Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

types of Christianity

Atheist blogger Pharyngula shared a taxonomy of several different kinds of atheists:


(h/t Dan Fincke)

I found this all really interesting, because when I blog about religion and atheism, I often struggle to find a word to describe the movement. The movement seems to include people who are against organized religions as much as people who believe God doesn't exist for philosophical or scientific reasons, so the label atheist always struck me as a bit inappropriate. There are also the people who didn't want to believe anything without good evidence and just thought we couldn't be sure whether God exists (which I always thought of as agnostics), and of course the people who simply didn't think or care that much about God (secular humanists or the areligious more generally). Pharyngula's post does a good job at getting across the diversity of this movement.

To summarize Pharyngula (perhaps unfairly!), he identifies four major types of atheists:

  1. Scientific atheists, people with "strong expectations that claims about the nature of the universe will be backed up with empirical evidence and reason," and who think there's just not this kind of scientific evidence for God."

  2. Philosophical atheists, who "address the logic and assumptions of claims about gods."

  3. Political Atheists. As Pharyngula puts it, "While the scientific atheists have knowledge and forcefulness, and the philosophical atheists have reason and logic, the political atheists are the ones who get the hard work done. These are the organizers and diplomats and lobbyists, the people at the cutting edge who make it their business to work every day with (and against) the opponents of atheism."

  4. And finally, humanists: peole who "support atheism because they see religion as a source of oppression or injustice, they see secularism as a better path to fairness."

As people point out in the comments, this taxonomy isn't exclusive. Personally, I'd separate out people who have been burned by a particular religion from the humanists. For them, it's not so much that atheists do a better job than religious groups, but that religious groups do a bad job at respecting basic human dignity or of working toward important human rights. (Pharyngula's criticism of this group, that "If the atheist movement does not address human concerns, they'll leave and follow the institutions that do" including progressive churches obviously doesn't apply here.) But I think Pharyngula's descriptions are a good starting place.

Reading this made me want to develop my own taxonomy of religious people, in particular of Christians. This isn't exactly a parallel to Pharyngula's, because Pharyngula says these are all equally legitimate reasons to be an atheist. I'm not sure I agree with that when it comes to the different types of Christianity. These groups also don't really pair off with Pharyngula's groups in an obvious way. Still, I think it's useful to go through them because a lot of times I think people talk about Christians as if they are all one group, with similar motivations and worldviews, much as people use the word atheists.

(I'm talking about Christians because that's the religion I'm most familiar with, not because it stands in for all theists. Though I suspect you'll find a lot of these groups in most religions, especially if they're the dominant one in a particular culture.)

1. Christians from Convenience: A lot of people are Christians just because the people around them are. If you grow up in a Baptist family (or a Catholic, or Hindu, or atheist) and you don't think about religion that much, you'll probably describe yourself as Baptist. Even if you don't really understand or agree with what the Baptist church says.

2. Cultural / Political Christians: A lot of people say they're Christians as a way of explaining their identity. You see this especially with ethnic subcommunities; it's a way to preserve customs and rituals living among people who live their live a different way. It's hard to imagine someone being Italian-American without them also being Catholic. Ditto for Hasidic Jews, Lutheran German-Americans or any other kinds of subcommunities. Those in the majority may describe themselves as Christians as a way ofo preserving the past against change.

You also see this on a national scale, with folks who see religion as a mark of patriotism. Look at Anders Breivik, the man who slaughtered all those people in Norway; he describes himself as a cultural Christian in his manifesto, which he considers compatible with atheism. For him, being a Christian means supporting European cultures - absurd, given that Christianity is growing in the developing world and shrinking in the West, but it's a fairly common belief.

These groups don't necessarily believe what the religion teaches; for them, the label is an identity that they take up for completely other reasons, or for no reason at all.

3. Psychological Christians: A lot of people get some psychological comfort from Christianity. It can be as simple as thinking you'll see a recently-dead friend again in some kind of afterlife, or thinking that life (including suffering) has meaning because our experiences have a purpose. You believe what the religion teaches not because you have good logical reasons for believing it's true but because it's useful.

4. Ethical Christians: These people describe themselves as Christians because it helps them live good, moral lives. Some can't see how morality makes sense if God also doesn't exist (no law-giver, no law); others are motivated by God and an afterlife. I suspect some people think morality is possible without God but also find something about their religion useful in their moral lives; for example, the idea that all humans are made in God's image may help a religious person see why everyone deserves moral treatment, not just our friends and families. And finally, I suspect there's a religious group that parallels Pharyngula's humanists: people who care about fighting injustice and see a church doing that, so become a member of that religion in order to fight along with them. If you hate war and the Quakers are doing a particularly good job explaining why it's wrong, that can be a powerful inducement.

