Classifying Atheists (part I)

Atheists come in all different flavors.  A reader asked me if my wife was an atheist.  Yes, my wife is an atheist, but our atheisms are significantly different.  One spectrum of difference is the ease with which we reach out and discuss our beliefs — our “Spectrum of Outreach”.  My wife is more reserved in discussing her thoughts on religion than I am.  She is “hesitant” but I am “eager & excited” (sometimes annoyingly evangelical).  I threw these categories together on the fly, so if you have better ones, let me know.

Outreach policies aside, my wife and I have even bigger differences in our atheisms.  Below, while incorporating the outreach spectrum, I illustrate two more important classifications spectrums which can be helpful in understanding atheists:

1.  Previous Adult Theism:  Were you a theist when you were an adult?  If so, how fervent were you?  My wife was raised Catholic and never bought into any of it at any point.  I was raised Lutheran, became an atheistat 14 years-old and then re-converted to become a born-again Jesus Freak at 17-years-old.
Note: I will let the reader decide when they felt they were intellectually an adult.

2.  Systematic Positioning: How “systematized” is your atheism? How carefully have you thought about Atheism?  Have you read wide variety of other opinions, tried to organize and challenge your thoughts? How intellectual is your atheism?  How staked-out are your positions?  There are lots of ways to say what I am getting at.  None are accurate, but maybe you get the idea.  Before meeting me, my wife hated religion and didn’t even want to think about it.   My story: well, you got this blog.

Question to readers:  Where do you fall on this graph? (how about your significant others?)
Sabio, for instance, is “an eager  G-8” (an orange dot) while my wife is “a hesitant B-1” (a yellow dot).   Now you know more than if I had just said, “Yes, my wife is also an atheist.”

I also experimented by throwing a few famous atheists on the chart but I need more.  Are there well-known atheists you can graph for me?  Here are the ones commenters have give data sets for (remember the outreach spectrum):

Here are readers who have contributed already – I linked their website if they have one. If their number is in black, it is because they have not yet told me where they lie on the spectrum of outreach.

Please try to just play along.  Don’t get hung up on precision — the method and categories are all grossly inaccurate and its only real value is to illustrate concepts.   But I think the chart illustrates some interesting points.  Paft II will hopefully clarify my objectives in the post.  Please offer your insights.
My Related  Posts on “Taxonomy”:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion, Uncategorized

29 responses to “Classifying Atheists (part I)

  1. NFQ

    I’m fascinated by the color scheme. Usually I think of red as “stop” and green as “go,” so your choice of green for “closeted” and red for “evangelical” startled me. I’d think “evangelicals” are the ones who are 100% go-go-go. On the other hand, I might read the colors as an endorsement of the green end and a warning against the red end. But given that you rate yourself orange bordering on red I doubt that is the reading I should use.🙂

    Not intending to say that the color choice is bad, just indulging my habit of semiotics and observing my own interesting psychology. Figured you’d get a kick out of it, knowing how much you are into making charts and visualizations.

    I’m not sure how to place myself on the “systematized” axis, but probably somewhere in the “high” range. I guess I’d say I’m a real-life willing, online eager/evangelical j-1 (or thereabouts).

  2. I’m thinking Carl Sagan might be an E/F 2.

    He declared himself an Agnostic in the true sense of the word but argued vigorously in a number of his books/treatise against religion.

    For example:
    “The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity”

    Just my 2cents.

    Ps. I enjoyed the graphic and would place myself around I4.

  3. @ NFQ
    Good pick-up, I thought about that too and decided to mix it up and to give colors a little break from their stereotypes!😆

    @NFQ & Gordon
    Thanks for placing yourselves on the graph and playing along.

  4. Brandon

    I’m glad you put this together. First and foremost I should take a position: 1, G (Yellow)

    These measurements seem to gloss over a point that is often lost with atheism and it relates to something Gordon mentioned above: it depends on what God you’re bringing to me – the “you” being the particular believer I’m countering.

    Take deism for example. Sure, I’m more or less open to something vague and abstract enough that it serves as nothing more than a metaphysical recalibration tool when we’re confronted with questions so remote and extreme that they have little practical importance but reasonable epistemic importance. Eg. “God” to cohere the Principle of Sufficient Reason, not because “God” means anything but because the PSR has proven to be far too useful a philosophical tool to throw away on a technicality like the question of first cause.

