What Kind of Atheist Are You?

atheistThere seems to be some confusion today among those who contend that they have no faith in God.  They have branded themselves “atheists.”  However, upon closer examination it seems that they fail to fall into that category.  Instead, some are really “agnostics,” while others might fall into the “New Atheist” movement.  Let’s take a look at these terms.

First up is the Atheist.  The word has Greek origins.  Its suffix is “theist,” which comes from “theo,” which can be translated “god.”  The prefix of the word, “a,” serves to negate the word.  In this example, an a-theist means “no god” or “without god,” or “godless.”

Traditionally, an atheist has been someone who does not believe in the existence of God.  However, the definition has been redefined in the recent past.  Rather than define themselves as people who do not have something, atheists have sought a more positive definition.  As a result, some atheists define themselves as people who believe in the non-existence of God.  Or, I have heard some suggest that they are faithless in the sense that they have neither positive or negative faith.

Compare this to the Agnostic.  This also comes from two Greek root words.  The suffix (gnostic) means “to know.”  Again, we have the negative prefix “a.”  Therefore, the word means to “not know” or “cannot know.”  When applied to the world of religion an agnostic is generally someone who often takes a ‘middle-ground’ position. They do not claim that there is no God, but that they do not know if there is a God.  Some arrive to this position because they feel that the evidence is not sufficient to determine if there is a God, while others take the position because they haven’t made up their minds.  Some assume this position out of indifference to the question of God.

Although atheists and agnostics reach slightly different conclusions, they both deny having any religious faith.

Amidst these two classifications of non-believers has risen a third group.  They are sometimes called the New Atheists.  The New Atheist is a social movement which seeks through argument to criticize and expose faith wherever its influence is found.  Whereas an “old school” atheist might try to live his or her life without impacting the world around them with their philosophy, the New Atheist seeks to actively engage faith for the purpose of proselytizing against it.  Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would be people who fall into this classification.

In my ministry I have found that many who claim to be atheists are actually agnostics. In other words, while they haven’t placed faith in any God, they haven’t gone so far to claim that God does not exist.  In fact, some “atheists” have admitted that it is likely that some God exists – they just don’t know who that God is.  I have found agnostics to be more open to the possibilities of God, while atheists tend to have already reached their conclusions.

It has also been my experience that some atheists have chosen atheism for very poor reasons.  Instead of becoming an atheist because they have carefully gone over all of the evidence available to them on the subject and systematically reached that conclusion, they have instead become atheists because life didn’t turn out the way that they had hoped.  In other words, they have rejected the concept of God based on emotional reasons. They have suffered a tragedy or experienced some type of hardship which did not fit into their understanding of who God is.  As a result, they have rejected God.  I have a sense that a lot of these “atheists” really hope that there is a God because they want to hurt that God for allowing them to be hurt. They want to withhold from God the one thing that He wants from them – faith – as a way of getting back at Him.  Deep inside there is a genuine hope that there is a God for whom they can vent their hurt and anger.  Although I can’t say for sure, I’m guessing that many of the New Atheists fall into this category because they are much more militant in their views.

Not long ago I had an inmate in jail who was coming to Bible studies and who seemed to be seeking after God. Then, he suddenly stopped coming.  When I asked about him I was told that when his court case didn’t go his way he became an atheist.  Before his case had been heard he believed in God and was seeking God. Then, when his case didn’t go the way he had hoped, he reached the conclusion that God did not exist. I seriously doubt whether any evidence for or against God was brought up during his trial and that a verdict against God had been reached by the jury so as to convince him.  Rather, he had likely reached his conclusion about the non-existence of God based on the way he felt about things.  I suppose for some people it is much easier to reject God than to reevaluate their understanding of who God is.  Reevaluating their understanding might lead them to the conclusion that they were wrong and that’s not something that some people are willing to consider.

Although some atheists have likely reached their conclusions based on purely intellectual reasoning, that has not been what I have typically seen. What I have often encountered is people who have been deeply hurt and genuinely left disappointed by life so that they have honestly questioned the existence of God.

Admittedly, the existence of evil and injustice in the world is probably the most compelling argument against faith in God.  Although many argue by philosophical and intellectual terms from this position, I suspect that behind some of those arguments lies emotional reasons. I say that because I have heard it being uttered.  It is not always the case, but it is there, nonetheless.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that an emotional reason is not a reason.  Actually, it might be more honest than any other.  Rather, it just falls in a different category of reasons in my understanding.

In contemplating God, here are some questions that I believe an atheist should consider:

  1. Is your belief system based on intellectual arguments or emotional reasons?
  2. If your criteria is strictly intellectual, has your criteria been successfully tested to prove the non-existence of other immaterial concepts?  In other words, how would anyone know if your criteria is reliable?
  3. If you have concluded there is no God based on emotional reasons, do you have any reason to believe that your system of understanding the concept is completely reliable?

So, what kind of atheist are you? Are you the “old school” atheist who denies the existence of God, but who tries to live out your life without convincing others of your conviction?  Are you part of the New Atheist movement; seeking to expose faith where it is found and win the minds of others? Are you just an agnostic – someone who is open to the possibility of the existence of God, but just hasn’t been convinced by the evidence yet?  And within these possibilities, do you withhold your faith by intellectual reasons or do you so because the thought of a God existing angers you? What kind of atheist are you?



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.



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