What are the different types of atheism?
It is generally believed that there are around 10,000 religions in the world today. Most of us are familiar with the big ones – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. – but hundreds of millions of people also believe in popular, traditional or tribal religions.
Theologians, anthropologists and sociologists are very good at classifying religions. People devote their whole lives to delineating the smallest and most esoteric differences. Iconography, belief, ritual, worship, prayer and community serve to draw the boundaries between these religions.
But it’s missing something. Outside of churches, mosques, temples and pagodas, there is a moving, enigmatic, indefinable mass: the group of people who belong to a certain type of atheism. Nor is it a small fringe. More than a billion people do not follow any religion. They make up about a quarter of the US population, making them the second most important “belief”. Around 60% of the UK never go to church, and there are now more atheists than believers in Norway.
Notably, not all atheisms are the same. The various types of atheism deserve closer examination.
Types of atheism
The problem is that these statistics don’t tell the full story. The term “non-religious” is so broad that it has almost no meaning. The words secular, agnostic, atheist, humanist, irreligious or non-religious are not synonyms. This is not picky pedantry. For the more than one billion people in the world who are a special type of atheist, difference matters.
Delineating these belief systems is not easy, not least because many of them are reluctant to be defined as “believers”. Some suggest that non-religion is best described as a scale (such as the 1-7 “likelihood of God” scale suggested by Richard Dawkins in The illusion of God). But that too puts the cart before the horse. Not all religions are about probability, certainty, or assent to various claims of truth.
Broadly speaking, atheists can come in three varieties: non-religious, non-believer, and agnostic. This list is not intended to be exhaustive and the types of atheism often overlap.
The first type of atheism is not adhering to any of the major traditional religions.
Consider China. It is a country, at first glance, extremely irreligious: 91% of Chinese adults can be described as atheists. But much of this data, as in most demographic surveys, relies on the “self-identification” of respondents. The problem is that most people in today’s world will understand religion in a particular way. They see it as the formal beliefs or practices of established and organized religions. It means going to church, praying five times a day, or believing the Four Noble Truths. But religion is much broader than that.
In the case of China, while 91% call themselves “atheists”, 70% of the adult population practice ancestor worship. Twelve percent identify with a popular belief, and the vast majority practice pseudoscientific and quasi-religious “traditional medicine.”
For many people, “atheism” means not believing in this or that. official religion. To others, the word might sound more like its etymology, in which “a-theism” means anti-theist belief (allowing Buddhism, for example). Many in this category we might describe as “mystics” – that is, they don’t think an image or idea of God(s) is right, but they feel there is a kind of spiritual reality.
It is a curiosity seen all over the world. An “atheist” might also believe in angels, fairies, karma, a divine plan, a soul, ghosts, spirits, or Ouija boards. None of these, on their own, constitute an organized belief, but they are beliefs in a way.
The second type of atheism is one that challenges or rejects certain statements of belief.
These atheists will define religion (rightly or wrongly) as a set of beliefs, creeds, and quasi-factual statements that they label as false. This is the type of atheism that most are familiar with, and it is often the type that appears most often on Internet forums.
These atheists will say “Jesus has risen from the dead”, “Yogic flight is possible” or “The angel Jibril spoke to Muhammed” are all statements that can be refuted or must be rejected. These are facts to be corroborated or dismissed. Modern atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and older ones like David Hume or John Stuart Mill, belong to this genre. They point out what they perceive to be the inaccuracies, contradictions or absurdities of what the religion teaches.
The “unbelieving” type of atheism will often attack the values of a religion or even the religious themselves. They claim that religion is what leads to intolerance, prejudice, racism, misogyny, genocide, violence, cruelty, superstition, ignorance, etc., so it must be rejected out of hand.
The third type of atheism is without commitment. This is called agnosticism.
If we define atheism as a statement of belief – namely, “I am 100% sure that God(s) does not exist” — then there are very few atheists. Many “unbelieving” types are concerned with probabilities and verifying claims of belief. But, since many claims of religion are supernatural, it is impossible to exclude them entirely.
Humans are physical beings, with fallible senses and variable intelligence. So very few people will claim certainty on the metaphysical and the infinite. Many who call themselves atheists are actually agnostics. They may be those who think that religion is very, very unlikely to be right (as Dawkins does) or who accept that there is a varying degree of possibility. Others might suspend judgment – there is no (accessible) data anyway, so why engage?
As William James argues in his essay “The Will to Believe,” such agnosticism (or “skepticism” as he prefers) is tantamount to atheism. If we go through our days without regard to religion, without living the life of the believer, then it is “as if we positively choose not to believe”. The difference between agnostics and atheists is simply epistemological. For both, religion is simply not important.
Learn to speak out of disbelief
Talking about belief (or lack thereof) is something we could all do better. Half of American adults “rarely or never” talk about religion with people outside their family. In the UK, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, once said, “we don’t make God”. His argument was that religion is a personal (and often unpleasant and awkward) topic of conversation for most Britons.
Yet so much is lost in the process. Our beliefs, religious or otherwise, are the most important parts of who we are. Sharing and discussing them with others not only helps us understand each other better, but brings us all together. Conflicts often arise from misunderstanding and ignorance, and much discord could be avoided through dialogue that seeks to elucidate people’s beliefs.
Examining the types of atheism also reveals another exciting topic: unbelief. We all have beliefs, but we also all have disbeliefs. Even theists reject the existence of certain gods.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Little Book of Big Ideas.