    In philosophical discussions God has historically been a very convenient place-holder until better explanations have arisen. But note that I consider myself a 1 on the above scale: this sort of deism something entirely different than anything that could ever spark the least bit of practical “theist fervency” to me.

    A second, related point: Talking with (serious, orthodox) Christians over the years I’ve noticed something very peculiar, and I sense a slight degree of it in the above measuring standards, perhaps as a residual of your own past beliefs, intense as they were: there is a sense of viewing the atheist as a mirror opposite image of them and what they stand for in terms of how they believe what they believe. In their view it seems like I, as a non-believer, kneel and pray to a non-God and spend a great deal of time in my day thinking about what I don’t believe in. Last weekend a Christan acquaintance told me, during a somewhat involved discussion about our respective positions, that I seem like a pretty convicted atheist. And it occurred to me that I’m actually not. I responded: “Actually, I’m only an atheist when you’re in front of me. The vast majority of my life there isn’t a word for what I am, because I don’t think about it.”

    So as for your degree of belief: honestly, I can be closeted when I’m in a professional setting, and even mildly evangelical in my non-belief when confronted with someone I feel might gain from shedding God. But most of the time I am in the center three, and my disposition depends entirely on who I am reacting against. When there is nothing to react against, I’m not even an “atheist” much less a “1-H-Yellow-atheist”.

  5. @ Brandon

    Indeed, my “Many Selves” notion illustrates what you are saying in that our reactions depend on our settings. But I think the diagram is useful. If you can come up with a diagram that captures ALL of that, let me know.🙂

    Also, my linked post to “Atheism: An Epiphenomena” agrees with your well-stated point about “I’m only an atheist when you’re in front of me“.

  6. I think you should also include:

    Sam Harris

    Massimo Pigliucci

    Daniel C. Dennett

    Joseph R. Hoffmann

    Robert M. Price

    Richard Carrier

    Also I think a purpler dot would be nice.

  7. Sabio

    @ Tristan
    Fabulous suggestions ! Now I need cartesian coordinates and colors –> do you have those?
    And exactly what would “purple” connote?

  8. 1minionsopinion

    Beyond a couple half-hearted attempts at “getting” religion in high school, I’ve been an atheist all my life. I had a lot of Christian friends, though, because they were nice people and we got along well.

    In terms of outreach – in person I’d say I’m willing and waiting (although I joined a Freethinker group so I’m getting out there) and in terms of my blog I’m eager to spread the word, I suppose. Canada doesn’t seem to make a big deal over atheism – this city certainly doesn’t. Never saw much in the way of negative press when our group put billboards up.

    As to the Man, I think he might go so far as to say he’s agnostic, but I suspect he’s closer to atheist than theist since he’s going out with me and all. His mother still attends church but his dad’s been an atheist for years. He’s also said that his mother never pressures him to tag along on Sundays if he’s visiting.

    We’re a good fit. I-1 and C-1, I suppose, if I’m supposed to graph where we’d be.

  9. Willing but waiting j-1 here.

    I’ve been f to j-1 my adult life, but have faded from a bright red to a pale yellow in terms of fervency.

    Except, except, except. I don’t really consider “atheism” as any way central to my worldview. It’s just that if somebody asked me to write up a list of all gods I believe in, I’d come up empty, or if someone asks me if I believe in God, my answer is “I don’t understand the question.”

    So, alternatively, I wouldn’t be on this graph at all.

    My wife? Not on the graph. She identifies as Roman Catholic, but I believe that if she got grilled by an inquisitor, she’d very quickly end up in the “heretic” bin (about which I poke occasional fun). If she had to take a pop quiz about God-beliefs, I think she’d end up pretty close to agnostic pantheism or panentheism, and certainly pretty far from classic theism.

    The older I get, the more interested I get in various religions and belief systems, and the more of value I find in them. I also get more and more pissed off at stuff done in their name. “O Lord, please protect me from Your followers” is a prayer I can relate to!

    So, I’m a non-fervent natural atheist who admires and is highly interested in a variety of religions, gets along well with non-fundamentalist religious people, and practices Zen Buddhism, married to a non-fervent heretical Roman Catholic who grew up among Muslims, steered me toward Buddhism, and doesn’t give a shit about dogma. Good enough for your database?

    (Also, interesting quiz.)

