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.
- "Rebel Atheist": Decides he’s an atheist more or less just to piss off his mom and dad.
- "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.”
- "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.
- "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.
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.