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Not all nonbelievers—be they atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, or some mixture of all of these identities—are identical, and we are mistaken if we develop a singular, cookie-cutter approach in our interactions with them. ...

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Displaying 1–33 of 33 comments

College Girl

October 18, 2013  8:31am

I am a student at a Christian college, but I fall into the "seeker-agnostic" category. I have tried to talk to a few (Christian) people about my doubts/beliefs, but they just look uncomfortable, change the subject, and thereafter treat me as an unclean creature. I was raised Baptist and went to church every Sunday until a few years ago when I decided it was making me too miserable to continue. Ever since I was very small (I was a bit precocious), I have doubted whether miracles could actually happen, and if they do whether science causes them. Also whether there is a higher power, and if this higher power exists whether it is really a "personal" higher power or just some force that keeps the universe spinning. At church, I spent most of the services watching other people worship, and listening to them talk about the emotions - joy, peace, faith - that they were experiencing. I never could understand or relate to what they talked about. If this post is still active, any comments?

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James Cowles

August 20, 2013  10:51am

@James Crowles - then you are subject hopping. True, but mine was not the first "hop". Someone asked speculatively what beliefs we have today that will be viewed as superstitions in a generation or a century. The context was that today's fallacies are somehow justified within the context of subsequent fallacies. My response was to inquire as to the basis of this justification. Your "subject hopping" allegation is between you and the person to whom I was replying.

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Thomas Gary

August 20, 2013  3:03am

I don't think arguing helps against an angry person but I have shared one basic reason why I believe Christ is special - Jesus led a TINY group of followers who were part of a SMALL religion, Judaism. The polytheistic religions and popular philosophies had millions of believers. So how did this poor preacher who was executed after a few years of teaching become the founder of the world's largest religion? A failed Jewish rabbi would follow the same pattern of others - they'd bury him and make his tomb a gathering place, remember his teachings and remain Jews. So what happened to make Yeshua of Nazareth special? Usually the listener has no good rational answer. It leaves them something to think about. Maybe God resurrected him after all? A crazy legend might be true? Amen.

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Thomas Gary

August 20, 2013  2:45am

Most of the atheists or agnostics I've known do talk about good intellectual reasons for their viewpoints, however as I get to know them they are like most people, painful life experiences often are below their thinking - raised in areas with harsh religious groups, loss of a loved one, bitterness about life's unfairness, religion breaking up the extended family. The intellectual atheists usually use science as the weapon against religion, however they often know very little about the history of religions in the world. They are prone to saying the same generalities as anyone - "religious wars have killed more people than all others" (false), "religion is a crutch to help losers cope with life" (prejudiced), "religion is for idiots" (prejudiced). I've often seen that by asking questions as we speak together, they will see that their viewpoints can be weak in the same sense they see religious beliefs. BTW - most people I've known are passive agnostics who just don't see the need for God.

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Ron Jonderson

August 20, 2013  1:31am

It's tempting to tackle outreach to unbelievers, from a position of authority. But the "none"s are probably not going to see you as an authority. They don't see themselves as smarter, or as authorities. They simply think that truth shouldn't need authority figures. It should be proveable, demonstrable. To them, the Bible is liable to just be a book written by uneducated nomads 3000 years ago, as they tried to sort out the way the world worked. It suffers from all the usual errors you find in stories that were passed on hundreds of times before they were written down. In Christian doctrine, the Holy Spirit ignites faith in people. It is clear to me that many Christians have experienced this, or believe they have experienced this. And that experience, I think, is one of the few real in-roads you may find with "over-it" nones from the Millenial generation - and only if it is truly a genuine experience.

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Ron Jonderson

August 20, 2013  1:20am

I appreciate the motivation for this article, but I must say that it it makes some very patronizing assumptions about those who do not believe in God. I have met many people who may have come to their atheistic philosophies intellectually, but nevertheless did not embrace that philosophy as a trump-card. The idea behind this article is that simply by employing different tactics, you can find a trick that changes a person's mind. But, that's a pretty shortsighted game. Many people today who are non-believers have lived most of their lives in the church - they know the message, they know the tactics, they know the culture. They simply do not find Christianity to faithfully describe the world that they have seen and experienced, and see little value in its rules and obligations, noting that they can find no reason that Christianity should be any more correct than, say, Vedic teachings, or pagan animisms. That's not something that one well-placed zinger will fix.

