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Atheist blogger Pharyngula shared a taxonomy of several different kinds of atheists:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/07/04/what-kind-of-atheist-are-you/

(h/t Dan Fincke)

I found this all really interesting, because when I blog about religion and atheism, I often struggle to find a word to describe the movement. The movement seems to include people who are against organized religions as much as people who believe God doesn't exist for philosophical or scientific reasons, so the label atheist always struck me as a bit inappropriate. There are also the people who didn't want to believe anything without good evidence and just thought we couldn't be sure whether God exists (which I always thought of as agnostics), and of course the people who simply didn't think or care that much about God (secular humanists or the areligious more generally). Pharyngula's post does a good job at getting across the diversity of this movement.

To summarize Pharyngula (perhaps unfairly!), he identifies four major types of atheists:

  1. Scientific atheists, people with "strong expectations that claims about the nature of the universe will be backed up with empirical evidence and reason," and who think there's just not this kind of scientific evidence for God."

  2. Philosophical atheists, who "address the logic and assumptions of claims about gods."

  3. Political Atheists. As Pharyngula puts it, "While the scientific atheists have knowledge and forcefulness, and the philosophical atheists have reason and logic, the political atheists are the ones who get the hard work done. These are the organizers and diplomats and lobbyists, the people at the cutting edge who make it their business to work every day with (and against) the opponents of atheism."

  4. And finally, humanists: peole who "support atheism because they see religion as a source of oppression or injustice, they see secularism as a better path to fairness."


As people point out in the comments, this taxonomy isn't exclusive. Personally, I'd separate out people who have been burned by a particular religion from the humanists. For them, it's not so much that atheists do a better job than religious groups, but that religious groups do a bad job at respecting basic human dignity or of working toward important human rights. (Pharyngula's criticism of this group, that "If the atheist movement does not address human concerns, they'll leave and follow the institutions that do" including progressive churches obviously doesn't apply here.) But I think Pharyngula's descriptions are a good starting place.


Reading this made me want to develop my own taxonomy of religious people, in particular of Christians. This isn't exactly a parallel to Pharyngula's, because Pharyngula says these are all equally legitimate reasons to be an atheist. I'm not sure I agree with that when it comes to the different types of Christianity. These groups also don't really pair off with Pharyngula's groups in an obvious way. Still, I think it's useful to go through them because a lot of times I think people talk about Christians as if they are all one group, with similar motivations and worldviews, much as people use the word atheists.

(I'm talking about Christians because that's the religion I'm most familiar with, not because it stands in for all theists. Though I suspect you'll find a lot of these groups in most religions, especially if they're the dominant one in a particular culture.)



1. Christians from Convenience: A lot of people are Christians just because the people around them are. If you grow up in a Baptist family (or a Catholic, or Hindu, or atheist) and you don't think about religion that much, you'll probably describe yourself as Baptist. Even if you don't really understand or agree with what the Baptist church says.

2. Cultural / Political Christians: A lot of people say they're Christians as a way of explaining their identity. You see this especially with ethnic subcommunities; it's a way to preserve customs and rituals living among people who live their live a different way. It's hard to imagine someone being Italian-American without them also being Catholic. Ditto for Hasidic Jews, Lutheran German-Americans or any other kinds of subcommunities. Those in the majority may describe themselves as Christians as a way ofo preserving the past against change.

You also see this on a national scale, with folks who see religion as a mark of patriotism. Look at Anders Breivik, the man who slaughtered all those people in Norway; he describes himself as a cultural Christian in his manifesto, which he considers compatible with atheism. For him, being a Christian means supporting European cultures - absurd, given that Christianity is growing in the developing world and shrinking in the West, but it's a fairly common belief.



These groups don't necessarily believe what the religion teaches; for them, the label is an identity that they take up for completely other reasons, or for no reason at all.



3. Psychological Christians: A lot of people get some psychological comfort from Christianity. It can be as simple as thinking you'll see a recently-dead friend again in some kind of afterlife, or thinking that life (including suffering) has meaning because our experiences have a purpose. You believe what the religion teaches not because you have good logical reasons for believing it's true but because it's useful.

