The Three Kinds of Theism

If you’re an atheist who’s setting out to debate religious believers, there are three main categories of theism you can expect to meet. Although religious belief is one of the most diverse of human phenomena, with a limitless variety of gradations and exceptions, I think these three suffice to classify nearly all of the theists that a nonbeliever is likely to encounter. If you want to debate, it’s important to keep this in mind, because your strategy for dealing with each group needs to be different.

First of all, we have the fundamentalists. This is the most familiar group and the one that atheists encounter the most: the believers who interpret most of their holy book literally, who believe in miracles and demons and all the other trappings of supernaturalism, and a god who is anthropomorphic, judgmental, and intimately concerned with how humans lead their daily lives. The most zealously evangelistic, and the theocrats who most want their belief to be supported by the government, all fall into this category. Because they’re the loudest and the most organized, they also take a prominent role in political debates like access to abortion or teaching evolution in schools.

Second, we have the laypeople. These are the ordinary, mainstream believers who are by far the most numerous of the three groups. They usually attend church infrequently, viewing it as one obligation among others, and they participate in religious rituals mainly out of habit, or to maintain a sense of community. Their political beliefs span the spectrum. Members of this group can be frustratingly difficult for atheists to engage, because their views on the Bible (or whatever their church’s sacred text is) tend not to be variable so much as vague. Most of them have never read the Bible and know very little about what it says; for the most part, they believe without thinking much about it, and if asked to give a reason for their belief, few would be able to answer the question quickly or with confidence. Their notion of God tends to be somewhat less anthropomorphic than the fundamentalists, and certainly less demanding, less wrathful: more like a kindly grandparent than a stern tyrant.

Last, we have the theologians. These people, numerically the smallest of the three groups, are the elite, highly educated believers who are usually found among the clergy, the professional pundit class, and other rarefied circles. They tend to consider themselves more “sophisticated” than the other two groups, whose beliefs they view as simplistic and overly concrete, whereas they themselves tend to believe in a highly abstract, impersonal idea of God.

When debating with a fundamentalist, it’s essential to know your Bible. A fundamentalist’s identity is intimately bound up with their holy book, and an attack on it is an attack on them. The contradictions, scientific errors, textual alterations, and moral atrocities in religious texts make them unworthy of belief by any rational person, and that’s a point you should hammer on. Granted, there are well-rehearsed apologetics for most of these points, but the important thing is that you know them at all. As Dan Barker has said, they consider the Bible their weapon; atheists aren’t supposed to be using it against them. If you’re already familiar with it, you’ll have defanged their first and most common line of argument and will be able to very effectively put them on the defensive. A fundamentalist can’t let an attack on the Bible slide.

For the laypeople, your strategy should be: Drive a wedge between the believer and the Bible. As I said earlier, most lay believers know very little about the Bible – mainly just the parts that are taught in Sunday school. I know from personal experience that they often react with shock and revulsion when they learn about its many violent, racist, or sexist passages. Your goal should be to encourage this feeling, to point out you know that they are a good person, and why would they want to believe in a book that contains such terrible things?

In my experience, the layperson will often claim that the bloody parts of the Bible represent corruption by misguided humans, and that God’s true message can be found in the better verses. The best way to respond to this is to ask, “So which verses in the Bible were written by God, and which were mistakenly added by people – and how do you tell the difference?” Point out that what they’re really doing is using their own conscience and sense of morality, and if they’re capable through conscience of telling good ideas apart from bad ones, then what do they need the Bible for in the first place – and why do they hold it in any special reverence? Lots of books contain both good and bad ideas, and many contain a much higher proportion of good ideas than the Bible.

For theologians, your strategy should be: Tie them to the Bible. Since most people in this group eschew literal, anthropomorphic interpretations of God, you should point out that the Bible teaches exactly such a view. It repeatedly speaks of God as getting angry, jealous, repentant, and possessing other human passions. It repeatedly speaks of God as intervening in the world and doing miracles – indeed, the essence of most major faiths, especially Christianity, is that they’re based on miracles. It repeatedly speaks of God demanding worship and punishing people who displease him. All these things are anathema to the theologian’s view, which carefully separates God from any point of contact with the world.