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Jim Ricker

August 19, 2013  10:26pm

Rebecca Dukes, you make some good points about not lumping all non-believers into one monolithic belief group. What you are incorrect about is what an atheist is. An atheist makes a claim that there is no god or gods - that is a stated belief (a positive statement) and not unbelief. An agnostic would be the person with non-belief (maybe) as many claim they don't know so they don't make claims outside of their own personal experiential knowledge base.

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Jim Ricker

August 19, 2013  10:23pm

@James Crowles - then you are subject hopping. The point of the article is certainly not about 'each generation's superstitions' or anything close to it. The article is about this classification system of six types of atheists. Again, rules of logic apply. Have a nice day sir.

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Rebecca Dukes

August 19, 2013  4:05pm

I appreciate what this article is attempting to do. To think of all "nonbelievers" as one homogenous group is a huge mistake. Atheism is not a belief-system, it is merely the negation of an idea (God). Knowing that someone is an Atheist tells you very little about what that person actually believes about life, ethics, etc. While I understand the usefulness of lumping non-believers into two groups (what the author calls aggressive and passive), these terms in themselves are defined by their relation to Christians, and fail to create groups that represent the various systems of beliefs present among nonbelievers. Characterizing people according to the level of exhibition they show, still misses the point. Perhaps it would be more useful to know whether or not the person believes that human nature is innately good or bad, or whether or not they believe that one can make meaning in life.

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Dusty Johnson

August 18, 2013  9:40pm

I'm not sure what type of atheist my neighbor is. He is real superstitious and is always doing things to keep away bad spirits but he doesn't go to church anywhere anymore. I need to learn to talk to him and explore his views so he can teach me some of his methods because this cat started showing up after he moved in. We still go to Methodist Church though because they get out at 11:30, so I don't plan to convert ever. Maybe he will if I talk to him more.

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James Cowles

August 18, 2013  1:35pm

@James Ricker ... "James C - Do you always frame your questions in a matrix of which you cannot be wrong? One must prove the claims are superstitions first. Basic rules of logic apply." I make no claims about which beliefs are superstitious and which are not. Each generation, each century, each millennium has its superstitions. That is a fact, not an opinion -- and also the point of the article. Each generation, each century, each millennium will winnow out the epistemological chaff from the wheat. The point is that no superstitions, whichever they are, do not justify others.

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audrey ruth

August 17, 2013  4:58pm

One thing that struck me when I first read this: Christians are often accused of being known for what we're against (usually by people who haven't lived the true Christian experience and are often hostile toward Christians in general). But if any people are known for what they're against, it's atheists, far and away. In my area they have paid megabucks for lots of billboards all over the city to let people everywhere know exactly what and whom they are against. David Sanford, thanks so much for posting. It was very enlightening to read of your experience.

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Jim Ricker

August 16, 2013  10:46pm

James C - Do you always frame your questions in a matrix of which you cannot be wrong? One must prove the claims are superstitions first. Basic rules of logic apply.

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Stan Wiedeman

August 16, 2013  9:35pm

I agree that these categories can be helpful as we think about our interactions with people around us. It seems important to remember that if we treat the individual like a a piece of data, we will probably miss the point of contact where God wants to meet that person with the gospel. We must guard against the tendency to allow the profile to overshadow the person. When that happens, love gets lost in the intent to win the argument or apply the right approach. Love bears with the person to find where they are hurting and where they are crying out for grace, forgiveness, love and acceptance.

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David Sanford

August 16, 2013  9:03pm

Thank you for this insightful article. I wish you would explore the social fallout from Aggressives who have children. I come from a long line of atheists. While growing up in the '60s and early '70s I heard one lecture from my father: "David, there are no rules. Don't obey anyone. Don't even obey me." As a boy you think living in an ultra-permissive home is wonderful. When I fully committed my life to Jesus Christ at age 13, I found out my family did have a rule: Thou shalt not become a Christian. I was disowned by my paternal family. My father often would go to his adding machine, crunch numbers, and dutifully inform me that he could legally kick me out of the house in, say, 432 days. The rest of my paternal family rejected me much faster. Not one attended my high school or college graduation. Not one attended my wedding there in Seattle. Aggressives? Terribly so. It took 37 years to be accepted back. Thankfully, God was at work in their hearts and mine. www.linkedin.com/in/drsanford

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James Cowles

August 15, 2013  10:28am

Jim Ricker: how do the superstitions of one generation justify or redeem those of that generation's predecessors?

