Labels are always difficult to deal with. Most of the most general labels, over time, become pretty useless as so many different people apply the same label to themselves, yet agree with others who use that label only tangentially. I’ve run into that with “liberal” and “conservative” around here, plenty of people who call themselves “liberal”, yet do not agree on most issues with the most common definition of “liberal”.
Atheism is another such label that’s difficult to define. Depending on who you talk to, the definition of “atheist” can be extremely broad and even contradictory. After all, how many theists have we had to explain what atheism really means? They’re often supremely convinced that an atheist can only be someone who absolutely denies the existence of all gods as a matter of faith.
However, I’ve been generally unimpressed with attempts to separate the various kinds of “atheists” into different categories, I’ve found them to be unnecessarily divisive and not really indicative of the real separations between people who call themselves atheist. The same is true of a recent study, performed by the University of Tennessee at Chatanooga. They propose 6 different categories of atheist, yet each of them have significant problems, the worst of which is that the different categories do not really separate individual atheists, virtually all atheists I know will fit into most, if not all of these categories. I know that I do, which is why I find this really pretty pointless.
So anyhow, here are their categories, I’m not going to spend a lot of time going over what’s said in the study, you can go read that for yourself. Here’s the problems that I have with the individual labels though.
Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic (IAA) – I don’t know that this one is very problematic, indeed most people who routinely write about and debate the religious would easily fit into this category. This is where those who are educated about religion fit, people who often have come from a religious background, know a great deal about religion and the religious, and have intellectual reasons for rejecting the idea of gods, especially based on the complete and total failure of religion to provide the slightest shred of objective evidence in defense of their gods or theologies.
Activist (AAA) – I honestly don’t see that activism has anything to do with atheism. Oh sure, there are plenty of atheist activists out there, people who want to actively fight against religion and it’s detrimental effects on society, but I don’t think that the action has anything to do with the belief. The same kind of people who are engaged in atheist activism are usually also involved in other forms of activism, such as political or social. I would therefore separate their activism from their atheism. They are activist *AND* atheist, not an activist atheist. As I am not an activist in anything I do, this is one category that I do not fit into.
Seeker-Agnostic (SA) – Unfortunately, like many people, this study cannot separate “atheist” and “agnostic”. Like it or not, an agnostic is not some mid-way point between atheism and theism. Any rational individual would not claim to be able to know gods do not exist to any degree of absolute certainty, that is an inherently irrational position to take. I’d like to think that most people are out looking for “the truth”, or are concerned with believing as many true things as possible and rejecting as many false things as possible and being able to objectively tell the difference between the two. As such, I think the Seeker-Agnostic doesn’t belong in these categories, at best it describes virtually all atheists and at worst, it’s a bunch of wishy-washy accomodationist types who are afraid to take any position for fear that someone might get upset with them. It depends on how you actually use this term though. I am absolutely a seeker, not only about religion but about all things, but I don’t play the namby-pamby little word game that most accomodationists do, I have no fear that I’ll offend people, I don’t care. I stand for truth and reason and objective evidence. No evidence = no belief.
Anti-Theist – Honestly, the only kind of atheist I can see who wouldn’t fit into this category are either the painfully ignorant or the accomodationist. Most atheists I run into are not only non-believers, they are ardently against religion. They consider religion to be inherently harmful. I know I do. I am absolutely an anti-theist, I want religion to vanish from the face of the planet and the sooner the better. However, I don’t know that this is a valid category of atheism, for the same reason I don’t think the activist label is valid. It doesn’t consider the god belief question at all, just the response to the god belief question.
Non-Theist – We’re all non-theists by definition, that’s what “atheism” is. In reality, the way the study uses this term is equivalent to the generic default atheist position, someone for whom religion has never been an issue and who has no interest whatsoever in spiritual matters. I agree this is a valid category, I just don’t care for the label. I am one of these, in the sense that the word fits.
Ritual Atheist/Agnostic (RAA) – I have a problem with RAAs, not that this is a bad category, but that I have zero respect for people who need to engage in religious-style rituals in order to get through their day, even if they have no belief in gods. Again, though, I think this is a separate question from atheism. Whatever these people choose to do really has nothing to do with believing in gods or not. They want some form of social contact and, apparently, don’t know how to make friends. That would suggest to me that these people have social issues, not religious ones. The idea that they have to get together and engage in pseudo-religious rituals in order to get any meaning out of their lives strikes me as silly, it’s like people who leave the Boy Scouts still getting together to sit around campfires and sing songs and roast marshmallows and give each other badges. Needless to say, I’m not one of these either.
How useful any of these labels are is debatable, pretty much nobody is going to know what you mean if you say you’re a n intellectual atheist or a ritual atheist, you’ll have to explain it and you might as well have just said “I don’t believe in gods” and been done with it. It’s the same problem I had with the Bright thing. Nobody knows what Bright means and by the time you explain it, you could have just said you were an atheist and saved time.
To be honest, I thought we were fine with the labels we’ve had all along:
Atheist – You don’t believe in gods, period. In reality, I think this ought to only refer to those who are actively atheist (not atheist activists), not those who are just default atheists and couldn’t care less.
Apatheist – Someone who has no interest in religion, doesn’t care about gods, they just live their lives without the slightest consideration of the divine. This includes default atheists.
Whatever you do beyond your belief or disbelief in gods really has nothing to do with that belief or disbelief. It becomes an entirely separate question. The non-stamp collector, to use a common example, simply does not collect stamps. What they do outside of not-collecting-stamps is a different question. How or why they do not collect stamps is irrelevant, just that they do not.
Frankly, I think some of these studies are performed because they have no idea what else to look at, not because there is a valid question to examine. If you want to examine a question that really matters, try looking at why theists are so absurdly anti-intellectual and anti-rational. That would be interesting to know.