So, here I am, back on Canadian soil. The suitcases have been put away but there is much unpacking to do in terms of what I have learnt on my trip to the Caribbean and New York in the last couple of months. I have made it a point to try to find freethinkers when I travel. Those interactions I think make the overall journey so much richer. Some of these exchanges will no doubt make their way into future posts.
In talking to atheists, it's interesting to realise the differences in where people are at. It is intriguing to explore their attitudes and feelings about being an atheist or even their willingness to be identified as such. Many people speak of how becoming an atheist is a gradual process and it can't and doesn't happen overnight. That is absolutely true. I think what we often neglect to talk about is the gradual changes you go through after you become an atheist. Based on my discussions, I realise that there is definitely a process of change within atheism. Richard Dawkins famously developed a seven stage scale for extent of belief or non belief in God. The scale I am proposing here is one for atheists. I have identified five distinct stages you go through once you come to the conclusion that, in all likelihood, no gods exist.
It's June now, and in the Caribbean that means hurricane season. So in line with that I have decided to label each stage as a 'Category' just like they do with hurricanes. Coincidentally, those storms can also range from Category one to Category five. Please note that these categories basically apply to the deconverted atheist, the one who once believed. Like all classification lists there will be areas of overlap. Nonetheless, I think the categories are distinct enough that we can make the five separations.
So here they are! My Five Categories of Atheism.
Category One (1): I am only an atheist in mind
At this stage you realise that God either does not exist or the probability of existence is extremely small. At this point by general definition you are an atheist but you don't admit that even to yourself. You don't want to identify yourself with 'those' people. You are an atheist in mind alone. The mere thought of being an atheist is just paralysing but you quite readily recognise the logical contradictions within all of the religious traditions and the incoherence of the God concept itself. You would be willing to identify these in discussions with other theists but will still categorise yourself as vaguely spiritual or if pushed say you are an agnostic.
Category Two (2): Ok, I admit, I am an atheist.
This is the stage where you outright say to yourself, " Ok, I have to admit it, I am am atheist." This stage is both exciting and scary. You have the feeling like you've cracked the code and figured out the mystery. You have admitted the non belief to yourself and may even share it with one or two friends or family members very close to you. However if you do share, you beg them not to tell anybody because you feel that you are not ready to face the indignation and shock of those in your immediate society. You are still emotionally invested in the faith and fear being cut off from your loved ones. You have a bit of shame associated with your non belief at this point. Nonetheless, you walk around happy within yourself that you have come to a position that is your own and you can live with. You have eliminated the discomfort of that cognitive dissonance that you had before in trying to reconcile what you learnt through the scientific method with what your 'holy book' said . At this stage you often start to explore more of the resources out there on the internet and reading the classic atheist books such as 'God Delusion' and 'God is no Great.'
Category Three (3): I am searching for other non believing intelligent life.
At this point you become more confident in your position that God does not exist but still feel uneasy talking about your position with those around who have not had your experience and cannot understand. You wonder at times if you are alone. This leads you to search for other 'intelligent' atheist life. Looking through the 'galaxies' to find others of like mind in the universe. It's a bit like the scientists sending out the SETI signal. This can be done through actively joining an atheist/ skeptic group or even starting one. The meet ups can be successful but very often when you are on an isolated 'planet' you have to engage people through virtual linking. This might be joining Atheist Nexus or a Facebook organisation or 'chatting' with a friend you met by chance somewhere who you discovered didn't believe either. This stage can be very tricky because as open as you are with non believers at these meetings or online you are still very careful not to share your views with others in your circle that still believe. This is where you as an atheist lead a double life.You have two distinct social lives.The atheist group completely hidden from the theists. You are ducking and weaving at skeptic events hoping that you won't be embarrassed by bumping into a theist friend at the wrong time. Or you are continuously monitoring your online profiles, using all sorts of aliases to ensure that no one can trace you back to these non theists platforms.
Category Four (4): I am an atheist. Deal with it!
This is the point where you recognise that being an atheist is fine and something you should wear proudly. By this time you have had enough interaction with fellow free thinkers to realise they and you are not crazy. You realise that atheists are actually just regular people with the same likes, dislikes and quirks in personalities as anyone else. Most importantly, you realise that atheists are not in any way morally compromised and indeed discover that atheism in many cases promotes a superior form of ethics. At this point you will tend to feel more settled and perhaps start to see yourself more as a Humanist. Recognising that atheism is perfectly respectable and defensible you at this stage start to share your atheism in a wider circle and basically considers yourself to be 'out.' You will share your non belief with anyone so long as the time and place is appropriate. You are not worried at this point about backlash and social ostracisation because you feel extremely justified in your point of view. After all, you have thought long and hard about the position you hold having gone through those three prior stages. There is again a degree of liberation at this stage because the double life is over and there is not now a need to pretend to believe in order to fit in. However you still don't consider it necessary to trumpet your non-belief or push an anti God agenda. You just want to be respected for who and what you are.
Category Five (5): I don't believe in God and neither should you!
This is the final stage on the chart. You will say that you don't believe and that nobody else should either, because the whole idea just doesn't make sense. By this time you are not only proud to not believe but your outrage about the consequences of belief on society means that you are quite prepared to go out there in public and become an active advocate against religion. You are no longer satisfied with the ' live and let live' attitude. You recognise that you will face some antagonism but you are quite prepared to face that because you are convinced that you are fighting for the social good of your community. You are the type of atheist that many believers will label 'millitant.' Yet, it should be recognised that even with your 'extreme' form of atheism you are not advocating forcing atheism on the general population. No, that would make you a Category six atheist and I can't include that as a category because I frankly have never met, listened to or read anything from an atheist who has advocated such a campaign. Category six atheists are in the same category as God, purely hypothetical entities.
However, you as a category five atheist will not compromise on the severity of your language. You will unequivocally state your position on faith, calling religious texts ' fairy tales' without batting an eyelid. You will not worry about the pain such truths may cause. You will always remind the theist or the Category four or below atheist that whatever pain religions feel by hearing these facts today is much less than the pain and even deaths that have been caused by the ignorance, lack of critical thinking, discrimination and bigotry that have stemmed from people following a faith of lies. You will emphasise that all that matters to you is that everybody honestly seek the truth and that no free passes be given to certain belief systems because many people say they can't live without them.
So, those are the type of atheists I have met. I have not met any of them who fall outside all those categories. Let me know if you have. Of course, not all atheists will go all the way through to Category five. Some may actually never get past Category one, others may settle somewhere between two and four. I consider myself Category four at the moment. I am still not sure that I desire to reach Category five. However, there are definitely times where I have been pushing up into that 'five' territory. Perhaps I can say I level out at around 4.6. It will be left to see over time what will happen.
So, if you are an atheist, what Category are you? Are you looking to move up? I think its important you know and keep asking yourself that question. I also think it is critical that those of us hoping to drive the atheist movement know. It will be unreasonable to expect people in Category one and two to be out in the vanguard with us that are in the high fours or fives. We have to let people grow and move to higher categories at their own pace, or stay where they are if that is what they prefer.One thing that should give us hope is that I have only seen these atheist category movements in individuals go in one direction. Up!
Hurricanes can downgrade, but atheists do not. Once clouds of atheists come together and the system becomes more organised, believers know the winds of change will be irresistible. That's what I think makes those in religion so very, very scared.