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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.2 > The Three Shades of Atheism

The Three Shades of Atheism

How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

When we think of prominent atheists, we may conjure up an image of one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—authors famous for their steadfast rejection of any form of deity and their willingness to confront the world’s religions. Ironically, however, when we see them in debates and interviews, the confidence with which they make their case and discount the opposition may at times seem indistinguishable from the offputting dogmatism of the hyper-religious. How typical of atheists are the Four Horsemen?

Our research, based on a sample of hundreds of respondents to a survey distributed through social media, indicates that they probably represent a common form of atheism but not the majority view. Most atheists express some degree of tentativeness in their beliefs and would be prepared to consider contrary evidence and arguments. In other words, they are skeptical in their orientation rather than dogmatic. However, the prevalence of dogmatic atheism may come as a surprise to some observers, including Richard Dawkins,1 who stated that he “would be surprised to meet many people” who would say “I know there is no God.” Many respondents in our survey said this.

Distinguishing Between Categories of Atheistic Belief

To categorize the various forms of atheism, it is necessary to distinguish among several closely related concepts.

Formal v. informal meanings of atheism. The term atheism literally means an absence of belief in a deity, as in a theismwithout theism. This formal usage broadly encompasses both nonbelief and the explicit rejection of a deity. Nonbelief without any inclination to reject a deity is similar to, but distinguishable from, agnosticism, a term introduced by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876 at a meeting of Britain’s Metaphysical Society, many of whose members were clergymen, and elaborated upon at a symposium published in 1884 by The Agnostic Annual. Huxley defined agnosticism as the absence of belief one way or the other and the absence of a claim to having any scientific knowledge on the issue:

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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE DANGER ARTICLES: Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence; Is Artificial Intelligence an Existential Threat?; Artificial Intelligence: Simulation, Not Synthesis; The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization in America; Delusions of the Imagination: Debunking an Early 19th Century Medical Quack Device — The “Tractor”; Area 51: What is Really Going on There?; Is Race a Useful Concept?; The Three Shades of Atheism; COLUMNS: pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction; Are You An Unconscious Racist? REVIEWS of: Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas; How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality; Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science; Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and and Swindles in American History by Nate Hendley; Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Chemtrails
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