4. Ethical Christians: These people describe themselves as Christians because it helps them live good, moral lives. Some can't see how morality makes sense if God also doesn't exist (no law-giver, no law); others are motivated by God and an afterlife. I suspect some people think morality is possible without God but also find something about their religion useful in their moral lives; for example, the idea that all humans are made in God's image may help a religious person see why everyone deserves moral treatment, not just our friends and families. And finally, I suspect there's a religious group that parallels Pharyngula's humanists: people who care about fighting injustice and see a church doing that, so become a member of that religion in order to fight along with them. If you hate war and the Quakers are doing a particularly good job explaining why it's wrong, that can be a powerful inducement.

These groups call themselves Christians for reasons that at least connect up with Christianity on some level, but it's usually because Christianity is comforting, useful, or something along those lines. I know some people, particularly the philosophical atheists described by Pharyngula, will say you shouldn't believe something for reasons that have nothing to do with facts and rationality, but religious people aren't so different here from how people get a lot of their identities. Democrat, Republican, capitalist, socialist, party-animal, geek – a lot of people group themselves based on their intuitions and what seems right to them. There are often major problems with this, based on the issue at stake, but if these groups are making a mistake, at least it's not a particularly rare one.

5. Philosophical Theists. Finally, there's the analogue of Pharyngula's philosophical atheists. These are people that are theists not because it's helpful or the default, but because they believe it's true. These people generally take science and philosophy quite seriously, but they reject some of the basic assumptions that atheists say make atheism so much more rational than theism. Some philosophical Christians have something like Stephen Gould's non-overlapping magisteria in mind; they think science is very good at explaining some types of questions, not so good at others. Other people, myself included, just reject logical positivism, which says the only way something is true (or false) is if there's some experience that would verify the statement. Still others think that one or more of the arguments for God actually give us a good, philosophical reason to believe God exists.

Some also have specific, philosophical reasons to become a Christian (or some other religion, or some particular type of Christianity). Others have philosophical reasons to be theists but then choose to be a Christian for one of the other kinds of reasons outlined above. And some probably say God exist without topping up with a particular religious traditions.

***********************

What's the point of all this? Three things.

First, I think Christians (and religions in general) often have their influence propped up. Lots of people claiming to be a Christian don't understand a lot of what Christianity is about. This should come as no great surprise to people who read their Bible; Jesus himself taught that "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 7:21) So just because someone calls himself a Christian, that doesn't mean his actions.

Of course when someone uses your name and you don't agree with what they're saying the onus is on you to correct them. But it's always easier to get people to read the headline item than the retraction. So if you think Christians do the craziest thing, it's worth figuring out whether it's actually genuine Christians contributing to the craziness. Atheists have less cultural atheists and atheists from convenience, I think, and so it's only fair to compare apples to apples.

Oh, and one other thing on that note? Influence goes both ways. Anders Breivik's Christianity only counts if people affected in the same degree by other philosophies (like Josef Stalin's atheism) count against those influences.

Second, I think all this makes religions seem more important than they really are. I never thought philosophies should be judged by how popular they are, but if we're doing that, again, it's only fair to compare apples to apples. If you want to look at what philosophies are doing well by how many followers they attract, look at the people who have actually thought about said philosophies. And if you want to use what percentage of those followers can actually give a good explanation for why they're a Christian or an atheist or whatever, again, you've got to look at people who are actually engaging with Christianity and atheism on the same level.

Finally, I think a lot of atheists would find they have a lot more in common with certain types of Christians than they think. If your point is that certain Christians' stances on homosexuality (or sex generally, or women's rights, or Obamacare, or…) is wrong, you might find natural allies in Christians like me who are a bit dismayed at what some people are doing in the name of our religion.

And when it comes to Christian pastors encouraging their flock to beat their effeminate sons, or Muslim girls being kicked out of schools, or ultra-orthodox Jews calling young girls sluts because their elbows aren't covered? I'm every bit as angry about that as any other human being, and just as eager to fight against it with anyone willing to pitch in.

What do you think of this way of splitting up Christianity? Did I miss anything? Where do you fall? (It may be more than one group; I consider myself both a psychological and philosophical Christian, personally.)

(Originally posted to LJ.)

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