I was thinking about this post I recently wrote in response to some questions from a reader. One of the questions, if in fact not the main question was about talking to your children about death, as an atheist. I personally don’t believe that there’s anything beyond this life but as I responded, no one actually knows. That’s the best answer anyone could possibly give and anyone that says for sure that the absolutely know what occurs when we die, is either lying or fooling themselves. But that started me thinking about this Pew Research Poll of atheists I read a while back because for some reason, I was certain that within that poll, I had read that there were atheists polled that did believe in an afterlife. I wasn’t disappointed when I revisited the poll.
Let’s start off with a few simple demographics: In the U.S., atheists comprise approximately 3.1% of the population. Now whether you believe the population is 320 million or 350 million (I’ve heard both, as well as figures in between) that places the number of atheists between 9.92 and 10.85 million. Not an insubstantial number and although people aren’t leaving religion in droves to become atheists, that number may be slightly higher today compared to when the poll was taken. Also, most atheists (77%) are under 50 years old, with the majority of those, 40%, being under 30 years old. That, to me at least, says a lot about the influence of religious belief – where it’s going – in this country among young people. Next, there are more men than women that are atheists (68% – 32%) which I think we’ve all known for a long time, but it’s interesting to see the actual numbers. Finally, 78% of atheists are white, where 3% are black, 7% Asian, and (this surprised me) 10% are Hispanic.
There are other demographics in the poll as to political leaning, immigrant status, and income, as well as education if anyone is interested. But the surprising part of the poll for me was the number of people that say they are atheists that believe in the afterlife. A full 5% polled say they believe in heaven. No, I didn’t typo that, you can see it in the poll linked above. That means, if we take the higher number of atheists I presented above, some 542 thousand (and change) believe in an afterlife, heaven specifically. Even more surprising is that out of the same number, 3% believe in hell. Do the math. That’s an amazing number of people that say they don’t believe in gods or find no proof for the existence of any gods, to affirm.
This, in my opinion and it’s only my opinion, is due to the human ego. We don’t want to believe that this life is it for us, that, since we are the dominant species on this planet, this life, although it may come to an end, is not the end for us. The idea that when we die, there is nothing is troubling to many people, and as shown here, even to a percentage of people that don’t acknowledge that any gods exist. How does a belief in an afterlife, heaven or hell, square with atheism? I’m not sure, but it’s clear that it exists. It may be that there are those polled that say they are atheists, are not, possibly agnostic, but those numbers are rolled into the overall demographic. The poll however, concerns atheism, not agnosticism, but then, as polls go, sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate those polled based on the questions asked.
The idea of heaven and hell is based upon a belief in some god or another and it’s curious that atheists would answer in the affirmative about a belief in the afterlife. That’s why I think it really comes down to the variable, human ego. None of us, atheist or other, really want to acknowledge the end is the end. But it becomes easier over time and, at least for me, a decision I’ve made peace with because my afterlife? That’s the DNA I contributed to my daughter. As long as she lives on, and (hopefully) her offspring continue, then I’ll always be there. If there’s any afterlife for any of us, that’s what it’s all about.
This is why I continue to attempt to be the best person I am able to be, with my friends and family. I’ll continue on, just not in the way that most people in the world believe.