What Else Can We Learn from the ‘Six Types of Atheists’ Study?

Earlier this month, researchers Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman III released a study identifying what they believed were the six different kinds of atheists: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, Activist, Seeker-Agnostic, Anti-Theist, Non-Theist, and Ritual Atheist/Agnostic:

What some people think all atheists look like

After CNN’s Dan Merica‘s article about the study went viral, commenters had a ton of things to say about it, good and bad. CNN Belief Blog’s Daniel Burke took those questions directly to Silver and Coleman. Like this one:

Q: @PaulTK asks: Are atheists limited to the six categories your study proposes?

A: We suspect that further research exploring people who don’t believe in God will certainly expand the number of categories and fill in more details about the six we’ve named.

For example, we found that the Intellectual Academic Atheist type may produce a 7th type reflecting those who are more “philosophically orientated” versus those who are more “scientifically orientated.” Our study also gives some evidence that individuals may not believe in God but still identify with religion or spirituality in some way.

The overall point may be obvious to us (though not so much to others): Atheists are just as diverse as, say, Christians. It’s silly that people would treat us as a monolithic group, but that’s how stereotypes work.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    One Type of Christian – http://t.co/s4FqLnsfF8

  • Acleron

    Are those categories supposed to be mutually exclusive?

    • C Peterson

      That was my impression. However, as I commented on the earlier discussion, they most certainly are not. I can provide at least one example of an atheist (myself) who is solidly described by more than one of the six categories.

      • randomfactor

        I think I’m about three of them.

    • siveambrai

      Nope. Usually when you code participants (or responses) in a study like this you chose a dominant category for a particular person. It’s not the only category they have to fit in but it’s the one that shapes most of their responses. However, you do want a pretty strong alignment with a category. If it’s a wishy-washy alignment you need to look at your coding scheme and determine if there is another group that should be made to account for the middling association.

  • Matt D

    I learned diversity isn’t just skin deep a LONG time ago, but I know studies that show that are useful, nonetheless.

  • WallofSleep

    “Q: @PaulTK asks: Are atheists limited to the six categories your study proposes?”

    Of course not. Sadly, they left out my “type”: Drunken Skeptic.

  • randomfactor

    “Orientated?”

    • JSC_ltd

      It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

    • 3lemenope

      That’s what they get up to in Canadia.

  • A3Kr0n

    I’m working on my 5 reasons why the “Six Types Of Atheists” will never make the top ten list.

  • miker42

    At least they care enough to start asking questions.

    Well here are 10 more types of atheism from my old discarded blog. My favorite is Hobgoblin atheist. http://darkorifice.com/2011/11/26/does-atheism-have-denominations/

  • WalterP

    Word of advice: if you cringe when seminary-educated pastors teach on evolutionary theory, you should probably take a step backward from this study too. Silver seems to be intentionally ambiguous on his educational credentials; it is not clear that he has any training in qualitative research or conducting surveys. His larger survey employed the same non-random internet sampling strategy that the infamous “same-sex marriage hurts kids” study employed–a method heavily criticized and dismissed by academic professional groups. Fifty-nine interviews on their own, also not a random sample, could not possibly uncover the “Six Types of Atheists” as he claims. It’s also quite possible that his own biases may cloud his analysis, much like a Mormon typologizing Mormons, for instance.

    The most academic study of American atheism (with a much stronger, more scientific methodology that has likely gone through a peer-review process) was undertaken by two well-respected sociologists:
    There is No God: Atheists in America
    http://amzn.com/1442218495

    • Joseph Langston

      (1.) “Silver seems to be intentionally ambiguous on his educational credentials; it is not clear that he has any training in qualitative research or conducting surveys.” Here is his CV; see what you think. http://www.utc.edu/Academic/Psychology/documents/ChristopherSilverVitae.pdf

      (2.) “His larger survey employed [a ]non-random internet sampling strategy.” Can you tell me how YOU would acquire a *random* sample of ATHEISTS for a *qualitative* study?

      (3.) “Fifty-nine interviews on their own, also not a random sample, could not possibly uncover the ‘Six Types of Atheists’ as he claims.” I’m not sure you understand what actually happened in this study; I’m also not sure you understand how qualitative research works. If you’re saying he needs a higher N, that’s fine, wouldn’t we all like that, but to say 59 interviews could not yield patterns for types upon which useful theoretical distinctions could be made is, well, confusing.

      (4.) “It’s also quite possible that his own biases may cloud his analysis, much like a Mormon typologizing Mormons, for instance.” So we should find atheists studying atheists, or Christians studying Christians, to be suspect? No doubt any researcher carries their biases, but if you’re intent on being legit about the enterprise, you check that from the outset. If anything, I see that he is an atheist (and perhaps could be legitimately classified as an anti-theist; he prefers “secular humanist”) who wants the public to have a better understanding of atheists.

      (5.) “The most academic study of American atheism was undertaken by two well-respected sociologists: There is No God: Atheists in America.” In what sense would you qualify this as “the most academic study” of American atheism?

    • Joseph Langston

      (1.) “Silver seems to be intentionally ambiguous on his educational credentials; it is not clear that he has any training in qualitative research or conducting surveys.” Here’s his CV, evaluate for yourself:
      http://www.utc.edu/Academic/Psychology/documents/ChristopherSilverVitae.pdf

      (2.) “His larger survey employed [a ]non-random internet sampling strategy”. Can you tell me how YOU would acquire a *random* sample of ATHEISTS for a *qualitative* study?

      (3.) “Fifty-nine interviews on their own, also not a random sample, could not possibly uncover the “Six Types of Atheists” as he claims.” I’m not sure you actually know what happened in this study; I’m also not sure you understand qualitative research and how it works. If you’re saying that he needs a higher N, well that’s fine, wouldn’t we all like that, but if you’re saying that 59 interviews is not enough for patterns of types to emerge, upon which can be made useful theoretical distinctions…well, that’s confusing.

      (4.) “It’s also quite possible that his own biases may cloud his analysis, much like a Mormon typologizing Mormons, for instance.” No one doubts that researchers have their biases; that’s why, if you are intent on being legit about the enterprise, you check them at the door. But to raise this point here also means that we’d always have to raise the same point about atheists studying atheists, Christians studying Christians, etc and so forth. Playing politics with your research is no good, but we can’t jump to that conclusion when someone produces research that has implications we don’t like, for whatever reason.

      (5.) Also, just curious, but how do you qualify Yancey and Williamson’s work as “the most academic study of American atheism”?


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