Is the TV on?

There is a new study being reported in the Huffington Post : “New Study Suggests U.S. Has A Lot Of ‘Closet’ Atheists” “Atheists may have been drastically undercounted because of reluctance to honestly answer poll questions.” I lived through the closeted years of the early gay rights movement so I have some thoughts on the matter.

This study uses an oddly cumbersome series of unrelated questions to derive a conclusion because they don’t trust people to directly acknowledge atheism with a yes or a no. For example, “I’ve been to the South Pole” is one such statement that requires respondents to answer true or false. By asking a series of these types of questions they attempt to deduce whether the person is an atheist.

“I prefer wieners to tacos” T or F would have done little to reveal my closeted gay status back in the sixties. Visiting a frozen pole apparently indicates more about a relationship with god than long hot tubes of steaming meat relate to sex! Cold poles and hot dogs, science can be such a mystery! All joking aside the study sounds intriguing and viable to me, but then again I’m an artist.

The problem with so many of these ‘do you believe in god’ studies is that they are merely asking which channel you like best on the Godbox. They begin with the assumption that there is a THEO-TV. The assumptions continue: THEO-TV is turned on, has electricity, can provide viable theological programing, has multiple options, each option makes enough quasi-reasonable or fantastical statements to develop a following of viewers. The Catholic channel doesn’t like being next to the Voodoo channel; the Hindus want a separate channel for all 330 million of their deities although negotiations are trying to keep the number down to 33.

Some of these studies provide a questionnaire asking you to check the box next to your religion. If they include a listing for atheist it is offensive to some on both sides because atheism is not a religion per se. The computer won’t let you go on to the next question until you check a box so freethinkers are stuck choosing either ‘Atheist’ or ‘Other’; both choices force you to choose a channel/religion on the Godbox. You’re going to be pigeon-holed into some mystery/faith system one way or another.

We all know individuals who really want a god-based flow of information/mystery/comfort to sooth their sin-sick souls: The Balm of Gilead only $25.95+S&H. Oddly enough, to those folks anyway, many people survive perfectly well without Godbox thank you very much. We exist in a world where the common assumption is: everyone has a Godbox, and everyone will select one or more of the channels on it. The assumption is so strong that even our computers are programed to accept no variation from this premise.

The basic flaw here is, however, that the question of god’s existence or nonexistence has nothing to do with the programing or channels on the Godbox. Non-theists don’t even consider it an option. As furniture, a Godbox serves no purpose. There is no reason to buy one, plug it in, or turn it on, much less choose one channel over any other channel. Answers aren’t found in a box.

For atheists and non-theists there is a great deal of pressure to conform to the Godbox lifestyle. It is an omnipresent element of culture. Our money declares it, and public gatherings begin and end with ceremonial homage to it. No wonder people lie on questionnaires, the contexts of our culture forces them to! Just look at the change in our pockets.

Scientists trying to calculate the number of atheists who exist must also dispense with the word “atheist.” It has a built in prejudice. In the early gay rights movement the hot research topic was, “What makes someone gay?” Progress wasn’t made until the question got turned around to ask, “What makes someone straight?” That leads to, “What factors influence sexual expression?” We still don’t have a count on the number of gays, but we do have new understandings hundreds of variations of sexual expression and a vast body of knowledge.

Any questions about how many atheists there are must be based upon this contextual frame:

1. The first premise should be that humans are born non-theists; religion is not genetic but it is often geographic.

2. People separate themselves from the natural non-theist state by becoming theists – supernaturalist believers of the many subsets of religions. (this group owns a Godbox)

3. Some of the set of religionists may eventually choose to rebel against or reject religion and so become atheists. (They still have Godboxes tuned to the atheist channel.)


So, basically, you can’t be an atheist until you have a supernatural/mystery belief to react against. When researchers go looking for the number of atheists who exist in a place they often ignore the original set of humans for whom the construct of god has no relevance. There is no word to describe those who have never fallen sway to a mystery-based fantasy. “A” means “against or without,” “theist” means “god or the concept of a god,” atheist means ‘against god’. How would that original group of humans respond to a statement so far removed from the context of their lives? They can’t be atheist because “theist” means nothing to them: “against nothing” is a non-sequitur.

I like to use the word ‘non-theist’ to describe my position. It exists in common usage for the same purpose as atheist – to show an opposing perspective of a god (and pretentious followers). “Non-”  means ‘not’ in Latin. A nonbeliever does not maintain a particular belief but a non-theist does not even address belief by simply stating that: the phenomenon called “god” does not exist.

Non-theists declare there is not a god.

Atheists declare themselves to be against something that exists or has the potential to exist. If god did not exist opposing it would be senseless. So, logically, the word would be pointless.

[ Note: this was the first in a series of discussions about religion, art and morality. It is rather lengthy so I have not posted much else while I compile this diatribe.]


  1. tkreacher says

    I’m a little dodgy on how you broke down “atheist” in your opposition to it. You correctly started with “A-” meaning against *or* without. But then you truncated theist to “god or god concept”, when a more accurate meaning would be “*belief* in a god or god concept”. Then to conclude your syllogism you omitted the second possible meaning of “A-” and omitted “belief” from the term theist – stating that atheism means “against god”.

    This is not how I, nor any of the atheists I know, use the term. I use the term to mean “without belief in a god or gods”, which is a perfect description. Further, it absolutely would work for a group of people who had knowledge of any god constructs, because of *course* they can be without belief in something they don’t even know they could believe in in the first place.

    • odgraphix says

      Thank you tkreacher for your comments, they are helpful. I knew I would be getting myself into a kettle of fish with this post. I think in metaphors rather than logic and sometimes I get things wrong, for example I always thought kettle of fish was a big barrel full of thrashing fish, I mean, who would want to go in there? The kettle, as it turns out, is a squat narrow pan just the size to poach a salmon. I couldn’t get more than my foot into something like that, so the literal and metaphorical meanings must have split at some point in time. Anyway, the artist within me is seeking to extend the metaphor of a joke I once heard. It was about religions being different TV stations and atheists choosing the off switch instead of changing channels. It all seemed quite clever at first hearing.

      The thought eventually struck me that the metaphor of a TV set did not adequately address the underlying assumption that a Godbox as I have christened it, is a necessary household item. This post is my attempt to seek clarity in a place where I perceive confusion. In our culture, from birth, the presumption is that: “In God We Trust” which means: get a Godbox and pick a channel.

      I would prefer we place that trust in the divinity of the individual rather than in an undefined abstraction. I would rather start from the premise that, “love is god” because “God is Love” is a disputable declaration that almost demands assent – GOD IS (love). Whereas, “love is god” comes from the individual’s heart so it is pure. One need not believe in a literal god to accept the statement, but they could believe if they want to, either option is available.

      So, with this as background, I am attempting to solve how atheists can and do exist in both (and perhaps I should have called them) the never-theist and the ex-theist worlds. I am an ex-theist who exists in the never-theist world. I have abandoned the Godbox and its mindset. I have reverted back to what should have been the default setting for humans: non-theist. I belong (by existing definitions) in neither the world of Godbox nor the never-theist. I have been searching for a way to define a person in my circumstance which resulted in my last blog. I got there by taking liberties with language, a different kettle of fish, as you have pointed out. I am not in opposition to atheism or the word in any of its forms, I am trying to expand upon it and give clarity to the variety of ways of experiencing, as you say: “without belief in a god or gods”. I hope you will continue to assist me on this journey. Bill

      • tkreacher says

        Indeed, and fair enough!

        Also, the kettle of fish – can’t get more than a foot into something like that, gave me quite a chuckle.

Any Thoughts?