4 Kinds of Movement Atheist (Secularist Atheists, Identity Atheists, Evangelical Atheists, and Constructive Atheists)

We can classify atheists many ways depending on our interests. (For good examples: In the summer PZ had a good post on the different entrance points people have to atheism. In an interview a year ago I classified six general kinds of atheists along the lines of their attitudes towards religion primarily. Earlier still I distinguished atheists by their epistemological views. Greta has an influential post that sifts atheists by temperaments and strategies.)

In this post, my interest is to classify specifically those atheists who are, in one way or another, on board with the atheist movement and ignore the various kinds of atheists who are uninterested in it or hostile to it. I see four kinds of atheism, each with unique goals that are spurring both activism and more general participation in the atheist movement. These kinds of atheism are far from mutually exclusive. Many movement atheists fit 3 or 4 categories, even. On the other hand, some movement atheists are quite adamant about only fitting 1 or 2.

Sometimes movement atheists conflict with each other precisely because they do not fit all (or any) of the same categories as each other and so wind up being quite at cross purposes with each other. Sometimes I think there are serious confusions when atheists do not clearly separate the four kinds of atheist concerns from each other when making arguments, relating to theists and religious people, or simply staging events or engaging in activism. Even if one is all four kinds of atheist, there are times and places to emphasize or deemphasize one, rather than another. In future posts, I will likely explain some of the complications that are created by the overlap in the four kinds of atheism and how we should be alert to what is going on when these complications arise so that we can avoid some serious traps.

As for me, I am all four kinds of atheist described below. My main conflicts are with atheists who opt out of any of the other categories rather than with members of any specific category itself.

1. Secularist Atheists

Secularist Atheists are those very focused on the separation of church and state. Nearly everyone in the atheist movement seems to be a Secularist Atheist. Not all Secularist Atheists are comfortable with the other kinds of atheists I will be enumerating, but at minimum all (or nearly all) movement atheists are political secularists. They want a secular society. They do not want religiously derived laws, they do not want either science or science education to be hindered by religious meddling, they do not want public institutions to be used as vehicles for the promotion of religion (whether specific religions or religiosity in general). They want the government to be strictly neutral on religious questions and not to favor religious people over irreligious people or religious ideas over irreligious ideas.

Some movement atheists are only concerned with political secularism. Some of these atheists are outright averse to Evangelical Atheism, Identity Atheism, and/or Constructive Atheism. Others are just indifferent to them. Secularist Atheists are comfortable to one extent or another teaming up with religious people who also want a strong separation of church and state. Some Secularist Atheists don’t care at all about whether religions are true or false, good or bad, just as long as they don’t meddle with law or science or otherwise impose themselves on the general public using the government. Such Secularist Atheists are the ones who will profess to hardly caring at all what their neighbor believes about religion, as long as the neighbor keeps it a private matter and doesn’t hurt anybody. These atheists may be relatively ambivalent about the value of religion in people’s private lives. They may quietly hold contempt for religious beliefs or admire their value for particular individuals but just want it out of government. Of course, many other Secularist Atheists are not so indifferent to religion and are actually either Identity Atheists, Evangelical Atheists, and/or Constructive Atheists as well.

2. Identity Atheists

Identity Atheists are acutely aware that being an atheist makes them, in some significant way, different from other people. This could be because they feel like differences over religious beliefs would, or already do, put an alienating strain on their relationships with their religious family, friends, employers, colleagues, acquaintances, or peers. This could be because they had a traumatic deconversion experience in which becoming an atheist was a major part of their personal narrative of self-discovery and/or led to major ruptures in their life, including in relationships that were important to them. This could be because of cultural or political or legal discrimination that has outraged or insulted them. They resent all the careless ways that atheists are demonized, Othered, mistrusted, excluded, or put on the spot by religious people. They want to make absolutely clear that being a good person does not require being religious. They may even get offended by arguments that atheists cannot ground morality and take them as personal, insulting accusations that atheists are necessarily immoral people.

Not all Identity Atheists want to make other people atheists. While they may see their atheism as an important matter of truth, their atheism matters to them because it is something about who they are that they feel alienated over. It’s something that separates them and they want to connect with others who share their feelings and sense of the world. It is for them something akin to being from a minority ethnic group or sexuality as much as, or more than, it is just a matter of sharing a philosophy with others. It is an identity issue. They want to be understood and respected for what they are as an atheist and they want to connect to others they share this bond with.

While Identity Atheists are almost always Secularist Atheists since they are very concerned that the government treat people with atheist identities with equal respect and acknowledgment to what religious people receive, Identity Atheists are more concerned with the positive importance of being an atheist than are some other Secularist Atheists who just want the religious to leave them alone. To Identity Atheists, being an atheist is not just a negative, it’s not just a matter of being free from government imposition of religion, it’s a matter of carving out social space to be an atheist.

