My Old Kentucky Homesite

You Say You’re an Atheist: Part II

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/28/2010

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.


21 Responses to “You Say You’re an Atheist: Part II”

  1. Category 3 Wooists and Irrantionalists are an unfortunately large portion of the group. In my little circle, I can think of one avowed atheist who is into astrology, another who holds wacky Chinese Daoist ideas about medicine, and a third that is an antivaxxer. To the first, I ask questions like, “So, you’re saying Mars is magic?” To the second, I make statements like, “Well, I’ve read about this thing called the Germ Theory of Disease. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.” To the third, well, I have yet to address it. As she is older, has no children, and has already had all the childhood vaccines, it almost seems moot.

  2. Des:
    I agree with you completely. I even get pissed off at so-called Deists, because they, too, cling to their outmoded ideas without having any evidence whatsoever. In my younger days, I probably would have said to all Category 3 types: “You’re not really an atheist.” Now that I’ve mellowed (hard to believe, eh?), I’m willing to let them — instead of me — decide how they choose to define themselves.

    I look forward to hearing what you’ll have to say about Category 4 Atheists.

  3. John Evo said

    Would “conspiracy theory atheists” be a CAT3 in your system of segregating and defining? I would guess so since many of the conspiracy entail a good bit of woo – such as “the government wants to kill off a great many of us, and there way of doing so is via vacines or the virus itself (re-engineered for deadly effects); because of which they often favor “organic foods”, homeopathic remedies, etc.

    I have to tell you Mr. W – I see a lot of potential over-lapping. Since you insist we take everyone at their word abou theiir atheism (and I don’t see any realistic way around it) – Such people believe all kinds of things in all kinds of combos.

    “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.”

    Well – is it YOUR place to tell ME my place? ; )

  4. Evo:
    Yeah, I’ve placed conspiracy theorists in Category 3 of my taxonomy. You may have missed where I mentioned them: Irrationalists are atheists who subscribe to conspiracy theories, or …

    Is it YOUR place to tell ME my place?
    Shit, I hope not. So don’t come to me for help in finding yourself. I don’t even know where I am, half the time — although I’m afraid it may be somewhere in Kentucky.

  5. ildi said

    Cat 3 are often the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd. The most common argument I hear is “there’s just got to be something beyond this.” There are many people who’ve jumped off the religion bandwagon but still find the naturalist worldview sterile and lacking in mystery. They’re convinced they’ve had a psychic experience, or the tarot reading revealed things about themselves that “there was no way the reader could have known,” or “things were just meant to turn out that way” if a desired situation turns out differently than initially expected. It’s the same cognitive biases that make people religious, also.

  6. Ildi:
    Hi, and welcome.

    You’re definitely right about Category 3 Atheists having the same kinds of cognitive biases that religionists do. But I’m afraid that we all have moments of logical dissonance with reality. I know some really “strong” Category 1 and 2 Atheists who are susceptible to ridiculously flawed arguments and/or claims — if such statements are made by politicans whom those atheists trust and respect. (In my most cynical moments, I’d say that trusting any modern politician conflicts with reality.) But I hope I was careful to distinguish between people who have occasional illogical moments, and those who allow their lives to be controlled, at least to some extent, by superstition or unfounded beliefs.

  7. ildi said

    Larry: I think we’re saying the same thing; being an atheist doesn’t automatically make people critical thinkers in general. I think there is a large category of people who reject religion for emotional reasons, and they would be the type of people who would possibly embrace new age-y spiritualism or alt ‘medicine’ or other forms of woo.

    Then there are the people who were raised in a secular or a “cake or death” sort of religious household, so being non-religious is not something they ponder deeply. I think many of the “I used to be an atheist” Christians fall into this category. They go through a bad patch, or they meet up with a charismatic church group where they feel like part of the community, and whammo! I had a friend go this route in college. She used to throw the most awesome parties – lively woman, wide circle of friends. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and when I got an invite to a party, I put on my dancing duds, grabbed a six-pack and headed over. Imagine my surprise when I got there and found out it was the church dinner of one of those ‘operate out of people’s houses’ denominations! No beer, bad music, prayer before the communal meal; they were all so weirdly happy, like Stepford wives (and husbands)! I was sorely disappointed.

