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Atheism

Types of atheists

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There are several reasons that people may have for being atheists, agnostics, or otherwise nonreligious. Be warned that these reasons are not mutually exclusive; it is possible to be several types at once. One can be a philosophical or a scientific atheist who has decided to act like a nihilistic atheist. These types were listed by Lucie K.B. Hall, and later elaborated by myself (lpetrich) in discussions in various messageboards.

  1. Nihilistic atheists, not necessarily nihilists in the ordinary sense, but those who've never thought much about religious or philosophical questions one way or another. Many atheists are like that, and many nominal believers in various religions may also be much like that. Such atheists may convert to some religion if they suffer some stress or else encounter someone with a superficially plausible-sounding case for that religion, like C.S. Lewis.
    1. Never-thought-about-it atheists.
    2. Don't-care atheists, who include relativist ones ("what I do is right for me, and what you do is right for you"), and some agnostics.
    3. Other-interest atheists, who prefer thinking about other things and doing them.
    4. Lazy atheists, who have neither the ability nor the desire to believe in some belief system, though they may be a subtype of don't-care atheists.
    5. Waste-of-time atheists, the sort who ask why we keep on talking about the god hypothesis because they have no reason to seriously consider it.
    6. Troll atheists, who like to shock or annoy other people, like certain teens with their parents. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was a bit like that.
    7. Royal-lie atheists are either a subtype or a related type. They are like Plato, who proposed that his Republic have an official religion that he considered false, for the purpose of making its citizens virtuous (his royal lie). That has been a common belief about religion over the centuries, but nowadays, it is not usually expressed with Plato's honesty.
    8. Party-line atheists, who are atheists because that is the party line in whatever ideology they believe in or group they are a member of. Many Marxists are likely party-line atheists.
  2. "Mad at god" atheists are those who are angry at god over this or that bad thing. However, it is difficult to be angry at something that does not exist, and some such atheists may eventually convert if they come across some seemingly satisfactory resolution of what they are angry over. The classical French existentialist position, according to Ms. Hall, is being angry at god for daring to be nonexistent. As she says, don't expect it to make a lot of sense.
    1. Mad-at-religion atheists have a different target, and a more reasonable one.
    2. Proud atheists, like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who once stated "If there were gods, how could I endure it to be no god! Therefore there are no gods!" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
    3. Depressed atheists have a different emotion, but may be related. They are like a certain gentleman who would moan and groan about how worthless his life is, because he will someday die.
  3. Philosophical atheists are not quite as numerous, but there are still a lot of them.
    1. Logical atheists have found holes in various theological concepts, and have decided to follow reason rather than faith; Bertrand Russell had been an eminent such atheist.
    2. Emotional atheists are like the "mad at god" ones, but they have gone further, concluding that some alleged god is far too evil to be worthy of being described as absolutely good. Like a god who makes big disasters happen or else allows them to happen, or a god who decrees very nasty laws and/or very dumb ones.
    3. Religion-deficiency atheists may be subtypes of the previous two. They include those who read the Bible and find it to be very deficient in some important ways.
  4. Scientific atheists are an offshoot of the philosophical kind; they decide that there is no noticeable difference between the activity of a god and the inactivity of a god, and thus that god is a meaningless hypothesis, to be shaved away with Occam's Razor. It is possible to believe in a limited version of such "naturalism", in which god does not meddle with laboratory experiments, but instead with ultimate causes or stuff like that. However, some scientists and people interested in science go a bit further than such "methodological naturalism", and conclude that there is no convincing evidence for any sort of god, as Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger have. In effect, why believe in a god who acts like an unnecessary hypothesis?
  5. Reared atheists are rather rare in our part of the world, and depending on what other sorts of atheists they are, they might fall away in various ways, like sending their kids to Catholic school or something like that.

More generally, the first two kinds of atheists may easily convert to some religions, but the next two, philosophical and scientific, seldom convert. That may be why the Christian apologists have been gloating so loudly over Antony Flew's apparent conversion to Aristotelian deism, however disappointing the details of his beliefs must be to them. His main competition is C.E.M. Joad, who had been a philosophy professor and professional know-it-all for the BBC, but who had converted to Anglicanism(?) after he was caught fare-beating on a train. Closer to home is is someone who had once distinguished himself online as a very talkative atheist, but who later invented a New-Agey religion for himself so that his fear of death would not drive him nuts.

Theologians like John Haught have maintained that the most consistent kind of atheist is a "mad at god" atheist who is a nihilist in the ordinary sense of the word. He considers Nietzsche and some French existentialist philosophers good examples of that kind of atheist. He has also claimed that philosophical and scientific atheists like the "New Atheists" are amateurs if not outright inconsistent (The Atheist Delusion, Amateur Atheists).

Proud atheism and depressed atheism are also common stereotypes; atheists are either too arrogant to believe in religion, or else they are glum and depressed.

Lucie Hall had excluded Buddhists, because she does not know much about Buddhism so cannot say much about it. In any case, philosophical Buddhists tend to be atheists or pantheists, but mass-market Buddhism often involves lots of gods, though less-than-omnimax ones.

Original source: Lucie K.B. Hall, Atheist Taxonomy: The Five Varieties of Atheists (link now dead, but preserved in the Internet Archive)

See also

This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).

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