While Identity Atheists are not always Evangelical Atheists who want to make new atheists, Identity Atheists often do want to raise the consciousness of existing atheists who are closeted, apathetic, or overly deferent to religious hegemony. Identity Atheists often want to inspire other atheists to own their atheism, be proud of it, and not let religious culture and personal religiosity be assumed as the cultural default. Some Identity Atheists want, essentially, a truce with religious people: “You have your religious identity, and that’s fine, and I have my atheist identity and that’s fine too. Let’s peacefully coexist with mutual respect.”

3. Evangelical Atheists

Some movement atheists go beyond Secularist Atheism’s desire for removing religion from government and Identity Atheism’s consciousness raising and attempts to create the social latitude to be proud and respected as an atheist. Evangelical Atheists want to win the battle of ideas and the values culture war against theistic religions. They want to deconvert people. They want to oppose religious ideas and identities as based on falsehoods and delusions. They are often anti-theists who argue that theisms and religions are not only false but significantly enough harmful to oppose as a matter of moral, intellectual, and social principle. Since all, or nearly all, Evangelical Atheists in the West at present are currently Secularist Atheists rather than Supremicist Atheists, they want to limit their attacks on religious beliefs and practices to intellectual, moral, and cultural arenas. The only places that they seek to curb religious influence politically is where religious people try to take over public schools and hospitals and militaries and government institutions, all in order to impose religious beliefs and values on the general populace through basic public resources and institutions.

Evangelical Atheists are content to defeat religious beliefs and institutions fairly and squarely in the private arena of free and open criticism and debate, without trying to legislate any kind of discrimination against religion. In legal matters they fight as Secularist Atheists looking to curb religious encroachment into public institutions.

Many Evangelical Atheists are Identity Atheists, but also many are not. For Evangelical Atheists who are not Identity Atheists atheism is primarily a philosophical issue that matters relatively little to them as a social category or identity marker. Simple desire for truth or desire to oppose the influence of potentially harmful religious beliefs matter much more to them than either seeing themselves as an atheist or identifying with other atheists on account of their shared viewpoint does.

4. Constructive Atheists

Some movement atheists are focused on constructively filling voids left by religion and/or creating social justice. Their concern is to build new philosophies, new communities, and/or reform social institutions and practices and values. While they are almost definitely going to be Secularist Atheists too, in some cases this may not be much of a focus of their energies. They may be hostile to religion and want to deconvert people like Evangelical Atheists do, but they may not. They may be primarily happy to be a part of something positive that works parallel to religious communities. They may be to one extent or another interested in developing rituals, parenting resources, and charities. They may even be open to “interfaith” dialogue with religious communities. And while they may be concerned with helping to create positive identity and community among non-believing people, they may not be Identity Atheists. They may positively eschew the label “atheist” altogether and instead be content with “Humanist” or “Unitarian” or something else. They may consider themselves religious–maybe religious naturalists, Unitarians, pagans, secular Buddhists, or secular Jews, etc. Or they might be hostile to any or all of these alternative variations of constructive atheism.

They may be more interested in feminism or environmentalism or other matters of cultural and social change than they are in atheism. They may be wholly open to coordination with theists on common causes of eradicating poverty, creating equality for all people, or preventing the disastrous effects of climate change. Others may be interested in philosophical issues about post-religious ethics, metaphysics, meaning without gods, coping with grief without gods. Some may be concerned with reclaiming meditation techniques from spiritualist frauds.

And of course many of these Constructive Atheists are also Identity Atheists who want their constructive alternatives to religious institutions and philosophies to be ways to express and bolster their atheist identities. And of course many of these Constructive Atheists may be passionate about the separation of church and state and be strong Secularist Atheists. And some Constructive Atheists may be Evangelical Atheists who think that it’s a good thing to try to deconvert people and to try to combat the social, moral, and intellectual influence of theistic religions in the private sphere as well as in the public sphere.

While some Identity Atheists embrace Constructive Atheism, others are suspicious of it. These Identity Atheists are afraid of Constructive Atheists threatening to subsume their atheist identity within their Constructive Atheism. They sometimes fear the mixing of atheism with things that Identity Atheists associate with the opposite of atheism or things ancillary to atheism.

Some Secularist Atheists like neither Identity Atheism nor Constructive Atheism because their interests in religion and atheism basically stop at the point of rejecting religious influence over public life. They do not see the point of creating specifically atheist identity or philosophies or communities. As long as religions just leave them alone they will be happy.

This is a basic schema. The relationships between these four kinds of atheists and their goals are complex and surprising. In future posts, I hope to tease more of them out, but in the meantime it was important to get this classificatory start. See my posts “How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?” and Why Was The Reason Rally An Atheist Rally, Instead of Just a Secularist One? for examples of potential moral dilemmas and goal confusions that arise from these kinds of atheism being mixed without clarification of how or why they are being mixed.

Your Thoughts? Your Kinds of Atheism?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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