I am accustomed to annoying people. A year and a half ago, I made this post about Dictionary Atheists that sent almost as much hate mail winging my way as desecrating a cracker did, and because I just love to poke people, I’m going to revisit it now.
I’ll admit that I took a rhetorically wrong approach that led many people to come away with the wrong impression. I was saying that dictionary atheists, those people who say they’re just atheists because they don’t believe in god, were simply reciting an equivalence and not addressing any of the interesting reasons why they were atheists, the stuff that we need to communicate to get other people to recognize our values and appreciate them. Somehow, in some people’s minds, this got turned into Tyrant PZ telling all the atheists what they have to believe, I think because they interpreted my criticisms of superficial explanations and a request to acknowledge deeper cognitive mechanisms to be a demand that there is only one good way to think, which is not true at all.
So I’m going to try something different. I’ve been reading all these “Why I am an atheist” stories, as well as various atheist blogs, and what I see is a couple of major strands of atheist thought. Let’s put together a brief and preliminary taxonomy of atheists! Maybe it will help clarify things, because I consider all of these ways of being an atheist as being perfectly valid, so it should be clear I’m not being judgmental or trying to shoehorn everyone into my flawless mold. But I do think we should all try to be aware of the underpinnings of our ideas.
I see four major categories of thoughtful atheists: scientific atheists, philosophical atheists, political atheists, and humanists. I’m going to describe what I think are the major strengths and weaknesses of each; you can tell me whether you think we need more divisions and better defining characteristics, but be warned, taxonomically I’m more of a lumper than a splitter.
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.”
None of these categories are mutually exclusive, and I suspect a lot of readers are thinking, “Oh, I’m both X and Y”, or even recognizing elements of all four in their thinking. That’s good! I think the only way for this movement to grow and take over the world is for us to develop an appreciation of a synthesis of all of these motivations. I recognize my own failings; as a scientific atheist myself, I have to struggle to not just wave away all the other reasons as irrelevant. I consciously try to express a greater concern for humanist issues.
I also think that lacking an understanding of the multiple strands of atheist thought is a common cause of the Deep Rifts problem that keeps cropping up in the atheist movement. Those of us who identify most strongly with one camp will snipe at the other camps; the differences between us are fracture points. When a philosopher complains that the New Atheists are naive, or a political atheist grumbles that we aren’t diplomatic enough, there’s a temptation to just reach out and slap ’em a few times. Respect my bunker, while I take a few potshots at yours!
The current arguments over feminism are broadly reflective of a division between the scientific atheists and the humanists. Often, scientific atheists like to wallow in a smug party of our own incontrovertible truth (I can say this as one of them), and we can get resentful when we’re told that no, there’s more work to be done if we want to win the culture wars. What, just being right isn’t enough? We have to be socially conscious? Oh, screw that, my answer is simple and pure and true.
But what we need is more recognition that a scientific equation is not sufficient for most people, and that there are problems in the world that cannot be resolved by nothing more than an accurate description of reality. Dismissing feminism or racism or environmental concerns or whatever issue involves human happiness as irrelevant to the True Atheism™ is a serious problem in our movement right now, and we’re going to stall out in our current growth if we only appeal to scientists and technocrats.
Go forth and be aware. Listen to people other than science nerds or political wonks or academics. We can only conquer if we accept the breadth of human experience.