The different flavors of atheism

Despite what The Oatmeal may think, this isn't every atheist's idea of a good time.

For better or for worse, some people like to categorize.  I can be one of those people at times.

PZ Myers recently posted a list of taxa that he believes describe different personalities within the atheist movement; I did something similar on my personal blog last fall, though with a slightly different focus.  PZ focused on patterns of thought, while I looked at patterns of behavior (I also marked each of mine with a card suit for symbolism).  Here’s an executive summary of both of our lists:

PZ’s Taxa:

  • Scientific AtheistKnows that there is no god due to total lack of empirical evidence for one.  Sometimes a little too arrogant.
  • Philosophical Atheist: Doesn’t believe in god because believing in one requires making unfounded assumptions.  Sometimes overly long-winded.
  • Political Atheist: Motivated to fight the political and legal battles to make the world a better place for atheists.  Sometimes makes compromises that other atheists don’t like.
  • Humanist: Altruistic do-gooder who wants to help people in the name of godlessness.  Sometimes “pragmatically fickle” and may join up with liberal churches instead of expressly atheist organizations.

My Taxa:

  • Agitating Anti-theist (spade): Sees religion as an enemy to be vanquished, and fights its advances tooth and claw.
  • Incredulous Inquirer (club): Skeptical toward religion, but wants to discuss rather than fight.
  • Mainstream Materialist (diamond): Doesn’t believe in god, stops worrying, and enjoys life.
  • Diplomatic Disbeliever (heart): Strives to form friendly alliances with open-minded religious people.

Many people who read either or both of these posts may find themselves identifying with more than one category.  They’re archetypes, and very few people strictly belong to any one of them.  Each one of us has a different story behind how we realized we were atheists, how we came to join up with other atheists in this ever-evolving movement, and where we’d like to see the movement go.

And yet I unfortunately continually see bickering among these different “kinds” of atheists, the most vitriolic of which occurs on the internet.  Atheists call one another “bullies” and “accommodationists” and accuse one another of dogmatism and “Tinkerbellism” over different approaches toward the movement.  We see nasty exchanges of ad-hominems and passive-aggressive head shaking on Twitter because one party is either too critical or not critical enough of religion for the other party’s tastes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that atheists who speak out in the name of atheism should be willing to defend why they say, and if an atheist says or does something reprehensible then others can and should call him or her out on it.  But let’s try to keep it civil.

A diversity of perspectives and approaches toward living without religion is, in my opinion, healthy for the movement.  We need people who uncompromisingly fight for the truth, we need people who make nice with theists, and we need average citizens who aren’t full-time activists to show the general public that we do walk among them.  This movement isn’t one-size-fits-all.

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