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Jim Ricker

August 14, 2013  8:09pm

Ken London - and the same will be said of you and we in a thousand years too. Does that mean that an oversimplification and very much incomplete view of the ancients should be adopted as you have adopted? The arrogance of each generation is far more debilitating than the misguided beliefs - it prevents real learning. Grace and Peace

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Ken London

August 13, 2013  8:28pm

Brian S. says: " In the whole anthropology and history of man, the belief that there is a God / gods is a frequent, collective experience.' So is blood sacrifice. The wisdom of the ages mostly consists of all manner of superstitions and errors. They did invent wine, beer, gunpowder and metallurgy which are all awesome but really, a cursory examination of history will reveal that if the ancients believed it, it is almost always a load of cobblers.

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Jane Jimenez

August 13, 2013  8:25pm

Such an important article! I came to faith in my 40s, a believer in an extended family of agnostics and strident atheists. In the past 20 years, I have been able to evaluate and respond to different evangelical approaches, and I find most of them "miss the mark" precisely because Yancey's points. If we are going to "allow" all of the thousands of "flavors" of Christians, we must take time to admit non-believers into our families and HEAR their hearts. Even after my 20 years devoted to Christ, the evangelical "lingo" of "washed in the blood" and the "Roman road" still leave me cold. I am enthralled by the many and varied stories of conversion to faith and know that God opens the door in many unexpected ways. Salvation is no less a mystery than the resurrection. Thank you for this article. I have shared it with many of my believer friends!

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jj shag

August 13, 2013  3:43pm

This list is not nearly exhaustive, as spirituality is a very individual phenomenon. Just for one example, there are many cultural Christians, who are agnostic or atheist but believe in many aspects of the philosophy of Jesus. Also re: #1, the Intellectual atheist/agnostic: I believe it is more common that some individuals view themselves as emotionally, rather than intellectually, too advanced for religion. Intellect is not always a proxy for emotional strength or maturity, although intellectual curiosity may be, regardless of level of formal education.

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James Cowles

August 13, 2013  2:02pm

@Pop Seal: "Take heart Christians, it always seems like we're surrounded, out numbered, and about to be over run." There is no "war against Christianity" in the US. But even if there were, Christianity won.

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James Cowles

August 13, 2013  2:00pm

Ken London ... Seriously, dude, you should copyright your post and charge a royalty to people who want to quote it. It's that good!

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Sean Cook

August 13, 2013  7:52am

POP SEAL....that's because you have a persecution complex. The idea you are even vaguely out-numbered or surrounded is preposterous on its face. You're a member of the most widely accepted belief system in America by over an order of magnitude. BRIAN, that's a terrible argument for anything. First, for the vast majority of human history, humans believed lots of ridiculous things. Second, you are using the Bible to prove the Bible. Have fun, but that is exactly what atheists "choose not to believe." I don't find it convincing when the Quran is cited to prove the Quran, either. Of course, you may only be addressing fellow Christians, so I suppose in the epistemelogical space it might make some sense....kind of. MATT, you may be right. I feel like the non-theist position would cover that. A non-theist can still have analyzed and rejected religion.

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Pop Seal

August 13, 2013  6:56am

I understand that Congress passed a law against gravity, the SCOTUS said it's good, and popular opinion likes it. Let them jump from trees. Take heart Christians, it always seems like we're surrounded, out numbered, and about to be over run. It hasn't happened in 2000 years because He preserves a people for Himself. You know, those are he ones who endure until the end.

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Brian Shieffelbien

August 13, 2013  3:25am

I struggle to take the atheist seriously. In the whole anthropology and history of man, the belief that there is a God / gods is a frequent, collective experience. This coupled with the Bible's declaration that "that which may be known of God is manifest...so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:19,20) causes me to suspect that atheism is less an intellectual matter of 'cant' believe and more a case of choice not to believe.

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Ken London

August 13, 2013  12:37am

So: if an atheist wants you to do things his way, that is "aggression". If you want an atheist to do things your way, that is "reaching out". If an atheist comes to the honest, conscientious, reasoned decision that there is no reason to believe there is a god, that means he is intellectually arrogant. If you research the finer points of finding the right stimulus to convert him, as if he were a lab rat, that is "proactive defense of the faith". Leave off. If it comforts you to believe there is a magical wizard-man who lives in the sky, have at it. Go for it. But keep it to yourselves. Keep it out of my face and out of my government. The incredible patronizing cheek of articles like this never fails to astound me. If you think atheists need correcting and improving, and you're just the ones to do it, go pound sand. Thanks.

