Seven Atheist Archetypes


(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #1

About 172 million people worldwide consider themselves atheists, adding those who call themselves “unaffiliated” or “nonreligious” brings the number to around 1 billion. Atheism represents a variety of people with equally varied journeys. Some “found” atheism, others have been atheists since childhood. Many people easily transitioned into non-belief but many others found the journey difficult and heartbreaking. Some atheists are vocal activists while others aren’t safe to live openly as nonbelievers. Let’s celebrate our diversity! The labels don’t matter, but our stories do.

  1. The Lifelong Atheist
    Lifelong atheists grew up in atheist, or otherwise nonreligious families. They were born atheists (as are we all) and for the most part, have never been interested in religion beyond the academic. Most lifelong atheists find religious people perplexing. Having never been exposed to religious communities, they may find it difficult to understand religious people.

When Corey Evans was young, his parents allowed him to make up his own mind about religion. When invited to church, he was curious and went. He continued to go, but not as a believer. He asked a lot of questions and marveled when the people didn’t have answers or gave him answers that were trite. Corey was told that it wasn’t his place to ask questions. Once he asked the pastor why they would not accept gays and why they always condemned others for being wrong even though they couldn’t prove that other religions weren’t right. The pastor basically told him that he’s not the one who is allowed to make those choices, it was God who was the judge. It didn’t take Corey long to realize church wasn’t where he belonged. When he was nine or ten he left and never returned. “I’ve always felt that religion is holding us back from accomplishing something greater. It’s time for God to die, the universe is too big to be concerned with the mythological standards of religion.”

  1. The Atheist-at-Heart
    The atheist-at-heart is very similar to the lifelong atheist but they didn’t have the benefit of a supportive atheist community. Even though they might have been forced to participate in religion as a child, deep down, they never fully bought into it.

Jessika Yamily Pardio started off her young life in Mexico in a very eclectic family with no strict religious beliefs. After moving to America when she was six, Jessika’s mother (then divorced from her father) remarried. Her stepfather was a fundamentalist Christian so her family began attending a Baptist church. She was reluctant at first to accept her stepfather’s religion - after all, her grandfather was an atheist and told her “don’t believe everything anyone tells you, especially if they are trying to get you to think the way they do.” But over time, the influence of the church youth group wooed her into the fold, and at 12, she became a devoted Christian. When she was 14, Jessika began to feel the oppression of Christianity. She had always felt fluid in her sexuality and her first crush in fifth grade was on a female classmate. At the same time, she was hearing the church condemn homosexuality while demonstrating blatant hypocrisy by hiding the indiscretions of church leaders. At 15, it became clear to her that Christian ideology was a failure and she left the religion. Jessika’s atheist grandfather recently passed away and she is forever thankful that he planted the seeds of critical thinking.

  1. The Waffler
    The waffler has shifted between religion and non-belief in a variety of forms and for a variety of reasons - sometimes multiple times. Some people started out secular then sought out religion in times of crisis or (re)turned to religion because of marriage or children and later find their way to atheism.

Raised in a secular family, Armin Navabi was surrounded by religion in the Islamic Republic. Even though the ruling clerics were generally despised at the time, most people still would never think to question god or the prophet Muhammad. Around 9 or 10, he became very worried about hell, especially for his parents since they did not pray or fast, a requirement in Islam, for one to go to heaven. In his school, children were taught that boys couldn’t sin before age 15 (for girls, it was 9); no matter what they did, they would go to heaven if they died before 15. So he reasoned that he had a solution to his worry about hell - he would kill himself before he turned 15. When he was 12 years old, Armin jumped from a school window. He broke his left ankle in nine places, his right leg, his left hand and his back without cutting the spinal cord. He was in a wheelchair for seven months.

