PZ Myers recently posted a piece attempting to create a “taxonomy” of atheists. I found his post fascinating – and, I think, well merited. After all, during my time as an atheist, through my experience with other atheists both online and in real life, I have found that there is a lot of variation and variety among atheists. PZ’s post is an attempt to make sense of and organize this variation (not surprising, given that he is a biologist!).
Now first of all, PZ divides “thoughtful atheists” into four categories. This is very important, because by addressing only “thoughtful” atheists, he leaves out atheists who are simply atheists because they have never given religion a thought or because it’s “cool.” I’ve found this distinction to be important in my own experience. I know a number of people who are atheists in that they do not believe in God or have any part in religion, but who have no sense of an atheist “identity.” What I mean is that for them it does not matter that they are atheists; their beliefs regarding the supernatural play no role in their lives. It’s all simply…irrelevant. I sometimes find these individuals difficult to understand because, given that religion has had such a drastic impact on my life, my atheism is most definitely a part of my identity.
After noting that he is specifically addressing “thoughtful” atheists, PZ offers four designations. Allow me to quote from this section of PZ’s post at length:
The New Atheist camp tends to be well-stocked with scientific atheists, because the most influential atheist of our generation, Richard Dawkins, is one, and The God Delusion is really a wonderful introduction to their philosophical position (also, a disclaimer: I consider myself one of these kinds of atheist, too). Scientific atheists have strong expectations that claims about the nature of the universe will be backed up with empirical evidence and reason; that our goal should be acquiring deeper truths about reality; and that knowledge and epistemology are paramount.
Strengths: They are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. It is almost certainly true that there is no god, and it is definitely true that god’s proponents have not provided reasonable evidence to support their outlandish and unnatural claims. For many of us, that is sufficient: the power of science combined with the failure of religion to ever provide cause to think their claims are true means that the Scientific Atheist will simply say “case closed” and be done with it.
Weaknesses: Smugness. It’s a well-deserved smug, though, because they are right — but it means they’re often poorly suited to political action. It also means they tend to be dismissive of the other kinds of atheism; witness the exceedingly smug put-downs of philosophy by Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss.
Common phrase: “Show me the peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Or STFU.”
Give credit where it is due — philosophical atheists are the original atheists, and while they are a bit swamped by the rising numbers of scientific atheists, they’re still a major intellectual contributor to how we think. Philosophical atheists aren’t as focused on empiricism; instead they address the logic and assumptions of claims about gods. They may also have a deeper appreciation of history, and consider the causes leading to atheist conclusions.
Strengths: Rigor. Asking hard questions. Of all the atheists, philosophical atheists are the most likely to turn on their fellow atheists and demand that they back up their assumptions. This is the team that keeps the rest of us honest, and is essential to the integrity of the movement.
Weaknesses: Long-winded, and to the rest of us, fussy and annoying. These are also probably the least charismatic of the atheists: it’s really hard to rally around a detailed discussion of modus ponens. Unless you’re a philosopher.
Common phrase: Phrase? These are philosophers. You’re more likely to get a treatise out of them.
While the scientific atheists have knowledge and forcefulness, and the philosophical atheists have reason and logic, the political atheists are the ones who get the hard work done. These are the organizers and diplomats and lobbyists, the people at the cutting edge who make it their business to work every day with (and against) the opponents of atheism. They’re willing to work for incremental gains, so they’ll often be more narrowly focused on what we can get done today, next week, next year. If you find an atheist who will cite case law at you and wants to organize a campaign to resolve a church-state separation conflict, you’ve found a political atheist.
Strengths: They do the work. Without these people, we’d be a bunch of stuffy academics meeting in university auditoriums to talk about ideal universes and inconsistencies in the Bible.
Weaknesses: Infuriatingly willing to compromise. Oh, wait, is that a weakness?
Common phrase: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Humanists are people driven by real-world concerns; they support atheism because they see religion as a source of oppression or injustice, they see secularism as a better path to fairness and equality, they want to put a human face on the abstractions of atheism. These are people motivated by ethical and social concerns. It’s fine to say we’re atheists because we believe in the truth, but it’s the humanists who give us a reason to think the truth matters.
This category represents the bulk of humanity. These are the idealists who set the grand goals, and the activists who want a better world. If we want the atheist movement to grow, we must adopt wider goals than pure science and philosophy. We must embrace humanity and culture.
Strengths: This is the heart of an atheist movement that will endure and grow. Ignore it and we can expect atheism to fade away.
Weaknesses: Pragmatically fickle. If the atheist movement does not address human concerns, they’ll leave and follow institutions that do. Why be an atheist if an inclusive, progressive church were to do a better job? Why be an atheist if we neglect the concerns of women or minorities, or belittle civil rights?
Common phrase: “Our aim is a Humanist world in which human rights are respected and everyone can live a life of dignity.”
After reading these four categories as outlined here, I had a big “oh, so that’s why” moment. You see, according to this taxonomy, I am a Humanist. And that, quite simply, is why I sometimes approach issues so very differently from many other atheists, especially Scientific Atheists. PZ had it pegged when he said that “if the atheist movement does not address human concerns, they’ll leave and follow institutions that do. Why be an atheist if an inclusive, progressive church were to do a better job?” This is why, for example, I felt so conflicted about Christopher Hitchens.
This is also, I think, why I seem to blog so often about topics that don’t directly focus on atheism. When it comes down to it, I place a much higher value on social justice than I do on atheism. What I mean is that when atheism goes hand in hand with social justice – and in the atheist circles I frequent it does – all is well and good, but if the atheist movement ceased to go hand in hand with the causes I find most important, I would part ways with it.
Now let me take a moment to clarify that! Because the reality is that I fit into more than one of the above categories. The truth is that while I am a Humanist in how I act on and view my atheism, I am an atheist not because of how religion has served as a source of oppression but rather because I see no evidence of or reason to believe in a god. Thus I am, technically speaking, a Scientific Atheist when it comes to my reasons for being an atheist. Thus even if parted ways with atheism as a movement because I found that it did not support the social justice issues I care about, I would still be an atheist.
This taxonomy has also helped me understand something more about myself as an atheist. In the atheist world – or at least the online atheist world – there is an accusation which is sometimes bandied about or directed at this atheist or that – that of being an “accomodationist.” This is the idea that some atheists are too ready to “accomodate” to religion and the religious rather than taking a harder line. I’ve long preemptively tried to guard against this label by pointing out that I really do find the entire idea of a god to be complete nonsense – a very Scientific Atheist way of thinking. But I’ve also always known that the way I approach the religious tends to differ slightly from, say, that of many other atheist bloggers. Thus even as I’ve staked a claim on a part in atheism as a movement, I’ve always felt that there was something different about me and how I see things.
And so, the above taxonomy has come as something of a relief. Because, well, it’s not just me. I’m not being a “bad atheist” (not that I would change my approach even if that’s what I was being); rather, in reality I’m simply a specific kind of atheist in how I live out my atheism, namely, a Humanist. The reality is that different kinds of atheists have different interests, focuses, and approaches – not all atheists are the same – and I’m glad that’s something we’re discussing.
And so, I’ll ask my atheist readers: What kind of atheist are you?