A reader writes:
I'm a person who would, by every metric of belief, be classifiable as "atheist". I lack any positive belief in any religious tradition and participate in religious practices only when it would be disrespectful not to do so. I'm not sure why 8% of those who claim the label "atheist" would turn around and then answer "absolutely certain" to the question "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" I tend to respond in an opposite manner, being nearly certain that I have witnessed no evidence that would suggest to me the presence of a deity, though I resist the label of atheist. However, perhaps the reasons behind my hesitation can hint at why those in the Pew survey answered as they did.
I hesitate to use the "atheist" label not because I'm ashamed of my lack of belief. Instead, I do so because the label has acquired a life of its own out of my control.
For example, many critics of the godless have successfully attached intolerance, amorality, immorality, fundamentalism, dogmatism, as well as evangelism to the simple lack of theistic belief. In fact, many people I otherwise respect quite a bit (ahem) have even served up the canard that those united only by a lack of positive belief in God can be aggregated just as reasonably as those united by an enormous suite of shared positive beliefs. This results in lumping godless people like me together with Stalin or Hitler as surely as it would lump Spanish Inquisitors with modern Catholics. Is it any wonder then that people like me would try to avoid a category that would be used against us in this way?