In case you're curious, my wife is a choir director at a church, but her beliefs are some odd mix of Deism, paganism and cream cheese (microwave in a bowl for two minutes, mix and serve over crackers). It makes her happy, and that's what counts.
There was a recent Pew survey of religion in America (technically, that would be the "Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life"), and it appears to me that the definitions that are accepted by the Pew people (and often by the "average" American) might be a little flawed.
For example, if you go into the Pew results, on page 8, you'll find the statement:
Indeed, one-in-five people who identify themselves as atheist (21%) and a majority of those who identify themselves as agnostic (55%) express a belief in God or a universal spirit.Now, it seems to me that statement is badly worded, and almost sure to be misconstrued by pundits and sermonizers.
But regardless of that, Pew files atheists and agnostics among the "unaffiliated" ("but... I'm a Rotarian! isn't that an affiliation?"), which also includes "secular unaffiliated" and "religious unaffiliated."
Now, if you search around this page, you'll find that, ignoring their various self-identified religous/irreligious affiliations, we find that between 5% and 8% of the national population "do not believe in God." Personally, I'd say that qualifies these people as atheists. But then you go here, where you find that only 1.6% of the American population self-identifies as atheist.
Somebody is failing in that basic vocabulary training.
Personally, I prefer the company of the secular to that of the sacred, but only until their various religions (or lack thereof) comes up. You see, there's very little that's more annoying than the smug, evangelistic atheist - and yes, I say 'evangelistic.' As in, they always want to explain exactly why they're atheists, exactly why the Christians are blind, unthinking fools, and why I should be an atheist, too. They're very devout in these beliefs, almost like cult members. You know, I was an atheist at first, too. About age 13 or so. But I grew up. I realized that many atheists have abandoned a blind belief in God for an equally blind set of beliefs.
See, atheism requires the belief that the majority of people in the world are wrong, and you are right. Atheism requires that you believe, and in fact have total faith in, the nonexistance of God.
Which usually means that they firmly believe that the universe was not created by the Big Guy In The Sky. That bad-tempered old murderer who apparently had therapy between the Old and New Testaments, and became a warm and fuzzy lover of children and small animals, is, in their eyes, a non-entity. They don't believe in God. Or gods. Or invisible sky-unicorns.
So how do they believe the earth came into existance? Usually, you can get them to say that they believe in the Big Bang. And that's when you have them.
To the scientific atheist, the universe was formed by a process called the Big Bang: the universe is a random collection of chemicals that just happened to come together in this way, and before that, those chemicals were a supercompacted ball of goo which exploded outward in an ever-expanding event
But there's nothing that annoys them more than to point out that they've merely abandoned one bit of unsupported faith for another. See, all you have to do to watch their faith get shaken is to ask a simple question.
What came before the Big Bang? Was there a previous universe that experienced a Big Crunch? Where did that initial ball of goo come from?
(Technically, that "goo" is usually described as a quantum singularity, or, in the words of one of the earliest Big Bangers, a "primordial atom," but let's skip past that.)
When I ask that question, I have been given the answer that "if you take two or three years of college physics, you ought to be able to figure it out." That's the pat answer for the scientific crowd. If you ask a Christian why they believe in God, you tend to get, "I can't explain faith to you. If you were a better Christian, you'd understand."
But to an atheist, if you question them on the Big Bang, the pat answer is "I can't explain physics to you. If you had a better education, you'd understand."
But here's the problem. The general theory of the Big Bang is made by extrapolating backwards based on the expanding universe. However, it's only a theory, because you can only extrapolate backwards to a certain extent, and definitely no farther than the Planck epoch.
There are, in fact, multiple different models of the early phases of the Big Bang, some of which only agree with others in their most general form. Most often, the theory is that the initial stages involved our hyper-compressed ball of goo, where the laws of time and space are altered.
Now, it seems obvious to me that the assumption of the universality of physical laws, on which the theory of the Big Bang is predicated, breaks down just a little when the entire thing is based on a state where physical laws are not followed. Since these theorems all postulate that general relativity is correct, but general relativity must break down before the universe reaches the Planck temperature, the entire theory is based on massive, unprovable assumptions; a proper understanding of quantum gravity might avoid the singularity entirely.
(There are other possible models, such as the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary condition or brane cosmology, which would just as effectively explain the universe, but they're based on unproven assumptions as well.)
Or, to put it another way, the whole thing is based on the argument of the Underpants Gnomes. "Step one — there's this quantum singularity, or primeval atom, or some other state that we can't describe. Step two... um... Step three — the universe is created!"
In fact, although the theory does have some notable successes (for example, its ability to accurately predict the comparitively abundant supplies of the elements around us), the Big Bang theory cannot and does not provide any explanation for the initial condition — even the best particle accelerators can't probe far enough into the high energy regimes that result from the supercompressed matter and energy that the theory claims resulted in Step 3 of the Underpants Theory of the Big Bang.
So, the problem is not that I don't understand it, it's that the scientists formulating it only understand it to a certain point.
And that's where it all breaks down for me. These people have abandoned a belief in a tantrum-throwing Invisible Sky Fairy, because they say there's no proof of His existance: you have to assume that He is up there. But then, in response, they turn to a belief in a model of universe-building that is also founded on unprovable assumptions.
This isn't the perfect argument, but I like it. It's simple, it's clean, and, as a bonus, it really ticks off the more militant atheists. Which is always a good thing, in my opinion.