Because I know how carefully everyone in America reads, I’m sure that it isn’t necessry to restate something I’ve already written at the beginning of Part I. But to avoid any misunderstanding, I’m going to make a brief explanatory digression here before I continue with Categories 2 through 4.
In this discussion, I’m attempting to classify those people who describe themselves as atheists. I’m not doctrinaire about who is and who isn’t one; I don’t think like a rigid religionist. It’s not my place — or yours — to say whether these folks are “true” atheists or not.
So keep in mind that I’m not concerned with whether it looks, walks, or quacks like a duck. In this discussion, if it says it’s a duck, it’s a duck.
Category 2 Atheists:
People who oppose theists or theism
Nowadays, many of us refer to Category 2 Atheists as anti-theists. But I’m not sure whether that nomenclature has been widely accepted; not all of us get the memos. Even if it were universally used, though, I’m not convinced that “anti-theist” is appropriate. It doesn’t reflect the differences of attitudes covered by Category 2, which has two subcategories. Once again, please bear in mind that I’m defining terms specifically for the purpose of this discussion.
Contrareligionists are those atheists who are against all practice of religion. These atheists think that any supernatural system of beliefs is harmful to the future of humanity, and that religion should be eradicated as soon as possible. They differ from Category 1 non-believers and dis-believers in that contrareligionists focus on the way religion affects others, rather than themselves.
Anti-theists automatically oppose all theists. However, they don’t concern themselves with beliefs, only with believers. Without thinking, they judge all theists as idiots. Anti-theists fall into the small sub-category that bullies like Bill O’Reilly choose to use when defining all atheists. At their mildest, anti-theists are knee-jerk contrarians; at their extreme, they’re haters.
A Further Note on Category 2 Atheists:
Can a person be both a contrareligionist and an anti-theist? There may be some small number of atheists who do straddle those classifications, but, in general, I don’t think so. It’s a question of focus. Contrareligionists oppose all religions, but are not necessarily antagonistic to everyone who follows a religion. Anti-theists oppose religious people, and might well argue that without religionists, religion couldn’t exist.
Category 3 Atheists:
People who aren’t theists, but …
Ok, now things get curiouser and curiouser as we fall farther down the hole of terminological inadequacy. Before talking about people who aren’t theists, it might be a good idea if we decided what we mean by “theist.” The standard company line is that theists believe in one or more personal, present (although not necessarily omnipresent), currently active, and controlling gods. Actually, I think that’s way too narrow a definition, but let’s start with it. My first subcategory, then, is a no-brainer.
Deists believe that there was a “prime mover,” a big banger, a “something out there.” They can’t say for sure whether their “god” still exists or not, but they claim it doesn’t matter. Their supernatural entity certainly has no interactions with anybody on Earth, including the churchgoers clogging up the roads on Sunday mornings.
I must confess that I’ve read a lot of philosophical nonsense purporting to differentiate theists and deists. As I see it, if you claim to believe in a god, you’re a goddist, whether you call your supernatural obsession “Theo” or “Deo.” I’ve never met a deist who flat-out says, “I’m an atheist.” Still, I haven’t met everybody. So I’ve included “deist” as a subcategory of Category 3 Atheists.
Wooists are the kinds of men and women who talk a lot about “higher spirituality.” Unlike deists, they don’t believe in the existence of an actual entity, so they can — and sometimes do — define themselves as “atheists.” You’ll hear them using words like “essence” or “force” a lot, occasionally even “a higher power.” Many of them are fascinated by Eastern religions, while others subscribe to some form of mysticism. Each of them may even have invented his or her own personal benign questing beast.
Irrationalists are atheists who allow themselves, at least sometimes, to be ruled by superstitions or wild beliefs for which they can offer no solid evidence. In my experience, almost all of us atheists are irrational once in a while: the woman who wears her lucky pin for an important meeting at work, the guy who won’t shave on a day his favorite team is playing a crucial game, the person who unthinkingly puts credence in a political statement just because it was made by a favorite celebrity. I chuckle at avowed atheists with those kinds of superstitions, just as I laugh at myself when I automatically say “g’bleshyu” when someone sneezes. But I wouldn’t classify an atheist as an irrationalist unless a superstition or unreasonable belief took over a major part of his or her life. Irrationalists are atheists who subscribe to conspiracy theories, or who attribute crypto-magical powers to some person or animal, or who nurture any idée fixe that conflicts with available evidence.
A Further Note on Category 3 Atheists:
I’ll confess that I always find it difficult to deal with an atheist who has what I consider to be a completely nutty idea that affects his or her worldview. For me, Category 3 Atheists can be just as exasperating to talk to as Fundamentalists.
Obviously, I’d love all self-proclaimed atheists to think pretty much the way I do. But screw me! They don’t. As I’ve tootled around the Atheosphere and met more and more atheists, I’ve come to accept the fact that we can’t be divided into groups of “true” and “false.”
On the other hand, I don’t need to show any special deference to a wacky notion just because it’s propounded by a fellow atheist. I’ve finally grown comfortable acknowledging that “we,” too, have our share of loonies.
I promise I’ll finish this discussion in Part III, which will be arriving shortly.