    But I ramble…

  8. Ildi:
    Being an atheist doesn’t automatically make people critical thinkers in general.


  9. JohnFromCensornati said

    Yesterday, I saw where one of those quantum atheists made this remarkable claim on the Huffington Post. Now, they’re getting in on climate change denial?

    “These catastrophic events on the planet, be it an earthquake or “freak” snowstorms, drought and floods are a product of the unbalance of universal energy. The more hatred and inhumanity we spew out worldwide, the more we will experience these occurrences. every time you get “hot under the collar” as it were, that heat energy does not dissipate, but rather becomes part of the atmosphere. We have created our global warming with more than Carbon Monoxide gas”

    I’m not sure what “universal energy” is, but this person is seriously confused. He/she also said “The energy contained in fire is no less than the energy contained in water”.

    The HP is already called the Atheist Post by many and they created a “Religion” section last week.

  10. So is this a Chinese menu or simply a buffet of choices? In other words, are all atheists either contrareligionists or anti-theists, or is that an optional category? I think there are atheists who don’t have an opinion about religion other than that it’s not for them. Also, I think there are some who think it might be good because it keeps the rabble in line. So if Category 2 is a mandatory category, you should include perhaps an apatheist label (apathetic atheist) and maybe a pro-religion label.

    As for category three, I think it should be just rationalist or irrationalist, and under irrationalist you would have subsets like deist and wooist.

  11. John:
    Yeah, there’s a lot of veiled mysticism in that little paragraph. I’d get hot under the collar about an idiot pretending to talk science, but I don’t want to radiate any more heat energy than necessary. Perhaps a cold shower would do well for me, but the running water would probably fuck up the balance of universal energy, so I’d better not. All I can say is: I hope nobody farts.

    Good, challenging points. I’ll have to give some serious thought to them, and I hope other readers will chime in, too. But here are my immediate, tentative reactions.

    All Category 2 Atheists, are, by my definition (“People who oppose theism or theists”), either contrareligionists or anti-theists. You’re definitely right about the existence of “apatheists;” but I don’t think “pro-religionists” are common among atheists (except maybe among politicians). In both cases, however, those people wouldn’t fit into Category 2 as defined.

    Category 1 Atheists are basically inner-directed; those atheists focus primarily on their own worldviews. Category 2 Atheists are basically outer-directed; those atheists focus primarily on others’ worldviews, but only in a negative way. My first thought is that both “apatheism” and “pro-religion” are phenomena that don’t need categorizing, because neither case is sufficient to lead a person to announce “I’m an atheist.” I’d guess that most Category 1 Atheists are apatheists to a greater or lesser extent, and some may even be pro-religionists. But does that matter? Does their neutral or positive feeling about religion factor into their atheism, any more than their height or their wine preferences?

    I don’t think there are any rationalist atheists in Category 3. The whole category classifies people who claim that they’re atheists specifically because they’re not theists, but who still hold some types of supernatural or unfounded beliefs. I’ve used the term “irrationalists” as a catch-all to characterize those who don’t fall into the “deists” or “wooists” subcategories.

  12. My first thought is that both “apatheism” and “pro-religion” are phenomena that don’t need categorizing, because neither case is sufficient to lead a person to announce “I’m an atheist.”

    I think you’re infusing your own view on this if you’re going to assert that only by taking an oppositional stance can one be motivated to declare themselves an atheist. You have atheists who don’t hesitate to say they’re atheists while attending certain churches like the Unitarian church, and I think those churches like it because it makes them seem so progressive. You also have those atheists who, in hopes of buddying up with religious moderates and putting a friendly face on atheism, quite confidently announce they’re atheists in order to achieve their goals. So no, I don’t see the ONLY motivation being one of opposition. A pro-religion atheist can be motivated to announce they’re atheists. In some weird way, it may even make their opinion of religion be more credible since they can take the position of outsider critiquing objectively.

    I think there are the warm and fuzzy types who are pro-religion as well as the smug and cranky, too. For instance, the latter could see it as a necessary thing for the rabble to keep them in line. Certainly when you hear those idiots who say if it weren’t for a god, they’d be out killing and doing whatever, then you almost look at religion as needed. Almost. ;)

  13. Philly:
    I think you’re infusing your own view on this if you’re going to assert that only by taking an oppositional stance can one be motivated to declare themselves an atheist.
    No, that’s not what I’m saying. Or, at least, not what I’m trying to say.

    So let me try to reason this through here in writing. I hope I don’t just wind up concluding “I think, therefore I am.”

    Remember I said in Part I that there was probably going to be some overlap in my categorization of atheist types. I definitely didn’t intend to create pigeonholes. But I do think there are distinctions, artificial as they may be.

    Category 1 Atheists, as defined, are people who call themselves atheists because they don’t believe in any gods. Period. Perhaps I need to expand that definition to state clearly that their focus then remains primarily on their own worldview, even though they may also have an attitude about religion or religionists. But then I might also have to add information about their attitudes towards other types of belief systems, and we’d stray way out of the realm of a simple taxonomy.

    Category 2 Atheists, as defined, are people whose focus is primarily on their own negative attitude about others’ beliefs.

    If you accept those definitions for the purposes of this classification system only — and you might not, but hear me out — then Category 1 Atheists may, or may not, be apatheists or pro-religionists. They can’t be contrareligionsts because it’s Category 1 Atheists do not take an active stance against the practice of all religions. Anyone who does so is, by definition, a Category 2 Atheist. Similarly, Category 1 Atheists can’t be anti-theists, because, by definition, those people also fall into Cat 2. Perhaps I need to add some qualifiers to my definition of Category 1, but I don’t think so; how could I list every viewpoint that a category doesn’t include?

    You could probably make a damned good argument that Category 2 is just a subset of Category 1. But in my experience (and from conversations we’ve had, I think in your experience, too), there’s a definite difference — a big one — between people who fall into Cat 1 and those who fall into Cat 2.

    So, given the current definitions, Category 1 Atheists may think the idea of religion in general is ludicrous, or they may think it’s terrific for most people, or they may fall somewhere in between and be neutral about other people’s beliefs. But they do not take an absolute stance against either all religious practices or all theists.

    You might convince me to change some definitions. Do you have any suggestions?

  14. John Evo said

    The HuffPost has become more than a little annoying with their woo-ish atheistic views on any number of issues. Look at who the choose from the atheist community as being their main spokespeople. You don’t often see a Laurence Krauss or a Christopher Hitchens writing there.

  15. Evo:
    I read HuffPo frequently, but I have to admit that I almost always skip its articles about religion, as I would when reading any other periodical. I’ve totally ignored its new “Religion” section, which I wasn’t even aware of until John mentioned it.

    I have no plans to click that button, unless I’m drafted to write an article there. I’d estimate the chances of that happening as approaching zero so closely as to be indistinguishable from it. Maybe if I had a lucky tie, my career would change.

  16. John Evo said

    Well, you SHOULD be invited to cover the atheist beat on their religion page. I don’t agree with you on everything, but you come much closer to the mark than these fuckers.

  17. Evo:
    Well, thanks. I have absolutely no idea how to put myself forward for consideration, but since I’ve never been on TV, I doubt that anyone there would be interested.

  18. MacNutz said

    Is it true that Bill Mahr dismisses the germ theory of disease? Claiming disease is all about what you eat or don’t eat?

    I’ve know a couple of atheists who weren’t stupid but had some utterly irrational beliefs.

  19. Mac:
    I’ve never heard that about Bill Maher, but I have heard him go off on American obesity.

    And yeah, unfortunately we all know some atheists who are just as irrational as religionists.

  20. John Evo said

    Unfortunately Maher simultaneously thinks that there are no magic invisible creatures in the sky, while thinking there are no invisible, counter-intuitive advantages to inoculating people to prevent disease. I am no longer astounded at the variety of weirdness in the atheist community, and why I continue to be impressed that Philly, SI, Babs, OG, Chappy, Evo and a guy named “Ex” all came together to do an atheist podcast, sharing so many POVs on subjects besides the one sure one that unites atheists – that we don’t buy god/s.

    And, indeed, you will find Mac to be a funny guy and interesting story-teller.

  21. Evo:
    I don’t think that Bill Maher identifies himself an “atheist,” but he would probably call himself a “skeptic.” What I can’t bear is to see a person who’s healthily skeptical about most things then turn around and espouse some nonsense.

    But I guess a skeptic should be skeptical about skepticism, too.

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