After his failed suicide attempt, Armin determined to live as a perfect Muslim. He became very zealous, even trying to get his parents to pray, which only served to annoy them. He developed a fascination in god, and a curiosity about all things related to god, including other religious views. While studying the history of religion, the more he thought about it, the more god seemed to be fabricated by man. Armin prayed many times, asking for a sign or direction to a logical proof of god’s existence, but to no avail. By 16, Armin was an agnostic searching for proof. But the fact that it was so hard to find evidence of god, turned him into an atheist by 18. His experience has given him an understanding of religious people as well as a conviction about the dangers of superstitious belief.

  1. The Seeker
    Seekers are often deep thinkers, hungry for answers. Some seekers explore and experience many different spiritual paths as they journey through life. Others have never considered themselves spiritual, but have always asked the hard questions, demanding to know “why?”. As atheists, seekers often make great skeptics.

Fiona Owens was born to a single mom who is a Wiccan. Early on, Fiona was the one always asking “why?”, never just accepting what she was told by anyone. When she was curious about the Christianity of her neighbor, her mom allowed her to visit a Sunday School class. After asking one too many difficult questions, Fiona was told she was no longer welcome. At 14, the concerns she had about her mother’s coven and the lack of answer from the church led her to reject religion for good. As an adult, she confronted her alcoholism and was told that without a higher power, she would fail, which made her think,“if I get the blame for drinking why should a higher power get the credit for my hard work while getting sober?” Facebook opened up the atheist community to her and she is glad she is no longer alone.

  1. The Rogue
    The rogue most likely grew up in a religious family (or came to religion at some point), conforming to the religious community and experiencing and expressing religion with sincere conviction. A combination of compelling atheist arguments and internal self-doubt led the rogue to abandon his/her religious convictions, often with a lot of hurt feelings and resentment. Rogues tend to become the most outspoken activists after having seen first-hand how much damage religion can cause.

April White Ward grew up in a fanatical Christian home. As a sensitive, creative child, the details of hell and sin forged deep-rooted fears that have followed her into adulthood. Convinced she could never make a right decision, that she was a horrible person and that she would be punished if she stepped out of line, April descended into a dark sea of self-loathing and self-punishing behavior. On the edge of a mental break, she decided to start reading the Bible at Genesis and write down all her questions. When her father got frustrated with her questions, telling her she couldn’t understand because she was a woman, her eyes were opened to the flaws and contradictions. She began to see how she had been manipulated and controlled, leaving her helpless, trapped and scared. She became furious. It was out of this fury that a desire to prove her worth took hold. Her mind kept trying to return to her old beliefs but the more she read the Bible, the clearer it became that it was all a lie.

April now considers herself an atheist. There is nothing left of Christianity in her. She is a strong, capable woman. Even though her family thinks she is demon-possessed and is pushing her away to the point of asking her to remove her maiden name from her Facebook account, she stands strong. “The scared little girl is still there, but she is a little less afraid. I will have to work on the esteem, but at least now I am searching for a way to feel whole. I’m certain that I will grow up and find my place in this world. I will fight for all the other scared little girls, and if I can help one to feel loved and whole, then I will deem my life a success.”

  1. The Conscientious Objector
    Like the rogue, this person chooses to leave religion as an adult, often to the chagrin of family and friends. The Conscientious Objector might actually desire to stay in religious community because they don’t want to hurt their family, but they cannot, in good conscience, continue to participate in things they don’t believe. They understand the religious impulse and are sympathetic to their religious friends and family.

When the Jehovah’s Witness missionaries would come to Natalia Sali’s door, her mother would respond, “We’re born Catholics, we will die Catholics,” right after offering them drinks and biscuits. Her father didn’t care about religion much until a few months before he died. Like many Catholics, they were regular churchgoers with very little knowledge of the Bible, not reading it much themselves. In college, she was focused on her studies and local activism to oust corrupt Philippine presidents, dismantle American military bases, getting health bills and welfare legislation passed, etc. When she was 24, she married a man from a Muslim family but because her family wanted to see her married in a Catholic church, her fiancé underwent baptism and confirmation.

