My Old Kentucky Homesite

You Say You’re an Atheist: Part I

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/27/2010

Too often, I’ve read or heard some variant of the following statement: “The only thing that all atheists have in common is that we don’t believe in any gods.” I, myself, have made that claim hundreds of times.

But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “atheist,” and what a person means when he or she self-identifies as one. The truth of the matter is: the old simplistic categorization is false.

“Atheist” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about dictionary definitions here, so don’t trot out your OED. Languages evolve; lexicons get revised. If enough people use a word to carry a certain meaning, then voila!, it does.

It’s obvious that the word “atheist” resonates in different ways with theists than it does with those of us who use it as a self-descriptor. I’m not going to concern myself in this series of posts with what non-atheists (shall we call them “aatheists”?) think an atheist is. I’m only going to address what the word means to a person who proudly declares “I’m an atheist.”

There are areas of overlap, but self-professed “atheists” tend to fall into four different broad categories, each of which has a number of subcategories.

Category 1 Atheists:
People who have no (i.e., don’t believe in any) gods

This is the category that fits the “definition” with which I started this post. Category 1 Atheists share an idea about the universe: there aren’t any supernatural entities that control it.

Actually, these atheists — and I’d count myself as one of them — fall into a number of subcategories. For want of better terminology, I’m going to call them un-believers, non-believers, and dis-believers. Note: These are not exact terms, so don’t start Googling. I’ve merely created a linguistic convenience.

Un-believers are people who simply don’t believe in any gods. Newborn babies, are (obviously) un-believers. If there were a society in which gods had never been invented, the members of that society would be un-believers. Those rare individuals who, without giving the matter any thought, move through their lives blissfully unaffected by religion, are also un-believers. Un-belief is passive; it’s a non-activity. So un-believers would probably not announce, “I’m an atheist.” They’d more likely say, “I guess I’m an atheist.”

Non-believers actively do not believe. They’re the atheists who challenge theists’ god claims by asking for evidence, the ones who most often use logical and scientific refutations of theistic assertions. Non-belief often extends into other areas of existence besides religion: politics, work, education, culture, even relationships with family and friends.

There are various kinds of non-believers, but they all fall somewhere along a continuum. On one side can be found the “mildest” of them, the doubters, who might say: “Let’s see proof.” Farther along the imaginary line are the skeptics: “Let’s see solid proof.” At the extreme end of the range, you’ll find the cynics, whose secret mantra could be: “Let’s see solid proof … but I expect you to lie, so I doubt that you can make it solid enough to convince me.” Cynics are often lapsed idealists, folks whose bubbles of trust have been burst again and again. Although both skeptics and cynics would probably characterize themselves as “rational,” cynics often base their attitudes on negative gut feelings. Those of us who are automatically suspicious of religionists’ motives, have at least a touch of cynicsm. If I were asked to plot myself on the non-believer continuum, I’d say that I sit comfortably somewhere on the cynicism side of skepticism.

Dis-believers are the third variant of Category 1 Atheists. Those atheists who assert with absolute conviction “There are no gods” are dis-believers. In a debate, they may ask theists for evidence, but they know beforehand that none will be forthcoming. When you hear someone say, “I can’t believe that” or “It just doesn’t make any sense,” you’re likely dealing with a dis-believer. They’re the flip-side of unquestioning religionists who are convinced that all the proof for evolution (or the big bang) is a communistic plot.

A Further Note on Category 1 Atheists:
Remember that my classification system is unscientific, even artificial. So none of us Category 1 Atheists is locked into a particular subcategory. To give you my personal example: I’d say that during the first three or four years of my life, I was an un-believer. As I grew older, and I learned that most of my friends and relatives had a magical being in their lives, I jumped forcefully into the dis-believing camp. By the time I was nine or ten, I was telling other kids that they were idiots for believing in a god. As I matured, both physically and intellectually, I became more and more of a non-believer, starting as a complete cynic and slowly moving toward the skeptical position . Today, as I said, I’d identify myself as a cynical-leaning skeptic. But I must confess that I still have knee-jerk dis-belief outbursts now and then.

Watch for Part II of “You Say You’re an Atheist,” coming soon to a computer near you.

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16 Responses to “You Say You’re an Atheist: Part I”

  1. Where does that leave those of us who are all but certain there are no gods, but would be willing to entertain impressive evidence? I have almost zero doubt in a magic sky buddy that makes wishes come true. But if one actually talked to me and left evidence so substantial as to render disbelief unreasonable, perhaps I could be swayed.

  2. Des:
    According to my taxonomy, I think you’d fall clearly into Category 1, as a skeptical non-believer. But maybe my classification system needs tweaking. Is there anything about my definition that makes you uncomfortable?

