Can You Believe in Heaven if You Don’t Believe in God?

While many nontheists define their humanism, atheism, or agnosticism by their lack of belief in gods, one might likely assume that this disbelief in deities also translates into a doubt of an afterlife. However, according to headlines from NBC News and the Daily Mail, even though more Americans and British are atheists, an increasing number of them actually believe in the afterlife.

That’s what the headlines say, anyway. Further reading reveals that the number of nonreligious individuals—those who do not identify with any religion sometimes known as “nones”—is rising. While the ranks of atheists and agnostics are also growing, the “nones” are the category expanding the quickest. “Nones,” like atheists, might not identify with any religious tradition, but that does not mean they eschew anything and everything spiritual. In a Pew Research Center analysis of generational differences and religious views, researchers found that while millennials are much more likely than previous generations to identify as “nones,” two-thirds of millennials also report that they believe in heaven and 56 percent state that they believe in hell. Given these numbers, concluding that there is at least some overlap between the “nones” and those who believe in an afterlife, whether heaven or hell, is reasonable. However, even though many researchers group the “nones” together with atheists and agnostics into a general “unaffiliated” category, there are likely differences between these groups. As the Pew analysis demonstrates, even though millennials are more likely to be “nones” and to state that religion does not play an important role in their lives, many of them still pray and still report that they feel a general sense of spiritual peace. They may not be religious, but they are also not atheists. With the term “atheist,” however,  comes clicks on Internet articles and more readers and commenters, which is perhaps why NBC News and the Daily Mail decided to use the term “atheist” instead of “religiously unaffiliated” in their headlines. Because atheists are still stigmatized in our culture, headlines mentioning them are more attention-getting and make news stories about religion seem more shocking. For example, when the American Humanist Association (AHA) puts out press releases, the organization emphasizes its humanism—yet reporters will refer to the AHA as an atheist group instead. The AHA is working through its legal and legislative initiatives to reduce the stigma surrounding the term “atheist,” as well as the stigmas attached to the terms “humanist” and “agnostic,” and hopefully there will come a day when any of these terms in the media is not cause for alarm but simply a neutral descriptor. In the meantime, the conflation of “humanist” with “atheist” in the media, as well as the conflation of “unaffiliated” with “atheist,” highlights the misunderstandings that can occur in reporting on nonreligious communities. As the nonreligious become an increasingly large and increasingly important demographic in America, as well as in other parts of the globe, the reporting on their attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors will need to become more specific. There may be some atheists who believe in an afterlife, but humanists and atheists who identify with the larger secular movement are probably much less likely to believe in an afterlife than individuals who simply identify as religiously unaffiliated. Contradictory headlines that proclaim new evidence that atheists believe in an afterlife might generate more attention from readers, but they also muddle the general public’s understanding of what atheism actually is and what atheists are actually like. These headlines also rely on the stigma attached to the term “atheist,” and the stories associated with them often fail to challenge or refute that stigma. The number of nonreligious, humanist, atheist, and agnostic Americans may be growing, but we still have a long way to go before we achieve full equality.Tags: