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What kind of atheist are you?

July 14, 2014

On the weekend I attended another conference, this time in London, called ‘Unbelievable’. The conference was designed to help Christians think through what they believe a bit better.

I attended a fascinating session run by David Robertson. He is a Scottish minister and was the author of The Dawkins Letters, one of the first responses published in response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. He has spent several years engaging with atheists and it was fascinating to hear his thoughts.

Helpfully said that when considering how to understand atheists, we have to be careful about labels – it’s difficult to lump atheists together. Nonetheless, to understand the various types of non-belief Robertson grouped atheists into four main groups:

1. Functional atheists. This is most people (and the largest group of atheists). These are people who believe in some kind of god or power yet it makes no difference to their lives at all. They live ‘functionally’ as if god didn’t exist. 

[I think this is the group where liberal Christians belong, i.e. ‘Christians’ who accept something of the Christian message, but deny miracles or resurrection of Jesus. Their manifestation of ‘god’ does change their lives in some way (usually mystically), but they deny any supernatural (any external, ontological, transforming power), hence remain functionally atheist.]

2. New Fundamentalist atheists. He said that this group don’t like this term. But these people are akin to ontological atheists – they genuinely believe that there really is no god. This particular group have reacted to the ‘God is alive’ movement. This group are intellectually elitist i.e. that intelligent people progress to be atheist. They claim that science has disproved god and get angry when you challenge them. These are the people who are likely to follow people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Robertson proposed that this group claim, ‘there is no god and I hate him’. He confided that many in this group have had a religious background but have been exploited or abused.

3. Agnostic atheists. These are people who just don’t know if god exists or not, they they claim there isn’t enough evidence. Robertson divided this group into two types:

a) Ignorant, b) Intelligent.

The key difference between the two is that the ignorant haven’t really done any serious investigation into the question. Robertson suggested that those serious about investigating the question ‘is there a god?’ should read the Bible as an adult.

4. Christian atheists. Robertson used the illustration of Justin Martyr here where he proposed that Christians are atheists with respect to other gods e.g. Thor, Ra, but not to the god of the Bible. He said that he wouldn’t go ‘one god further’ [I’ve pointed out elsewhere that there is an enormous difference between monotheism and atheism.]

So what kind of atheist are you? Do you agree with Robertson’s categories? If not, how would you describe the different atheists out there (and there are very different types)?

Also, to the agnostic atheists out there, have you actually seriously read any of the Bible? (and not just quote mining from the Internet)

Very keen to hear some thoughts.


From → Comment, New atheism

  1. “Functional atheists”…

    HOW exactly does someone like this behave? If you never go to church but believe that Jesus got resurrected and all that, are you one? If an atheist does not believe in god but behaves otherwise like a good Christian should (minus the worshipping parts)… How do you call that? A “functional Christian”?

    The “problem” with this definition is… There is no code for an atheist how to behave. You cannot live life “like an atheist”, simply because atheists live life very differently.

    Imho, that definition is not quite useful – and will create confusion, because the only thing DEFINING atheists is the lack of belief in any gods – so suddenly indirectly including people who DO belief in a god, is perhaps not a good idea, especially if the group you want to include them in, has NO other things in common BESIDES the thing that you DON’T have in common with them.

    “New Fundamentalist atheists”.

    Not even Dawkins falls into this category, so it’s a pretty small one, obviously. (Yes, Dawkins himself will tell you, that of course god cannot be disproven, etc.).

    The whole “you hate god” stuff is just a Christian strawman anyway.

    “Agnostic atheists”

    I would be careful about this bible idea. More than enough people became atheists after reading the bible as adults again, with open eyes. So that’s a pretty dangerous idea.

    And yes, as I started out as roman catholic, I read the bible – more than once, and again as an atheist. Sorry, that only confirmed me atheism. And even if I wasn’t an atheist, it would at least prevent me from ever wanting to be a Christian. If I believed god existed, I would really hope that Christianity is really, really wrong about him.

    • “The whole “you hate god” stuff is just a Christian strawman anyway.”
      Actually, no, check out the title of late Hitchens’ book. Among new atheists there’s clearly a strong dislike for the very character of God, even though they consider it fiction.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        There are places in the Bible where you can swap the words ‘Satan’ and ‘God’ and still read it out in church with almost nobody spotting that it is the ‘wrong’ version.

      • Hitchens was being sarcastic. You merely failed to detect that.

  2. “Robertson suggested that those serious about investigating the question ‘is there a god?’ should read the Bible as an adult.”

    Of all of what was written here, this particular part struck me as most bizarre. It made me wince.