These groups call themselves Christians for reasons that at least connect up with Christianity on some level, but it's usually because Christianity is comforting, useful, or something along those lines. I know some people, particularly the philosophical atheists described by Pharyngula, will say you shouldn't believe something for reasons that have nothing to do with facts and rationality, but religious people aren't so different here from how people get a lot of their identities. Democrat, Republican, capitalist, socialist, party-animal, geek – a lot of people group themselves based on their intuitions and what seems right to them. There are often major problems with this, based on the issue at stake, but if these groups are making a mistake, at least it's not a particularly rare one.

5. Philosophical Theists. Finally, there's the analogue of Pharyngula's philosophical atheists. These are people that are theists not because it's helpful or the default, but because they believe it's true. These people generally take science and philosophy quite seriously, but they reject some of the basic assumptions that atheists say make atheism so much more rational than theism. Some philosophical Christians have something like Stephen Gould's non-overlapping magisteria in mind; they think science is very good at explaining some types of questions, not so good at others. Other people, myself included, just reject logical positivism, which says the only way something is true (or false) is if there's some experience that would verify the statement. Still others think that one or more of the arguments for God actually give us a good, philosophical reason to believe God exists.

Some also have specific, philosophical reasons to become a Christian (or some other religion, or some particular type of Christianity). Others have philosophical reasons to be theists but then choose to be a Christian for one of the other kinds of reasons outlined above. And some probably say God exist without topping up with a particular religious traditions.


What's the point of all this? Three things.

First, I think Christians (and religions in general) often have their influence propped up. Lots of people claiming to be a Christian don't understand a lot of what Christianity is about. This should come as no great surprise to people who read their Bible; Jesus himself taught that "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 7:21) So just because someone calls himself a Christian, that doesn't mean his actions.

Of course when someone uses your name and you don't agree with what they're saying the onus is on you to correct them. But it's always easier to get people to read the headline item than the retraction. So if you think Christians do the craziest thing, it's worth figuring out whether it's actually genuine Christians contributing to the craziness. Atheists have less cultural atheists and atheists from convenience, I think, and so it's only fair to compare apples to apples.

Oh, and one other thing on that note? Influence goes both ways. Anders Breivik's Christianity only counts if people affected in the same degree by other philosophies (like Josef Stalin's atheism) count against those influences.

Second, I think all this makes religions seem more important than they really are. I never thought philosophies should be judged by how popular they are, but if we're doing that, again, it's only fair to compare apples to apples. If you want to look at what philosophies are doing well by how many followers they attract, look at the people who have actually thought about said philosophies. And if you want to use what percentage of those followers can actually give a good explanation for why they're a Christian or an atheist or whatever, again, you've got to look at people who are actually engaging with Christianity and atheism on the same level.

Finally, I think a lot of atheists would find they have a lot more in common with certain types of Christians than they think. If your point is that certain Christians' stances on homosexuality (or sex generally, or women's rights, or Obamacare, or…) is wrong, you might find natural allies in Christians like me who are a bit dismayed at what some people are doing in the name of our religion.

And when it comes to Christian pastors encouraging their flock to beat their effeminate sons, or Muslim girls being kicked out of schools, or ultra-orthodox Jews calling young girls sluts because their elbows aren't covered? I'm every bit as angry about that as any other human being, and just as eager to fight against it with anyone willing to pitch in.

What do you think of this way of splitting up Christianity? Did I miss anything? Where do you fall? (It may be more than one group; I consider myself both a psychological and philosophical Christian, personally.)



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2012 04:29 am (UTC)
What on earth is the difference between your categories 1 & 2? One is people who call themselves part of group because the people around them are part of that group (or were when they were growing up), and the second is people who call themselves part of group because ... er... the people around them are part of that group (or were when they were growing up).

Jul. 8th, 2012 04:34 am (UTC)
Well, #1 is people who just haven't thought about religion and God. They're a Baptist or a Catholic or whatever the case may be because that's the default position where they grew up. #2 includes people who have actively chosen their religion, but not for reasons that have anything to do with the religion itself. It's a way of honoring part of their identity.

I agree there's a good bit of overlap. But I'd say that the first category, if you asked them why they were Christians they couldn't give you an answer; whereas the second category might point to some other part of their identity (ethnicity, nationality, whatever) that their religion helped them preserve.
Jul. 8th, 2012 05:57 am (UTC)
I still do not buy it.

If a person thinks about it and converts to a religion, it's not to be "Italian." If they become "Catholic" it does not also make them "Italian." They'd be in 3, 4, or 5, not 1 or 2. If a person follows a religion because it's convenient because most people around them are and they don't think about what makes that religion they just want to have the identity of "Catholic who now lives in Italy or hangs around with Italians", then that's no differentiation from either 1 or 2. It's just what they are either way.