  10. asonge

    No one mentioned these yet:

    Dan Barker (former evangelical minister) as a k11 and his wife Annie Laurie Gaylor as a k1 or k0 (3rd generation freethinker)…and her mom Anne Nicole Gaylor around the same area…these three run the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

  11. I had pondered different species of atheists over time, but only in a limited sense. For example, a century ago eugenics and atheism went together hand in hand. Now respectable atheism wants nothing to do with eugenics. I suspect there are other trends, but it is hard to pin down.

  12. Graham

    Hey Sabio, first time commenting, but I’ve been enjoying your archives. I’m working on a lengthy response and some personal ideas on your no-self, many-selves post.

    Anyway, I just wanted to place myself, and one of my favourite philosophers on your chart.

    I would call myself a 2/f.

    Bertrand Russell would likely fall as a 1/k or 1/l I would vote.

  13. moriahbethany

    I would say I’m an H 1-2, I say 1-2 because I believed it up until I was about 19-20 but had just gotten out of my parents house so I feel like I ran screaming even though I was actually technically an adult when those jolly feelings ended. I’m interested to know how this turns out. You should consider making a new graph with all of the responses you’ve garnished.

  14. Thank you to everyone who has contributed.
    I have added readers as colored numbers to the post.

  15. Brandon


    Oh, yes – this is certainly of value, and in fact offers perspective on how complex a non-belief actually can be. You know what you’re doing. : )

    To clarify – I am not a “hesitant” but “willing and waiting” [Yellow]. I’m not hesitant about any of this, nor am I eager. So I’m “willing and waiting”. Still, there are thousands of things I’d rather do than be an atheist to someone else’s God.

    Is it an open question in the atheist community whether systematizing one’s non-belief is giving theists too much? I think Sam Harris (controversially) touched on this nerve a few years back when he suggested giving up the title “atheist” entirely, as even this label validates what theists do on a technical level. Holocaust deniers are excluded from professional journals, even though their “scholarship” is often very clever and sophisticated. Giving a “systematic response” to it would be playing their game, and many consider the game already lost at that point.

  16. @ Brandon:

    “Systematizing” one’s understanding of how humans make superstitious decisions is valuable. Understanding (systematizing) the various components of what can be called religious thinking can be very useful. Countering the negative influence of holocaust deniers, evolution deniers, science deniers, racist and bigots of all kind is an unfortunate but useful task. Separating out the good, neutral and bad in religions in a systematic way can be most helpful. This takes careful organized (systematic) thought. Not everyone has time to do it. One just has to decide what intellectual work one wants to do — there is a lot to do out there.

    I think the “waiting” side of “willing and waiting” describes you well.

  17. I was thinking long and hard about this one, but I’m struggling to pin-point myself on your chart. I guess I’ve always been an atheist, but my enthusiasm has ebbed and flowed and entirely dependent on what’s happening around me. Like Brandon said in his first comment,

    “Actually, I’m only an atheist when you’re in front of me. The vast majority of my life there isn’t a word for what I am, because I don’t think about it.”

    – I’m like that more or less (I’ve always been interested in religion, just not to the extent that I’ve ever wished to join any – apart from Buddhism, but that’s sorta different). Just as consciousness really only exists if there’s something to be conscious of, an atheist is only an atheist in opposition to theism.
    But having said that, when necessity calls, I can be as evangelical an atheist as the best of them (but hardly as articulate)! Yet I don’t know whether this is a reaction to religion per se, or a reaction to the injustice, ignorance and inherent violence in religion.
    Hmmm… Maybe 1-E, sometimes 1-H on a bad day (although I don’t react so fervently these days).
    I hope I’m reading your chart correctly. I’ve never been good a charts.

  18. @ Shanti (& Brandon)
    I gladly didn’t even discuss Atheism for 12 years while in Asia. It was not until I came back to the USA when:

    (1) Christians not only told me again I was going to hell

    (2) Christians broke relations with our family over religion.

    (3) Christian kids told my kids they were going to hell.

    (4) I almost lost a University job because I mentioned Evolution

    (5) Christianity was assumed the norm and anyone else was a little untrustworthy and unAmerican.

    My recent break writing about Buddhism on this blog (something I find value in) has been refreshing for me.

    Shanti — please look at my short post on “Atheism: An Epiphenomenon“. It says what both you and Brandon and many other atheists rightly observe about not really BEING an atheist !

    Thanks for thinking about it and adding your coordinates!