And since they’ll likely protest that the literal view is not their view, you can point out that it underlies their perspective, whatever they may think. Ask them if they pray, if they attend church, if they go to confession or otherwise participate in ritual, if they still use the language and participate in all the outward trappings of conventional religious belief – which most of them do – even though those activities make little sense except in the paradigm of the jealous, worship-demanding, miracle-working god they claim not to believe in.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The best way to respond to this is to ask, “So which verses in the Bible were written by God, and which were mistakenly added by people – and how do you tell the difference?”

    I.e. ask them about the asterisk.

    I note that all three kinds of “theism” you mention are tied to the Bible; i.e. you are referring to Christianity, or at most Judeo-Christianity (whatever that is). This is commonly the case in American society, but of course attempting to argue the Bible against a non-Christian theist would be a bad strategy.

  • Scotlyn

    Reginald, you are right, but of course you could substitute “Holy Book” for Bible and find Ebon’s three-part classification of types of believers still holds.

    On the other hand, I personally would be able to argue Bible all day long, but I couldn’t do the same with, say, the Baghavad Gita. The God of the Bible is definitely the one that I personally have chosen to doubt, dispute, find fault with, and dispense with – not any other God.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    While I have had great success at tying them to the bible, and then destroying their argument from lack of evidence and even contradictory evidence to any of the stories, they just keep moving the goalposts. They are so DESPERATE to believe, that even a totally illogical and irrational belief is better than none.

    What I find frustrating is that often I am asked why I don’t believe, but they never actually listen. Instead they already have their preloaded reason #845,982 why I should believe and are just waiting for me to stop talking so they can “spring” that on me… Not that the previous 854,981 reasons weren’t totally non-compelling…

  • terrence

    What always amuses me no end is the claim that “Science has its place, and faith has its place – you can never prove an article of faith, that’s why it’s called faith” – until, of course, up pops the Virgin on a cheese sandwich or a weeping statue. Then it’s full speed ahead, we LOVE science!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I think there’s another type (or maybe a large sub-division of type 2)which is people who just really really want to believe. Engage with these people and they will nod politely at the science, agree whole-heartedly with the biblical inconsistancy and happily accept that it is all probably allegory and myth, but nevertheless they will still believe. Arguing with them is like punching a giant marshmallow.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    Terrence:
    IMHO the approach to take with people like the ones you mention is to undermine the notion that faith is a good thing: if I wanted to buy their house, they wouldn’t take it on faith that I have enough credit to do so.

    As your pareidolia example illustrates, faith is something you fall back on when you really want to believe, but there’s insufficient evidence for doing so.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Arguing with religionists is rarely worth the while. When asked, I state my view bluntly, and leave it at that. If not asked, I don’t offer, not out of a weak argument, but because I have better things to do, like scrubbing the toilet.

  • purpletempest

    What about the mystic?

    Granted, there aren’t so many of them nowadays, but they are not literalists, they are stronger believers than the layperson, and they don’t attempt to rationalize their beliefs like the theologian. Instead they meditate upon ‘the mysteries of the Divine’ and so forth. None of these arguments seem to fit. Is this another case of punching the giant marshmallow?

    I’m thinking specifically of Sheikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Muslim Sufi who founded the Bawa Muhaiyadeen fellowship that built a mosque literally across the street from the college I graduated from, the Jesuit St. Joseph’s University. I visited this mosque as extra credit for my Islam class and found his message compelling and his followers sincere, although I ultimately rejected all God-belief. Their website is http://www.bmf.org/index.html

    It’s this kind of person that is the flip side of the cult leaders you’ve mentioned before, charisma that’s channeled into doing good for the community and inspiring others to do good. That’s a big wall to go up against.

