06 November 2011

On the various "types" of atheists in today's secular movement

It has come to my attention more than once in the past that there are people out there who don't quite understand what it means to be an atheist.  A dictionary definition of the term only tells you what we don't believe; the connotations regarding what atheists do believe are many and diverse.

One of my newer readers, Chakam, commented that he believes atheists can be classified into two distinct categories.  To paraphrase his comment:

On one hand, we have the stereotypical vitriolic, "God-hating" atheists who seek only to disparage Christianity at every turn.  On the other, we have the rational, intellectual atheists who simply reject the idea of any supernatural entity in absence of convincing evidence.

I don't think that this assessment is entirely accurate, though his caricature of the vitriolic atheist is perhaps just an exaggeration of the truth regarding certain individuals.  I don't think it's as simple as he makes it - I think there are at least four broad categories one could use to describe the attitudes of different atheists toward religion.

I'm going to stick with four categories in this post.  Just for fun, I'll also assign each one a card suit* to symbolize the inherent attitude toward religion.  Also just for fun, I'll use alliteration.

*If you're not familiar with the symbolism behind the four traditional card suits, read up on it and you'll see why I thought they were appropriate here.  Remember, kids: cartomancy can't really predict your future.  Friends don't let friends fall for woo.

♠ The Agitating Antitheist (Spades)

Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Here's where you'll find most of the capital 'A' Atheists.  It includes the silver-tongued critics of religion that some of us love and others love to hate.  It also includes the less articulate individuals you'll find trolling internet forums, ranting against the evils of religion.

The atheists in this category believe that they're fighting a philosophical "war" against religion, and don't care one bit if anyone's feelings get hurt when they call it out for how ridiculous it is.  Many religious people wrongfully think that these atheists "hate" God or those who believe in one.  Not quite - they hate belief in gods and want to see such beliefs go extinct in favor of rationality.

♣ The Incredulous Inquirer (Clubs)

Bertrand Russell
Some of these might be quicker to call themselves skeptics rather than atheists.  For them, atheism is merely the default position on the untestable God Question; without cause to believe in any particular religion, it's safest to just assume they're all false until evidence shows otherwise.

These atheists typically think about religion far more than most believers do, but don't feel the need to argue with religious apologists at every turn.   They still do debate religion, of course, but they pick their battles.  There's nothing to be gained by attempting to "defeat" religion; there's plenty to be gained by promoting critical thinking and reason.

The Mainstream Materialist (Diamonds)

Mark Zuckerberg
This category name might sound like a pejorative; it's not.  In truth, this is probably the largest category of religious nonbelievers in the world.  They've answered "no" to the God Question, and then moved on with their lives.  If there's no afterlife, why waste your ephemeral existence quarreling about religion?

Here you'll find the millions who are simply "good without God" and deal with the here and now, attending to their careers and families and social lives just like any mainstream religious believer.  Members of this category generally aren't hostile toward religion, but aren't necessarily shy about the fact that they don't believe in any god.  Of the four, they're the least likely to be involved in the secular movement.

The Diplomatic Disbeliever (Hearts)

Chris Stedman
Many in this category prefer to be called Humanists rather than atheists, but these are just two overlapping circles.  These atheists want religious people to like atheists, which is arguably a good thing when you're surrounded by religious people in everyday life.
Activists with this mindset try to secure a place for atheists at the interfaith table, demonstrating a willingness to work with religious organizations for the greater good.  Motivated by the belief that we can all get along in spite of differing answers to the God Question, they cultivate alliances with liberal religious believers against fundamentalism and sectarian hatred.


Any atheist readers care to critique my classification, or say which "suit" they feel best describes them?  Any theists care to give other outside perspectives about the godless community?  Comments welcome, as always.

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Creative Commons License