How to tell if you’re an atheist

The existence of clergy without belief is neither rare nor trivial.

In March 2010, On Faith published a study by Linda LaScola and me, reporting on our project to find and interview, confidentially, non-believing clergy.

The discussion at On Faith, and elsewhere, persuaded  other clergy to volunteer to be interviewed by LaScola, again in strictest confidence, and as soon as she wraps up a few more interviews we will begin analyzing the transcripts and producing a report of this second phase, which we will publish in due course. Our phase II population includes more than two dozen new participants, a dozen of them currently practicing, with congregations, and drawn from more than a dozen different faiths, including Catholics, Jews, and Mormons.  The existence of non-believing clergy is certainly not a trivial or rare phenomenon.  No two cases are alike, and the reasons and histories make a fascinating multi-threaded tapestry of good people and how they deal with this secret mismatch.

One of the patterns we have observed, not surprisingly, is that many clergy don’t identify with the label “atheist” even though, from some perspectives, they share many of the same characteristics as atheists, including not believing in the supernatural.  In any event, they do not believe what their parishioners assume them to believe. Might they be atheists?  Might many self-avowed Christians and members of other faiths actually be atheists in spite of the fact that they don’t see themselves that way?  One interesting possibility is that they simply haven’t figured out that they are atheists.  If this sounds unlikely, compare it with Anton’s Syndrome, a well-studied phenomenon in which patients have been struck blind by a cerebral accident, but don’t realize it.  It is possible. Our minds are actually quite adept at concealing troubling truths from us.

At the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne a few weeks ago, I spoke on this topic, expecting that although the more than four thousand people in the auditorium there were all untroubled atheists (with a few interloper believers checking us out, incognito), those who might later watch my talk on the Internet would include a lot of people who don’t yet know whether or not they are atheists. Some call themselves agnostics, and may be wondering if that if the most accurate way of describing their view. In my talk I provide some tests for them to apply to themselves.

Being an atheist can be liberating, a breath of fresh air.  The Global Atheist Convention was a joyous occasion. Might you discover that you belong in our happy throng?

Daniel Dennett, writes from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Photo courtest of Flickr, jonworth-eu


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Daniel C. Dennett
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    Not enough women in atheism, too much of a sausage fest.

    I’m sure I agree with beard-o here, but he sort of lives up to the stereotype, y;know?

  • eddikon

    Obviously, Atheists can be just as asinine as believers.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    What a ringing endorsement of religion.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    soddi for all of your pugilism on behalf of atheism on these threads I’m actually amazed you’ve never heard of Dennett. Between Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, his criticisms of faith are often the most elegant.

  • SimonTemplar

    I look forward to reading Mr. Dennett’s final report. Though, if he is hoping for much surprise among Christians, I fear he may be in for a disappointment. One need only look at the current state of most mainline denominations to see signs of what he describes. Anyone remember Bishop Spong? I don’t know if he has ever actually claimed to be an atheist, but he may as well be one.

  • efavorite

    eddikon — Thank you for this deepity

  • Chip_M

    /me waves at efavorite. Nice to see you’re still around.

  • efavorite

    Hi, Chip! Nice to see you too

  • ccnl1

    A prayer to guide your beliefs:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

  • TheEcho

    I have been a full-on (and fully aware) atheist since the tender age of 7. It gives me hope for humanity that there are practicing theists who are indeed atheists who just need a little encouragement and self-reflection.

  • Michael Shaw

    How many Christian people are living like there is no god? How many are Christians because it’s the path of least resistance in this country? This country is supposed to be mostly Christians, and crime is crazy here.

    Another sad tidbit–as an atheist, I know more about the Christian religion than most Christians do. I can quote more of the Bible than Christians can. In fact, it was studying the Bible that led me down the path to atheism.

  • neclark

    I agree with Stephen Roberts – who said:

    “I contend that we are both atheists.
    I just believe in one fewer god than you do.
    When you understand why you dismiss
    all the other possible gods,
    you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

  • DigitalQuaker

    What a tripe filled diaper this “article” was. Not only is it devoid of almost any useful information, it appears to be little more than an unstable platform to question believers and ask them if they are actually atheists. He then goes on to talk about a great time he had at a conference. Seriously, how many box tops does one have to send in to get print space in this low rent district of the paper they call “guest voices”? Fifteen minutes of turning the magic 8-ball over would yield similar insights to this blather.

