A recent blog in the London Guardian entitled “The six types of atheist” has created quite a stir among atheists. The six types are based on a study at the University of Tennessee. Curiosity has led many an atheist to consider if he or she really belongs to any of them. Please bear with me, as I explain why I’m not contradicting myself when I call the study both meaningless and constructive.
The so-called six types of atheist, listed here alphabetically, are: activist (vocal about issues), anti-theist (assertive and outspoken), intellectual (philosophical and scientific), non-theist (apathetic), ritual (enjoy culture and ceremony), and seeker (open to different views).
Even the authors acknowledge that separating atheists in this way is arbitrary, and atheists can fall into more than one category. Many atheists prefer different labels, including agnostic, humanist, and freethinker. Depending on context, I put myself in these as well as all six of the atheist categories.
Most of my life I was a non-theist because I didn’t much care about my atheism. I became an activist atheist after moving to South Carolina and learning that the state’s Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. I worked for eight years to change that unconstitutional provision. As a curious intellectual who questions all religions, you could call me both a seeker and an anti-theist because I have the audacity to challenge religious belief. I also appreciate some religious ritual through godless Humanistic Judaism.
My biggest disappointment about the study is that it left out the largest category: closeted atheists. They are the elephants in the room and the ones most likely to change the culture by coming out. However, many of them feel they have good reasons not to, including potential ostracism from family and friends as well as loss of income or employment. Another unmentioned category is what I call functional atheists, those who may or may not have vague supernatural beliefs that play no practical role in their lives. They live as if there is no god, just as all atheists do.
An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any deities. But disbelief in gods doesn’t describe individual atheists any more than disbelief in the divinity of Muhammad, Krishna, and Zeus describes individual Christians. Everybody disbelieves in some gods; atheists just disbelieve in more gods than theists do.
What I like best about the study is that it recognizes a variety of atheists. Moreover, atheists can have good and bad traits, as can Christians, Jews, Muslims, and whoevers. I hope the takeaway from the study will be that we must not stereotype or prejudge based solely on religious affiliation. And of course that means atheists, like other minorities, shouldn’t be stigmatized or marginalized in their communities.
Religious people sometimes assume that atheists are angry at God, which is like telling us that we are angry at the Easter Bunny or at unicorns. We are also bewildered when people express pity for us because we must be living sad and empty lives. Several Christians have actually told me that they didn’t think they would be able to go on living without a belief in God, which sounds to me like the ultimate sad and empty life!
Atheists occasionally talk about atheism in ways I find inaccurate or misleading. See, for instance, God-Talk for Atheists. Here are four terms I dislike, and why.
Nonbeliever: I believe in many things. I just don’t believe in any gods.
Lack of faith or lack of belief in God: I think of it as a gain, rather than a lack or a loss. I’ve gained freedom from religious superstition.
Abandonment of religion: I didn’t abandon religion, as one abandons a child. I matured and put aside my childhood religious beliefs.
Atheist, but spiritual: I was recently on a three-atheist panel at a Unitarian Church forum on atheist spirituality, with me as the lone unspiritual atheist. The others said they were atheists—”but spiritual.” I began, “Jonathan (the previous speaker) is a child molester, but .” I then paused. The stunned attendees heard me say something awful about Jonathan, which I qualified with a “but,” leading them to believe my initial remark about him wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded. Of course, Jonathan wasn’t a child molester. I used this device to pronounce him guilty of distancing himself from “typical” atheists with his “but.”
Jonathan didn’t mean to imply what I inferred, and we continue to be friends. He remains a spiritual atheist, except now without a “but.” Thank goodness (not God) for small victories. And thank you, Jonathan.