There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.
- “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
- “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
- Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, which is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise.
“Smarter than you” atheism sometimes incorporates elements of protest atheism in the form of a moral or political critique of the effects of religion. But that aspect is grounded in the basic assumption that religious beliefs are false and therefore holding them makes you stupid — meaning, as a corollary, that you do stupid and destructive things. By contrast, the smart atheist, free of the blinders of religion, has arrived at the best and truest way of life: secular liberal capitalism. So the end result of being really smart, unlike those religious freaks, is conformism, leaving us to wonder whether all the harsh rhetoric and college dormroom “gotchas” were worth it in the end.
Protest atheism, for its part, always threatens to collapse into “smarter than you” atheism when suffering and injustice become steps in a disproof of theistic beliefs rather than representing a genuine and heartfelt outrage. Even so, protest atheism at least preserves the sense that the world is not as it should be — and unlike the impoverished social critique of “smarter than you” atheism, it does not scapegoat some particular group or belief system (“If only we could get rid of those idiot religious people, we could have our utopia of reason!”). This scapegoating instinct is another element in the elective affinity between “smarter than you” atheism and racism.