    And for the record, I have no problem with anyone being an Atheist. Frankly, their often misunderstood position deserves a better voice than this provides. In fact, a more interesting observation to share might be discussing atheists who are secretly, or unknowingly believers. That would be a more fertile ground to grow a worthwhile discussion from.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    I’m sorry but this is a silly statement. Apply it to other concepts to see the foolishness of it. Apply it to money for example. The fact that there are a great many counterfeit US bills floating through our economy does not mean that there is no genuine US currency.

  • lanenorcross

    Absolutely brilliant analysis.

    Though Jesus, who said he was God was proven a fraud, his disciples still managed to pull the wool over all of their contemporaries. Clearly they had the motive to do this, because they would become highly paid ministers and televangelists in their time. None of them would be hanged, or crucified themselves for this blatant lie that they were perpetrating.

    Oh wait a minute, maybe the more simple answer is correct here. Jesus was exactly what he said he was, and the only way the story caught on was because it was… well…. true. Praise Jesus!

  • Vanka


    Yes, but I can hold both the authentic currency and the counterfeit in my hands and distinguish between them. They are both real.

    But you cannot distinguish your god from the other gods at all, much less in terms of one being authentic and the others being “real”.

  • Vanka


    Now what were you saying about “silly”?

  • ericcallenking

    Hegel, the German philosopher, proposed that new ideas arise, thesis, they meet resistance from old ways of thinking, antithesis, then the old way and the new become integrated, synthesis. i have been thinking of this with atheism, the thesis is that there is no god, surely with such a stark difference in belief no integration between the two views is possible? If you look at the history of faith the divine has been receding, ancient peoples saw gods in every tree and brook, Zeus’s father and mother were the sky and the earth, nature, then the gods began to recede, our modern conception of God being mystical and distant. God has become more abstract, the god that could survive synthesis might be completly abstract, the idea of everything as one shorn of all ideas of God as a person. Just as perfect forms do not exist in the world but exist in the world of thought, an abstract God would exist as an idea, real but not an individual. Science is in some ways the deity of this age so let’s turn to science, there are three phenomenon that would seem to suggest an abstract God, evolution, the mind and quantum physics. Random chance plays a part in all of these, if you look at randomness as the infinite and the material world, all possibilities narrowed to one actuality, it offers an interesting perspective. Evolution is driven by random mutation, constant creation entering the world, the mind works in a simular way, the contents of the mind is like its ecosystem, thinking involves new possibilities arising among our old ideas in a mysterious way rather like the random mutation of evolution, the job of reason then is to decide which ideas are possible and which are not rather than originating them, this is a common experience of creative thinkers of a solution mysteriously presenting itself. Of course the randomness of quantum particles is well known, anarchic possibility upsetting the rigid order of things, one example-if a black hole, which could be thought of as a certai

  • AgentFoxMulder

    You can hold money (fake or otherwise) in your hand because of the nature of money. God has a different nature and needs to be evaluated differently with regard to his existence.

    There are a lot of falsehoods in the world but that does not mean that there is not truth. Each concept needs to be evaluated in a method that is true to the nature of the particulars of that concept.

  • edbyronadams

    With a slight difference, you have Buddhism, except for the emphasis on randomness. In Buddhism it is all cause and effect on a metaphysical level.

  • Joel1

    Even the way atheists speak about their belief has the stamp of religion about it.

  • persiflage

    Atheists are without beliefs regarding supernatural beings and other divine entities. I suspect what you may refer to is the conviction with which at least some atheists declare their position i.e. absense of belief in the supernaturalism at the core of theism.

    If there was no belief in gods there would be no disbelief in such things.

  • persiflage

    I”ve often wondered how finite humans know so much about the infinity of divinity. I’m thinking they make this stuff up.

  • persiflage

    ‘…… and the only way the story caught on was because it was… well…. true. Praise Jesus!’

    I’d sooner praise the human imagination from whence it all came.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    The Judeo-Christian understanding is that God has revealed himself to us (in history, as related to us in the Bible) and that is the only way we can understand him. We only understand Him as far as He has revealed himself to us. He chose the timing, the circumstances and the audience for his revelations.

  • Secular1

    AFM, it always comes to that “he revealed himself”. How do you show to anyone that your example of this guy revealing himself is the authentic one as opposed to MO’s claim that the guy revealed himself to him (MO). What are the characteristics of authentic revelation, that help you determine that yours is authentic (the one you believe in), over MOs revelation. Both are real revelations, that you can read.

