Feser’s Typology of Atheism (Part 1)

Edward Feser, a professor at Pasadena City College has set out to create a typology of ways atheists feel about religion or particular religious traditions.  It’s a two-dimensional description of attitudes, categorizing atheists by how they respond to religious metaphysics and religious practice.  I’ll take a look at the metaphysics spectrum he proposes today and take a crack at the religion-in-practice one tomorrow.

I found Feser’s system helpful in clarifying my own stand on Christianity generally and Catholicism in particular.  I could imagine this typology could also help smooth discussion between atheists and believers (or possibly get you to the fight more efficiently).  I think the default assumption when someone meets an atheist is that s/he belongs to category 1 below, but if you want a productive conversation, you need to be able to explain your position on the spectrum and get to your true rejection.

  1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.
  2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.
  3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible

No matter how confident you are that there is no god(s), I don’t think you should feel comfortable slotting yourself into category 1 for all religions.  As I wrote in my Atheist’s Guide to Catholics, there have been plenty of smart people playing for the other team, and, when they ran into problems of consistency, they tended to come up with solutions, not stick their fingers in their ears and chant “I can’t hear you.”  The religions that deserve a type 1 explanation tend to be straight-up cults or prevalent in intellectually isolated communities.  Anyone who’s not facing critics is more likely to end up devoid of intellectual content.

So where does that leave religions like Scientology, which spend a lot of time under attack and who have religious metaphysics fleshed out to a DnD-level of detail?  Well, you can graduate to level 2 and still be false.  But religions don’t earn a level 2 in my book solely on the basis of being plausibly self-consistent.  Remember, that would also legitimize the metaphysics I want to wish into being, that of Diane Duane’s YA Young Wizards series.  To level up, I need a religion and it’s apologists to be able to tackle the problem of other minds: they need to be able to understand the objections made by people outside their religion (i.e. they can’t be people who couldn’t scrape even a low pass on an ideological turing test).

The easiest example of a blind-to-outside-objections apologist is someone who declares, “You’re only an atheist because you’re angry at God!”  No, I’m an atheist just because I don’t believe in any gods, so I can’t hold a grudge against a non-existent being.  And now I’m pretty confident in the non-existence of your grasp of my position.  You only get points for apologetics if they’re directed at non-strawmen.

Stay in that corner til you imagine a better opponent!

Patheos blogger Mark Shea is good on other topics, but he fell into an issue-specific version of this trap in his recent National Catholic Register article on homosexuality.  Hint: if you ask me why I’m bisexual and why I fight for LGBT rights, my answer will not begin “Well, I am deeply narcissistic.”

Avoiding these traps gets you to a category 2 objection.  You hit level 3 if I think your religious metaphysics are the theological equivalent of non-Euclidean geometry.  You only need one thing granted, and then the whole thing hangs together and your replies to my objections turn out to be correct.  Your religion offers predictions and explanations that are mostly consistent with lived experience, and where they differ, you’ve got an alternate framework that, with your major premise granted, would compel me to reject my experience or metaphysics where they clash with yours.

I would place Catholicism on the edge between categories 2 and 3, but, on a number of ethical issues, it has level 1 blindness problems.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Patrick

    I’m not a fan of Fesers categories. He seems to assume that atheists reason something like this: the claims of religion are false, and the question is, how much knowledge did we need in order to satisfy ourselves as to that fact? Did we have enough information right away? Did we acquire enough information in the scientific revolution? Or are we just now working it through?

    I don’t think that’s quite right. The claims of religion now are not the same as the claims of religion in the past.

    Personally, I tend to be kind of a Category 1 in that I think religion was absolutely and shamefully ridiculous in ancient times… but I don’t think modern religion IS the same religion as in ancient times. So to the extent that modern religion consists of layered apologetics for some of the most mind bogglingly ridiculous stuff ever (God is the embodiment of love, also, he’d like you to dump the slaughtered corpses of these children in a mass grave and then rape their sisters), then I continue to be a 1. But to the extent that modern religion tries to distance itself from ancient superstition and tries to reconstruct itself as something new, I’d be more of a 2. And to the extent that modern religion tries to completely revise itself into a vague form of pantheistic deism, I’d be a 3 for those pantheistic deists who can manage to crib together a coherent position for me to have an opinion upon.

