I sometimes joke that I’m orthodox atheist. “Orthodox” meaning to conform to established doctrine. With atheism there is really just the one word, so it’s super easy. That one word means “without a belief in a god or gods.”
But this joke leads me to ask a question. Are there multiple denominations within atheism? The short answer is no. Atheism is not a religion. There are no atheistic traditions or rituals to vary and splinter atheists into subgroups. The only thing atheists have in common to begin with is the absence of a belief in any god. To define atheists as having anything in common apart from this is similar to defining people that don’t believe in astrology as necessarily sharing other elements of their life.
Still, with so many atheists in the world, it is safe to say some subgroups have surfaced, if for no other reason than that we are all human. In this sense atheists are as much like each other as they are like every other group of people on the planet. But it is still interesting to put an atheistic twist and identify several types of atheism.
Categories of Atheism
- Accommodationist Atheism
- Militant/Activist Atheism
- Worldview Atheism
- Spiritual Atheism
- Covert Atheism
- Vestigial Atheism
- Monster-Under-the-Bed Atheism
- Theist Ex-Atheist
- Follower Atheism
- Troll Atheism
Accommodationist Atheism: When confronted with a likely conflict instigated by opposing views about the existence of deities, being accommodating is one possible path to take. These atheists believe raising a theist’s temper or putting him on the defensive inhibits effective communication. The de facto “call to arms” (so to speak) for accomodationists was given in Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” presentation.
Phil supports the idea that how you say something is at least as important as what you say. If your goal is to sway someone’s mind then aggressively belittling and insulting that person is most likely not the most efficient way to communicate.
Militant Atheism: Typically a negative accusation, some atheists are adopting this label proudly. It is worth noting that militant atheists are militant in the same way debate is murder. To be clear, it’s not. These atheists are better described as Activist Atheists. It seems that just being loud earns an atheist the militant label.
I don’t remember where to give credit for this question, but wouldn’t it be nice if theists were militant in the same way atheists are militant? Take a moment to imagine a theist extremist you would describe as militant. What did you picture? Does he bomb abortion clinics or coffee houses? Does he endorse suicide bombing? How about unsolicited proselytizing door to door to an unsuspecting audience? Instead of what you pictured, what if this person was to write a book, a blog, or go on a lecture tour? What a wonderful place this world would be if militant theists were militant in the same way as militant/activist atheists.
Militant/Activist Atheists are primarily concerned for people who don’t recognize fallacies in their own beliefs. They are also concerned about the negative affect fallacious beliefs have on our world community, and they feel that it is important that people know when their beliefs are not justified. They choose distinctly nonmilitant methods to communicate these views even if people find it upsetting to hear that their own beliefs are erroneous.
Worldview Atheism: Although the dictionary definition of atheism does not include a worldview, there are those who prefer to define atheism as something larger than simply a lack of a belief in any gods. PZ Myers is an excellent example of someone who is adamant about this larger definition of atheism.
A worldview atheist cares how beliefs are established, and about the effect those beliefs have on our friends, family and community. To these atheists, atheism represents a great deal of effort, expressed in critical thinking and skepticism. It is not just a result of rejecting something, but a positive step towards a better present and future.
Like science, the goal of critical thinking is to establish a structure which provides the highest probability that our conclusions are true. Like all worldviews, the ultimate goal is the truth. Worldview Atheism combines the tools that ensure our conclusions are true with the desire to have a positive impact on our community.
These atheists assert that we should not waste the effort expended to reach the conclusion that no gods exist, and that atheism is not useful as just a declaration of the absence of a belief in gods. The objective of this effort is to have a positive impact on our community.
As I see it, the downside of attaching a worldview to atheism is that it drags theism with it. It sets up a dichotomy that establishes superstitious theistic views as equal to well executed critical thinking. Adding a positive worldview to atheism makes it a competing theory to theism, instead of a skeptical denial of it. A better long term result can be had by expressing this worldview through humanism, and let atheism focus on the skeptical response to theists.
Spiritual Atheism: There are atheists who, despite their lack of belief in a god, still believe in something spiritual. Jainism and Buddhism are examples of spiritual atheists.
Covert Atheism: Some people attend places of worship with family and friends despite having lost their faith. Covert atheists keep this information to themselves. You can find them just about anywhere in a church, even in leadership roles as shown in this study by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola.
