In a recent twitter post I suggested that atheists could be split into three camps: the sentimental atheist, the skeptical atheist, and the scientific atheist. Below is a short description of each category.
I should say here that one can be a member of each of these camps–which I will explain below, and there could be a lot of other categories. That said, I have come to see these categories as useful when evaluating what others say on the subjects of faith, religion, and atheism.
THE SENTIMENTAL ATHEIST
The sentimental atheist is the most common type of atheist. Of the three categories it is also the weakest because it is largely based on emotion.
The sentimental atheist is one who turns away from from God after first turning away from religion. This person usually turns away from religion because they get little emotional satisfaction from either, they have concluded that the members of their religion are all hypocritical and loathsome, or because they do not believe that their religion adequately explains why good people suffer. These three reasons are not exhaustive. I am sure people could point to others. However, I have observed these three as the primary movers when it comes to those who abandon religion for sentimental reasons.
Of course, that someone abandons religion for sentimental reasons does not mean they will abandon faith in God altogether. Those who go the extra step of abandoning faith in God for sentimental reasons usually do so because they cannot square the idea of human suffering and the existence of a benevolent God. A popular quote used by sentimental atheists is the one attributed to Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” — ‘the Epicurean paradox’.”
For the sentimentalist this is an open and shut case. A benevolent God would surely not let children die of leukemia or allow innocent people to be slaughtered by the strong and evil.
This is why sentimental atheism is the weakest of the three categories, because one can always change one’s mind about God. One might even begin to see the so-called wisdom of allowing suffering to exist. Maybe it’s to better us as a species? In other words, suffering is for our own good and we just have to trust that God knows what he’s doing. (By the way, the theory of natural selection can be seen as sympathetic to this argument, which is why Social Darwinism developed in nineteenth century Christian Europe.)
The other weakness of this position is that it does not take much knowledge. Whether steeped in religion and theology or completely ignorant of either, one can swing from atheist to theist based on how one feels about the world from one day to the next. This is why the second category of atheism, skeptical atheism, is a much firmer foundation on which to build your atheism.
THE SKEPTICAL ATHEIST
The skeptical atheist could also be a sentimental atheist, but this is not a necessity. The skeptical atheist is the one who has thoroughly examined the intellectual claims of religion and theism, and who has come to find them wanting. Because the skeptical atheist knows a lot about religion and theism they are less susceptible to common arguments made by theists, arguments that primarily appeal to our emotional need to believe.
With this camp of atheists I have also observed a distinction. There seems to be a difference between the skeptical atheist who was formerly a strong believer and the skeptical atheist who was never into the practice of religion or theism. This distinction exhibits itself sometimes in the greater animosity of the former believer to anything that smacks of religion or theism. These folks might have the attitude of the former smoker toward cigarettes or the recovering alcoholic toward booze.
Those who have not practiced religion or theism might be unable to appreciate the nuances that the religious observe between themselves and other religionists, much like those in the political world who cannot see the difference between socialism and communism.
Skeptical atheism is a strong position because it leaves very little room for the emotional enticement of religion and theism. It is to be desired more than sentimental atheism, if one is set on becoming shod of religion and theism once and for all. However, it means that one has to engage in extensive intellectual effort, which most people will not do. In short, in order to effectively reject religion–especially fundamentalist religion–one must study religion and skeptically evaluate all its claims.
This is also the best position from which to argue when it comes to talking to believers. One of the main problems atheists have when talking to believers is the claim that the atheist does not know what faith really is, or that they do not understand a particular religion. The skeptical atheist can blunt this argument with their knowledge of faith and religion. In line with this way of thinking I will explain below why scientific atheism is a horrible position from which to argue against faith, especially when it comes to the believer.
THE SCIENTIFIC ATHEIST
The scientific atheist is the individual who finds within science an adequate explanation of the world around her. It is also possible that this individual only has a casual knowledge of religion or faith, not having experienced either herself.
Scientific atheism develops in a somewhat natural fashion through the learning of science. This is why it is one of the best foundations on which to build an atheism. However, it is also one of the most difficult foundations on which to build an atheism.
Aye, there’s the rub, as the Bard once wrote. Science is not easy to learn. It takes time and effort. It requires a type of thinking that goes against our natural proclivity to trust our hearts and our guts. This is what makes it a horrible position from which to argue for atheism, even though it is the strongest position from which to hold an atheistic view of the world.
This is one of the problems with the New Atheist movement, which started primarily as a defense against the encroachment of Creationism/Intelligent Design into biology classes. Too many people have come to see an equivalency between science and atheism, that is, learn science and you will become an atheist. First, this is not necessarily the case, at least in a small percentage of cases among scientists–a percentage that appears to be higher among scientific engineers. Second, it makes becoming an atheist that much more difficult for the average person.
Yes, science training will most likely lead to less religion and less theism, but it is not a guarantee, and it is a very difficult proposition for most people. One should not have to learn the intricacies of Darwinism and genetics to slough off one’s faith, and it is impractical for us to think that most people will.
These three categories of atheism can be seen as steps toward a stronger atheism.
Sentimental atheism is the path that many, if not most, will initially follow, but it is a weak position because it derives primarily from an emotional reaction to religion and faith.
Skeptical atheism is the better path, but it means knowing more about faith and religion; however, it also means being largely inoculated from the emotional arguments for religion and faith.
Scientific atheism is the strongest foundation on which to build an atheism, but it requires years of study–not accessible to most people.
So, skeptical atheism appears to be the best way to build out a strong atheist position, especially when it comes to the present believer and those ignorant of science. However, once established as a skeptical atheist one can also become a sentimental and scientific atheist, but do not think that either of these will be effective positions from which to discuss with the average person the merits of atheism.
Atheism is the correct intellectual position to take for two reasons: 1) all religion is an attempt to answer important questions with silly answers (this is the position of skeptical atheism), and 2) if God exists, he has a funny way of proving it when we look at the world around us (this is the position of scientific atheism).