    • I read the suggestion more like “If you base your (dis)belief on Bible you should be able to discuss it with Bart Ehrman without making him face-palm too much” … you can of course choose any other respected scientific authority on Bible (Old Testament isn’t one of his strong suits anyway 🙂
      If you have some rationale in your (dis)belief, it isn’t that hard to reconcile it with Bible.
      On the other hand, if you base your (dis)belief on some weird fundamentalist literal interpretation … then it should do you good 🙂
      At least ignorant atheists might stop claiming, that Jesus never existed, and ignorant christians might realize, that even Jesus himself probably didn’t believe he was God …

  3. I have a few reactions to this.
    My first *was* that it might be helpful for Christians to understand the diversity of atheism. But by the time I got to the end, I found that I didn’t really recognise myself as falling clearly into any of these categories (perhaps the agnostic is the closest). And upon further reflection I don’t think I like the categorisation at all. You need to keep this in perspective, Rob, because as you pointed out, using labels to lump people together like this probably is not a good idea. The category boundaries are not clear, or in fact real.
    One minor detail: “…Robertson proposed that this group claim, ‘there is no god and I hate him’…” Don’t get this at all – as the Mutant above points out, this looks like a Christian anti-atheist strawman.
    One more: You haven’t really explained what is meant by ‘Christian Atheist’. I always thought Christian Atheists were more like your first category – those that follow the philosophies or teachings of Jesus (love everyone, etc.), but don’t believe in his divinity, miracles, or the literal resurrection.

  4. Steve permalink

    Interesting review, I feel closest to the ‘new fundamental atheist’ category, but despite that logical rationalist atheist may be a more apt name. I spent some time as the first category as a ‘functional atheist’, but would suggest it’s more like a first step in atheism and for someone who has not yet got the conviction to embrace the ability to reject the belief systems around them.

  5. Steven Carr permalink

    I’m the kind of atheist who pays church tax to the Catholic Church – like Hitler did.

  6. Ed Atkinson permalink

    I also was at the conference, but was in another seminar. I have a mixture of ‘New Fundamentalist atheist’ and ‘Agnostic atheist’ aspects.
    I baulked at ‘likely to follow people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’ – we listen to all sides and make our personal judgement and then live by it – as we have no other option. We don’t follow people.
    The ‘get angry when you challenge them’ comment is worth discussion. I certainly feel frustration when I hear claims that science and Christianity are in harmony as it seems so obviously false. Eg regarding the origin of death, disease, suffering etc. Is my frustration also based on a challenge to my cherished current worlview? Maybe. But then people claiming that science does not demonstate man-caused climate change makes me even more upset.

  7. If your an atheist, you by definition don’t believe that gods exist. So the first and last categories make no sense. I’d call the first group moderate theists or deists. The last group I’d call cultural Christians. If I was going to divide atheists up into groups, I’d go with cultural atheists (atheists who don’t believe in a god, were raised in an irreligious household, and never really thought to deeply about their atheism), intellectual atheism (those who are atheists as a result of deep thought and critical thinking), apathetic atheists (like the cultural atheists, but raised in a religious household), and political atheists (atheists who take political action to help change societies view of atheism). That, at least, seems to fit most of the people that I know or have talked to.

    • The first category does make sense, under a suitable definition of “belief”. For example, you can say “I believe I’m invincible,” but if you find yourself in the middle of a freeway facing an oncoming truck, your might discover that you don’t functionally believe that after all.

      • True, I suppose, you can easily have different levels of certainty in a belief. You also can have reactions, including fear responses, which do not reflect your rational mind.
        Though I hope this a atheist in foxhole argument.

      • Whoops I meant to say. I hope that this is not a “There are no atheists in fox holes” argument.

  8. I was there. It was a great talk. As a working pastor he sees people with a lot of problems. One comment he made struck me: ‘What if the ugliness can be made beautiful’. (at the risk of being lynched online) God bless all who read this.

    • The ugliness of what? Us atheists? Please spare me the details. What if his devotion to stupidity and over-analysis – nay false-dichotomising of personal philosophical positions – is intellectually ugly? What then? No that could never be made beautiful. Robertson is a self-promoting “liar for Jesus.”

  9. These categories are over-defined and therefore characterize only a small percentage of self-identifying Atheists. I wouldn’t place myself in any of them. Those who you might call “fundamentalist Atheists” don’t typically get angry just because they are challenged, but I’d imagine they get grumpy about being constantly mischaracterized. There are plenty of taxonomies authored by Atheists to self-describe their different philosophical and sociological motivations. Why not refer to those? Why do we need a christian pastor to define us, classify us and tell us what motivates us?

  10. Ron permalink

    I’m a non-believer in gods and will remain one until I’m presented with empirical evidence for their existence.