  • exrelayman

    I would tend to think of these 3 classes the way my printer views magenta, cyan, and yellow. Many graduations of belief with greater or lesser adherence to one of the 3 primary types.

    Then of course there happen to be those who want to nitpick atheist statements, while not being forthcoming about their own positions (not that that ever happens here).

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I tend to agree with Thumpalumpacus. Sometimes engaging in theological discussions is fun, but there are many times when it just seems to be tedious and pointless.

  • GuitarEddie

    What would be your strategy for dealing with a Nichiren Buddhist such as myself?

    GE

  • Paul

    Belief in the four noble truths does not require faith.

    I’m not familiar with your school, and there certainly are Buddhists who have faith, but many of us investigate truths very similarly to scientists.

  • StaceyJW

    Guitar Eddie,
    Nichieran Buddhism is more philiosophy than religion. Since it doesn’t require belief in the supernatural, and only focuses on bettering human potential in this life, I don’t see any reason you couldn’t be both an atheist and a nitcherian buddhist. Most atheists argue against irrationality, primarily the religious type. I don’t know too much about nichiern buddhism, but it seems more rational than most other belief systems.
    Staceyjw

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I agree with StaceyJW – Buddhists, for the most part, are all right with me.

    I think there’s another type (or maybe a large sub-division of type 2)which is people who just really really want to believe. Engage with these people and they will nod politely at the science, agree whole-heartedly with the biblical inconsistancy and happily accept that it is all probably allegory and myth, but nevertheless they will still believe.

    The people that Steve Bowen describes here are the ones of whom Dan Dennett says that they “believe in belief”. I would say that probably the best way to handle them is to point to the relative social health of the Scandinavian and other countries that have low rates of god-belief and also low rates of societal ills. We should be trying to build a convincing case that being religious is not necessary for a society to thrive and prosper.

    For purpletempest:

    Granted, there aren’t so many of them nowadays, but they are not literalists, they are stronger believers than the layperson, and they don’t attempt to rationalize their beliefs like the theologian. Instead they meditate upon ‘the mysteries of the Divine’ and so forth. None of these arguments seem to fit. Is this another case of punching the giant marshmallow?

    Actually, I think the mystics are largely a subset of type 3. People like Madeline Bunting and Karen Armstrong, whom I wrote about recently in “The God of Shadow and Vapor“, are recognizably what I call “theologians” who believe in a highly abstract, impersonal deity. Their views are also unapologetically mystical. When you de-anthropomorphize the god of the fundamentalists, what you’re left with is the shadowy, ill-defined god of the mystics.

    P.S.: I like the “punching a giant marshmallow” analogy. :)

  • Paul

    “When you de-anthropomorphize the god of the fundamentalists, what you’re left with is the shadowy, ill-defined god of the mystics.”

    Hmm…I’m not sure this is always true. I think there’s a pretty well-defined belief held by mystics that God is equal to the totality of creation. That is why we can have an experience of God, because we are part of It/Him/Her. I think a true fundamentalist generally believes that God is something entirely separate from his/herself.

  • Virginia

    Ebonmusing, as a ex-Christian who moved from Conservative (quasi-Fundamentalist), to moderate Evangelical, to mainstream, to Liberal Christianity, I think your classification may missed out some categories of Christians
    (1) Those who attended church regularly for the community and human connection, or social Christians — they personally do not completely buy the set of Christian doctrines, but won’t oppose it or defend it
    (2) The liberal Christians who only treated Jesus as a superb teacher like Buddha, and that supernatural things, atrocities committed in the name of God are all to be condemned/discarded
    (3) The liberal theologians who redefine many aspects of Christian doctrines like the “end times”, the “salvation” / “gospel”

  • Leum

    A number of the theologians also interpret their holy texts in very unorthodox ways. The local rabbi, for example, interprets passages about YHWH being jealous, nasty, and unfair as a message that, because we recognize this, we must not be like YHWH was in that passage/story/book.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 8/4/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • Paul

    I think YHWH/God’s jealous, nasty and otherwise human characteristics can be interpreted in light of the Judeo-Christian lineage growing out of a polytheistic/tribal framework. Initially YHWH had to be covetous of his followers because he had other local, tribal deities to compete with. As Judaism and Christianity evolved into a monotheistic religion where God is pictured as the only God some of these attributes began to no longer make sense and so we have to have conversations like this to help make sense of it.

