The Six Types of Atheist
RELIGION, 22 Jul 2013
A new study in the US seeks to break down atheists into distinct categories. Which one do you fall into?
You’d have thought the scientific study of atheism was a no-brainer. Just as religions can be understood from the outside using all the ordinary tools of sociology, psychology, economics, or historical understanding, so can different varieties of atheism. And surely this would be a good thing. Yet there has been surprisingly little work in this direction, and surprisingly little of it has been done or publicised by atheists.
In this country there has been Matthew Engelke’s study of the British Humanist Association, and some work done at Lancaster University, too. In America, a study has just been published by the University of Tennessee, based on a survey of 1,153 American atheists, biased towards the south-eastern states.
They found six categories, all of whom are represented in the comments here, though few form a year-round population. The largest group (37%) was what I would call “cultural non-believers”, and what they call “academic” or “intellectual atheists”: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers. I call them “cultural” because they are at home in a secular culture which takes as axiomatic that exclusive religious truth claims must be false. Essentially, they are how I imagined the majority readership of Comment is free’s belief section.
They are more than twice as common as the “anti-theists” whose characteristics hardly need spelling out here:
If any subset of our non-belief sample fit the “angry, argumentative, dogmatic” stereotype, it is the anti-theists. This group scored the highest amongst our other typologies on empirical psychometric measures of anger, autonomy, agreeableness, narcissism, and dogmatism while scoring lowest on measures of positive relations with others … the assertive anti-theist both proactively and aggressively asserts their views towards others when appropriate, seeking to educate the theists in the passé nature of belief and theology.
Nonetheless, these people made up only 14% of their sample, and all other research that I know of would place their proportion much lower.
The other two noteworthy groups are those to whom religion is completely and entirely irrelevant, “non-theists”, and what the researchers call “ritual atheists“, who overlap quite a lot with “seeker-agnostics”, both of whom might be targeted under the marketing category known as “spiritual but not religious”. What defines them is the ability to treat religious practices as something like acupuncture or Chinese medicine: something that works even though the explanation is obviously nonsense:
One of the defining characteristics regarding ritual atheists/agnostics is that they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions. They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation. Ritual atheist/agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual.
As the authors observe, this covers a large spectrum of American Jewry.
(One further category, “activist“, is used to label those who hold strong beliefs on ethical and environmental issues. Pretty much what the term means in lay parlance.)
I think the English, or more generally European results, would be different. The typologies are broadly the same, but since Christianity is much less of a marker in European culture wars, and certainly not an active one in the UK, you would expect the distribution of categories to be different, and for people to be very much less self-conscious about unbelief and less likely to regard it as a salient feature of their personalities.
But it would be interesting to know how commenters here see themselves.
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