When Atheists Pray & Other Curiosities

Posted by Chris Parker
Oct 03 2008

By DAVID YOUNT, Scripps Howard News Service Religion

Among the provocative findings of two recent surveys of religious faith is that a majority of Americans who claim to be atheists are inclined to pray, one-third of them “often.” About the same number of atheists profess a belief in Satan, hell and demons. Half of them believe in angels and ghosts.

Granted, we’re not talking big populations here. Only about 4 percent of Americans claim to be atheists. Baylor University pollsters suggest that professing to be an atheist is often just a personal objection to organized religion. That still leaves us to ponder what it is that disbelievers seek through prayer, and to whom they pray.

Perhaps the impulse to reach out through prayer may be even stronger than our intellectual assent to God’s existence. Alas, we’re back to the old cliche that there are no atheists in foxholes.

A nationwide survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals yet another mystery: that one-fifth of people who say they are atheists also say they believe in God.

Some other findings:

– Megachurches offer more intimate communities of faith than small congregations of fewer than 100 members. Megachurch members tend to witness to friends and strangers, participate in small study groups, act as volunteers and tithe their earnings.

– 45 percent of Americans report having had at least two mystical experiences in their lives. Conservative Protestants, women, African-Americans and Republicans are more apt to report such experiences.

– Faith versus superstition: The Baylor survey reports that holding the traditional Christian faith sharply reduces credulity. Beliefs in Bigfoot, UFOs, the occult and paranormal, haunted houses and astrology do not comfortably coexist with Christianity.

– Americans overwhelmingly believe in heaven. African-Americans, women, Republicans and Southerners are most prominent in that belief. Only 29 percent of Americans believe that anyone is excluded from heaven, Three-fourths of Americans also believe in hell, led by 92 percent of conservative Protestants.

– Americans as a whole are about evenly divided on whether churches should become involved in political issues. At the same time, 40 percent of Americans wish the government would do more to improve the morality of American life.

– Four-fifths of Americans believe in miracles — that’s more than believe the Scriptures to be the word of God (63 percent) or believe that heaven exists (74 percent).

– Two-thirds of adults with children living in their homes pray or read Scripture with the youngsters.

– Church attendance. Slightly fewer than two in five Americans (39 percent) worship weekly with a congregation.

– A majority of members of every faith report being “very satisfied” with their personal lives. However, fewer than half (47 percent) of members of traditionally African-American churches report that level of contentment.

(David Yount’s new book is “How the Quakers Invented America” (Rowman & Littlefield). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and dyount(at)erols.com.)

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