“Coming out” as an atheist can sometimes have negative consequences for people who believe this sort of thing will cause the loss of friends and family, and this is often the motivation for their secrecy. But it is this group of people that many atheist ad campaigns target. The goal for such campaigns is to let covert atheists know they are not alone, and that there is a community of likeminded nonbelievers out there to meet.
Vestigial Atheism: This is the future of atheism, or at least I hope it is. If there is a time when no one believes in any gods, at that time there will be no reason for anyone to reject beliefs in gods. Atheism will become an unnecessary and useless appendage. But as long as Mormons are knocking on our doors, Christians are trying to get their religious beliefs taught in schools and legislated in governments, Catholics are discouraging condom use in HIV/AIDS ridden cultures, and unbelievers are judged as immoral by a large portion of believers, atheism is a necessary position.
To mix my metaphors, when all theistic beliefs are eradicated like small pox, then arguments against gods become useless. These atheistic arguments become like a vaccine that is no longer needed. Fortunately the tools used to make the vaccine, or the critical thinking skills, are still very useful. There should be no reason to think that without atheism and theism that critical thinking skills will be lost, in fact quite the opposite should be true. When theism fades away there will be less resistance to reasoned, evidence based conclusions.
A possible reason to keep a humanist worldview separate from atheism is to allow god beliefs to slip into mythology while maintaining the strong moral lifestyle of humanism.
But with the widespread influence of theism today, vestigial atheism is less commendable. These are the “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t affect me” or “I really haven’t given it much thought” atheists. The theistic beliefs of others do affect atheists, and for that reason vestigial atheists of today should care and give it some thought.
Monster-Under-the-Bed Atheism: This is the mythical monster that is the invention of theistic propaganda. It is important to note that this definition of atheism is not generated by observing, interacting with, and describing actual atheists. Theists get their definition of these absurd creatures from their sacred texts and self preserving biased accusations. The definition is bounced back and forth between theists like an echo chamber of ignorance.
Here are some of the attributes of the non-existent Monster-Under-the-Bed Atheists:
- Angry at God
- Angry at believers
- Have no morals
- Have no meaning or purpose
- Have faith there is no god
- Deify science
- Believe we came from nothing
- Know god exists but are in denial
- Rejected god because of traumatic experience
- Would give up atheism in a traumatic situation (like a foxhole)
- Think they are god
- Choose not to believe
- Intolerant of other beliefs
- Closed minded to other possibilities
- Depressed without meaning or hope
- Never tried to find god
- Reject authority to do “whatever they want”
- Sexually mischievous
- Worship Satan
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. In the same way that you will fail to find monsters in dark caves or under beds, you will also fail to find Monster-Under-the-Bed Atheists in the growing atheist community.
Theist Ex-Atheist: This is a curious group of people. They are currently theists who claim they used to be atheists. This isn’t so much a way of life or a view of the world as it is a hindsight view of one’s behavior. I’m not going to deny that people who once had no belief in any god changed their mind. But this particular group of ex-atheists identifies with Monster-Under-the-Bed atheism above. While I defined Monster-Under-the-Bed Atheists as nonexistent, this group of people claims they used to be one.
The key here is that this person identifies with the attributes of the Monster-Under-the-Bed Atheist without really identifying with the non-existence of any gods. For example they may have been sexually mischievous or rebelled against authority, and once submersed into theistic culture, they adapt this definition in response to the theistic echo chamber that relies so heavily on the lack of interaction with accommodationist, activist and worldview atheism.
Follower Atheists: They take the word of leading atheists for granted. They haven’t thought it through and are characterized by pleasant surprise to hear convincing facts supporting atheism or against theism. This differs from vestigial atheism by the fact that they do care whether any gods exist, but they treat atheism dogmatically.
Troll Atheists: I encounter these atheists online. When I say “I” I really mean “theists”. For it is not I that is the target of their ire. Their anonymous malevolence can be found in comments below theistic articles and blogs. They call theists names, and loudly and forcefully state how stupid theist arguments are. The troll atheists are characterized by personal attacks and a tendency to want to argue without attempting to persuade. Look, nobody likes or identifies with trolls, whether atheist or theist. They are trolls first, and any other identity is irrelevant.
I am sure I may have missed some obscure categories of atheism, and I avoided the boring and useless terms like explicit and implicit atheism, but I think these cover most of the atheistic population. Keep in mind when cubby-holing atheists that most self-declared atheists probably don’t fit neatly into just one category.