What kind of atheist are you?
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.