An old friend from my Christian days has offered me the somewhat large task of writing an Atheism 101 for his blog’s Christian readership. I am supposed to explain to them whatever I think they should know about atheists and about how to engage us. I am very happy to write this for him, but fear when all is said and done it will have to be a multi-part series.
One key part of this post is going to be a taxonomy of kinds of atheists. I love writing up accounts of various kinds of believers and non-believers based on my observations. As part of writing the “Atheism 101”, I finally wrote up something about a kind of atheist I had not devoted an entire post to–the Pro-Religious Atheist. So, written addressed to believers (and with evangelical Christians specifically in mind), here is my rough take on the psychologies of your average contemporary Pro-Religious Atheists.
Typically, these seem to be atheists who were either raised by atheistic, irreligious parents or were raised with religion but it never really took for them (at least past childhood). They may have never been burned by religion themselves, or they come from liberal minded families, or making peace with openminded believers may have soothed over any wounds from initial bad experiences with religion. For whatever such reasons, they have a positive attitude towards faiths the way one might have a curious, non-judgmental, and approving enjoyment of foreign cultures. They are comfortable with there being a wide variety of belief systems out there and feel little to no compunction at all to change what anyone thinks. They may be as averse to criticizing people’s religions as most people are to disparaging a foreign culture’s odd customs. They may believe there are things to learn from religions even. They may even very comfortably belong to one of the religions that also consists of believers in God, gods, or goddesses, and not feel any great angst over this. They could be Buddhists, Jews, Unitarian/Univeralists, or Wiccans, for examples.
And they may be tolerant to a morally relativistic fault of other religions, even accepting barbaric or anti-egalitarian practices rooted in religious beliefs as perfectly okay for others where they would never find them tolerable in their own lives or (maybe) in their own country. But sometimes they’ll even be okay with their oppressive religious practices right there in their own country as long as they themselves are not subject to them. These atheists take a very distant and anthropological and potentially condescending attitude towards believers. They like you but they don’t think of you as engaging the same mental or cultural world as they do insofar as you are religious.
And quite often they find it bizarre and off-putting when believers try to convert them. They may not even understand that that’s what you’re trying to do—the idea of trying to change someone else’s religion is so foreign to their ethos. They may even see the drive to proselytize as one of the few places to be critical of a religious person. Some psychologize your desire to proselytize as a signal of your lack of faith.
They tend to view religions as functionally valuable for the people who adopt them and to downplay the cognitive aspects of faith. Some of them seem to have trouble understanding that for various kinds of believers (particularly evangelical Christians, learned Catholics, and most Muslims) the content of one’s beliefs are serious issues. Since they look at religions as really just cultural customs, life practices, emotional support for a wide variety of purposes, etc., they quite often naïvely transpose this mindset into genuine believers and expect you to act and talk like you too understand that this is really just a functional tool for social harmony and personal fulfillment rather than a matter of literal beliefs. This is another reason they simply to not get why you want to proselytize—they don’t think of religions as at all about having correct beliefs or correcting others’ false beliefs.
As far as they’re concerned, religions are functional for customs, identities, communities, and emotional support, and each religious group has their own neat way of doing that for themselves. Why in the world is there a need to change any one from their functional life organizer to your own? Why does everyone have to have the same customs and practices, if many are viable and make people happy? Why must everyone be like you and part of your club? The idea that you really believe you have a truth that other religions, atheists, and the irreligious do not have is a prospect that they take so unseriously that they express confusion and bewilderment that you want to convert others. It’s as though they really expect you to look at your religion the way they do, as your idiosyncratic and beautiful little club, which is just one among many equally good ones. Trying to get them to really appreciate the minds of those who take their religions literally and to think within that logic and to understand the motivations that come from that is sometimes bafflingly difficult.
These atheists also are critical of us atheists that are hostile to religious beliefs. Again, they don’t get why we care what other people believe or why we apparently want to disrupt people’s (supposedly) functionally beneficial religious identities, communities, emotional supports, customs, rituals, etc.
Sometimes these atheists are more than a bit elitist and condescending—either admixed with the relativism I’ve been describing or in place of it. They essentially see themselves as knowing better than religious people but thinking that religion is simply necessary for those either weaker or morally worse than themselves who need religious comforts and delusions for emotional well being and/or moral constraint. Of course they themselves don’t need such crutches or shackles. But a good many of the masses do.
Again, the problem of understanding other minds surfaces. They see the anti-theists and anti-religious atheists attack religious beliefs and they wonder why in the world we take literalistic nonsense seriously (because it’s so obviously false it’s apparently beneath refutation) or why we cannot just understand the valuable functions of religions for those that need them but instead insist on trying to rob them of these benefits and impose our way of life on them. Again, true and false about religious beliefs seems to be just about the least relevant thing in the world to these kinds of atheists. And so, to them, atheists who make efforts to dissuade others of their religious beliefs are automatically “just as bad as religious extremists”, on that account alone in their minds.
The one place some of these pro-religious atheists may wind up hostile to religion is when it comes to Separation of Church and State. While certainly not all of them are bothered by the intermingling of the civic and the religious, some of them may see the dangers of religious encroachment out of its properly limited sphere. But even in sharing more adamant atheists’ opposition to, say, creationism in schools, these pro-religious atheists may become very irritated by other atheists who want to go further than, say, just keeping evolution as the only theory of origins taught in science class to actually saying that evolution helps undermines the evidence for theism and helps show religious beliefs to be false.
They want to preserve the integrity of science and the secular sphere but they are not interested in criticizing theism, other religious beliefs, or religious institutions, identities, or communities any further than that. They can hardly see how other atheists think that preserving the integrity of science means going so far as both criticizing faith itself and critiquing theism where science does have facts that undermine a range of theistic beliefs. They can hardly recognize that philosophy matters to and just preserving the integrity of science is not enough but promoting good philosophy—which, at least according to the vast majority of those most demonstrably expert in philosophy—has implications that lead to non-theism of one sort or another.
Secularist atheists whose only, or primary, concern with battling religious beliefs is keeping them out of the classrooms and the law, and who otherwise are unworried about faith (or even outright protective of its reputation and defenders of its compatibility with science, against other atheists’ attacks) are typically called Accommodationists by less faith-friendly atheists.
In some of my personal favorite posts, I have written more analyses like these of different kinds of believers and atheists. In one post I wrote about the surprising and often elided differences between having liberal, moderate, or conservative religious beliefs and having a greater or lesser seriousness about one’s religious beliefs–however liberal, moderate, or conservative their content. I have written a critique of silent atheists–not those silent for fear, because they feel forced into a closet, but those who are silent for other reasons. And in order to understand what motivates us outspoken, adamant, movement atheists, I wrote a post about secularist atheists, evangelical atheists, identity atheists, and constructive atheists. And just a few weeks ago I wrote a post about what atheists who care about their atheism share with theists who care a lot about their religious beliefs.
For a critique of one kind of atheist that sneers at movement atheists, read my post On Dawkins’s Cultured Despisers.