If a person is say, Italian and thinks about religion and decides to remain Catholic, how is that possibly different from someone who is Catholic and Italian because they were always Catholic and Italian and most everyone around them is Catholic and Italian and so, however scrutinized, Italian Catholicism seems good and right to them? Isn't "Italian Catholicism" the default in either 1 or 2, unless they are Catholic for 3, 4, or 5 reasons?

The only way I can see how it would be different between categories 1 and 2 is for 1 to be someone who never thinks about religion but follows the outward forms of whatever everyone else around them does because it's convenient to be part of a group and for 2 to be someone who consciously REJECTS religious practices and beliefs but calls themselves "Catholic" or "Jewish" or "Muslim" or "Hindu" or whatever as part of a cultural identity. That hardly counts as a religious category.
Jul. 8th, 2012 08:00 am (UTC)
I'm actually okay with (1) and (2) being the same thing, but I think they can be different in some circumstances. Maybe an example would help here.

I know someone (I'll call her Karin since I don't have her permission to talk about her life online) who's a German Jew. Karin's family had converted to Catholicism before she was born, and she lived in an area of Germany where nearly everyone was Catholic. If a person living there didn't really care about religion or think about it too much they'd probably choose Catholic, much as most people would say Baptist in the area of America where I grew up. But she was racially Jewish and so was sent to the concentration camps.

Afterward, she wanted to honor her family's Jewish heritage so she started practicing Judaism as a religion - but not because she actually believed Judaism was better than Catholicism in some way. It was a way of maintaining her connection with a larger culture. I know in New York you have people who hold on to their religion even in the face of not believing in God, because it's a way to kind of live out their ethnic subculture.

My label of "religion of convenience" may be misleading. I was half-joking, playing around with the idea of "marriage of convenience," which to me implied two people staying married because they'd always lived their lives together and didn't have a good reason to break up - a marriage driven more by inertia than anything else. What I really meant here was that you live in an area where a certain religion is the default selection; it's how you describe yourself unless you have good reason to dscribe yourself a different way. (2), on the other hand, is where you're purposefully choosing a religion but for some reason other than what the religion itself is about. You're choosing the religion because of it's tie to some larger subculture.
Jul. 9th, 2012 08:24 pm (UTC)
I think we basically agree, but I'd count the #2 as being "not religious and so not included as being a member of a religion", and you'd count them as "culturally identified as religious and so counted towards a religion's numbers." Maybe we can both count them?
Jul. 8th, 2012 04:42 am (UTC)
And you might include a category of "mystical" Christians (or perhaps another term to convey the idea): those who have had an epiphany, a "Damascus road" moment in their lives when they feel that they have experienced something that can only be attributed to a Deity. Usually the moment of being "born again", although sometimes it may not be such an obvious epiphany.

And, of course, there is a certain amount of overlap, and also of evolving from one "type" of Christian to another.
Jul. 8th, 2012 11:52 am (UTC)
First of all, I would not include Hasidic Jews in the category "Cultural/Political Christians (Or Insert Your Religion Here)." There's a whole other group of people who call themselves "culturally Jewish," and the overlap between them and the Hasidim is pretty much nil. I would instead put the Hasidim into a subcategory of "Psychological Christians." Your category explains the comfort that people can get from their religions; I really think that what's driving most of the contemporary ultra-Orthodox sects (i.e. not the Hasidim of the nineteenth century) isn't so much comfort as it is terror.

A lot of these sects are made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and they've retreated into this fossilized, Neanderthal-like way of life out of (at this point, mostly inherited) terror at the modern world that nearly killed them. They're in active rebellion against modernity and are counting on an ever-stricter adherence to the fiddliest of rules as a way to save themselves from a disaster that already happened once and might well happen again. Think traumatic OCD, only for several generations of multiple communities. This doesn't mean that they're not behaving abusively, or that they're not cultural Neanderthals, or that their slow demographic takeover of Israel isn't worrying, but it does explain a lot about why they do what they do.

Other than that . . . yes, the subcategories look pretty good. I think that Christianity is no different than atheism or any other religion or philosophy here; people will adhere to it as much as they want, for whatever reason they want, and that adherence is entirely fluid and liable to change over time.

The problem that your division of subcategories seeks to address is one of publicity more than anything else. The ultra-conservative Loud Christians are simply the ones who get the most publicity (because they are Loud Christians). If you claim the label "Christian" for yourself loudly and publicly enough for long enough periods of time, eventually people will start to believe you. Add in the distinct lack of public disagreement from more liberal Quiet Christians, and you get a culture that starts to believe that Loud Christianity is All Christianity. It's like the public call that went out around 2002 or so for "moderate Muslims" to speak up and identify themselves so we wouldn't think of all Muslims as being Al-Qaeda.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



Latest Month

October 2019


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow