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Friday, August 16, 2013

There Are 50 Shades Of Gray But Only 6 Types Of Atheists

George Yancey, a sociology professor from the University Of North Texas, has just teamed up with David Williamson to write the book, There Is No God: Atheists In America. What we are commenting here on is an opinion piece of his that appeared in Christianity Today called, What The 'Six Types Of Atheists' Mean For Christian Outreach. The classification of these six types come from the work of Christopher Silver, a researcher at the University Of Tennessee At Chattanooga. 

The stated purpose for discussing the different kinds of atheists is both ethical and evangelical. It is ethical in that Christians should extend to atheists the same courtesy that they expect from others. In short, just as Christians do not want to be stereotyped, neither should they stereotype others. It is evangelical because Yancey emphasizes that we should share the Gospel with others and should do so in ways that are appropriate to the situation and to the people we are talking to.

The six different kinds of atheists are: the Intellectual, the Activist, the Seeker-Agnostic, the Anti-Theist, the Non-Theist, and Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. The names of the different types pretty much summarizes what each group is about except, perhaps, for the last group. The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic is one who holds to the same non-beliefs about God that atheists do but do attend worship services in order to meet non-spiritual needs.

Yancey uses a passive-aggressive model to organize the different kinds of atheists into two groups. Aggressive atheists consist of the Intellectuals, the Activists, and the anti-Theists. They are classified as aggressive because of the almost search and destroy mentality they exercise toward Christian beliefs. Part of this is because they, according to Yancey, believe in the "rightness of nonbelief." We could add that they also think that, in contrast to belief, nonbelief makes a positive difference in the world. 

On the other hand, we have the passive atheists. They have a "live and let live" disposition toward believers according to Yancey. In other words, they do not feel as threatened, if at all, by the faith of others. We could add that though they themselves don't believe, they would have an easier time attributing positive characteristics and contributions to society to believers. The passive atheists consist of the Seeker-Agnostic, the Non-Theist, and the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. 

One of the good things about this opinion piece is how Yancey identifies with the atheists, something we should learn to do with all who are different from us. He relates to them in that, like himself, atheists can realistically see themselves as having a "status inconsistency." Yancey says that that is true about himself because he sometimes enjoys male privileges but then he has to deal with the problems caused by the status society still assigns to him because of his race. The inconsistency that Yancey sees the atheists as suffering through is that while enjoy more privileges and power because they tend to be White, they are also "under the suspicions," as Inspector Clouseau would say. They feel mistreated by society.

What causes the hostility between the aggressive atheists and Christians? There is not a simple answer here because the animosity that can flows both ways to the extent that aggressive atheists and Christians sometimes provide mirror images of each other. Each will accuse the other of having a worldview that leads to dangerous and destructive decisions and both will claim that the other is immoral. Perhaps, this is why Yancey referred to some atheists as being "fundamentalists" in their own right. 

Now, what will be written here will probably extend past Yancey though I do not know how much it will do so. I have not read enough of him to know for sure though I plan to read more of his work in the future.

The worldview held by many aggressive atheists is one that is discovered and ruled by science and reason. It is the worldview of the modernist. The worldview of the Christian, the Conservative Christian to be precise, is that of the pre-modernist. It is the one that is ruled by faith and revelation. The morality of the aggressive atheist is dominated by social and environmental issues--Yancey does say that atheists have their own morality. In contrast to that, the morality of the Conservative Christian revolves around personal decision making, it is an individual morality. Since each group judges the other by its own strong suit, each group finds the other so lacking that one could swear that both groups are deliberately working on cultivating phobias of each other which leads to the scapegoating of each other. Scapegoating is at the heart of many an unnecessary conflict.

In an interview with the Christian Post, Yancey points out that atheism, and here we could focus on aggressive atheism, is a reaction to the Christian Right and its politics. The politics of the Christian Right syncretically combines an embracing of the Capitalism du jour and American Exceptionalism with the whatever is in the Bible which survives from the merging. With a religion that stresses the individual, including salvation and morality, along with self-congratulatory politic values, is it any wonder why the Intellectual and Activist Atheists look down on the Conservative Christian? Both of these types of Atheists, especially the Activist, look outwardly--note that we didn't include the Anti-Theists in this group because they scored the highest for narcissism. The Intellectual and Activist Atheist appear to have more concern with what goes on in the outside world than in one's own inside world (see the post on Innie and Outie Christians).

At the same time, calling some Conservative Christians to pay more attention to the immediate and the outside world is to go against the grain. For Conservative Christians have been trained to focus on their own internal state, especially their spiritual state, and to minimize the importance of the here and now because it cannot compare with the eternal. For some Christians, this focus on the inner self has caused them to lean toward experiencing a self-inflicted, spiritual autism. Christians living in such a state become highly agitated by the external stimuli of the world around them and prefer to be able to shut it out. We should note that Conservative Christians are not the only ones suffering from some kind of self-inflicted, spiritual autism. Regular Americans who enthusiastically embrace consumerism suffer from a similar state. That is their happiness, which is born of materialism, becomes the focus used to shut out the rest of the world.

So while aggressive atheists upset Conservative Christians with their call to wake up and smell the world around them, Conservative Christians provoke some aggressive atheists by their call to minimize what is going on in the here and now to stare at their current spiritual state. Such a call can be interpreted as a resigning to the fates and an escaping to an idealistic, imaginary friend and world. Such calls the aggressive atheist to shirk their social responsibility to others and to justice. Added to that is the Conservative Christian's call for atheists to curb their all natural fleshly appetites. 

In the end, there are some Conservative Christians and aggressive atheists who talk to each other in ways that say one has everything to teach and nothing to learn -- a variation of one of my favorite Martin Luther King quotes. It is this very attitude that is at the heart of the conflict between some aggressive atheists and Conservative Christians as well as between many groups that wage actual war against each other.

There is another source of conflict between aggressive atheists and Conservative Christians that has not been mentioned yet. That source is the paybacks are not pleasant motif. Yancey acknowledges that we no longer live in a society where Christianity dominates society's mores and social conventions. And here, dominate is the key word because in the past, Christian values were coerced on all. This was not just because we had more people then who identified themselves as some kind of Conservative Christian, it was because Christian values were legislated in the laws. The aggressive stand that some atheists take toward Christians as well as our society's move away from Conservative Christian values can be seen, in part, as a response to a suffocating domination of society that Conservative Christians once exercised.

Yancey's point in this article is if the Conservative Christian wants to more effectively reach out to the atheist, then he or she must tailor their witness according to the situation and audience. We will add here that this means that the Conservative Christian must be willing to admit to the wrongs Conservative Christians committed in the past. This also means that the Conservative Christian must listen to atheists and consider whether we unnecessarily and even dangerously minimize the here and now. Such a consideration does not require us to compromise how we evangelize.

One final note, when one compares how I have probably extended past George Yancey's description of atheists with what Yancey writes and how he comes to conclusions, one can easily observe a major difference between us. Yancey is a real social scientist who uses a careful collection of data, statistics, and peer-reviewed methodologies, whatever they are, to make assessments while I am a blogger. My methodology requires that I read what others write and then reflect on that and my personal experiences. And to the extent that you agree with what is written here is the degree to which we share experiences.


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