Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Types of Atheists

Hank Fox over at "Unscrewing the Inscrutable" has a great comment about different types of atheists that I think is spot on. Here it is in a more condensed form, but I encourage anyone interested in the topic to check out Hank's full post.

  1. "Rebel Atheist": Decides he’s an atheist more or less just to piss off his mom and dad.
  2. "Revenge Atheist": Believes in a god, but happens for some reason to hate him. “You killed my kitten / gave me cancer, you bastard, and I’ll never say I believe in you, ever again.”
  3. "Inherited Atheist": The guy who picks it up from his atheist parents, and just never thinks seriously about religion, or whenever he does, thinks it’s just some nonsense like Elvis worship.
  4. "Awakened Atheist": Someone who realized one day that some part of her religion didn’t make sense, and worked her way through question after question over a span of years, and eventually came to the firm conclusion that it just wasn’t true, any of it.
So far, just on this blog, I've been accused of being both a Type 1 and a Type 2. I can't be a Type 3 because my whole family was devoutly Catholic.

Naturally, I think of myself as a Type 4 (more on that below).

As Hank says, I think it's pretty common for types 1 and 2 to eventually "reconvert" over time. It's tough to sustain rage for that long, especially as you get closer to death and the things that comforted you as a child become more important.

I think it's unlikely that Type 3's end up turning to religion for the same reason that the vast majority of believers stay in the faith they were raised in. Most people just aren't interested in investing the kind of time and energy needed to reevaluate a core belief system (whether it's religion or lack thereof or just what sports team to root for), and tend stick with what they know. That's one reason the single biggest indicator of what religion a person is, is what religion their parents were.

I agree with Hank that Type 4's are the least likely to return to religion. There is a degree of freedom and joy in arriving at an understanding of what your true beliefs are that is difficult to surrender. And the kind of person who is willing to invest in the kind of existential struggle to examine core beliefs is the kind who does so with the understanding that when they've finally achieved what they believe to the be the right answer, they're unlikely to abandon it lightly.

I suspect, though, that 90% of the atheists you'd ask to put themselves into one of Hank's four types would pick Type 4. I mean come on, who doesn't want to be "Awakened"? Types 1 and 2 will angrily deny that anything as crass as anger is behind their beliefs, and Type 3's won't care enough to even read the question in the first place. For that reason, I suspect this system isn't going to end up being all that useful empirically, but I nonetheless think it's very accurate.

It also occurs to me that this kind of classification is applicable to more than just atheism. I think it's true of theists, as well. And homosexuals. And a whole host of other life attitudes that people can hold. Everyone believes what they believe for a variety of reasons, and I think those four groupings hold for people in general, regardless of the specific question at hand. Everyone feels some rebelliousness towards their parents, or gets angry at someone or something and so takes the opposite stance from theirs just for spite, or goes along with the majority because it's easier, or struggles and thinks and wrestles with issues until finally arriving at their endpoint.

Anyway, those are my deep thoughts for today. My brother is coming into town tonight for a visit, which we're very excited about, but he always tells me I think too much so I won't be able to think for the next few days. Expect lots of American Idol and Britney Spears posts, because I'm shutting the ol' noggin off for a bit.


Vasha said...

I grew up as an apathetic type 3. However, when I was in college I shared a house with a bunch of born-again types, with whom I had a number of long, passionate theological conversations. This had the opposite effect from what they hoped, and did wonders to clarify my thinking (I can only hope it may have planted a seed in some of their minds, too); and I've done a bit of reflecting at times since. So I think I can count myself as a Type 4, in spite of never having believed in the first place.

Denise said...

It is interesting how we can go through steps 1-3 and then arrive at a totally different belief in Step 4. I would agree that many Christians and/or theists have gone through these stages many times. Faith, or the dissection of a belief system, often calls people to go through the rigorous process of asking "Do I believe?" "How could I believe?" and "Why do I believe?" You are absolutely right these same tenets could be applied to Christians, even down to that last statement down to the last six words. For Christians and believers, it comes down to the firm conclusion that their hypothesis is true.

I could take these four steps and reword them just a bit. The Rebel includes a great many of us in our teens – we rebel simply because it will piss off mom and dad and because we want to be individuals. Sooner or later, we find an equilibrium that’s not totally giving the world the finger and accepting society’s norms. Many people are angry at God and their reasons are legitimate – they have lost a loved one to death or murder, they do have an incurable disease or their child is ill. But those who turn to faith come to the realization that faith is what gets them through these tough times. Those who inherit their belief systems do it in everything; from the way they set the table to how they fold the towels. It’s not so much nonsense as it is comfort in routine. But many people actually stop in the middle of folding those towels and realize they sure would fit better in the cabinet if they folded them a different way. Change takes place, change born of looking and examining the situation.

And that leads into Step 4 and, as Frost says, the roads diverged into two. There are clich├ęs – the glass is half empty versus the glass is half full, one person sees a woman’s face in a black-and-white picture and another sees a flower vase – it is perception, assimilation and coming to a conclusion. Mine is to believe, heart and soul, in a benevolent God who created a beautiful universe, beautiful people and the wonderful ability to love, have empathy and experience the joys and anguish of being human in all that encompasses. Those who choose atheism believe in the same things, except they originated from a different source. As I've said many times, that free will is the joker in the deck of life. Okay – enough from me! As our brother would say, we think too much!

sph said...

I recently pointed out to a dear friend of mine who is a bit taken aback at the atheism professed on this BLOG; that the host of this BLOG personifies in his life those traits which we are led to believe are "christian characteristics". He is a kind, generous, humble, thoughtful caretaker and protector. He is wise but not conceited, clever but not smart elecky, bright but not arrogant. In fact, Jeff stands out as the nicest person in a large field of people who would say they are Christians. This is probably making him uncomfortable but his behavior seems based upon what is "the next right thing to do" rather than some tenet written by who know's who and is open to so many interpretations. And THAT is what makes me think long and hard about belief systems and who personifies what and why they do.