Guide to Deconversion (Part 3): Types of Atheists

Part 1: How to Come Out (and Why!)
Part 2: Types of Believers

Atheist.

Organizing atheists is like trying to herd cats – Richard Dawkins

The word says one thing, and one thing only: a non-believer in god(s).  It says zilch beyond that.  As someone who was completely fresh to meeting atheists (after having lived in a Christian bubble from 16 years of age until 26), I had a whirlwind experience learning the newness of having atheist friends, who operated very differently about their unbelief.  Some are (ironically) mirror reflections of the personality types of believers, though manifest differently because of the belief set.  It is also interesting  that there are generally judgmental and non-judgmental versions of each of these, which is a reflection of maturity and personality more than nonbelief.

Also note that in the FAQ, I go over the labels that atheists often give themselves; This is not the same list, although some atheists may fall into multiple categories.

Faith-Based

Here I use faith not as a derogatory term, but to point out that someone who has never researched any religions whatsoever, nor read any atheist literature, somewhat accepts that there is no god on faith.  While this is not a bad thing, because it is the conclusion most in line with reality, it is somewhat prideful in the same way that theists who accept things on faith have never bothered to read the atheist side: “I think I am right therefore I am right.”

Oftentimes these nonbelievers will be very quiet in their nonbelief, and would never call themselves atheist for fear of attracting attention.  However, there is also a significant risk here that is similar to hyper-fundamentalists: because many have never taken the time to examine the other side (at all!), they just see it as a stupid, ignorant position (ironically their doppelgangers see them).  This means that they may be prone to engage in flashy ad-homenim, rather than reasoned debate.

Of course theism is wrong, but it certainly isn’t stupid.  Many theists are extremely intelligent, but knowing just a smidgen about psychology shows that we’re all prone to blind spots in our own perspectives.

The Apatheist

This is an actual term used to self describe many atheists, and can be summed up in two words:

“Who Cares?”

This position perceives atheism as the default, so why would anyone care what anyone else believes, and may have some overlap into the previous category.  Atheism is an aspect of their life like their grandfather’s name is Doyle; it does not affect their life.  For a picture of one style of apatheist, one need only look to Europe to see it in full swing, though in typical psychological fashion, Europe’s New-Age believism is growing all the time.

The ironic point here is that sometimes apatheists get vocal in their call to apathy.  It shows up in Reddit Threads or blog comments as “Why are you so vocal? Pipe down! Atheism doesn’t matter that much!” They think that because they see no reason to react as an atheist, the same should be true for everyone else.  They have a case of (thanks Dan Savage) YDIW, You’re Doing It Wrong.

Ultimately these folks make amazing friends, unless of course they have YDIW written on their sleeves.  The line here is whether they are a judgemental person or not.

The Compromiser

Many atheists respond to their arrival in atheism all the while wishing atheism looked like religion.  Alain de Boton is one such example, whose M.O. is trying to create an atheism that looks like religion.  This style of atheist manifests itself in other ways, as many atheists who try to court the respect of churches for praising and lauding them when they ‘do right.’  Other atheists go as far as to be ashamed that they are atheists, even though it is the correct position.  Think S.E. Cupp.

While I think it is okay to work together with churches on social issues, I think it is silly as a lover of truth to attempt to love falsehood.  I don’t know many atheists like this personally, so I cannot speak to the topic well, and while I recognize there are many things I miss about the church, there are infinitely many more things I love about having intellectual honesty, being dogma-free, and not having imaginary friends.

Philosophical/Historical Atheists

Philosophy degrees are a double-edged sword.  Many atheists pursue these degrees and become lofty apatheists, that fall victim to an atheist’s version of the courtier’s reply, in which no one who has read Spinoza, Kant, Nietzche, Plato, Hume, etc., has the authority to comment on atheism. There are also those who look down on anyone who would attack positions held by theists with any sort of passion with disdain, for stooping to such a human, emotional level.

Then there are those like Daniel Fincke or Chris Hallquist, who use their philosophical background as leverage towards calling out problems in theism regardless of how well-read (or unread) the objections are.  These ladies and gentleman (though it is sadly mostly gentlemen) can engage philosophical theists at the level of discourse they exist at, in a way that I can only hope to in several years.

I also here include people like Richard Carrier or Bart Ehrman, who are both deconverts very familiar with biblical history, criticism, and critiques, making them uniquely suited to engage in Christian scholarship at that level.  There are contemporaries in Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other schools as well.  Because of the foundation of these religions on their historical and literary “truths,” these atheists help provide a necessary answer to an important question: Is it true?

