Non-drinkers of bottled water

I’m going to give a talk next month on atheists and stereotypes next month. It occurs to me that “atheist” is not a natural kind, and I’m wondering if the following analogy might help to bring this across.

People who don’t believe in a God are like people who don’t drink bottled water. Statistically speaking, the group might have some noticeable characteristics, but you’re still lumping distinct subgroups together. People who refuse bottled water might be, statistically speaking, more likely to be environmentally conscious. But only some people refuse bottled water because it is environmentally a bad idea. There are also others who stay away from bottled water for entirely different reasons: because it’s a waste of money when tap water is just as good, because they can’t afford it, because they just haven’t developed the habit, etc. etc. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to generalize about non-drinkers of bottled water as if this was a coherent, natural grouping of people.

Similarly, people do not believe in God because of all sorts of reasons. Some are skeptical about popular religion, and it spills over into all kinds of God-talk. Some are at home in a scientific subculture where nonbelief is routine. Some think religion is a social evil. Etc., etc. There are differences between people who join local atheist clubs, and people who do not believe but are indifferent to religion. People who go without God in an academic environment are different from people who shed religion as part of a political movement. “Atheists” are not a natural, coherent group.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Don

    Agree. Believers are going to think the "atheist" label is important because the decision itself is important. An atheist will not see the decision as important and therefore the label will seem forced and unimportant.

  • Bradley Bowen

    The same point holds for the category of "drinkers of bottled water". Some drink bottled water because they think it is safer than tap water, others drink it because they prefer the taste of bottled water to tap water, some drink it just to be fashionable. Bottled water drinkers have different motivations for drinking bottled water.

    I'm not sure that the analogy captures the most important point: theism is a worldview or point of view, and atheism is not.

  • tmdrange

    It should be noted that the most common use of the word "atheist" in English is as an abbreviation for "one who believes that God does not exist" (or "one who believes that there are no gods"). And, in English, atheists are distinguished from agnostics (who also fail to hold any theistic belief). If you were to try to conform to that common English usage, then you should direct your remarks, not to the word "atheist," but to the more general term "nontheist."

  • Jason S

    Interesting and astute observation. I've often lamented the fact that atheist clubs seem so rare and atheist meetings so sparsely attended. How are we to promote rationality and inform our communities on the harm done by religion without a unified, vocal front?

    But your explanation nails it. Atheists are more diverse than any one sect or religious might be. Our commonality represents a single (and perhaps not even greatly significant) facet of our lives. That said, it definitely puts us at a disadvantage if our goal is to advocate for free thinking and healthy skepticism.

  • Jim Lippard

    The first and last talks I attended at this year's Atheist Alliance International conference were relevant to this point. At the first talk, P.Z. Myers introduced the term (from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s book, Cat's Cradle) "granfalloon," which is a term from the fictional religion of Bokononism meaning a group of people who claim some commonality or shared purpose that is actually meaningless.

    The last talk of the conference I attended, by Brian Parra, attempted to formulate a new capital-A atheism in terms of positive beliefs, based on a "Big Five" set of beliefs many share (atheism, materialism, secular government, humanistic ethics, and science and critical thinking).