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PZ Myers shows that atheists can play typology games too

July 10, 2012

Typologies are some of the most fun things for Mormons. New Order Mormons vs. True Believing Mormons. Internet Mormons vs. Chapel Mormons. Iron Rods vs. Liahonas. Orthodox vs. Heterodox. I don’t think I need to continue.

It seemed to me that these typologies were spared from the atheist community…I mean, yes, sometimes, people would talk about New Atheists, and yes, there are secular humanists and “brights,” but I hadn’t thought of these things as being typologies so much as the closest equivalent to an atheist religion. (Atheism is comparable categorically with theism, after all.) While I might put the major worldviews underneath the theistic umbrella as being Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the like, I would consider humanism, existentialism, secular Buddhism, and the like to be the comparables under the atheist umbrella.

But I digress. Now we have something to work with. At Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted a typology of four types of atheists. Overall, I like his message:

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 mybunker, while I take a few potshots at yours!

That being said, when I looked at the four types — humanist atheist, philosophical atheist, scientific atheist, and political atheist — I didn’t know how to fit myself into any of these cleanly. It wasn’t so much about feeling like more than one category, but feeling like the whole categorization was a horoscope-like effort in the Forer effect.

I understand why PZ wants to flesh out this typology…he wants to point out that there’s more to people than just the dictionary idea that they do not believe in gods. As in, there’s reasons that inform why they do not believe in gods, and what they want to do as a result of their nonbelief. It’s true that atheism doesn’t need any of these reasons (and so a “scientific atheist” isn’t more atheist than a “humanist atheist”), but these reasons are closely aligned with why any given person is an atheist.

Still…I look at my story, and I don’t think I can cleanly fit into these categories.

I am an atheist because I do not believe in gods.

(OK, that’s a dictionary definition…but I should go further.)

I do not believe in gods because gods do not seem to be a useful, accurate, or helpful explanation to me. The reason why they do not isn’t because of political injustice, or because of lack of scientific evidence (although I’d like to think that I’d be open to evidence of all kinds), or because there are logical problems around the idea of god.

My current reasoning for not believing in gods is because my brain functioning doesn’t work that way. Perhaps there could be an experience that triggers things to go in another way, but I haven’t had such an experience yet. I haven’t had any experiences I would call “spiritual.”

I don’t know where that description would place me, but maybe I can point out what bothered me from PZ’s types. The one that stuck out most glaringly was PZ’s stated weakness for humanist atheists:

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?

This doesn’t make any sense to me. Leaving the atheist movement doesn’t mean leaving atheism. Joining an inclusive, progressive church doesn’t mean becoming a theist (as the non-believing clergy in various progressive churches can attest to.) This mismatch of terms gives me the sense that PZ is describing something entirely different when he uses the term “atheism” or “atheist.”

That was just one thing that bothered me, but I won’t really go into detail on the rest. (Perhaps my penchant for long-windedness makes me a philosophical atheist?)

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5 Comments
  1. Yeah, I think that PZ’s problem is that his typology appears to be based on a sample of vocal atheists.

    In my experience, there are really quite a lot of people who just, don’t happen to believe in gods, full stop. No other agenda. They just don’t think that deity exists.

    They’re often not writing books about their mere unbelief or posting on a blog or an internet forum about their mere unbelief, because it’s mere unbelief. So there’s not that much to talk about; they are mostly interested in other things.

    These are the people whose atheism is in fact not a religion because it’s not anything at all. They don’t interact with or relate to Atheism in a way that is similar to the way religious people interact with their religion, because they mostly don;t interact with or relate to their atheism at all. There’s no culture or community to their atheism. They don’t read a lot of atheist books by atheist writers. They’re not active atheists. They just don’t believe in gods.

    And frankly, I suspect that these mere atheists make up a significant bulk of the non-believer category, and always have.

  2. Kullervo,

    I definitely think there’s something to that…I also tend to think that this also describes many folks who are nominally religious (but with different implications).

  3. Certainly.

  4. I don’t really like this typology either. I question its utility when apparently most atheists can’t fit any of the categories cleanly. I think PZ basically swung and missed on this one.

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