  • Scotlyn

    Paul

    As Judaism and Christianity evolved into a monotheistic religion where God is pictured as the only God some of these attributes began to no longer make sense and so we have to have conversations like this to help make sense of it.

    …or not.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Virginia,
    I think your types 1 and 2 would both fall under the broad strokes of Ebon’s laypeople. My father is one such believer: he believes in belief, he thinks that an honest faith is the key to whatever it is that you’re supposed to do with whatever God is, which is beyond our mortal understanding. He also considers himself a Tenrikyo Buddhist, he raised my brother and me according to those tenets (without really telling us what it was, he just lived by example), and he sees his faith as his own personal way of making sense of the cosmos. He attends a Christian church with considerably more than the Easter/Christmas regularity and sees it as a community thing – but he rejects fundamentalism and sees that as destructive to community. Honestly, I don’t have any problems with that kind of faith – only professional disagreements.

    Your third type would probably fall somewhere between Ebon’s laypeople and theologians – remember that this is a continuum, after all, and a multifaceted one at that. The revisionism you allude to is just another one of the apologetic backflips that people will go through to convince themselves that they’re not bat-shit loco for believing in what amounts to fairy tales.

    Getting back to the OP, one tack that I have not yet had the opportunity to take is to export the form and structure of theistic faith to anything else – though I would choose love. Suppose I believe in my heart of hearts that so-and-so is madly in love with me, but chooses not to show it, and I go on structuring my faith in this person’s love in exactly the same way that theists structure their faith about their deity du jour. It’s clearly crazy, at least to me, to act like someone is in love with you on faith – and it’s the structure of the belief system that makes it crazy, not what is being believed or what actions I take with that belief already in place. Man… now I need to go write some Bullshit Pulpit…

  • Paul

    …yes, or not. I suppose I meant “try to make sense of it.”

  • Scotlyn

    The difference a word can make!

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    I tend not to argue against the faith (unless it’s brought up by the other party). Normally I just try to clear up the issues around it/from it/supported by it…say, as “Abstinence-only sex-ed is a failure because it doesn’t work. Here are the statistics. They show that comprehensive sex-ed, possibly with an ab-only component, is far more effective than ab-only, which not only doesn’t work, over the long term it works worse than nothing at all.”…then that leads to My kids don’t need it, since I teach them ab-only properly.”, countered by “And your parents taught you the same? Do you remember the hi-jinx that you got up to back then?” or somesuch. If that fails (and it will), which add more studies/statistics/anecdotes and perhaps 1Th 5:21. Repeat if necessary. Then go home and beat your head against a wall.
    Ideally, you can just argue with logic and facts…and make little or no headway. I see it as planting the seed. In exchange, I get a headache. It’s win-win!

  • purpletempest

    When you de-anthropomorphize the god of the fundamentalists, what you’re left with is the shadowy, ill-defined god of the mystics.

    I see that, but I think there is a key difference. The mystic, as I see it, is able to tap into the emotions in a way that the cooly rational theologian is not. A person can be both, but from my experience they tend to be mystical-emotional some of the time and rational-theological other times, not both at the same time…and this is because the emotions are clearly not rational. The theology is rationalizing the transcendence-feelings after the fact, IMO.

    After all of the logic and all of the arguments are beaten to death, what’s left is the believer’s stubborn clinging to the feelings that their religion gives them, whether it’s through the inspiration of a particular leader, being carried away when the chorus sings a particular song in church, meditating, drug use (or just the nice rush created by the brain in certain situations), whatever…and they are terrified of losing that. That may not be so much true of Type 2, but it definitely is of Type 1 and Type 3.

    While I’ve always liked your myth-debunking posts and essays (I have read most of Ebon Musings, I found it through StumbleUpon and came here only after plowing through that one first) the ones that are most effective and affirming are the poems, stories, and your personal tales of finding atheist transcendence and atheist spirituality. Rational arguments are only going to get atheists so far. When they tap into the emotions just as religious people do, they are a lot more convincing.

    So while I don’t disagree with this post, I think it’s ultimately a dead-end, a stalemate. The best arguments are the lives we lead, the acts we do, and the warmth and reassurance we give to others.

    I also identify as a Buddhist, because I feel there is too much of value in Buddhism simply to drop it altogether even though I no longer believe in reincarnation. It helps that it’s not a religion focused on God – gods or no gods is basically a non-issue in most types of Buddhism I have encountered, and I like that – but reconciling it with my newly acquired naturalism/materialist perspective is harder because the cycle of samsara is pretty central to the belief, and I no longer think that it is true.

    P.S.: I like the “punching a giant marshmallow” analogy. :)”>

    Thank you for introducing it, Steve B. I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed it.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Purpletempest
    Imitation = flattery so I’m flattered.
    More interestingly, Ebon’s strategies for countering theists, though very thought provoking, in some respects I agree with you that pursuing them are a little fultile for most of the theists one is likely to meet down the pub. However in order for THIS to work

    The best arguments are the lives we lead, the acts we do, and the warmth and reassurance we give to others.

    people need to know that “we” are atheists. Otherwise we just get praised for our Christian compssion

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    purpletempest “Rational arguments are only going to get atheists so far. When they tap into the emotions just as religious people do, they are a lot more convincing.”
    Look at your hand. It’s all right there, man. In your hand. Right friggin’ there!

    Steve Bowen “people need to know that “we” are atheists. Otherwise we just get praised for our Christian compssion”
    Didn’t you know that that’s just the Holy Spirit working through you? Or maybe it’s because you’re made in God’s image? How about any other number of apologetics/biblical passages that give Him credit for anything good you do*?

    *Note that everything bad is your fault, sinner.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    *Note that everything bad is your fault, sinner.

    So he’s the bastard not mowing my lawn.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    “After all of the logic and all of the arguments are beaten to death, what’s left is the believer’s stubborn clinging to the feelings that their religion gives them… and they are terrified of losing that.”

    The problem is even more complex than that. Not only are people emotionally attached to their religions (often), they also have a complex and self-reinforcing memetic “web” that tends to keep them there. Consider the following:

    1. Many religious people have heavily invested their emotions into their religion. Questioning this investment, no matter how objectively you try to put it, will always be taken personally for many of these people.
    2. Almost everyone has a deep psychological need to maintain an image of oneself as a rational and intelligent person. This does not mean that these people are committed to being rational, but rather that they need to think that they are whether they are or not.
    3. Most people (not almost all, but a clear majority) also have a psychological need to be consistent with their past words and actions – especially public ones, and even moreso when “the public” includes persons with whom one may have long-term relationships (family, friends, etc.).
    4. Religion is not private. It is as much a cultural and social thing as it is a mental and emotional thing. People who are invested in their religion and their community will tend to crave social proof that they’re doing the right thing, and that means everyone else has to go along with them.
    5. Lots of people, as Ebonmuse has repeatedly pointed out, are very bad at critical thinking. They fail to recognize that an uncomfortable likelihood should be accepted, at least as a likelihood, precisely because it will better prepare them to deal with it in the event that that’s how things go. Instead, they choose to ignore it because it bums them out, and then they believe what they like, and they call this “optimism.” It is foolishness. Good luck telling them that.

    It is said that faith is the hope of things not seen. If we take a functionalist approach, this is exactly true. People want it to be the case that their religion is true, that they are rational for believing it, that their emotional investments have not been a waste, that their future emotional investments will not amount to throwing good feelings after bad, that their community does not believe in a lie, that they will go to a magical land of wish-fulfillment after they die, that they will see their loved ones again, that there is some force of justice in the world to make up for the times when people fail, and that their cherished hopes are justified despite the odds.

    Anything – and I mean anything – that threatens any of the above, will in turn be perceived as a threat to all of the above. For a lot of people, anyway. This goes a long way toward explaining why a lot of Christians are revolted by secularism, insist that “atheists” both believe in and hate God (and are not actually the happy, rational, loving people we claim to be), perceive the Goddamned Devil at work in the world, and get so frelling uppity when anything happens to interrupt the blissful ignorance called “faith” they so righteously struggle to maintain. It’s because they’re high on God-smack and don’t want to come down. That’s a pretty turn of phrase, but I mean it literally: the faith of these people, in many cases, confers an absolute certainty which alters consciousness, and threatening the mental parasite is seen as a threat to their very way of life. It’s the Worst Thing Ever to them.

    Religion, in this way, acts as perhaps the most insidious memetic virus of all time, in that it has the power to entrench itself in a mind and force that mind to work at propagating the meme, in spite of (and often because of) whatever gets in the way. It preys directly on our most sensitive weaknesses (fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the Other, and the blind trust of the young), and uses them as a cudgel to hobble some of our greatest strengths (compassion, rationality, curiosity, and our capacity for inclusive and civilized life).

    Compare with the sacculina parasite.

    I will defend to the death a person’s right to believe what they like. I wholly and unreservedly support freedom of conscience. However, believing what one likes is different from believing what’s rational. If one chooses what to believe, rather than choosing to follow the dictates of reason and thereby how to form beliefs, then “what one likes” and “what is rational” will often be opposed. This results in cognitive dissonance, for the reasons outlined above, and that can cause people to do all sorts of insane bullshit.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    As always, I enjoyed your comment, D. I have one tangential point to add:

    They fail to recognize that an uncomfortable likelihood should be accepted, at least as a likelihood, precisely because it will better prepare them to deal with it in the event that that’s how things go.

    I wholeheartedly agree that all people should consider the likelihood or possibility that they may be wrong, but considering the atheism Ebonmuse espouses as either likely or possible cannot possibly better prepare anyone to deal with it, even if it’s true.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    “…considering the atheism Ebonmuse espouses as either likely or possible cannot possibly better prepare anyone to deal with it, even if it’s true.”

    …Are you serious? Wait, wait, wait… I want to make sure I have this straight. Are you saying that a religious person, by considering atheism, could not possibly do anything to act in accordance with the idea that all religions could be wrong?

    If that’s not what you’re saying, well, then thanks for the compliment and please clarify. But if that is what you’re saying, then I think I have a few options. First off, one could flex one’s skeptical muscles, so to speak. Start thinking critically. If atheism might be the case (rather, if metaphysical naturalism corresponds to reality), then you can start thinking of ways you might be able to tell. Find common ground with those who don’t think like you, walk a mile in their shoes, associate with the outsiders and make a conscientious effort to stop Othering people who are unfamiliar to you. Be inclusive, really “love thy neighbor” and all that jazz. Keep your faith, if you like, but learn to enjoy wrestling with doubt. Beyond that, one could also begin living one’s life as if there were no afterlife, God or no. I think that a lot of religious people would be able to get a lot more enjoyment out of life – while still living their religious values, for better or worse – if they just acted as though there were no Heaven.

    Maybe we’re talking past each other on what “deal with it” means, too. By “deal with it,” I don’t mean “solve the problem.” If all religions are false and you want one to be true, there’s no solving that. However, what I mean by “deal with it” is to find a way to get on with life through which you can still find satisfaction. I dealt with the idea of no Heaven by learning to enjoy life on Earth. My wishes won’t be granted by a magical sky wizard, so I have to pick the most important and realistic ones and work for them. I’m more worried about failure, now. But I’m also more excited about life on Earth. Does that help clarify what I meant?


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