After college, she worked for a Christian organization that helped the poor. During that time, she became a feminist and found it difficult to reconcile Christianity with feminism. After moving to England, Natalia joined a Filipino Evangelical Church. There were many elements of the religion she found absurd but she still believed in a God who was good and wanted to answer prayers. After being in England for two years which included much soul-searching, finding discrepancies in the Bible, reading books like In God We Doubt, by John Humphrys, and using common sense, Natalia became a closet atheist. Coming out in England was easy but back in the Philippines, her family was heartbroken. Natalia is very understanding of the impulse to turn to religion when people don’t have hope and works with many religious people in charity organizations. She is not keen to debate and really would like to be seen as a nice person. She wants people to see that that “atheists can be good, happy, decent, helpful, and successful without a god.”

  1. The Reluctant Nonbeliever
    While most atheists are content in their non-belief, some come by it kicking and screaming and may continue to pine for the days of certainty and religious community. Reluctant Nonbelievers may continue to consider themselves “spiritual” while maintaining a disbelief in any kind of higher power or mystical element to the world, or they may just wish they could believe for whatever reason - often thinking it would be “easier”. Some reluctant nonbelievers are atheists who live in very religious communities, finding atheism to be a very lonely path or think they “should” be religious.

Susi Bocks did not grow up in a religious home, but she still thought she was “supposed” to have religious conviction, or at least believe in god. When she was younger, Susi’s thoughts revolved around a feeling that there had to be a creator. She tried for years to find the creator. She went from church to church hoping for answers. One day, she stopped going to church for answers and just asked people questions. She experienced an epiphany after watching a movie called “The Rapture”, realizing that she could never follow this egomaniacal god that so many people wanted her to believe was real. She realized if there was a god, he was a dick. From that time on, having no evidence for a god, she called herself an atheist and feels free to experience the love of a husband, children and friends, not worrying about belief in the supernatural or the guilt and shame it can bring.

Whatever your path, finding your voice and telling your story can be a liberating experience, even if all you can do is start by telling it to yourself. Is now the time to share your personal pathway to atheism? We would be honored to create a platform for you. Reply to this email to tell us your story and we might publish it on the Atheist Republic website. Please be clear about how you want your name to appear. You also have the option of using a pseudonym or remaining anonymous.

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #3

Thanks for sharing some real stories of how others become atheists. Most of Peaceful Science are Christians, and may not now how to respond. First, there is lot of truth here to affirm and agree with.

That is exactly what it looks like. Which is why would have probably become an atheist if I had not encountered something greater. It takes courage to leave the manmade religion of our parents, especially in the parts of the world it cost you your life.

Especially if we think homosexuality is sin, this is all the more hypocritical. There is real abuse of power in many churches. I understand why she left.

That is just horrifically sad. We want their questions. I hope they come and visit here. I know this happens, because I have seen similar things. It is just crushingly sad.

There is evidence for God if she wants it. Though, I’m glad both of you have found enjoyment and fulfillment in your life.

@Patrick, realistically speaking, what would it take for you to change your mind? If you were to ever leave atheism, how would you imagine that would happen? Just curious.


(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #4

I can easily be a “pretend” to be a Christian at any time. It will take no effort on my part to “live” a Christian lifestyle. If you attend services of any kind, I am just like perhaps a third of the people attending. I would say it is always simple for me to go from the atheist opinion, to the agnostic cultural Christian. I can blend in so easily because I look like an American Christian, I behave like a Christian.

Now that isn’t the real question you asked. what would it take for me to change my mind? As in true believer, as in going from agnostic to believer. That is much harder as I can honestly say that even as a child I was never a believer. So I would have to say is that I would need that experience that couldn’t be explained in any other way. It might be a craving for life to be something more than I know it is. Life could become so painful for me that I will need to create something more in my mind. Creating a comforting loving God could ease the pain in a hopeless situation. But it would have to be really hopeless as I am really good at being rational and reasoning in crisis’s.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #5

@Patrick, which of these archetypes is you? Are you The Atheist-at-Heart? @argon, you are an agnostic, but do any of these seem to fit you?

I prefer the real version of you, not the fake version.

I suppose I didn’t “create” God for a reason like dealing with my pain. I was ready to leave it all, because it all looked manmade. I would probably be an atheist now, if I hadn’t encountered Jesus.

In these stories of coming to atheism, I notice that there is a lot of talk about god, church, beliefs, and faith. There is little said about Jesus. I wonder if that explains why I relate with those stories, and understand them and why I am different. I can see myself in these stories. I really can. Maybe I just encountered something in the same journey as them, and that changed my direction entirely?

I also see so often the emphasis on answers over questions drives people to atheism. I relate. That is why I hated doctrine growing up, and then why I came to love theology. Whatever their journeys might be, I hope Peaceful Science will be the place those like them can bring their questions. We may not have all the answers, but we do want the questions.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #6

I do find it revealing that this has turned into a private thread between you and I @Patrick. I’m sorry about that, @Patrick. I wish others here would engage empathetically with these real stories. It may just take some time to build more understanding, and perhaps time for some to grown in confidence. I hope you do not take it personally. This is one of your best posts.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) split this topic #7

14 posts were split to a new topic: Side Comments on Seven Atheist Archetypes

(S. Joshua Swamidass) split this topic #8

A post was merged into an existing topic: How Keith Left LCMS

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #10

I found the freedom of non-belief to be at first exhilarating. No such thing as sin, no gods, no afterlife to consider. Just this life to minimize suffering and maximize pleasure. But then the realization that I am totally responsible for me in a cruel and non-caring world. Then I read Tolle’s Power of Now and realized if I lived in the Now, I could live with both purpose and meaning and enjoy living right now. Every now and then I must do something unpleasant but by and large each day is enjoyable.

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #12

@Patrick, I’m just now getting started on this thread but I can already tell that this will be an interesting one.

I’ve often seen people consolidate the “unaffiliated” and the “nonreligious” and the “atheist” categories into one “super-category”, but this baffles me! Yes, atheists are usually but not always “nonreligious” and “unaffiliated.” [[e.g., I’ve had Jewish colleagues who were adamant atheists yet they never missed “temple” as they called it—though I would call it “synagogue.” So they were both religious and affiliated, though atheist. And some of my Jewish colleagues were “unaffiliated” (i.e., hadn’t attended synagogue since early childhood) and yet considered themselves both non-theists and “religious”.]] Lots of nonreligious and unaffiliated people are theists. Long story short: Why bother to add up “unaffiliated” and “non-religious” and “atheists” into a single number of one billion? (I’ve heard some cynics claim it is because atheists wish to inflate their numbers and influence—though I consider that an unfair charge.)

Some would even argue that many Americans call themselves “Christian” even though they are agnostic and unaffiliated and not at all religious. Yet, on a typical form, they will enter their “religion” as “Christian.” So these categories can be very tricky.

Meanwhile, lots of Buddhists are non-theists (some would even say atheist) and are unaffiliated but consider themselves very religious.

Anyway, I would be curious as to why you chose to consolidate atheists, unaffiliates, and nonreligious? That seems to me a lot like grouping tomatoes, carrots, and rocks as “non-animals” because they all may be found on the ground. (Yeah, that was meant to be jarring!)

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #15

Yes, the numbers are WAGs - Wild Assed Guesses. As you mentioned there are a lot of cross categories. My favorites are Atheist Jews, Cultural Catholics, and CINOs - Christians in name only. I really think that one’s belief are across a wide spectrum and changes considerably as one experiences life’s ebbs and flows.

Also here are some definitions to consider:

Disengagement means pulling away from doing Christian stuff. Disengaged people might still consider themselves Christian, but they no longer pray, attend church, tithe, etc. A deconverted person has rejected the religion entirely. Not all disengaged people are deconverted, and some deconverted people still perform those observances for various reasons. Sometimes you hear the term disaffiliated, too, which can go either way.

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #16

I think another good forum tip would be that we always explain our acronyms. As our audience becomes more diverse (and more international) we can’t always be sure how people will interpret our acronyms. (WAGs has at least three meanings which come to my mind—and I’ve no doubt that some readers will think of others.)