  • Lukas Halim

    And I would consider your atheistic teleology as pretty clearly incoherent, which is part of the reason I discarded it.

  • Gilbert

    If you ask me why I oppose what you call LGBT rights my answer will not begin “Well, I just have a phobia of homosexuals”. (And, btw, if the only language a movement has for describing dissent is pathologizing, members of that movement don’t have much of a standing to complain if they are called narcissistic.) If you ask me how I reconcile my faith with a scientific world-view my answer will not begin “Well, I compartmentalize”. And if you ask me what that faith thing is all about my answer surely will not begin “Well, I choose to believe some absurd things despite all evidence to the contrary”. Looking at it that way standard atheist lore has plenty of level 1 problems.

    But I don’t think it is quite that simple. There is still a difference between what we think is other people’s self-image and what we think actually drives them. Speculating on the second does not mean you don’t understand the first and would thus fail an ideological Turing test.

    If you believe someone is wrong on levels 1 or 2 and all your arguments prove useless consistency pretty much compels you to think they are somehow being irrational. And, even while offering arguments to the rational side, so that it may finally overcome the irrational side, you still might speculate about what is going on on the irrational side.

    Of course that kind of armchair psychology has a very high propensity to being bunk, particularly if we don’t even understand the rational side. It is also not very productive in debates with the other side, because people naturally get angry about being seen that way. But there are some atheists for whom the “angry at God” hypothesis looks like a good model of the irrational side and others for whom it doesn’t. There are also some Christians for whom the “faith against evidence” hypothesis looks like a good model of their irrational side.

    Sometimes people will talk about such models of the opposing side. That doesn’t relegate either side to level 1, even if people on level 1 of both sides are particularly fond of that kind of talk.

  • Will

    My experience is that the usual unbelievers are stuck on “Category 1″ level AND refuse to accept any evidence to the contrary. When I try to point out that theology is not that simple, they retort that I am wrong about my own religion and am just making my version up. Or that I am not “really” Christian because I do not fit their stereotype.
    “Narrowmindedrightwingfundamentalistbigots” say “You aren’t a Christian unless you are exactly like Us. “Openmindedliberalfreethinkers” say “You aren’t a Christian unless you are exactly like Them.” What is wrong with this picture?

    • keddaw

      Studies repeatedly show that most religious people are wrong about their own religion and do make it up as they go along. Catholics are probably the worst due to papal infallibility, transubstantiation, the ascension of Mary, anti-abortion, anti-divorce and various other things that to be (official Roman) Catholic you have to believe.

      You may be in the minority that are entirely knowledgeable about their religion and you may be okay with the requirements of it, but most major religions’ attitudes to gays, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, celibacy, contraception, etc. mean that it is really hard to elevate them from category 1 and certainly not beyond category 2.

  • Will

    “Superstition” is one of those funny words which BY DEFINITION can only apply to Them. It means “silly, irrational belief which I do not happen to share”.
    My mother sneered at transubstantiation as “superstition”… and then shrieked “Don’t put the umbrella on the bed, it’s bad luck!”

    • David

      I bet your mother would admit that her belief about umbrellas and beds is superstition (and even if she wouldn’t, most atheists who hold beliefs like that would), as people often describe their own beliefs of that sort as superstitious – including plenty of religious people, many of whom believe in both the danger of putting umbrellas on beds (for instance) and transubstantiation. Do you admit that transubstantiation is superstition?

      There is plenty of rational thought that goes on among serious religious people about religious topics. The problem is, all too often it is rationality seeking to deal with absurd and irrational questions and/or relying on outlandish propositions.

    • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

      I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I used to hold some beliefs that I knew damn good and well at the time were superstitions. I don’t hold them now because that whole area of my life is no longer relevant to me, not particularly because I talked myself out of them.

