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The Two Types of Atheists

David Klinghoffer

Apparently my comments yesterday on the taxonomy of atheists weren’t clear. A thoughtful reader writes:

If I’m understanding you, you believe there are just two types of people who don’t believe in God — ignoramuses and people like [Jerry] Coyne, who is “a peasant and a clod.”
I ask, respectfully, if you can accept that there might be a third class of non-believer, someone who has fallen away after a sincere, intelligent examination of the evidence? I don’t expect a reply and don’t wish to debate you on theological matters (I will lose). I write only to propose that you consider this third possibility, that good, intelligent people can decide there is no God.

My apologies for the ambiguity. I meant to say that broadly there are two types of people who call themselves atheists but only one really deserves the dignity of the term. The first category — the peasant, clod, village atheist, am ha’aretz — is the person like Jerry Coyne with a cartoon version in his head of some one religion or all religions. He rejects the cartoon, figuring that as far as faith goes in general, he’s got it all figured out and it’s all nonsense. This type of person typifies the New Atheist movement. He has very little of interest to say.
There’s a second much rarer type, however, the person who has not only investigated at least one serious faith seriously but also experienced it, known believers, ideally was a believer himself at some adult stage of life. This person, in rejecting God, merits a real hearing.
I find much the same distinction is to be made, incidentally, regarding religious believers who fancy themselves critics of other faiths. Judaism was for millennia the object of ignorant criticism. At present, the religion in which everybody and his dog thinks he’s an expert is, of course, Islam.