
The complexities of this present meter illustrate how one can have correct information, be resting in this information, but have a very low intellectual conviction of its truthfulness. Psychologists would label this meter “cognitive dissonance.” Here, you are living according to beliefs that you don’t really believe.
In a perfect Christian world, all of the meters would be at their highest. But the reality is that, depending on the person, these meters can vary.
Country Music Faith
Notice here, there is a high conviction with no little or no trust. I find people like this all the time. I often call it “country music faith” since it expresses a strong belief in God, but just does not seem to live according to that belief.
Notice there is not much correct information. Without the right information, all the intellectual assent and trust are not going to get you to God. This would also be true of other religions. (Although, the intellectual assent will vary a great deal. This chart may express it way too high for most.)
Back to the “new atheism”…
So far, my desire is to convince you that belief (and non-belief) is not black and white. When it comes to the issue of the “new atheism,” many of us may be content to say that if the “bottom line” is not being affected (i.e. people still say they believe in God), we don’t really need to turn our heads.
But I believe the “new atheism” is having a greater effect than the bottom line suggests. While the meters of trust and information may not be changing, I do believe that the meter of intellectual assent is. And with this change, I believe that the Christian faith, from a human perspective, is facing some serious challenges.
Let me use the meter chart to show what I mean.
Timid or Cognitive Dissonant Faith
If you don’t get anything else from this article, let me be clear here: This is what I believe the average American Christian’s faith looks like.
Notice here: There is a distinction between “belief about God,” “belief that God,” and “belief in God.” This parallels the “information,” “conviction,” and “trust” in the other chart. Now we are talking specifically about beliefs about God’s existence.
When we take surveys, people’s belief about God and belief in God may only change slightly. Therefore, when they are asked the question Do you believe in God? they answer with what seems to be an honest “yes.” The survey marks it up as such. However, what we don’t see is that their intellectual conviction that God exists is very low.
It is said that Darwin made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Prior to this, the atheist had no credible path to take in his rejection of an ultimate creator for all things. However, the average Christian is struggling these days to find a way to be an intellectually credible theist. They may be theists, believing in God, but they are slowly losing their conviction that God exists.
Now, I am not saying that any of the supposed intellectual credibility of the new atheists is real, but I do think it is perceived to be real by the average Christian. When this perception occurs, most Christians simply rely on the trust meter alone to sustain their faith.
The biggest problem is that Christianity simply cannot function without all three of these meters pushing forward. A cognitive dissonant faith is not a biblical faith. Commitment without convictions will lead to a dead church for it is the conviction upon which the commitment is built.
In the end, I do think that the “new atheism” is having more of an effect than the polls suggest.