  • Charles

    I concur on your assessment of Catholicism for the most part. However this raises another issue. What if the qualities you “like” aren’t fundamentally “part” of the religion? Catholicism, from the likes of Aquinas, has a strong rational streak to it. What if some of the predictions you speak of are actually just based on rationalism, and the ones that are more deserving of respect simply exist because, by chance, there wasn’t some irrational aspect of divine revelation to refute them? (For instance you may argue that there is a chain of possibility that leads to the modern Church not fighting civil rights for gays if you simply remove a few minor passages from the Bible at the start)

    – Does the religion get credit for things that it promotes if those things were just reasoned out and not contradicted by the silly irrational aspects? (for instance the aspects of Catholic moral thought you may agree with)

    In order to use this scale purely one would need a strict dividing line down western civilization for Catholicism. Why should you give “Catholicism” credit for Aquinas’s work in ethics and morality? Because he was a theologian and framed it as theology? Let’s do a thought experiment:

    1. A famous physicist converts to Scientology, lets say Stephen Hawking.
    2. He continues to work on physics but from now on couches it in terms of L. Ron Hubbard.
    3. 500 Years from now all of Scientology holds up his writings and work as important for all believers.
    4. Leah in the year 2525 has a blog and posts a debate on the premises of Scientology, in which she claims that atheists should show some of them respect because they fit Cat 2 or 3.

    Does Scientology “get credit” for those views? Or are they really ancillary to the irrational system?

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    I would think that all major world religions are under category 2 at the least. It would be hard to have any sort of worldview that’s lasted a couple hundred years and has expanded beyond the sociological context it was created in that is still in category 1 (is it an assumption to say that all religions began in category 1?).

    I think it would be better to apply these categories to individual (non)believers, and not a world religion as a whole. Just because someone belongs to a major world religion doesn’t mean that they know or even understand the intellectual contributions that their world religion has produced.

  • Kogo

    *No matter how confident you are that there is no god(s), I don’t think you should feel comfortable slotting yourself into category 1 for all religions.*

    I belong firmly in category 1 for all religions.

    *As I wrote in my Atheist’s Guide to Catholics, there have been plenty of smart people playing for the other team*

    If I believed that, I wouldn’t be a Category 1 Atheist, would I?

    *and, when they ran into problems of consistency, they tended to come up with solutions*

    So why are their solutions crap?

  • Kogo

    I should have added: You keep on saying religious apologists have these “consistent, sophisticated explanations”. Except I’ve *heard* them already Leah and they’re shit. I didn’t find them in the slightest convincing when a religious person said them to me the first 10 times: Why would I find it convincing now?

    • Maiki

      I guess it depends whether you are asking for “absolute persuasion” or “persuasion granted premises”. ie. a rational answer might fit in a framework that grants certain assumptions, but the answer itself does not persuade you about the assumptions.

      E.g. Evolution: Howe do you reconcile evolution and God’s creation? God used evolution as the mechanism to create the world. God gives the whole system a kickstart, so to speak, and gives a particular random mutation here and there. It doesn’t persuade that there is a God, but it shows how a materialist explanation can be reconciled with the theological system *granted the God assumption*. A category 1 answer would be more like “God planted a bunch of fossils to confuse us, but that is not how it really happened” — excluding all the evidence of radio-dating or genetics or whatnot that we see on a day to day basis and rely for predictions here and now. Even *granted* a God assumption, the “fossils were planted” explanation doesn’t explain why carbon dating works for other living things that we have a historical record for, or why dna works the way it does in living things today.

      I think that is difference Leah is pointing out. I don’t think anyone would use the “answer” of theistic evolution as a “proof” of God (nor should they), it is just an explanation of how these things could coexist without needing to bury evidence.

      • Kogo


        It’s worth pointing out that fossils are not dated using carbon-14 radioisotopy:

        1.) Carbon-14 measures *carbon*, of which there is virtually none left in fossils of any significant age: Fossils aren’t bones, they’re *fossils*.

        2.) Carbon-14–the actual isotope being measured–only lasts in measurable quantities for a few tens of thousands of years–usually not enough for fossils to be formed.