  19. Thanks Sabio,
    I love this bit of that post especially:

    “I didn’t “turn to atheism”, I just happen to be an atheist because I don’t believe in gods or spooks any more. But as above, I believe in lots of other things, I just removed a whole bunch of ideas and have made many fine replacements.”

    – And how!

    There is so much in this natural world that (to my eyes) is exceedingly more interesting and moving than anything humans can ever invent. I ask myself often why people need to make up other worlds when this world is so full of fascination! Sure there is pain and suffering, but rather than try to remedy this, many humans seem to exacerbate it by inventing gods and religion!

    Of course the religious would argue that religion provides hope – as indeed it may for many – yet they say this whilst they whip themselves raw, circumcise their children, throw themselves to the ground in prostration, and stone their neighbor’s daughter!
    It’s enough to despair for human sanity…

  20. 1. Thanks for posting a nice note on my site I am migrating it to

    2. I will put you on my blogroll as an Ideological Opponent (of intellectual merit and/or good will😉

    3. You mispelled Dan Barker’s name on the graph and in the legend.

    4. It would be interesting to put ex-atheists now theists on a similar graph. I’ll ask Luke whom he might recommend, but who comes to mind?

  21. @dgsinclair:

    Thank you for the corrections.

    I don’t remember commenting on your blog, but you are welcome.

    A Theist graph would be interesting. The fun thing is trying to pick the axis which you are interested in. What do you think is telling of Atheists who became theists? I could imagine some of the following: age at conversion, degree of atheist intellectual insight prior to conversion, childhood religious background (happy or not), degree of suffering at time of conversion. All very hard to determine, of course.

  22. I’m going with B-8, because I want a spot that is wide open on your chart. The systemization gets me a bit though. While I feel my beliefs are fairly well studied and considered, I don’t adhere to a systematic atheism. Maybe there is a discrepency between what I would declare publicly or to myself, and what is really going on inside my head. OK, so, B-8, hesitent, whatever color that is, it won’t say when I float over it.

  23. @ atimetorend

    I added you to the chart and the list. Thanks.
    You far underestimate your systematization, I think. But then I wondered if others overestimated theirs. But we get the idea. Thanks for filling the lower quadrant.🙂

    I think another “systematization” issues are:
    — does one inspect other denominations or just the one they left?
    — does one inspect other religions or just the one they left?
    — does one inspect science and philosophy ideas or just stop with the simple questions pertinent to their lives.

    There are all sorts of varieties out there.

    It seems with this comment you just declared yourself an Atheist. I am curious when you will do it on your own. Or are you still exploring varieties of theism to see if you can find a home.

  24. atimetorend

    I think there is a good chance I will refuse to accept the atheist label for as long as I live, along with any other label regarding theism that might come my way. Stubbornness and self-protection.

    re: other varieties of theism; I am still exploring varieties of theism, not to see if the beliefs fit, but in your words to see if [we] can find a home/community. There are elements of religious community I like, and elements that seem requisite for my family life.

    Interesting systematization points. I haven’t done much religous systematization as far as studying other religions/denominations or philosophy, not so interested. Science has always been a big part of my life though.

  25. @ atimetorend

    You are so disarming when you call yourself “stubborn and self-protective”. Love the honesty. Many people are allergic to labels but few as honest. I am sure most people with aversions to labels have loft philosophical notions of just why all of us should be allergic to labels.

    I understand your hesitancy.

    I think labels can be playfully useful but some folks aren’t playful and some people see them as threats for various reasons. But hell, this is the internet — not a dinner party. Smile.

    I will do a post on the different levels of knowledge for religious thinking — you got me thinking! Thanx. smile

  26. Interesting graph!
    I am a yellow 10. My husband is an agnostic 7. I would be more evangelical if I were sure it would be the best timing for those on the recieving end. And if I wasn’t afraid of losing relationships.

  27. Cool! My wife, as well as most people I know, is right about where your wife is.

  28. @ prairenymph:
    What level of systematization do you have?
    I totally agree about being evangelical if not for lost relationships or jobs!

    @ JS Allen
    Didn’t know your wife was an Atheist. I agree that most atheist probably live in the lower half of the graph. But tell us, where did you live as an Atheist before your conversion — and at what age did you convert to being a Christian (btw, your site always takes forever to load).

  29. Willing-but-waiting H-9. Previous adult theism was fervent.

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