University Researchers Say There Are Six Typologies of Non-Believers. Which One Are You?

Are you an Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, or an Activist Atheist/Agnostic?

Do you identify as a Seeker Agnostic, or are you more of a Ritual Atheist/Agnostic?

Are you an Anti-theist or a Non-theist?

Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have identified those typologies in an effort to create “a modest crack in the monolithic ‘religious none’ category,” as they put it.

What bothered Christopher Silver (who is active in the Chattanooga Freethought Association) and his research partner Thomas Coleman III, was that

…[p]revious research and studies focusing on the diverse landscape of belief in America have continually placed those who profess no belief in a God or gods into one unified category infamously known as the “religious nones”. This catch-all category presented anyone who identified as having “no religion” as a homogenous group in America today, lumping people who may believe in God with the many who don’t.

Hence, the six typologies. You can read here about how the researchers describe each group; based on the definitions, you should be able to figure out which typology fits you.

Christopher Silver

Personally, I’m, um, agnostic on how useful and how widely applicable these academic efforts are, but I suppose it can’t hurt that Silver and Coleman found that irate, argumentative atheists (the researchers call them Anti-theists) only make up about 15% of the U.S. non-believer population. Interestingly, 45% of this subgroup lives in the South, a region that I can only imagine is so steeped in faith that it drives non-believers batty with slow-building rage.

Silver and Coleman note that

[Non-believers] may have had to dispel with stereotypical assumptions from friends, family and acquaintances ranging from “all atheists are angry and argumentative” to “all you heathens are just as dogmatic as religious people.”… [O]ne of the many questions our empirical research was able to address was “Are all atheists angry, argumentative and dogmatic”? Our results lead us to answer that question with a resounding “Absolutely not!” 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.

“You’re essentially normal,” is how Coleman summarized his findings to Raw Story.

[A]theists range across “a normal distribution of personality types,” and… the aggressive, confrontational stereotype of atheism only applies to a sliver of the people who identify as non-believers… “Most of the non-believers we researched, they’re looking to affect the world, to make the world better. They do care, and they care about everyone.”

Keep in mind this wasn’t a random sampling of atheists, but it does offer some insight into the almost-paradoxical diversity of beliefs among non-believers.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Are you an Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, or an Activist Atheist/Agnostic?
    Do you identify as a Seeker Agnostic, or are you more of a Ritual Atheist/Agnostic?

    Actually, like Richard Dawkins, I am a Santa Claus/Agnostic. I am agnostic about God in the same way I am agnostic about Santa Claus. Ho ho ho!

  • Houndentenor

    I find the distinctions between these categories too murky. Someone needs a little more work on his hypothesis.

  • trivialknot

    I’m a little unclear on the methodology. First they interviewed 59 people to build the typology. Then they surveyed 1153 people by snowball sampling over the internet. They categorized these people by their own typology, and scored them on several established scales such as the “Rokeach Dogmatism Scale” and the “Multidimensional Anger Inventory”.

    How exactly were the 1153 respondents categorized? Will there be a more formal write-up in the future?

    Are there plans for further studies? I’d be especially interested in a cluster analysis study.

  • Dave Muscato

    I talked to the study authors today. They will be presenting their full findings at a conference in Switzerland at the end of August, and plan to publish a book with more detailed info as well.

  • trivialknot

    Interestingly, 45% of this subgroup [the anti-theists] lives in the South, a region that I can only imagine is so steeped in faith that it drives non-believers
    batty with slow-building rage.

    People from the south were 51% of the respondents, so anti-theists were actually slightly underrepresented there. Seeker-Agnostics and Non-theists were overrepresented. That kind of goes opposite to what I would expect, but data trumps speculation.

  • bamcintyre

    I find it adequate to define myself as an atheist.. I don’t think that all of these pseudo-distinctions are of significant value. As Richard Dawkins says, if you are agnostic, it only means you can’t make up your mind. I did. There are no gods, there are no devils, and people need to take responsibility for their own actions and not blame them or bestow them on some fictional character.

  • jferris

    And that, Houndentenor, is the key. The ability to have an idea that can be subject to criticism, review, debate, change, acknowledgement, and if necessary, ridicule and rejection. That is why I do not believe. No belief allows me to challenge their hypothesis.

    And excellent comment.

  • meekinheritance

    …take responsibility for their own actions…, and accept that the cosmos doesn’t care about you, and there is no karmic/higher reason for why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa).

  • Frank Key

    I don’t know what atheist typology I am. I do know what interests me most is the study of what causes people to choose to believe in the supernatural. I was raised a Christian from birth and, in spite of a college education and rewarding exposure to the secular world, was not able to completely rid myself of the last vestiges of religious belief until my late 40′s (about 17 years ago). What processes happen with one’s thinking that causes religious belief to develop such a strong grip and be so reluctant to let go? Intellectual atheist, maybe?

  • A3Kr0n

    I don’t want to be labeled, dammit! How could I have guessed when I was a kid thinking Jesus and Santa were fakes, that I’d someday need to be in some category of non belief?
    OK, what label is that?

  • Houndentenor

    I suspect you wouldn’t find so many anti-theists in a place like Sweden where religion isn’t interfering with your life, your rights and your freedom on a daily basis.

  • Houndentenor

    I think we can all agree that there are different types of atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers. I find this to be flawed, but someone has to be first to put a thesis out there. Perhaps this will lead to further study and better categories.

  • Drew M.

    I see no “slactivist atheist.” :(

  • David Mock

    I don’t believe in gods and am willing to admit I’m not 100% sure (no one is). Do I really have to be defined beyond that?

  • pierre

    I think the important thing is that everybody has a way to identify themselves that they are comfortable with, if they choose any at all. Me, I’m fine with Atheist.

  • Dogly

    In my own experience, and that of many other atheists I asked, we may go through many of these ‘types’ on our intellectual, ethical, and emotional journey. Terry Firma is also absolutely correct in his guess about why 45% of the anti-theist type live in the south. I have lived north, south, east, and west, but I never felt the need to become an activist about atheism until I moved to the Theocracy of Florida. The unrelenting religious bullying and christain priviledge drive me up the wall!

  • Tainda

    That’s the term I was looking for!

    I read stuff online and go to blogs but that’s the extent. I support many different causes but I’m too busy with work and family to be a full blown activist.

  • Houndentenor

    I’m different types in different situations. I don’t bring up my lack of belief most of the time. I’m happy to discuss my lack of belief with friends and colleagues if they want to discuss it but I assume they wouldn’t want me in their face about it any more than I want them in my face about my belief. Most of my arguments with theists are the theists who show up on atheist or nonbeliever-friendly blogs who are obviously looking for a fight anyway. I’m happy to oblige. I get in enough trouble for being a skeptic and mocking people’s facebook postings about Mercury in retrograde, anti-vax, homeopathy and other unscientific nonsense.

  • Houndentenor

    Was there a category for “apatheist”? (People who don’t know if there’s a god and don’t care either way.) I know several of those.

  • Feminerd

    Heh. I’ve had to just stop going to Facebook- the nonsense on there is just too extreme! I was tired of losing respect for various family members and acquaintances.

  • trivialknot

    Yes, that’s the group they called “non-theist”.

  • StatsWhee

    Funny–I just assumed that they did a cluster analysis. How else would they come up with the types? (But their explanation doesn’t seem to indicate that that occurred). As such, this intellectual atheist’s feathers are ruffled!

  • newenglandbob

    This kind if stuff is why sociology has little respect. These stereotypes are comical.

  • advancedatheist

    I am a Santa Claus/Agnostic.

    Otherwise known as a “clausphemer.”

    If you don’t believe in Santa, how can your life have any meaning or purpose?

  • Miss_Beara

    And events, good or bad, do not “happen for a reason”! They just happen. My cousin getting terminal cancer did not “happen for a reason” so she could get close to her family again.

    I don’t even…

  • John Quixote

    I ascribe to the “mind virus” hypothesis myself. It seems a bit circular, but if you ascribe to a particular set of beliefs, {X}, and {X} entails holding the individual belief x that not believing {X} is the worst thing possible, that makes {X} a very, very difficult set or system to discard.

  • Robster

    We all love a label.

  • C Peterson

    I guess the categories are fine as far as they go (although the meaningless “agnostic” should have been left out). The problem is, they aren’t mutually exclusive. If I understand the survey, respondents could only select one choice. That leaves me questioning the validity of the results.

    I certainly would have been unable to select any one category for myself, even if asked to select the best or primary category. Since birth I’ve been a simple atheist- a person who does not, and never have had any belief in a god. For more than 20 years I’ve been what the researchers call an academic or intellectual atheist- very interested in the moral and political implications of faith and the lack of faith. For at least 10 years I’ve been what they consider an activist atheist, interacting with others online and being publicly vocal about political issues that are influenced by religion (abortion rights, gay rights, state/church separation). For probably 20 years or more I’ve been an anti-theist, although I prefer “anti-religionist”, arguing that religious people have actual mental deficiencies, and that religion itself is fundamentally harmful to society. I arguably stray into non-theism: not that I’m apathetic, but neither theism, atheism, nor religion plays a role in my daily life. The only things in the list that don’t describe me at all are seeker and ritual atheist.

    To make this survey meaningful, and far more interesting, respondents should have been asked to place themselves on a spectrum for each category, ranging from “doesn’t describe me at all” to “completely describes me”.

  • Thalfon

    It’s good to keep in mind that these sorts of research aren’t really intended to state that everyone fits nicely into one label or another. They’re more about finding societal trends, and it’s probably better to think of it from a sociological perspective than a psychological one.

    The research does, for instance, seem to show that a rather small percentage of non-believers are particularly apathetic about their non-belief. It doesn’t explain why (though there are a couple good hypotheses we could make*), but it’s perhaps a useful fact for someone studying this field to be aware of.

    *My first guess would be discrimination towards atheists, my second would be that most atheists are converts from religion (I think) and a convert is more likely to care about — or at least have seriously thought about — their new position than a non-convert in general.

  • TBJ

    an apatheist wouldn’t be able to tell if there was a category for them because he would not have read the article nor would he comment here, if out of sheer chance he had.

  • SeekerLancer

    In other news, university researches are bored.

  • Birdie1986

    Although I don’t think I’m angry all the time, this hit the nail on the head: “argumentative atheists (the researchers call them Anti-theists) only make up about 15% of the U.S. non-believer population. Interestingly, 45% of this subgroup lives in the South, a region that I can only imagine is so steeped in faith that it drives non-believers batty with slow-building rage.”
    Living in Texas and visiting in-laws in Mississippi all the time, and being bombarded with religious idiocy in both places is trying. Particularly trying if you are also a moderate liberal from the Midwest.

  • Houndentenor

    Good point.

  • abb3w

    The “six types” seem to have parallel to Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways of Being Religious”.

    Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics look to follow the Way of Reasoned Inquiry;
    Activist Atheist/Agnostics look to follow the Way of Right Action;
    Seeker-Agnostics look to follow the Way of Mystical Quest;
    Ritual Atheist/Agnostics look to follow the Way of Sacred Rite;
    Anti-Theists look to follow (something in the neighborhood of) the Way of Devotion; and
    Non-Theists… OK, although I’d be curious about the relative fraction of engineers (but expect more atheist engineers would be in the Activists), they don’t particularly fit the Way of Shamanic Mediation all that well.

    Still, a (minimum) solid-seeming four out of six seems an interesting level of overlap.

  • abb3w

    From the article: “As social scientists we are forced to label, yet at the same time, we recognize qualitatively the limits inherent in any label.”

  • dewNOTbelieve

    G. All of the above (to varying degrees, at various times, for a variety of reasons).

  • EmpiricalPierce

    Interestingly, 45% of this subgroup lives in the South, a region that I can only imagine is so steeped in faith that it drives non-believers batty with slow-building rage.

    As an atheist in Georgia who has seven churches within a mile’s drive of his home, ARGHHH.

  • Sids

    Take a closer look at the statistics. The South contributed the vast majority of all of the classifications. They actually were underrepresented in the antitheists. The massive skewing of the sample size makes this particular statistic largely meaningless. It would have been far more meaningful to determine the percentages of each classification for each region (I expect in the actual report they do exactly that).

  • Sids

    The amount of anti-theist relative to the total ‘nones’ in the south is only 12.5% (74 out of 592 responders). Less than the 15% in the national population. Which is actually the opposite of how they present it.

  • surfcow

    The types feel like somewhat of accurate archetypes of specific individuals:

    Academic – B Russell
    Activist – C Hitchens / R Ingersoll
    Agnostic – C Sagan
    Anti-theist – S Harris
    Non-theist – apathetic Buddha
    Ritual Atheist – D Dennet