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Roan Suda

August 13, 2013  12:23am

In my foolish youth, I was on the far left of the political spectrum, where all religion was openly scorned except in the presence of the usual “useful idiots.” I made a feeble effort to become a non-believer and miserably failed. In Christianity, I had to admit, was unquestionably the most profound and sublime vision of man and nature. Here in Japan, where I have spent most of my life, I was long baffled by the sheer indifference of the great majority of Japanese to the questions that divide Occidentals, perhaps particularly Americans, along Kulturkampf lines. But now it is the Western secularists that I find most perplexing. They remind me of the coyote in the old Road Runner cartoons, who hangs suspended in midair over the Grand Canyon, oblivious to his peril—until he looks down. The difference, alas, is that the post-theists seem to think that the law of gravity, as it were, is simply a primitive superstition. When they look down, all they see is their intellectual inferiors.

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Jim Ricker

August 12, 2013  10:51pm

Although there are things to learn from this list, this list is not a good descriptor of atheists overall. An agnostic is not an atheist as one can be an atheist or an agnostic but not both. One makes a definitive claim to an absolute truth (there is no god) while the agnostic leaves open the possibility because the agnostic doesn't know if there is or isn't a god. "Atheist" is now the hip term for those who wish to just be defiant.

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Matt Theriot

August 12, 2013  8:28pm

Seeing as your article seeks to try and more fairly assess atheists, I thought you might like to know that I am an atheist and I find your 6 categories to be insufficient to describe myself, and other atheists I know. You don't seem to designate the kind of atheists that simply rejects religious beliefs. Not from an emotional bias or from a place of intellectual superiority, but simply from a standpoint of logical reasoning and assessment of fact and fiction, truth and mythology. The fact that you don't seem to be aware of this kind of atheist hints at a deeper underlying christian mindset towards atheists that makes interaction, and especially discussion or debate difficult. Some people simply don't believe in Christianity or any religion because they don't think they are true. I made an account just to tell you this. I usually refrain from posting things like this but if you really are trying to understand atheists, than that is my perspective.

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James Cowles

August 12, 2013  4:19pm

Scott Richter ... The short version of the story is 2-fold. (1) In pursuit of a VERY strong vocational call to teach, my wife & I in 1986 pulled up stakes & moved to Boston where I got my PhD in English lit, then to Seattle where I got an MDiv ... all this to teach what I generically call "Catholic stuff" to Catholic adults. This occasioned a ton of sacrifice and, many times, near-suicidal levels of depression, all over a 6-year period. But as I was finishing, the Church lurched to the hard right. One effect was that only ordained people were allowed in certain ministries ... like TEACHING. So the 6 years of "sturm und drang", along with the associated sacrifices had been for nothing. (2) In parallel with this, my wife & I looked on while God stood idly by & did NOTHING while God allowed the Church to be turned into a child-rape syndicate. Difficult to enumerate the ways in which God failed us. Hence my wife's & my present stance of "functional atheism".

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Sean Cook

August 12, 2013  4:03pm

I definitely fall into the activist camps in the sense that I see myself as "intellectually advanced" and religion as "evil," but I rarely actually think about it or talk about it with others, since I have been atheist for so long it's a pretty easily forgettable part of my identity. That makes me passive. At any rate, nice to see my individuality recognized. Good article! :)

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Scott Richter

August 12, 2013  3:44pm

James, I am curious to know. What was your negative experience that lead you to become an athiest? Which one of the things you listed applies to you (God, Christianity, Jesus, the Church, etc.)?

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James Cowles

August 12, 2013  11:18am

"Unlike religious individuals they cannot use their own experience with the divine as evidence ... " Wrong. There are atheists -- I am one -- who became atheists precisely BECAUSE of "their own experience with the divine". This is the 7th group the authors of the article did not consider: ex-Christians who became atheists, at least in a "functional" sense, because of their experience with God, Christianity, Jesus, the Church, etc., etc. Christians' response to atheists in this category usually amounts to some form of either "Well, you had the wrong experience" or "Your atheism is just a subjective response to your experience". These responses, respectively, ignore that (1) a person's experience is what it is and cannot be "wrong", and (2) religious believers' faith is a response just as subjective as atheists' response ostensibly is. Both betray a certain brittleness or vulnerability on the part of the faith of religious believers.

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