This week, several media outlets (Washington Post and Huffington Post) have highlighted an atheist who advocates prayer. The man has blogged that when he started a twelve step program he began praying regularly to a being he created (without believing in the existence of a deity), which changed his life for the better. Last summer, I pondered a somewhat similar hypothetical scenario in which a self-identified atheist maintained a belief in god in order to illustrate, as my colleagues here at Culture on the Edge have been saying, that identifications are strategic, not intrinsic. That blog post received pushback from some friends asserting that atheists, by definition, cannot believe in god.
What makes the existence of a praying atheist newsworthy is similar to what generated the pushback to my earlier post. The assumption that an identification equates (or should equate) with specific practices and beliefs creates an assumed norm that makes anomalies interesting and worth engaging or even correcting. Both articles on the praying atheist directly connected their stories to the findings in the Pew Forum’s report “The Rise of the Nones,” referring to those who do not report a religious affiliation in surveys. The Pew report, among other things, analyzes the persistence of religion/spirituality among the “nones” surveyed and, as a follow-up article in the Washington Post noted, 14% who identified as atheist reported that they believe in “God or a universal spirit” and 5% pray daily, findings that the article author cited as “interesting”. The statistical basis of the Pew report, as I have suggested previously here and here, assumed that the constructed category nones reflects an inherent similarity, even when the survey data suggests significant dissimilarities.
Clearly, assumptions about how identifications work frame not only what people consider newsworthy but also how people report on a survey, even when looking at evidence to the contrary.