There’s a new study out that claims that there are 6 different types of atheist and invites people to decide which category they fit into. The problem is, and this is something I point out regularly, that none of these things really have anything to do with atheism. Atheism is defined solely by the lack of belief in gods. Full stop. That’s all there is to it. Each and every one of these things attempts to add something to atheism, but inherently succeeds only in redefining itself outside of what atheism is. This is problematic.
It’s problematic because atheism, in and of itself, is not a thing. It is a lack of a thing. It inherently can say nothing positive about the individual who identifies as an atheist, it only identifies an attribute that said individual lacks. It cannot tell you anything about one’s sociopolitical background, it cannot tell you anything about their social views, their opinion toward activism, their education or intelligence or anything else, yet far too many atheists insist on trying to lump various and sundry positive factors under the umbrella of atheism. These people are wrong.
At best, you might be able to draw correlations among groups of atheists and perhaps draw some vague conclusions, but you cannot show that these factors actively correlate and certainly not that they become inherent in the definition of atheism.
What bothers me is that most people can understand these same concepts when it comes to other negative characteristics. I’ll use the one that is often bandied around in atheist circles, the non-stamp collector. Not being a stamp collector doesn’t tell anyone what you are, only what you are not. No conclusions can be drawn from not being a stamp collector. It cannot, in and of itself, tell us anything about a non-collector’s political proclivities, their other interests, their intelligence or education or anything else, except that the individual does not collect stamps. The same thing is true of atheism. It’s a negative characteristic, it tells us something the individual does not do, not anything about what they do.
So why do so many atheists insist on trying to craft an identity within a negative characteristic? I suspect that for many who have grown up at a time when the fight between religion and secularism is front and center, that many people have adopted atheism as a central pillar in their self-identity. They slap that label on their forehead and then cobble together an entire self-image based upon that label and I think that is inherently unhealthy. It tells what you aren’t, not what you are. Myself, while I am an atheist, I do not primarily self-identify that way. I am a father and a husband, I am a writer and a blogger and a podcaster, I identify by the things that I do, not the things I do not do. I am only an atheist in response to theism. If there were no more theists, I would have no reason to be an atheist. I do not think that this trend is one that we should admire, it is not healthy. People should pick positive aspects to identify with and should never try to force every position one might hold under a single cohesive label.
Unfortunately, a lot of the elements of this study seem to do exactly that. Regardless, let’s look at the six supposed types of atheists and see what lies there.
I would argue that this is baseline atheism for most self-identified atheists. They reject the belief in gods because of the lack of evidence. They adopt a scientific worldview wherein science is the only demonstrable system by which actual knowledge about factual reality can be achieved. Certainly, if I were to label myself using this system, this is the label that I’d choose. However, there is so much more here that has nothing to do with not believing in gods that I’d argue that it’s an invalid label. It argues that sociopolitical debate and even using the Internet are characteristic of being an Intellectual Atheist. No, those are characteristic of being alive in the modern world and have nothing inherently to do with atheism.
This is among the worst of the categories because it goes entirely off the reservation with regard to atheism. Regardless of what some extremists might think, ideas like “humanism, feminism, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered (LGBT) issues, social or political concerns, human rights themes, environmental concerns, animal rights, and controversies such as the separation of church and state” have nothing to do with a disbelief in deities, they are completely separate issues, beliefs and practices.
I find this problematic as well, mostly because any rational atheist will admit that they cannot be positive that no gods exist, at least to any degree of absolute certainty. In fact, anyone who claims that they are absolutely certain falls outside of any credible definition of “rational”. In fact, this type is definitely messy, among it’s descriptive terminology, it uses elements from the Intellectual Atheist, the Non-Theist and the Ritual Atheist but really adds little of it’s own. Of course, the use of “agnostic” in a study ostensibly about atheism makes me intellectually uneasy because agnosticism is something entirely separate from atheism, it’s like a TV chef doing a cooking show on making cakes and then talking about pies.
Likewise, I don’t think this is all that worthwhile either. Like the Activist label, it tells you nothing about atheism itself, only what one does in relation to atheism. Now I admit to being an ardent anti-theist, or more properly, I am against theism, not necessarily the people involved, but that has nothing to do with being an atheist, I am against all forms of delusion, deception and irrationality, all three of which are embodied in religious belief. I am equally anti-conspiracy theorist and for the exact same reasons.
By definition, all atheists are non-theists, it’s just another way of saying the same thing. They identify non-theists as inactive or apathetic atheists, but we already have a term for that, “apatheist”. It may also fall into another common term, coined by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in the 1960s, “ignostic“, who reject consideration of theistic notions because they lack coherency. All of these fall into the same atheist label though.
I really don’t buy into this one as much as some, although I’ve talked about it at some length on the podcast. I think that there are some atheists who wish for the kind of community and social structure offered by religion, but feel trapped by the language that draws them to refer to their social activities as “church” and “fellowship”, etc. In fact, I suspect this is just another symptom of those who wish to combine all of their activities under the “atheist” label. Don’t go to an atheist church, join a social group and enjoy being with friends.
I am confused at the lack of some “categories” though. We know that there are many people who identify as atheists who do so for bad reasons, they reject the belief in gods, not for intellectual reasons, but for emotional ones. Where is that category? Did those people just not show up in the study? If so, that makes me question the validity of the study as a whole.
Honestly, this study just convinces me, more than ever, that there are problems, that people are choosing to embrace the wrong elements of their lives as their primary characteristic. We’re atheists because we don’t believe in gods. We often choose to label ourselves atheists because religion is so rampant in society, our open atheism is in response to aggressive and irrational theism. Once that goes away, there is no more point in identifying or acknowledging that we are atheists, any more than if stamp collecting vanished from the planet, there’d be little reason to identify as a non-stamp collector. I fear that far too many atheists today, if theism went the way of the dodo, would completely lose any sense of identity.
That’s a problem.