One of the best attempts I’ve seen to turn the vague mumble “Yeahsure, there are different kinds of atheists” into something useful is the work of Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Silver and Coleman created a study to drill down into religious disbelief in America, to get beyond both the cartoon of the angry atheist and the vague mush of the “Nones” to a better understanding of the true variety of nonbelievers.
They started by interviewing a demographic cross-section of 59 nonbelievers in depth to establish a basic typology. From that material, they derived six basic approaches to atheism. Obviously there’s plenty of overlap between the categories, but they found a reliable tendency of individuals in the group to orbit one of the six tendencies in a pretty consistent way. They then surveyed over 1,100 nonbelievers and sorted them into the typology.
“The only thing all of our participants had in common was that they do not believe in a God,” said Silver. “It’s what they do or don’t do with that non belief — how it functions and exists in their lives — that ranges on an extremely wide spectrum.”
Here then are Silver and Coleman’s six basic types of nonbelievers:
1. The Academic
Intellectual activities like reading, discussion, and healthy debate are at the heart (or brain) of the Academic atheist’s self-image. Even if they strongly oppose religion, they avoid the broad brush, and their main tools are reasoned argument.
Academics made up 37.6 percent of the nonbelievers in the study — more than one in three. Susan Jacoby and Thomas Henry Huxley would most likely end up here.
2. The Activist
The Activist Atheist/Agnostic isn’t content with simply holding a nonbelief position, and they don’t just want to explore ideas intellectually. They want to change the world. They aren’t primarily interested in atheist-related issues. They are engaged in the struggle for civil rights (including feminism and LGBTQ rights), environmental concerns, animal rights, and other prominent social issues. In the words of the researchers, AAAs “are not idle; they effectuate their interests and beliefs.” They’re often willing to ally themselves with other movements with whom they share a common interest.
Nearly one in four nonbelievers in the study (23 percent) were classified as the Activist type. Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe and the pioneering women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony are good examples.
3. The Seeker-Agnostic
I err on the side of a kind of optimistic agnostic sense that there’s something that put us all here – some energy or something that we are not in a position to understand.—American filmmaker Mark Romanek
Seeker-Agnostics feel that it’s hard to make confident statements about metaphysical beliefs. They see open-mindedness as a major virtue, recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience, and embrace uncertainty. They actively search for and respond to knowledge and evidence, and they don’t hold a firm ideological position. Instead, they tend to search for what the researchers called the “scientifically wondrous” and for “profound confirmation of life’s meaning.” They accept and welcome the diversity of others.
Some Seeker-Agnostics say they miss being a believer in some way, whether the social benefits, or the emotional ones, or the connection it gave them to friends and family. Some continue to identify as religious or spiritual, even though they do not believe in God.
Seeker-Agnostics made up 7.6 percent of the respondents—about one in 13.
4. The Anti-Theist
When most people think of atheists, they picture the Anti-Theist. The Anti-Theist doesn’t just disbelieve religious claims but is actively and categorically opposed to them and to the influence they have on the world. In the words of the researchers, the Anti-Theist “proactively and aggressively” asserts his or her view, challenging religious ideology as dangerous ignorance that harms human dignity and well-being, and tends to see individuals associated with religion as “backward and socially detrimental.” Many of the most prominent voices in modern atheism, including Christopher Hitchens, are Anti-Theists.
I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.—Christopher Hitchens, journalist
Even though they’re often seen as the “typical” atheist, Anti-Theists made up only 14.8 percent of the nonbelievers in the survey — one in seven. Christopher Hitchens and Madalyn Murray O’Hair are examples of the type.
5. The Non-Theist
I believe that the rise of apatheism is to be celebrated as nothing less than a major civilizational advance….[it] should not be assumed to represent a lazy recumbency, like my collapse into a soft chair after a long day. Just the opposite: it is the product of a determined cultural effort to discipline the religious mindset, and often of an equally determined personal effort to master the spiritual passions. It is not a lapse. It is an achievement.— Jonathan Rauch, journalist
What Silver and Coleman call the Non-Theist commonly goes by another name: the “apatheist,” or apathetic nonbeliever. This is someone who does not believe but also doesn’t care about religious belief, or organized atheism, or the raging debates between the two. As the researchers put it, “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religious in any form from their mental space.”
“Those who self-identified as our ‘Non-Theist’ typology could not care less about religion or their own atheism,” said Coleman. Compared to the Anti-Theist, they represent the opposite end of the spectrum of engagement. “For [the Non-Theists], apathy is the name of the game.”
This was the smallest group in the study — just 4.4 percent. But the prominence of this relaxed position among Millennials means it is almost certain to grow rapidly in the coming years.
6. The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic
I absolutely love religions and the rituals. Even though I don’t believe in God, we celebrate pretty much every religion in our family with the kids.–Jodie Foster, actor
The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife but finds some rituals or other traditions, even those associated with religion, to be beautiful or useful. It might be something rooted in Eastern religions, like yoga or meditation, but just as often they find beauty and meaning in the traditions of their own culture or family. An atheist who was raised Anglican and still loves the incense and pageantry of the High Church liturgy, despite abandoning the beliefs behind them, is a Ritual Atheist.
Though sometimes thought of as “spiritual but not religious,” the Ritual Atheist is usually quick to clarify that he or she holds no supernatural or spiritual beliefs at all. Even if the rituals and teachings are found emotionally meaningful, they are still seen as having an entirely natural, human point of origin.
Ritual Atheist/Agnostics comprised 12.5 percent of respondents — one in eight. Jodie Foster and Alain de Botton (author of “Religion for Atheists”) are great examples.
This is the first study that’s taken the task seriously enough to begin fleshing out these differences. And it’s a thing worth doing: Naming and describing categories other than anti-theism helps us get a better idea of how to reach, hear, and serve our whole community.