What’s Your Kind of Atheism?

Atheism is a deceptively complex concept. My understanding of it was always pretty straightforward – I didn’t believe in God and that was it. Done and dusted. For the vast majority of people I talk to about faith, religious and irreligious, that’s “it,” too. But the umbrella of beliefs we subsume under the banner of Atheism do not always strictly line up with each other. And where does Agnosticism fit in? What’s the difference between someone who professes no knowledge and someone who doesn’t care? And what the hell is Ignosticism? All these questions answered after the jump.

Often, Atheism is defined more as an absence of religion than an active belief – I can’t count the number of friends I’ve known who cautiously identified as Atheist because they couldn’t say “I believe in God.” The more internet-savvy eventually progressed to calling themselves Agnostic, but still others complained of not quite feeling represented by the outright rejection of God, or felt the whole question was stupid, or had ideas outside of saying “Yes” or “No.” So I give to my friends this guide, in the hopes it might attach a word to a floaty, irritating concept on the edge of the mind.

All of the beliefs I’m outlining below are either overlapping ideas, subcategories or mis-categorized concepts separate from Atheism. They run the gamut from agreeing God exists to refuting it outright, but all have at their heart the same basic end result – a lack of worship of God, or a refutation of the basic traits regularly assigned to it. It’s, as always, up to you guys to argue over the fine print.

So, friend, tell me, what’s the problem?

 

“It’s not that I don’t necessarily believe God exists, it’s just that it doesn’t affect my morality. I just don’t care!”

You sound like an Apatheist. Apatheism (a simple portmanteau of apathy and atheism) is the essential disregard for the question of God’s existence. Apatheists acknowledge that God has neither been proven or disproven as a being, and additionally, may believe that if a God does exist, it clearly has little interest in humanity. Either way, the basic thrust of Apatheism is that God’s existence should have little effect on morality. For an Apatheist, it would make no difference if God existed or not – their morality would remain the same.

Apatheism should not necessarily be dismissed as a lazy mindset – many Apatheists believe that the question of God’s existence has caused untold and unnecessary bloodshed over the thousands of years of human civilization, and that, if we all just stopped giving a rat’s arse, we wouldn’t have to burn each other quite so much over it – they’re secularists, or they think earthly morality is a more pressing concern and that Apatheism is actually morally preferable to caring too much. This is, naturally, paraphrased.

An Apatheist at the End of the World: Oh, God? He’s over there, judging stuff…or not. Monopoly?

 

“This God guy sounds like a bit of a dick, to be honest. And anyway, why does being omniscient automatically make you worthy of worship?”

Seems like we’ve got a Misotheist on our hands, or maybe even a Naytheist. Misotheism is the belief that God or Gods is/are evil or (less strongly) flawed or fundamentally negative for humans. Misotheists argue, essentially, that God is a mass-murdering psychopath who demands worship and grovelling from its far weaker subjects. Naytheism, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily claim that God is evil but still refuses to worship it. For a Naytheist, the idea of worship is inherently bizarre – akin to asking ants to worship us and then burning them when they don’t. Some Naytheists express a dilemma; any God worth worshiping wouldn’t demand worship, and any god that demands worship isn’t worth worshiping. The end result is no worship. A Naytheist could look God in the eye and would still refuse to worship him/her.

Some Misotheists, for the record, DO believe in worship – but it’s worship of propitiation, staving off the wrath of an evil God. It’s debatable to what extent every religion has a sprinkling of Misotheism. Neither Misotheism or Naytheism deny the existence of a God – Misotheism relies on it, in fact, while Naytheism is similar to Apatheism in that it doesn’t really make very much of God’s presence.

A Misotheist At the End of the World: OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD RUN
A Naytheist: *eyeroll* As if that’ll help.

 

“Who is this God guy, anyway? What are we even arguing about? Where the hell are my keys?”

You might be interested in Ignosticism, the belief that our concept, our working model of God, is fundamentally riddled with errors, unfalsifiable, and possibly even self-contradictory. An Ignostic questions how we can debate God’s existence when we can’t seem to agree on how to categorize, identify or conceptualize God. Ignostics don’t just question the existence of God, they question the very concept of God – to the extent that without a falsifiable model, the term “God” as well as the question “Does God Exist” are both essentially meaningless.

An Ignostic At the End of the World: Yeah, but what does rapture even mean?

 

“Religions are dicks. I mean, I might even believe in God, but they are dicks.”

Say hello, Antireligion. This one’s pretty straightforward, and often (though by no means always) dovetails with broader Secularism. Antireligion is the idea that religious entities are inherently or expressly negative to society or the human condition. Antireligion can be used to mean opposition to organized religion specifically, or derision/opposition to any belief whatsoever in the supernatural. Secularism, broadly, is the belief that religion should not have undue (“undue” is for the specific person to decide, generally) power over the government of a particular social entity. For obvious reasons, somebody who is Antireligious may be rather strongly secular at the same time.

Antireligious At the End of the World: Look what you did!
Secularist: This divine judgement had better not be mandated in the public school system.

 

“I don’t know, do you?”

Welcome to the school of Soft Agnosticism. Soft Agnostics profess no knowledge of God’s existence,but leave open the possibility that others may possess better knowledge. They’re the fluffy bunnies of confusion.

 

“I don’t know and neither do you.”

Hard Agnosticism. These guys don’t and can’t know and neither can you. Curiously wont to say “Deal with it,” as if millennia of human civilization hadn’t been dedicated precisely to dealing with that particular lack of concrete knowledge.

Soft Agnostic at the End of the World: What is going on?
Hard Agnostic: Who the hell knows?

 

I end my brief tour on that note – who the hell knows? It’s hard to solidify a particular belief, especially when “I don’t feel right owing fealty to a God” may be the only feeling defining you as irreligious. It’s my hope that some of these words might act as prompts to help more specifically define your sort of irreligion.

Unfortunately, not believing in God is about as complicated as believing in him/her. Have fun!

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35 Comments What’s Your Kind of Atheism?

  1. Avatar of FlutterbitchFlutterbitch

    I’m a strong agnostic, an ignostic and an apatheist. Woohoo!

    You forgot deists – people who think a deity may exist but that if it does, it’s basically unconcerned with human affairs. I feel like what I’m really agnostic about is the deist conception of God. The fundamentalist, anthropomorphic, observable version of God is one I’m more atheist about, but atheists comparing God to unicorns or Bigfoot forget, I think, that not everyone’s conception of God is that simplistic or easy to debunk.

  2. Avatar of DormouseDormouse

    This made me giggle. Great differentiations on the various states of irreligious belief. As a person who does believe in a supreme deity, I could still relate to some of the sentiments in both the article and the comments.

  3. Avatar of Lady MercuryLady Mercury

    I am definitely mostly an apatheist. With a little bit of anti-religionism thrown in for good measure. It’s not that I believe religion is inherently evil, but I have problems with indoctrinating and following ancient texts and wanting to deny people rights.

  4. Avatar of ItsLikeIHaveEspnOrSomethingItsLikeIHaveEspnOrSomething

    So I’m an apatheist mixed with ignosticism. With a touch of Nihilism (I drove my philosophy professor bananas). My belief is too much stock is placed in belief.

    Thanks for this! Your articles are always informative and fun!

  5. Avatar of [M] freckle[M] freckle

    This felt a little bit too much like a religious pamphlet, without the religion-part. I will get back to reading this later.

    (I still don’t fit into one group! I’m so lost! Why me! Oh Timelords!)

      1. Avatar of [M] freckle[M] freckle

        Stop it, you’re embarrassing your contemporaries with references to dodgy shows (CSI, right? Not completely out of the loop here, right?).

        I’m going to stomp off in a flurry of words right now. Without the words. Nor flurry, because that reminds me of McFlurry and I don’t want to support McD.

  6. Avatar of Ireena

    When I was younger, I used to be a hard agnostic, but I think my ability to care about the existence of god has decreased exponentially with age. Now, I’m about 2 parts apatheist, and one part “If god/goddess/creator of choice exists, they are probably a bumbling fool.” because I just cannot see how one can see all the meaninglessly painful stuff that happens everywhere everyday and still believe in the goodness of a creator.

    1. Avatar of FlutterbitchFlutterbitch

      I don’t see being apatheist and hard agnostic as mutually exclusive; in fact, I find they often go hand-in-hand. The fact that I don’t think anyone has any clue whether God exists or not is part of why I don’t really care about the whole discussion. What is the point of arguing about it back and forth when everyone is full of shit?

  7. Avatar of [E] Hillary[E] Hillary

    I pretty much grew up Misotheist/Naytheist due to my evangelical neighbors constantly telling me I was going to hell for every tiny childhood infraction. Seriously, all-powerful being is gonna create us just to worship him? And is gonna punish me forever for saying, “Oh my God!” when I was four years old? Fuck that dude. (Problem with authority figures? Me?) Later I decided that if there were any sort of higher power it was extremely unlikely that any religions got the story right since they all disagree, so why bother too much trying to pick one arbitrarily? I’m supposed to think my ancestors lucked into the absolute truth over everyone else in the world? Hell no.

    Now I’m a secularist but in many ways anti-religion. I absolutely do not believe in any god. If other people want to believe without being dicks about it, good for them, but I am sick of the hypocrites and charlatans trying to enforce their rules on everyone else.

  8. Avatar of [E] Sally Lawton[E] Sally Lawton

    This is an AMAZING article! It took me a while to call myself an atheist, but I was also quite religious for a while. I do not believe that god exists, though I did at one time. I also believe that atheism itself is a form of belief in that it assumes certain things about how the world works.

    1. Avatar of sequinedsequined

      I think you’re right that many people who identify as atheist do mean something specific about how they view the world when they identify that way, which is why I think this article is so useful. My partner doesn’t believe in God, but isn’t an atheist per se–God and religion are just not part of his view at all. So these additional categories are really useful, and even capture a lot of doubting religious people in them. I really enjoyed this!

  9. Avatar of frenchfryfrenchfry

    Thank you very much for this list- I have a lot of friends to fall into these categories who don’t really believe in/worship a god but are uncomfortable calling themselves atheist. Me, I’m a straight up “higher powers do not exist” atheist, so none of those descriptions really felt like me.

  10. Avatar of RenRen

    Hm. Confusingly many options out of these apply to me, although secularist seems to come closest to fitting. I think propensity for religiousness has got something to do with brain build and functioning in individuals, and also that it is perfectly fine to have religious faith, as long as what you’re doing isn’t harmful or a nuisance to others. That particular line constantly getting trampled over is where my problem with religion lies.

    I’m wondering how do people feel about the use of the word “militant” in this context. Isn’t it just a derisive adjective slapped on anyone who won’t put up with bullshit quietly?

    1. Avatar of AlexAlex

      Oh, they’re not intended to be mutually exclusive in the slightest. I identify as an apatheist, a Naytheist and an Ignostic all at once xD.

       

    2. Avatar of sequinedsequined

      One view, that I find very compelling, is that a tendency toward religious belief is fundamentally built into the embodied human mind and how it interacts with its environment; on this view, it’s actually easier, based on cognitive development theories, to believe in a higher power than to tend toward scientific inquiry. A book I haven’t read but have had recommended to me about this topic is:

      http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/Theory/?view=usa&ci=9780199827268

      My understanding is that the author’s argument is that as a result of the sort of unnaturalness of scientific inquiry, it’s vital that we protect it and further it, because it’s more likely to go away than religion is. I keep meaning to read it–my professor (a cognitive science guy, though his emphasis was on language) spoke really highly of it.

      1. Avatar of RenRen

        That looks interesting, thanks!

        I’m also curious about a possible genetic component to religiousness – some cases seem to show it could be hereditary to some degree. There was a documentary about the rather callous practise of separating infant identical twins by giving them to different adoptive families, and them growing up into strikingly similar people in far more senses than just the visual. There were examples in there of both siblings turning out devoutly religious despite their different upbringings and ending up in different denominations.

        My family, as far back as I know, has been indifferent to religion, with one notable exception, a cousin of my grandma’s, who ended up becoming the first woman ordained as a (Lutheran) priest in this country. From her memoirs it’s clear she just felt deeply connected to some higher power from the start, puzzling her parents and siblings who regarded their religious affiliation as formal at most (and that’s back in the day when going to church on Sundays, church weddings and christenings and all that were still commonly done). I think there could be a case made for “born this way” for some religious people at least. Which, cynical as I am, I would take to be a more genuine level of faith than that of the lot who just got indoctrinated or replaced some other addiction with faith, etc.

  11. Avatar of fun back in sinfun back in sin

    Very interesting piece! I’ve often suspected that different religious traditions in childhood (that is, were you raised as Catholic? Jewish? Muslim?) produce different agnostic/atheist adults, because one is reacting against different things. I wonder how much those differences might overlap with the categories you’ve identified here.

    1. Avatar of amandamariegamandamarieg

      That would be cool to explore!  I’ve long suspected that people who grew up in the major world religions you mentioned often define themselves as “culturally” ___________.  Most of the people I’ve met who grew up in an strict, evangelical tradition either remain with that evangelical tradition or go to the other end of the spectrum, ie atheism.  I’d love to see more on that.

  12. Avatar of Sara HabeinSara Habein

    Count me in the “Yeah, I dunno” camp. It’s an interesting thought, but I don’t “feel” it, so I’m not buying into it. Cool for you, if that’s your thing, but  I’m good with my non-deistic Buddhism (and I’m not really ‘good at’ that either!).

  13. Avatar of OpifexOpifex

    Interesting read, for sure. I’ve always suspected that there were several different ways of not believing in a god, but I had never really investigated, being a religious person myself. I am a staunch secularist though. I firmly believe that religion and politics bring out the worst in each other and that both do better work when they are kept far apart.

    Edit: or perhaps “state secularist” would be a better term…

  14. Avatar of [M] QoB[M] QoB

    Now, what about non-theists?:)

    Obligatory Pratchett reference: wizards are apatheists?

    “Wizards don’t believe in gods in the same way that most people don’t find it necessary to believe in, say, tables. They know they’re there, they know they’re there for a purpose, they’d probably agree that they have a place in a well-organised universe, but they wouldn’t see the point of believing, of going around saying “O great table, without whom we are as naught.” Anyway, either the gods are there whether you believe in them or not, or exist only as a function of the belief, so either way you might as well ignore the whole business and, as it were, eat off your knees.”

    1. Avatar of AlexAlex

      They’re both Apatheist and Naytheist, by that measure – Don’t care whether God/s exist or not, and don’t see much point in worshiping them either. I think they also fall under the umbrella of Awesome, too =p

       

      1. Avatar of [M] QoB[M] QoB

        And the Witches, straight-up Naytheists:)

        “Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.”

        (any excuse for Pratchett, really)

  15. Avatar of mxandbmxandb

    I am in the camp that does not believe in any higher power at all. But just as I say, “I do not believe that a god exists,” I know that others can say, “I believe a god exists,” and no one can say for certain (until maybe The End). I’m not about to go around correcting people when there can’t really be a ‘correct.’

    Though I cannot say that Religion as a Community is bad or unnecessary. I think the congregation of people to do good for each other and those around them is an incredible thing. If they rally around God or Zeus or whomever, then so be it. If they rally around founders, fathers, cupcakes or The ‘Verse then so be it. So long as no harm is done, I’m happy. I just don’t see any significant difference.

    But tell me there is a higher being or power doing or controlling things and you’re gonna get major side-eye. I’ll keep my mouth shut but there will be side-eye.

    And I’m okay with that.

    1. Avatar of AlexAlex

      My instinct has always been to be Antireligious during my lifetime, mostly as a direct result of LGBT rights issues and general abhorrence of close-knit, exclusive groups with a lot of power over their members (I have issues with stuff like the Greek system, as well). These days I’m a bit mellower about it, though I’m still a staunch secularist, to be honest xD I’d quite like to ban religious schools outright.

      It’s great to get perspectives! =)

      1. Avatar of mxandbmxandb

        I’ve seen churches do amazing things for not only members but people in general. I’ve also seen other organizations do the same thing – especially as a member of a sorority.

        I have always tried to not let one bad apple spoil my perspective of the whole bunch. There are judgmental jerks out there but unfortunately, they can exist in all groups, organizations, cities, suburbs, and homes. Pervasive bastards.

        I can’t say I agree with banning religious schools. Mainly because I don’t want to ban any schools. And if a religious school happens to offer the best education in the area then who’s to say it has to go?

        Now, this is all my perspective and what I’ve seen growing up. My city is often described by non-residents as “Nice” (PDX, Whatup!) and the religious schools churn out some seriously skilled kids – regardless of their beliefs. Usually the only religious overtone the students may feel is simply the requirement that they take a theology class (that covers all the major religions – not just the school’s religion). St. Mary’s Academy is a private Catholic school but it has a huge LGBT community. Again, this is perspective. I went to a public school but my friend’s sister (who is Evangelical) attended St Mary’s and while there came out as Bi – to an open and caring community. So, that’s what I have seen. Along side what’s around in the media of course… I try to not be terribly naive.

        1. Avatar of [M] QoB[M] QoB

          Usually the only religious overtone the students may feel is simply the requirement that they take a theology class (that covers all the major religions – not just the school’s religion)

          If that was all that religious schools did then I wouldn’t have a problem with them either, but in my experience religious schools (which are the vast majority of schools in my country, Catholic schools being the majority of those) can and do also (1) discriminate against teachers and students for being LGBT, (2) discriminate against pregnant students and student parents, (3) mandate religious instruction and attendance at religious services as part of class time, (4) restrict fact-based sex education etc etc.

          Of course this is not to say that all such schools are awful places: far from it. But if they are awesome (inclusive, progressive, etc.) they are so despite their religious ethos, not because of it.

          1. Avatar of mxandbmxandb

            I did not expect all other religious schools to be like the ones out here. But the model St Mary’s and others follow is good and successful. It would be nice if other schools could do the same…

            I’m all for the awesome parts. It would be nice if they could all move toward that model. In a county where elementary schools are closing right and left due to budget cuts, it’s so hard to see kids going without a good, well rounded education.

    1. Avatar of AlexAlex

      I was actually considering adding Humanism, I just couldn’t find a remotely concise way to explain it and I was mostly going for the ones people I know hadn’t come into contact with.

      Glad you like it!

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