        Carbon-14 has a lot of use in anthropology and archaeology. Most honest-to-goodness *fossils* are usually dated by use of other, much longer-lived isotopes in adjacent rock layers.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com Benjamin Baxter

    I learned this the hard way: Where I disagreed, I was wrong.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com Benjamin Baxter

      Also, how else can you justify transhumanism without “consent is the sole criterion of the good?” That seems to be the foundation of the Shea remarks you linked. Transhumanism, as far as I’ve read, is justified by the engineering mentality of “why not” as much as any of the pelvic sins.

      • Charles

        While the point that saying “consent is the only criterion for good” is bad is legit and I agree the rest of his piece on homosexuality smacks entirely of someone trying to justify a belief they dont really have any good reasons for. Now I have seen his responses and I am sure you can attack me for being some silly lefty blah blah, but whenever I read a defense of the church’s stance on homosexuality it just feels silly, like when mom says “because I said so…” I have never see none remotely satisfying or that seemed reasoned out and credible.

        I have seen discussions that don’t strike me as flimsy for virtually EVERY other stance of the church, ones I agree with, and ones I disagree with. I’ve read and seen valid, or at least credible discussions of abortion, death penalty, contraception, needle exchange programs, condom distribution, etc…

        • Gilbert

          Hmm, this combination seems a little strange to me, because in addition somewhat better biblical support and some gender role stuff the reasons practiced homosexuality include pretty much all the reasons against contraception.

          I can understand dismissing all natural law reasoning (though I obviously disagree), and (still disagreeing) I can even understand dismissing Church teaching on contraception without dismissing Church teaching on homosexuality. But I seriously don’t get how the Catholic stance on homosexuality should seem more flimsy then the Catholic stance on contraception. Surely a strict subset of the arguments can’t be more convincing than the full range.

          So, would you perhaps care to elaborate a little?

          • Charles

            I was not staking a position on any of those items, I was simply stating that I found the flavor of the arguments better for those other things than for the typical homosexual piece. I did not mean to imply that I considered them intellectually more credible, or less credible for that matter. I certainly was not trying to attack natural law!

            However for a try I can separate the contraception argument from the anti-homosexual rhetoric by simply pointing out the nature of the two issues differs. For instance contraception would ostensibly be used by a man and a woman in a marriage consciously deciding that they wanted to reject the prospect of conception. The arguments against homosexual rights bunch a whole group of unrelated issues into one basket such as arguing against two men obtaining civil legal and financial recognition from the state because the church finds the idea that they might have sexual relations sinful. Even if i thought sex acts between homosexual was sinful and should be openly discouraged how could I possible deny them rights everyone else has in good conscience?

            When a married heterosexual couple sits in church without pumping out 1 kid per year no one publicly makes the assumption that they are disobeying church teaching, or if they do I don’t see them publicly rebuking them. However, if a civilly married homosexual couple showed up at church the assumption would be that they go against church teaching, and in fact this prospect is quite commonly discussed publicly by church leaders.

          • Gilbert

            If I understand correctly, you basically think Catholics are spiteful in discussing homosexuality in a way that they are not when discussing other themes. (I’m not really sure about that interpretation, but if it’s not that and not the credibility of the argument, then I just don’t no what else the “flavor” of an argument could possibly mean.) That is certainly a possibility. It’s one of the very few sins most of us are not tempted to and that makes it a natural (for a fallen nature) thing to look down on. Also of the two battlefield issues of the culture war it is the one that can’t be explained in a soundbite, so the standard of discourse tends to sink the political level. In contrast contraception is only discussed by people who like abstract arguments. So yes, the arguments are probably more vitriolic than on other issues.

            On the other hand I also feel this is the issue modern liberals want to be offended about. I’ll give you an example: About two months ago I was at the march for life in Berlin. The event mainly draws Evangelicals and reactionary Catholics like me, so there is good reason to assume most of us weren’t exactly political allies of the LGBT rights crowd. Still I found it a little grotesque and amusing how the only things we were protesting about where abortion and euthanasia while almost the only thing the counter-protesters where protesting was our homophobic bigotry. I have trouble modeling a mind that thinks “gay, queer, anal intercourse” (it rhymes in German) is a topical response to “yes to life”. The best model I can come up with is that they believe the very existence of the other opinion is already outrageous, even if it is not presently expressed at all. Now it would be very unfair to tar all liberals with the behavior of those folks. They aren’t much more representative of the left than Westboro Baptists are of Christianity. Self-selected for angryness they can’t give us any information on how angry liberals are in general. But they can give us relative information about what issues liberals get angry about when they get angry. So yes, I think the “you’re a lefty” response also has some merit: this is a issue lefties are more sensitive about than others so we will seem meaner even at equal objective meanness. Of course this doesn’t rule out the possibility of the meanness also being higher objectively.

