Three Surprising Facts about Atheists

UnknownThe Pew Research Center recently released a report entitled 10 Facts About Atheism. Many of the facts cited are unsurprising: while on the rise, atheist represent a small percentage of the American population (3.1%), atheists tend to lean liberal and democratic, tend to be younger and male, and are slightly more educated than the general public. Three facts embedded in this report however were quite interesting.

First, atheists are more likely than U. S. Christians to feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% vs. 45%). Granted, the universe ought to arouse a sense of wonder: it is majestic, awe-inspiring, and beautiful. I’m not surprised that atheists feel a sense of wonder—I’m glad of it. I believe that cosmic wonder is a natural sign pointing to the divine.[1] Wonder invites us to ask questions that, if faithfully followed, will lead us to God: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is my place in the universe? What I find surprising is that atheists are moved to wonder more than U. S. Christians.

The universe reveals the majesty and glory of God. As Paul puts it in Romans: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (1:20). Christians ought to have a high view of the universe—it ought to move us to feel a sense of wonder—since it is lovingly created, sustained, and cared for by God. We shouldn’t stop with wonder, either. It should move us to gratitude. All that we have are gifts from our creator. We should view the world as sacred, enchanted, God-bathed.

Second, a third of atheists (32%) say they look to science for guidance on moral questions. This surprises me because science has very little to say about morality. There is this idea propagated by the intelligentsia that questions of right and wrong can be settled by science; that the morality of abortion or homosexuality or war can be determined by its evolutionary advantage or its contribution to human flourishing, or our genetics. This idea is deeply flawed. Science can describe the way the world is, but it cannot prescribe the way the world ought to be. Science has limits.

Third, Americans like atheists less than they like members of most major religious groups. I find this fact interesting—many atheist friends of mine are some of the nicest people I know. But I wonder if the New Atheists—folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett—have done themselves a disservice in vilifying religion. I’ve personally witnessed devotees of New Atheism arrogantly and angrily assert the superiority of atheism. The arrogance—even bullying—that goes on in the name of atheism—turns me off, and I’m sure it turns many others off as well. It would be much better, or so it seems to me, for all sides to engage in a little epistemic humility. Let’s argue our case with charity. Atheists might be surprised: our goal is (or ought to be) the same: truth.


[1] For more on cosmic wonder as a natural sign of God, see C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), chap. 3.

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