    However, I agree that a thorough and critical reading of the Bible is the first step towards becoming a non-believer, because it was what ultimately lead to my loss of faith. The god of the Old Testament possesses all the vile temperaments of a human dictator—the very antithesis of what it means to be an all-loving, all-merciful, all-knowing, all-just and all-powerful being. It’s definitely not something I’d want to worship, even if it did exist.

  11. Its been fascinating following this discussion. I was interested partly because I am a real, believing, Christian and partly because I was this talk was the highlight of the conference day for me.
    The first thing to say is that David Robertson’s comments about Atheists were really a bit of light relief at the beginning of the talk. It might surprise you but Christians are rather intrigued by atheists but not really that bothered. The title of the talk was ‘Is Jesus still relevant today?’ and his answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. That was the core of what he was saying that we lose focus on Jesus at our peril. That it is Jesus, what he said, what he is doing, the difference he makes in our lives, in other peoples’ lives that is important. Everything else is a distraction. It is interesting that many atheist comments focus on the ‘God of the Old testament’ but do not want to engage with Jesus. One thing Mr Robertson said which sticks with me is ‘If you want to know who God is then look at Jesus’. That’s our faith, not some picking apart of Old Testament texts.

    • Steven Carr permalink

      What is it about Jesus’s teachings on divorce, or the way the Queen of Sheba will rise from her grave to judge people,l or the way people will be salted with fire that you think is relevant?

      Perhaps it is the bit about putting oil on your face when you fast that atheists should find important?

      Or perhaps the bit about it being a commandment from your god that ‘He who curses his mother and father shall be put to death’?

    • “Everything else is a distraction.” – So why does he offer a distraction such as this? Because he wants to bring a fight to us. In my experience Robertson is the least Christian Christian I have met.

  12. My suspicion is that the categories for Christians or Muslims are basically identical. We are probably talking about a few brain types. For example, David Robertson is a fundamentalist brain type. When he leaves Christianity, he will find something else to become passionate about and think everyone else should do it, too.
    I don’t think there are types of atheists as much as there are different types of people. Atheists are simply people who don’t have a belief in God. However they parse that seems unimportant.
    After all, there is no God – so what’s the big deal about what kind of non-believers exist?
    I think it would be far more interesting to explore the mindset of people who believe, passionately, in unevidenced things.

  13. Monicasbooks, if David Robertson’s talk was “the highlight of the conference” then I’m glad I didn’t go. Mark Gordon is right. The man is an imbecile.

    • Why is he an imbecile? I asked for alternative ways of grouping atheists and not many alternatives have been offered yet. Thanks.

    • The conference was held by Christians, for Christians so you might have felt a bit out of place. But I’m sure you would have been treated with the same hospitality and kindness as everyone else.

      • “By Christians for Christians” was kind of what I felt, so I wouldn’t have gone even if I hadn’t happened to be a few thousand miles away on holiday at the time. However, Justin Brierley specifically said when encouraging UB listeners to attend that atheists and agnostics were welcome.

        If any of the atheist contributors to this forum were at the conference I’d be interested in hearing how they got on there, whether they felt they got anything out of it and if so, what.

  14. ” I asked for alternative ways of grouping atheists and not many alternatives have been offered yet.”

    LOL, no not many have! Although when you call me out on this, I do feel rather like the one pupil singled out to go to the head’s study when the entire class is responsible for pandemonium. (“What *me*, Sir?”)

    Anyway, since you have asked me to justify adopting Mark Gordon’s assessment of David Robertson, I assume you will not object if I now do so.

    David is a philosophical imbecile. I don’t know how he performs in other areas, such as history. His epic blunder over having read Hitler’s diaries does not inspire much confidence, but as is so often the case with David, I suspect he doesn’t much care about the accuracy of what he says provided he can make a rhetorical point. Pretty much all his debates are characterised by the creation of strawmen, which he proceeds to batter with great gusto, either not knowing of not caring that they have no bearing on his opponent’s actual arguments.

    What I think about his performance against Matt Dillahunty can be found here:

    Sorry, not being very tech savvy I haven’t been able to sort my blog out into discrete posts, each with its own link. That will have to wait until my technical advisors (aka my teenage children) can help. (You see, I am an IT imbecile).

    I’m not sure about ways of grouping atheists. Some atheists do say that all theists are atheist in respect of another religion’s gods. I’m not sure that that’s a particularly helpful categorisation though.

    • Ed Atkinson permalink

      Hi fjanusz, I’m replying to your request a bit above, but there was no ‘Reply’ link there.

      Yes, I’m an atheist and I attended the 2014 Unbelievable Conference. I enjoyed it a lot and I was interviewed on the Atheism101podcast recently where I gave my impressions, including reporting on a 1 to 1 chat with William Lane Craig, (which was kind of Mr Craig). I did not hear anything to challenge my worldview, but I have been exploring these issues for quite a while. On a couple of issues the day gave me strong extra evidence to continue a an atheist.