  3. I guess my self-description was a little lacking. I think I must fall in Category 1, but somewhere between the skeptic and the cynic. That is to say, the evidence of the existence of a deity would have to also be presented in such a way that it could not be explained away even as mental illness. I think the classification system is quite adequate, as you had already described disbelief as being along a continuum.

  4. Des:
    I described non-belief as being along a continuum. Obviously, in any other conversation, you can use “un-,” “non-,” and “dis-” interchangeably. But for purposes of this discussion only, I’ve set out specific definitions of some terms, arbitrary as they may be.

    But you’re right. You’re probably in approximately the same spot along the continuum as I am, give or take a few nanometers of cynicism.

  5. Kirk M said

    Great. Now you’ve not only made atheism look like a religion but you’ve managed to separate it into different sects as well. Now the members of these different sects of atheism are bound look done their noses at each other (They don’t not-believe like we do!). They might even start building atheist churches for god’s sake. I can see it now:

    The “United Church of Non-Believers” on one side of the street, the “Un-Believers United in Atheism Chapel” on the other side and Atheistic Continuum of Dis-Believers” on the next street over.

    Of course , they all turn their collective noses up at the members of the “Agnostic Temple” down the block.

    Speaking strictly for myself though, I don’t believe in atheists.

  6. Kirk:
    Oh, you’re cute. I’m playing with classification, just as I might with — say — types of music, or styles of novels, or genres of film, or kinds of doctors. Are you saying that all attempts at categorization wind up making their elements seem like different religious sects?

    But, you’re actually right that I’d turn up my nose at the Agnostic Temple down the block. (We sometimes call it the Unitarian Universalist Church). Not for philosophical reasons, though. I just don’t like having to act chummy to that many people at once.

  7. John Evo said

    I _enjoy_ jerking my knees about! It’s good exercise. Since I already know there will be no evidence for god/s, it’s kind of fun to wind a few people up by declaring that not only do I not believe, I do so because I _know_ there are no god/s. Really – good exercise.

  8. Evo:
    You must be using “knees” as a euphemism.

  9. John Evo said

    Hey, nothing like a good mid-afternoon “knee jerk” over some hot Christian chick who has a sky-daddy complex.

  10. Kirk: YOU are the one infusing a religion comparison. There’s no such thing inherent in the act of classifying information.

  11. Kirk M said

    Larry – “Are you saying that all attempts at categorization wind up making their elements seem like different religious sects? ”

    Nope, I’m saying it’s never wise to give people any ideas. ;) Actually, I’m just having a bit of fun as usual. I couldn’t possibly be serious about what I wrote.

    PhillyChief – Of course I am and of course there isn’t. The comment wasn’t to be taken seriously. Perhaps I didn’t make it outrageous enough?

  12. Kirk:
    I’m saying it’s never wise to give people any ideas.

    Unfortunately, many religionists get “ideas” the minute an atheist says anything.
    I can’t tell you the number of times we hear “Oh, atheism is just another religion.” We’re always on our guard about that, so it’s sort of automatic to respond.

  13. MacNutz said

    First I was an unbeliever then I was a comic book believer. I got kicked out of S.Baptist Sunday school during the crucifixion story. I got upset, threw down my crayon and said, or so I’m told, “God damn it! Where the hell was Superman?”

    I couldn’t believe I got in trouble for that. I was told that comic books were the work of the devil and the stories were “just made up”. Later I threw away my two Jesus comic books because obviously, they were not real. But I was sure Batman could kick his ass any day of the week.

  14. Mac:
    I’m always glad to welcome anyone whose stories make me laugh.

    By the way: Not only can Batman kick God’s ass, but the Flash can run faster than Jesus, and Susan Storm — unlike the Holy Spirit — can actually do things when she’s invisible. Also, Yahweh can’t hold a candle to the Shadow when it comes to clouding men’s minds.

  15. MacNutz said

    Yeah but Batman would be my choice for kicking Jesus ass. Bat is just a human with no special powers. Jaysus wouldn’t make it out of the first round.

    I just thought it was a bad story and the ending was silly. My grandfather told me all about dead things so I knew Jesus couldn’t come back. In my story he would have lit up like the sun and blinded all the Romans and gone to Rome to kick old Caesars butt and make him be nice. I figured Superman for the job because he could time travel by flying around the earth counter clockwise at super speed. Then them Romans would have been sorry, by god.

    But the Jesus story was just lame, the worlds’ worst comic book character. The very idea that Jesus was real and Batman just made up seemed ridiculous at the time.

  16. Mac:
    You’re right about Superman. He started with humble Jewish parents — Siegel and Shuster, and grew up in obscurity. He performed miracles. And the high priests (of culture) feared and hated him. But if Superman had taken on the Romans, theologists today would be making claims about the “Kryptonite of Turin” and looking for “pieces of the true glasses.”

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