What kind of atheist are you?

I’m not really fond of the idea of categorizing atheists (you either are or aren’t, and the game of labeling is often a short step away from ranking, and then you’re on the slippery slope to the No True Atheist fallacy), but Hank Fox has an interesting comment that categorizes reasons for being an atheist. It’s relevant to that video of a mother reacting to her son’s ‘coming out’, though — one category is the “Rebel Atheist” who adopts the idea to piss off his mother.

Now let’s all aspire to be Awakened Atheists.


  1. #1 Colugo
    April 10, 2007

    tsg: “I’d be a cross between an inherited atheist and an awakened atheist.” Me too. Except I was raised with a vaguely spiritual agnosticism and we went to a Unitarian Universalist Church. But there really wasn’t far to go on the road to pure atheism. Other family members hold on to notions about spirit, grace, altie etc., but not me.

    It’s interesting that Hank Fox uses the freed slave analogy, just like Einstein did (quoted in the latest Time) but Einstein uses the comparison to criticize hardline atheists.,8816,1607298,00.html

    I suspect that those who were raised in a rigid fear-based faith tradition and then arduously climbed their way to atheism through intellectual and emotional will tend to be those who are most on fire about it, the most righteously indignant, and the most scornful of all religions, especially the one in which they were raised. (That’s why Ibn Warraq and Wafa Sultan go on about Islam, Dawkins tends to direct his ire on Christianity and so on.)

    Because I never believed in an interventionist sky god and Hell, such beliefs are not associated with personal trauma and betrayal. I’m not passionately animated about notions of deity and creation so much as I am about certain behaviors and mandates concerning those behaviors. By those criteria, I don’t have a problem with many believers, nor do I accept the agendas of many non-believers.

    Here’s a potential problem: Let’s say that Fox is right that Awakened Atheists are the least likely to become religious. In that case atheists raising their kids in the tradition of atheists, producing a generation milquetoast, low-commitment Inherited Atheists – the ones most vulnerable to converting to some faith. The struggle that Awakened Atheists (even the mild struggle of going from bland spirituality to true atheism) – their baptism by fire, if you will – experience cannot really be replicated in an atheist home. In fact, they may create the conditions to create Rebel Theists or even Revenge Theists (“Screw you, vast, indifferent cosmos, I will believe in God just to spite you!”)

  2. #2 Chris
    April 10, 2007

    It’s not surprising that you wouldn’t like the idea of categorizing atheists, given your tendency to lump members of other diverse groups together, but the fact is, there are a bunch of different kinds of atheists, and lumping them all together doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense. In fact, one of the great things about atheism is that because it isn’t associated with one doctrine or set of doctrines, there are a whole hell of a lot of different kinds of atheists. I, personally, like the atheism of suspicion vs. atheism of skepticism distinction, because it captures differences that I think are important for practical and philosophical reasons, but there are many other types and sub-types. It won’t even do to argue that by referring to someone as an atheist, all we’re doing is highlighting the fact that the person doesn’t believe in any supernatural agents (that’s rarely all that people, including the folks around here, are doing when they refer to someone as an atheist, but for argument’s sake…), because disbelief or lack of belief comes in many different flavors. Some atheists disbelieve because they feel like they have rational or scientific arguments against the existence of supernatural agents; some because they feel that belief without evidence is irrational or otherwise bad; some because they’ve arrived at disbelief through ethical considerations; some for some combination of these; and some for different reasons altogether (it’ll piss mommy off; it’s a way for white, middle-class, ex-Protestants to develop a group identity and an accompanying persecution complex; or whatever). In the end, “atheist” is a family-resemblanc concept that is used to describe a fairly large portion of the space that defines the set of all possible religious beliefs, and without modification — skeptical atheists, positivist atheists, free-thought atheists, Dawkinsian atheists, Marxist atheists, rebel atheists, fundamentalist atheists, militant atheists, accommodating atheists, I-hate-God atheists, pomo atheists, etc., etc., etc. — the term “atheists” really doesn’t say much.

    A good rule of thumb: if an individual thinks doing something that religious fundamentalists do, like say lumping all atheists together thereby allowing them to use silly or absurd behaviors by one or two atheists to criticize all atheists, is a good idea, you can pretty much assume that individual is wrong and isn’t thinking very clearly.

  3. #3 Torbj÷rn Larsson
    April 10, 2007

    In contrast to Hank strict categories I think anyone who has thought seriously about the matter is an Aware Atheist, regardless of background.

    IAAAAA – I am an Ardent Aware Atheist.

  4. #4 AbsolutelyNoFaith
    April 10, 2007

    I would say that I’m a Natural Atheist. My parents are rather blasÚ about religion, it’s not clear just what they believe, but were not fans of organized religion as we grew up. That didn’t stop us from going to church every Sunday until I was eight or nine. We did it because my grandparents wanted us to, and would take us out to eat after church if we went. My parents were poor and struggling and this was usually the only time we’d ever get to eat out, so they took the bait.

    Even with this background (and I never knew the bribery part of our going to church until later in life), the hook never set. I never remember, even after a year of Lutheran kindergarten, thinking this whole Jesus thing made any sense. I never bought it, at all. As I got older and went through adolescence, I had my periods of wondering if any of the stuff was true including tarot cards, astrology, Buddhism (a lot of atheists seem to have a Buddhist period), ghosts, etc… Every single time, it just never made sense and so I couldn’t buy into any of it, even if I wanted to.

    For a long time was a Religious-Moderate Atheist. I bought into the idea that what people believed was their business, and we should be tolerant of others’ beliefs. I have since left that behind and more closely (though not completely) agree with Harris and Dawkins (among others) about the inherent dangers of religion, any religion. In this respect I am an Awakened Atheist, but I awakened not to my atheism, but more to my awareness of the dangers of religious thinking in general.

    So, count me as a Natural Atheist, with a touch of Awakened Atheist as well.


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