      I hope that helps. I did not hear David Robertson’s talk.

      • Thanks Ed. That’s interesting. Maybe I will turn up to future conference then (& maybe I’ll see you there).



      • Ed. Well done for attending the conference. I respect that. I hope you continue engaging on this blog. thanks.

    • Sorry for the delay in responding to this one (life just kind of got a bit crazy for the week). Sorry, I didn’t mean to call you as the naughty boy in the class. But I did decide that after many atheists had criticised Robertson’s schema and not offered alternatives I did need to get at least one person to offer some other alternatives. I did see your other blog post. Sure, happy to concede Robertson’s weaknesses. I hope I can overcome some of the weaknesses on this blog.

      In terms of the final categorisation, all theists are atheists are atheist with respect of other religion’s gods – I think that was Robertson’s final categorisation. i.e. Christian atheists. Thanks for the comments.

  15. Hey! What do you know?! The link did work!

  16. I am the kind of atheist who doesn’t believe in belief. I don’t believe anything, nor do I have faith in anything. I entertain a vast stack of hypotheses in my mind to which I assign differing probabilities of each being a true statement about the real world.

    The hypothesis that there exists a God even remotely similar to the Imaginary Sky Monster described in the Bible has a probability, IMHO, of about 10^64 to 1 against it being true. I’m willing to take the tiny chance that I might be wrong about this and live my life as if such a monster did not exist.

    The hypothesis that there exists some kind of undefined God or Universal Quantum Consciousness as promoted by the likes of Deepak Chopra has a probability, IMHO, of about 10^32 to 1 against it being true.

    The hypothesis that the sun will light up the part of the earth I currently inhabit tomorrow morning has, IMHO, a probability of several billion to 1 in favor of it being true.

    I assess these probabilities on the basis of the understanding of the nature of the real world that I have gleaned from personal observation, reading books (including the Bible), and the formal (thankfully, mostly religion free) education which I have received over the years. IMHO, it is dishonest to claim to know something without any evidence and in the face of tonnes of evidence to the contrary.

    I am never offended when challenged on my views in these matters. What offends me is when people take their religion-induced delusions so seriously that they feel a duty to impose their Imaginary Sky Monster’s rules on the rest of us to the detriment of the well-being of all of us.

    • You do realise that your first statement as one who “doesn’t believe in belief” is self contradictory and illogical?

      Can you please also provide your working to describe the probability of God? I’m intrigued how you managed to get it so precise!

      Much more to discuss, but I’d be keen to hear your answers to those questions to start with.

  17. For those unfamiliar with Excel math notation 10^64 means a number comprised of a 1 followed by 64 zeros.

  18. Justin permalink

    I am a Christian and i am tolerant of everyone’s belief or worldview. Now i do not have a problem with all atheists but i do have a problem with the fundamentalist atheists who are anti-religion and anti-Christian such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. I am not claiming that all atheists are like them but most of the ones that i have met or talked to are exactly like them which can give everybody a bad impression on all atheists because of those fundamentalists. Just like if you met a Christian for the first time and they were full of hate you would assume that all Christians are like that. Now there was a comment on here where it said that Christianity and science are not in harmony and will never be in harmony and i agree with that to a level. There are Christians arguing over certain things such as the age of the earth or evolution in my honest opinion i do accept evolution and see it as no problem with my belief in God like the vast majority of Christians. I do think though that it is time for many atheists to stop being very intolerant towards people of faith and telling people of faith that they can’t be a scientist such as Dawkins does because the next noble peace prize winner who makes one of the most fascinating discoveries in the world could be a person of faith. There are Christians who are scientists and one of my favorites in Francis Collins who was the former director of the human genome project and got it done 2 years earlier and got it done 150 million dollars under budget and is now the head for the NIH and he is a Christian who has advanced science in the United States and has contributed a lot to it. I also think it is time for people of faith to stop being so hateful of atheists and i think it is time for both atheist and theist to befriend each other and to have an honest reasonable discussion about these issues without name calling or using arguments that will hit someone emotionally. Those are just my personal thoughts about this. Christian who is tolerant of everyone and is an advocate for the advancement of science and the teaching of evolution in schools.

  19. Philip Wraight permalink

    If being a fundamental Atheist means not believing in ANY god what so ever?, then fundamental Atheist be I!!. Don’t need to read any religious texts to realise it’s all man made tripe!. When I was young I was a believer, then, when I grew up, logic kicked in. If people want to believe in imaginary entities I have not a problem with that, ( although will always wonder WHY?) but when they force their beliefs on others, or abuse/kill in the name of afore mentioned imaginary entity, then I really have a problem!!!.

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