    In short you cannot. That is why I call all these revelations are at best ramblings/rants of ignorant ancients.

  • Secular1

    Any scripture from any faith should be enough to turn anyone to atheism, if read completely and try to logically analyze it.

  • Sara121

    And never mind all the plagiarized aspects of other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean religions the early Christians took. Virgin birth and godly progeny are hardly unique to Christianity.

  • Lalande21185

    Hmmm… I believe in God, Jesus, the Sacraments…. I can recite every word of the Nicene Creed and mean it… I pray throughout the day, I regard and treat everyone I meet as the Image of God… I live simply, and pass the majority of my income onto others… I see God’s presence in every leaf, every cloud, every star, every person… No, I guess I’m not an atheist.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    The abundant self-righteousness that you derive from your willingness to believe absolutely anything is precisely the problem.

  • TonyDiaz999

    Only in response to the arrogant hubris of the theists the atheists’ speech and thoughts have to include religion.

  • Rongoklunk

    The only brain that uncritically accepts the god-hypothesis is the child’s brain. Stop indoctrinating children to believe in the great invisible skygod and religion will go away. I raised five happy atheists by simply not talking about a god. If such an idea is hammered into the brains of children – they’ll likely believe it for life. If it isn’t hammered in there, then they won’t.

    Be kind. Respect the child’s mind. Don’t indoctrinate.

  • Rongoklunk

    In other words – you’re a robot…an unthinking, gullible, totally indoctrinated and hardwired Goddist. How can you be so incurious as to settle on the God-hypothesis as the answer to the mystery of existence and the cosmos? Science has much better and grander explanations. God is too tiny and too personal an explanation. Read Hawkin’s “The Grand Design” where he admits that no God was needed to account for creation. It was all a matter of chemistry and eons of time, not some really Big Dude in the sky, which as Einstein was sick of saying – is “naive, even childish.”
    Time to grow up and put away childish notions.

  • Rongoklunk

    That’s Hawking’s…

  • Rongoklunk

    I believe a lot of these religious folk who make easy money on these threads by selling religion – are just hucksters who are not necessarily religious. Let’s face it – it’s the easiest scam of them all – selling an invisible man who you don’t get to see until AFTER you’re dead – has gotta be the oldest scam – and the most cynical scam. As far as we know death means death, for us as for all things; and gods are by definition mythical, and never ever existed.

  • Sadetec

    >> “Evolution is driven by random mutation”

    Evolution is driven by selection. Hence “by means of natural selection” being the sub-title of Darwin’s book. Mutation provides the fuel for selection, but make no mistake it is the discriminating force of selection that actually makes life evolve rather than fragment into chaos. (One could say mutation is to Evolution what paper and ink are to poetry).

    >> “That there was a big bang suggests that there was a powerful antientropic force at work”

    Not necessarily, or at least not in the way you mean it. I would point you towards Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe from Nothing for a readable account of recent scientific discoveries regarding the shape of our universe and what that reveals about how our universe must have emerged from ‘nothing’ (and indeed where the ‘nothing’ came from to begin with).

    As regards your general point: while one is always free to speculate on the unknown, there comes a point when one’s ideas of the unknown become so heavily compromised by the steady increasing tide of the known, it is surely intellectually more honest to put them aside. One could, in light of each scientific revelation, simply redefine God to make him/her/it/them more and more abstract, vague, ethereal and nebulous — just keep dividing into every smaller fractions so you never actually reach zero — but once your god is hanging on to reality not by his little finger, but by the merest slither of skin on the tip of his little finger, it is time to accept where the evidence is leading you and focus your efforts elsewhere.

  • Joel Hardman


    You really don’t think it’s interesting that a fraction of clergy are actually atheists? Why would you prefer a story about atheists who are actually believers? From where I’m sitting it sure sounds like you’re looking for something to reinforce your religious convictions rather than challenge them.

  • ericcallenking

    Evolution is a two part process without mutatiion there would be nothing to select, youre saying it is due to natural selection ignores the other half of the process and is therefore dead wrong. Science is not undercutting the idea of an abstract God, actually many recent discoveries seem to suggest such a possibility, it is the atheist argument that grows ever weaker, along with the arguments of other fundamentalists. If you say there is no conclusive evidence for God that is reason, if you say there is no God that is fundamentalism QED