The Six Kinds of Unbelievers

According to a recent study by UT-Chattanooga, one in five Americans are now non-believers. They have identified six categories:

I wonder if they are not missing another very large segment, what I would call the “de facto unbeliever.” The de facto unbeliever attends church, often regularly. He (they are mostly men, in my experience) might say grace before every meal and, if polled, would no doubt affirm that he is a Christian. Yet religion means nothing to him and really enters his consciousness scarcely at all. The only interest he shows in religion is for an hour on Sunday morning, and even then he is obviously bored and detached. If the sermon goes a little too long, he starts to fidget, shuffle his feet, and check his watch. During football season he is especially anxious to get out on time. During the 167 hours of the week that he is not in church he shows no interest in religion at all, never mentioning any religious topic, and certainly never reading anything with religious content. His attitudes, interests, pastimes, and concerns seem wholly secular and this-worldly. Religious belief involves more than a willingness to assent to certain propositions. Some degree of visceral commitment would seem to be required, and it is totally lacking in these guys. Probably it would be better to call them “Homer Simpson unbelievers;” they evince a degree of religious apathy tantamount to unbelief. Pastors no doubt decry the unmotivated, but I think that religious apathy should be strongly encouraged. The benefits of religious apathy have long been neglected or underrated. No religiously apathetic person ever started an inquisition, jihad, crusade, pogrom, persecution, or witch hunt. Maybe we could get the NFL to start games at 11:30 A.M. on Sundays.

About Keith Parsons
  • Keith Parsons

    Bad grammar alert: The first sentence of the above post should have read: “,,,one of every five Americans is now an unbeliever.”


  • Ryan Hite

    I feel like this might be a higher number than observed. I would put them with cafeteria believers, meaning they might believe in that particular religion, but they pick and choose what they like to do in that particular religion.

    • Keith Parsons


      The point about “cafeteria believers” is a good one. Asking people to self-identify is always problematic since it tells you nothing at all about their level of commitment or the degree to which they accept official doctrine. Some nominal Catholics are in church only three times in their lives: Their baptism, wedding, and funeral. Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. You have to conclude either that Vatican proscriptions on birth control are widely ignored or that Italians have lost interest in sex. If you could subtract out the apathetic and the heterodox nominal believers, the number of strict, committed believers would me much smaller.

      • Ryan Hite

        I think that the percentage of Christians who go to church on a weekly basis is on average about 20% across the world in all denominations. The actual percentage of believers is probably much lower because many people I’ve seen in my experiences just “go with the flow”, myself included. I just went for the friends.

  • Christopher Borum

    Maybe the NFL should have one game a week in London, and not just one a season. Start it at 4 PM London time and show it live in the US.

    Can I be a “Homer Simpson atheist”? My wife comes from a Lutheran background and likes to take the family to church. I’m not sure how much she believes deep down. She has told me that she has good memories of church-related activities with her friends, but it’s the friends that were meaningful, not the theology. And over the last ten years, she’s gone from seeing homosexuality as a sin and in need of suppression to voting against the marriage amendment here in MN last fall. So, progress.

    I tag along when we go, but if polled I would never identify as religious in any way.

    • Keith Parsons


      A friend of Swedish extraction once passed along a satire titled “Is Lutheranism Inherited?” I think a good many people continue to attend worship because part of their cultural identity is to be Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, or whatever. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think that this is precisely the spirit in which sophisticated Greeks like Socrates or Aeschylus continued to worship Zeus and Hera. I can’t imagine Socrates thinking that Zeus literally lived on top of a mountain and threw down thunderbolts when pissed off. It was just that participating in the festivals, performing the occasional sacrifice, etc. was part of what it meant to be an Athenian, or Theban, or whatever.

      The interesting question is why some people will attend church for years, listening (more or less) to the sermons, singing the hymns, bowing their heads during prayer, and so forth, but it never really “takes” while others, hearing the same sermons, and singing the same hymns, become committed, zealous believers. When you see the terrible damage that the zealous believers cause in various parts of the world, it makes you wonder what we could do to encourage apathy. Wouldn’t it be great if the people in Pakistan could come to the point where they heard that someone had drawn a cartoon making fun of The Prophet and their response was “meh.”

  • Bradley Bowen

    My father was a devout evangelical Christian as a teenager. He was less devout, but still a sincere believer as an adult when I was very young. One of the reasons he left the Christian faith (when I was a teenager) was that he found himself surrounded at church by men who were ‘de factor unbelievers’.

    My father went to church to pray, and worship God, and to try to learn from the inspired Word of God (the Bible). Most of the men around him could care less about prayer, worship, Bible study, or following Jesus. They went to church because it was a sort of social club, and because their wives made them go. They went through the motions, but had no real faith or interest in understanding the Bible or following the teachings of Jesus.

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