            I’ll also note that our spitefulness can’t positively or negatively affect the truth or falsity of our position.

            Your points of separation don’t seem very convincing to me. The decontextualization of the sexual act is a decision in both cases, even if the decontextualizations are slightly different. Yes, the arguments against “homosexual rights” bunch a whole group of unrelated issues into one basket, but only because “homosexual rights” themselves bunch a whole group of unrelated issues into one basket. The point about the “rights everyone else has” depends on everyone else having those rights, which only makes sense if we think the situations are substantially identical. In other words it’s question-begging. The married couple not getting babies is more analogical to room-mates and friends who may or may not be closetedly gay. Most of us wouldn’t think that our business. The civilly “married” homosexual couple is a different issue mainly because of the public rejection of Church teaching inherent in that simulation of marriage. It is more analogous to a heterosexual couple marrying and taking out newspaper ads about how they plan to contracept.

  • Derek

    I have to say that your casual dismissal of the validity of category 1 is troublesome to me. I would have naturally placed myself there with regards to all religions, but because you are someone whose opinion I have come to respect, I immediately began assailing my assumption from different angles to see if I categorized myself too quickly; if I perhaps am too harsh with religion in general. I find myself remaining convinced that category 1 is a perfectly acceptable place to stand with respect to all religions (that I know about, and especially Catholocism).

    The best general reason I can think of to maintain the dismissive attitude of the “intellectual” content of a religion seems to be the complete lack of any kind of proof outside of the religion’s own self generated bunk. The veracity of claims made of the real world can be determined by good science. This is why we have made it to the moon, and not shown a transubstantiated bit of wafer to be human flesh. The fact that science, which is grounded in logic and observable testing, fails to support any religions’ claims and consistently provides natural explanations to “supernatural” events shows that religion is nothing more than smoke and mirrors obscuring the truth from most people.

    While never having been a “believer” (how can a seven year old truly be a follower of god?) I was raised to be a Catholic. I did the whole thing; private school through grade 8, church every Sunday, alter server, Eucharistic minister, lector, heck, I competed in the local private schools’ academic olympics both years that I could in the category of religion (the categories were assigned…I so wanted math!) and took gold both years. Perhaps the most confusing thing in the whole post was the fact that you think that of all the world’s religions, Catholicism comes in as a close contender to making it all the way to category 3! Catholic apologetics hurts me – I am not trying to be melodramatic – I literally cannot sit through more than one or two of the arguments before I have to put the book down and hide (god doesn’t fall in the realm of infinite regress, because we define him to be god, and therefore above infinite regress. I’m sorry…what!?). My parents are still devout Catholics and I borrow their books quiet often. The fact that the book of apologetics begins with the re-defining of basic terms like reason, and logic, should send up all kinds of red flags. Faith and reason are not synonyms. They should not be redefined to be such. If we are going to allow opposing sides of a debate to redefine the terms that prove troublesome we may as well all throw in the towel now.

    One more brief thought, and I will leave it alone. Aquinas tries to make reason and faith buddy buddy for the sake of his apologetics, specifically referring to the issue of truth only being contradicted by falsehood. He states that “What has color must have size” and uses the seemingly true statement to demonstrate that reason can never contradict the truth of the Christian faith. Except, he didn’t know about photons. Its all fine and dandy to come up with a seemingly true statement and assert that it is the TRUTH, but science will eventually catch up, and people will KNOW whether you were right or wrong. Or, science does not catch up, and reasonably people will think anyone who claims to KNOW THE TRUTH is a bag of hot air.

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