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #17

Yes, WAGs like the attendance figures at Ark Encounter. :grinning:

(Retired Professor & Minister.) #18

Yes, if I could go back in time and talk to the young Assistant Professor me, he would consider me a WAL (WiseAcre Liberal) because I wouldn’t conform to his anti-evolution views.

(Daniel Deen) #21

@swamidass @Patrick @keiths

I need to digest this thread a little more as well and will be looking forward to reading Keiths thread also. I do invite you to check in on our open office that Josh mentioned. You both would have a unique perspective to offer and, if all goes according to plan, more than a few Lutherans lurking about.

I suppose some of you are familiar with Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola’s work on preachers who are atheists as well as their Clergy Project. Seems like it may somehow be germane to this thread.

(Dr. Patrick Trischitta) #22

Yes, very familiar. Dan Barker, co-President of FFRF, is a former minister and one of the organizers of the Clergy Project which is quite successful helping transition former clergy to secular positions where they can really help people in need. Most former and present ministers are very good secular humanists and can provide much needed “good for goodness sake.”


None. Never been religious but also never been perplexed with the religious faith of many. People have different experiences and can experience the world in subtly different but profoundly influencing ways. Now, the dogmas of religions are another matter entirely… Often, that seems to me to include a lot of hard to justify and very peripheral components. It’s a package deal, a fixed menu, not a buffet. For example, the YEC positions are counter-intuitive for many, many reasons. If one wasn’t a member of a religion that adhered to the Old Testament (OT), I can’t see why anyone would currently think that the Earth was only thousands of years old, or even be concerned about the question. However, for those who follow the OT, I can’t see why someone couldn’t adhere to that dogma and thereby reject any contrary evidence. YEC is simply part of the whole package.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #31

@John_Dalton seems like you are an atheist right. What type are you? (see the original post).

(John Dalton) #32

That I am! I consider myself an agnostic atheist. I read this post and was thinking about it actually. I guess I’m closest to #2. I grew up Catholic and received a solid Catholic indoctrination err education in grammar school, and did buy into things pretty fully until I was in high school. When I started to think about things in depth–not without help from the generally very progressive Jesuit priests in my high school–I realized that the things I had been taught didn’t add up for me. I adopted a deistic view and stopped thinking about religion much at all. Some years later in discussions I realized that I couldn’t justify that and I began calling myself an atheist. It’s only in these past few internet years that I’ve begun really thinking about these topics, and discussing them. For example, I’ve read more of the Bible in the past few years then I ever did during my education :slight_smile:

(Daniel Deen) #33

I’m amazed at the cast of characters that are beginning to congregate here at Peaceful Science.

If we are truly seeking honest, open discourse in search of whatever common ground we may hold, as opposed to killing time between faculty duties, productively procrastinating, or whatever else we should be doing, I’d be interested in a philosophical profile of the atheist categories. What I mean by philosophical profile, is that certain calibrations of epistemic/metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic values (or maybe I’m after virtues) surface in @Patrick categories and stories.

For instance, in the description of “The Lifelong Atheist” @Patrick states,

then tells the story of Corey Evans who,

We have the portrait of an imaginative, open-minded young man willingly stepping into a foreign context (courageous), but perhaps also impatient as “it didn’t take long” for him to leave. While any individual person within an archetype may calibrate their philosophical profiles differently, do any trends form across an archetype?

Then, what are the archetypes of believers and their corresponding philosophical profile? Assuming we can posit some philosophical generalizations about atheist and theist archetypes, how might that help or hinder peaceful conversation about science, religion, politics, whatever?

a few thoughts as I productively procrastinate before bed…

(Guy Coe) #34

J. Warner Wallace has an article here, that I hope is as honest as presented. Regardless, I’d enjoy hearing any comments on it from our cadre of atheist flavors represented here. I do appreciate the virtues on display among them.

Say it ain’t so!