New Atheism

New atheism is the term coined for Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins, whose books were focused at  reintroducing skepticism to our discourse.  New atheists have been around for some time, and are generally well-informed of the issues of religion and its harms.  This makes them great bloggers and writers on the subjects of religion and history.

There is also a danger here, however, of what I call Zealous Deconverted Asshole syndrome: that once you deconvert, you turn a blind eye to other problems of character, like mysogyny or unfair judgement, all because you got the big question right.  This has caused a recent sort of divide in the atheist community, between what I perceive as those who want to stop at religion, and those who want to get rid of the social baggage religion has caused as well.

Atheist+

This is a relatively new set of ideas, introduced first by Jen McReight, identifies the need for those social-issue minded atheists to positively identify themselves to separate from the more vitriolic or faith-minded apathetic versions that seek not to evenly apply skepticism to every area of inquiry but only to the question of Gods.

I happen to find much in common with this group, as some of the issues I have faced as a deconvert of the bible belt opened my eyes to privilege and the loss of it.  This gives me solidarity with people who also suffer from being de-privileged by their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or race.  If the pain I felt as a white guy in america going from Christian to Non is anything like what others experience, I want to fight alongside them as well.

There is a natural tension between apatheists and social justice anti-theists, as well as the new atheists.  Atheism+ says that stopping at one issue is not enough.  I agree, but I also understand that fighting the social justice fight isn’t for everyone, and it might be a bad thing to create an us vs. them mentality for something that you don’t necessarily want everyone to be a part of.

Conclusion

I’m sure there are a million different categories of atheist that I didn’t mention here, and many atheists fall into multiple categories.  I have tried to give an overview of some of the possible pitfalls of each category, and point out that atheists are an inhomogeneous mixture of humanity, all with our own faults and preconceptions.  I urge anyone who is deconverting to not fall into the trap of thinking that just because you got one thing right, you’re always right.  This is ultimately the deliniation between atheists that can help humanity, and atheists who everyone wants to punch in the face.

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  • http://twitter.com/dougphilips Doug Philips

    I only had a chance to skim all three parts but I liked what I saw. Looking forward to reading the full entries when I had more time.

  • Gus Snarp

    Not bad descriptions, but I wonder if scientific atheism deserves inclusion as a separate type (as the list of types of atheists grows to infinity). I find this better describes my own atheism, while I know a tiny bit of philosophy and Christian theology, and I can find logical arguments against the existence of gods, at the root my disbelief is based largely on the lack of objective, scientific evidence.

    • http://CoffeeShopAtheist.com/blog Patrick

      In this set of posts I didn’t try too hard to address paths to atheism, per se, just the reaction to it. Many scientific atheists in the forefront (Nye, Tyson), for example, are atheists as a secondary fact, and are more complimentarian or apathetic towards religions.

      • Katharine Klise

        I can see both arguments. I and people I know personally who have the same belief system like to think of ourselves as “empiricists,” which is probably closer to Erasmus Darwin et al’s “natural philosopher” or the tongue-in-cheek designation that’s somewhat en vogue right now, “Saganist.”

        There is certainly a complimentarian aspect in that this kind of atheist does not reject a spiritual sense of wonder about the universe. The difference is that they specifically find that through science, or at least through observable, ostensibly measurable phenomena (e.g., the miracle not being special creation, but that through all the randomness of evolution the human being would have become what it did), and are [usually] not trying to supplant theistic religion with a “cult of science”.

        I would also agree that there’s an apatheistic (or “nontheistic,” as I’ve seen it in some texts) aspect to that as well, although many people who feel this way are still vocal about secular social justice, and morality removed from religion. They are generally content to let theists to their beliefs, but at the same time are often vocally critical of the more ridiculous and harmful aspects of organized religion. It’s very solidly in between the two types without being exclusively either one, I feel.

        On a slightly different note, I must express my appreciation for your thoughtful examination of the varieties of atheism. I know not everyone (a lot of theists) would agree, but there is definitely a difference between the types that is not just a matter of semantics, no more than the difference between any theistic religion is simply a matter of semantics. I applaud you on your efforts to aid understanding on both sides.

  • Alias S Tagami

    I’d have added “Antitheist” via Hitchen’s, and “Post-theist” via Harris.

    • Alias S Tagami

      Damnit. Can’t edit, and I just noticed that damn apostrophe in “Hitchen’”. I changed the wording! Egad. The shame.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brenda.ahsen Brenda Von Ahsen

    “The word says one thing, and one thing only: a non-believer in god(s). ”

    False. “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/

    Atheism is not a lack of belief because it fails to define what atheism is. If “belief” = “mental content held as true” and “theism” is the belief “that god” is true then atheism must be the belief “that god” is false.

