This'll probably be a long post, and one more speculative than factual or empirical. For several months now, I've found myself more and more inclined to suspect that actually - despite appearances and in defiance of the polls - very few people believe in gods.
I know, I know; don't atheists like to spend all their time whining about being an oppressed minority?
While few of us would let the term "whine" go unchallenged - and without sidetracking now to debate the reality or otherwise of our perceived persecution - it seems reasonable to suggest that there are atheists out there who found a large part of their identity on being the minority, the problem child, the difficult one too smart to buy into the propaganda they've been fed by "the man". I don't pretend to be above feeling a pang of defiant pride every time I correct someone who's assumed a British white bird must be a christian; I still enjoy the moment of shock almost everyone betrays when I openly state my position (while acknowledging it to be slightly depressing that acknowledging a disbelief in gods still creates waves where a stated disbelief in astrology or Death Eaters would be considered innocuous or even completely superfluous).
And yet here I am saying that most people don't believe - so what am I saying here, that religion is just the largest-scale and most coordinated troll campaign in history?
Oddly enough, it was a troll who crystallised this notion for me a couple of months ago (the subject of my October 2011 post "A note about Poes" DID turn out to be a troll, and a good one). But before I caught on, there were vast swathes of facebook conversation about sin, and the troll - I shall call him "Jim" - invited criticism for apparently being a devout christian and yet having two children born out of wedlock. He made the usual theist arguments about not being perfect etc. etc., but still claimed to know that the bible was fact, that all Jahweh's rules were real and all that; to which my response at the time was "I know gravity is a fact, therefore I don't step off tall buildings. You claim to know Jahweh will send you to hell for having sex before you're married, yet you clearly do it. Some knowledge."
Now, I have no doubt that many believers reading this will be throwing up their hands and saying "well obviously Jim didn't believe in God, he was a Poe!". Actually, as it turns out Jim is a loose sort of deist rather than an atheist, but that's not the point; in pretending to be a christian for the purposes of winding people up, Jim was imitating many statements of belief made by christians, which don't become any less untenable when made by an actual believer - THAT is the point.
I need at this stage to dip briefly into the issue of cognitive dissonance, because we all experience it and I want to make it clear that I'm not using a psychological feature common to all humanity to arbitrarily lay into religious belief. We all experience CD; an example in my own case is my ability to simultaneously know that I am a vanishingly insignificant blob of chemical compounds that will blip in and out of a universe that will never know nor care that I existed, while also knowing that because that same insignificant blob is also my only method of experiencing the universe I am also - subjectively at least - the most important entity in that universe. From the point of view of my awareness, the universe could no more exist without me than I could without it. Another example of CD is the very common habit of deploring - for example - the plight of starving children in Somalia, and managing to empathise deeply with them while doing very little to help. The degree of sacrifice necessary to appease our consciences and allow us to live with this particular form of CD varies hugely, from one person who does literally nothing to another who might sack off their job and go out there to help; but one way or another, we all manage it.
All this being acknowledged, perhaps it seems unfair for me to try and say that because a believer fails to live according to one rule of their book they must not really believe in any of it. Perhaps it is unfair; I'm not sure, as I said this is all speculative. After all, there are parts of holy scripture (any holy scripture now, I'm not restricting myself to christianity here) that are literally impossible to believe to the letter; parts that contradict each other, and parts that have been shown to be factually not true. How, for example, does one mentally reconcile the Qur'anic command to slaughter unbelievers with its simultaneous command to respect the laws and culture of other lands?
There are literal impossibilities in believing parts of scripture, I accept that and am not trying to suggest that religious people should be able to do the impossible by believing two mutually exclusive things at once (although many of them seem to make a brave effort at it! God is wise, merciful and all-loving but will punish you for all eternity for being gay as he made you, for example...). But more subtly (some might say more adaptively) we also see religious people - almost all religious people - accepting a CD arising from the contradiction between scriptural command and modern values. Now I'm not objecting to this by any means - I'm quite happy not to have been murdered for having sex with my boyfriend or for any one of dozens of other infractions against scripture - but I do find the way in which so many people compromise without really thinking about it what they would claim if asked to be sacred, inviolable articles of faith is... well, odd at the very least.
Let's go back to my earlier analogy of gravity; I know about gravity, I understand its influence on my everyday existence, and I know that it makes no exceptions; therefore I don't step off tall buildings - I know what the result will be! To me - and to most atheists, I suspect - belief and knowledge are two very different things; in fact, some of us (myself included) would make the case that they're mutually exclusive since there is no requirement to believe something you know to be a fact - I don't believe in gravity, I just acknowledge its existence. But many believers blur this distinction, and prefer to assert that they know God X exists and that s/he makes demands of us as detailed in Holy Text Y - a misapprehension betrayed by many in their claim that nonbelievers simply choose (for whatever reason) to ignore, defy or deny their god (although they never tell us we're "denying" any other gods, ever notice that?). In fact, many of them are so certain that what they've been taught about God X is face that they want to instruct the rest of us about it for our own good; when you step back and look at that, the level of assurance is breathtaking! We're talking - from the believer's point of view - about cosmic matters of the soul, of eternity and the struggle between good and evil. From their perspective the souls and eternal lives of every person on the planet is the stake, the forfeit to be paid by each person who chooses the wrong belief, who bets on the wrong horse of all the millions available... THIS is the cost, this is the stake, and yet so many believers are so certain that they've got it right they're prepared to gamble not only their own eternal soul but also to recruit and bet with the souls of other people too. Can you imagine how secure you'd have to be in your faith to take on - actively invite! - a responsibility like that?! In fairness to the believers, if I were to hand my soul over in the manner so many of them would like me to I'd want to be told that what they were telling me was fact, too - when you consider the stakes, "belief" suddenly looks a bit pithy and insubstantial!
Now, keep all of the above in mind... and then consider that this same person who's so sure that their god exists according to Holy Book X