    “Philosophy degrees are a double-edged sword.” — Actually they are not. What any degree of higher education will do is introduce sophistication and nuance into your thinking. People with authoritarian personality types tend to become very frustrated with nuance because they have a political agenda that they wish to pursue through brute force if need be. Bad mouthing and otherwise marginalizing educated professionals as “effeminate elites” or as privileged courtiers is a kind of inverse argument from authority fallacy. While it is true that being an authority does not make one’s argument true it does not make it false either. P.Z. Meyers is a competent biology professor at a second rate university (U of M at Morris) but that hardly qualifies him as a philosopher.

    “New atheists have been around for some time, and are generally well-informed of the issues of religion and its harms. This makes them great bloggers and writers on the subjects of religion and history.”

    Citation needed. In my experience I have never seen a more ignorant and vicious group of arrogant and self righteous a-holes as the New Atheist crowd. Why don’t you ask Jen McReight or Rebecca Watson what their experience has been? Oh wait!, you can’t ask Jen can you? She has stopped blogging because her family has been threatened by those paragons of virtue and compassion the New Atheists.

    “This is ultimately the deliniation between atheists that can help humanity, and atheists who everyone wants to punch in the face.”

    Maybe some of them have worked hard to deserve being punched in the face? I am agnostic but I find myself filled with utter disgust and revulsion at the antics of the so-called New Atheists. Richard Dawkins? Sexist and elitist upper class twit who advocated forcefully removing children from religious parents to be indoctrinated in state run schools. Christopher Hitchens? D.C. town drunk, sexist, friend of Holocaust denier, defender of neo-con imperialism and torture. Sam Harris? Gave justification for torture, Islamophobe, racist, advocates revoking the first amendment right to freedom of speech for religions he disapproves of.

    Oh yes, do please lecture us all some more on your moral superiority to religion.

  • http://twitter.com/taosaur Taosaur Ftagn

    I love the repeated assertion that what you share with all these atheists, whatever the flaws in their approach, is being right :D

    Moral certainty transposed from one worldview to another ftw!

  • Apathostic

    I refer to myself, or have to this point, as an apathostic rather than apatheist. If asked I reply: Agnostics don’t know, atheists don’t believe, apathostics don’t give a damn. It’s pretty much the same definition, just a little less clumsy to pronounce, to my ear at least.

    I am, however, coming around to the idea that in the final analysis gods aren’t the problem when it comes to faith. In fact to my mind god’s are inconsequential, useless, pointless, without base or foundation, and utterly without any effect on our lives, world, universe or existence. Let’s be frank, they don’t exist. They simply make a convenient focal point for the real problem.

    The real problem being religion, organised, faith-based communities, who deny facts and accept fantasy, and that are led by a small but very vocal group of men and women whose faith is questionable, but who see these communities as a stepping stone to political (in all its forms) power and control over the members of said community, usually to further their own gains (power, influence, fame, wealth, sex, etc.). These organisations run their agendas with a mixture of fear, exclusion, and self-righteous arrogance, mixed with ceremonial tradition and dogma.

    They start with an ideology that quickly changes, as anything will when it is in the hands of those who did not originate that ideology, into dogma, propaganda, tradition, and unquestioning faith. Anything that will further the agendas of those who see a chance to further their aims.

    This to me is the real problem. Tax-free status, political influence, the blurring of separation of church and state, the erection of greater monuments to faith, the lies behind some of the philanthropic works of the many religious organisations, the steady accumulation of wealth, media control. All these proliferate the power of religion. With very little real return.

    And yet we concentrate on the lesser problem of divinity and argue about gods. Talk about misdirection. Time to focus.

  • http://hieotytymbw.blogspot.com/ Will

    I think another type (that I fall under) is that they have a decent understanding of religion and pressures on atheism, but they are a little less confrontational than New Atheists (and think more flexibly), don’t actively seek out argument but will dedicate a lot of effort to making sure they represent their beliefs if they find an opposing viewpoint, dislike compromisers (which I expand to include Philosophical Atheists), and think without having to put atheism into everything. If I had to choose I might place myself as a more apatheistic new atheist, or a non-holier-than-thou philosophical atheist.

  • Jediassasin87

    I would simply like to thank you for some amazing advice i sadly live in south carolina in a townactually hase four seperate signs that say the churches of “” welcome you i alsi see similarity between your fater and my mother who has informed me since age 8 that u was wortless and going to hell

  • Anna

    I think it could overlap with any of the above described categories except the apatheist, but what about strong atheism: the positive assertion that gods do not exist? There is a small (not sure how small) branch of atheism that does assert this and actually makes some very compelling philosophical arguments for it.