Atheism study authors: Congratulations, non-believers, you’re just like everybody else

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 16:16 EDT
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A report released Monday by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga researchers is one of the first comprehensive studies into the types of individuals who are categorized as non-believers of any particular religious faith. The project, conducted by doctoral student Christopher F. Silver and project manager Thomas J. Coleman III, found that atheists as a group are as varied among themselves as people of faith can be different from each other.

“Congratulations, non-believers,” said Coleman in an interview with Raw Story, “you’re essentially normal,” with personality types that break down just like the rest of society. Research revealed that atheists range across “a normal distribution of personality types,” and that the aggressive, confrontational stereotype of atheism only applies to a sliver of the people who identify as non-believers.

“Previous 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,’” reads the report’s overview. “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.”

The University of Tennessee researchers found that, on the contrary, religious non-believers actually break down into groups. The study identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).

The project was born out of Silver’s dissertation research and consisted of two study phases. Study One was qualitative and involved 59 personal interviews with non-believers from a wide range of religious and class backgrounds. In Study Two, the quantitative phase, more than 1,000 non-believers from around the U.S. took an internet survey with more than 300 questions, establishing where they fell along a set of metrics including autonomy, positive relationships with others, narcissism and other traits.

“These categories are a first stab at this,” Silver said. “In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types.”

Silver warned that many atheists may read the label “Anti-Theist” and immediately think that applies to themselves, but both researchers urged people to read the definitions of each type fully before categorizing themselves.

“The definitions are what matters here,” Coleman said. “The descriptions are the important part. We don’t want people to say, ‘Hey, anyone who says they’re an Anti-Theist is this,’” because the definitions carry a more nuanced view of the types involved.

Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics were the largest group among those surveyed, people the report defined as “individuals who proactively seek to educate themselves through intellectual association, and proactively acquire knowledge on various topics relating to ontology (the search for Truth) and non-belief.”

Education, said Coleman, particularly college education had a more deleterious effect on religious belief than any other single factor.

“College was certainly a huge theme that popped out in this,” he said. “Quite dramatically, people would say, ‘Hey, I was a Christian going in the first year, after the second I was agnostic, and by the time I graduated, I said I was done with all this.’”

Activist Atheist/Agnostics, the study found, were the least narcissistic and the most community involved of atheists. Their atheist activism often sprang from other forms of activism and an interest in social justice, like women’s rights, LGBT rights or wealth inequality.

Seeker Agnostics are non-believers who see themselves as open to a number of possibilities. Silver said that these people tended to test out as the happiest of non-believers, interestingly.

“Seeker-Agnostic typology consists of individuals attuned to the metaphysical possibilities precluding metaphysical existence, or at least recognizes the philosophical difficulties and complexities in making personal affirmations regarding ideological beliefs,” said the report. “They may call themselves agnostic or agnostic-atheist, as the SA simply cannot be sure of the existence of God or the divine. They keep an open mind in relation to the debate between the religious, spiritual, and Anti-Theist elements within society.”

The most “empirically visible” type of non-believer is the Anti-Theist, who believes that religion is a destructive force in society. According to Silver and Coleman, these are in fact the least common unbelievers, but there are the most strident. They rate highest in levels of anger and dogmatism, according to the survey results.

A growing group are Non-Theists, people who have never made religion a large part of their life and don’t even give much thought to the question. “(A) few terms may best capture the sentiments of the Non-Theist,” read the report. “One is apathetic, while another may be disinterested. The Non-Theist is non-active in terms of involving themselves in social or intellectual pursuits having to do with religion or anti-religion.”

And finally a type emerged from their research that neither Coleman nor Silver had first thought to study, the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic, who the report describes as individuals who “find utility in tradition and ritual. For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions. Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish) or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.”

Silver and Coleman both mentioned that many U.S. Jews fit the model of Ritual Atheist/Agnostics.

Dave Muscato of American Atheists, the group who erected the nation’s first atheist monument on government property in Starke, Florida on Saturday, spoke to Raw Story about the study, saying, “I think it’s pretty clear that the bloc of people who call themselves ‘non-religious’ is not a monolith.”

“American Atheists,” he said, could be seen as “focused on the Anti-Theist crowd and that type of activism, people who are against religion specifically and want to fight it.”

But, he said, the group is expanding and finding itself increasingly aligned with activist causes and Activist Atheism out of a common interest in social justice and the betterment of society. This year, for the first time, representatives of American Atheists officially attended Netroots Nation, the annual liberal internet activist gathering.

Muscato welcomed the study’s findings saying, “It’s useful to understand that atheists are not all the same, in the same way that religious people aren’t all the same.”

“There are atheists that are totally against religion and think that these rituals are just superstitious and there’s no purpose to them and that we have better things to do and that religion is dangerous, which is kind of the position that American Atheists takes,” Muscato continued, but others believe “that there are useful things in some traditions and that you can find utility in different teachings.”

Silver said that he hopes this study is just a beginning, that the destruction of the idea of atheists as being all one type of angry, confrontational person will lead to a lessening of social stigma on atheists.

“You’re a unique snowflake just like everybody else,” he said cheerfully. “There’s just one small group that are the loudmouths” who are potentially making it more difficult for other constituencies of non-believers.

For the most part, he said, non-believers constitute “majorly socially engaged groups,” especially Activist and Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics “who are out there having these intellectual conversations and the Ritual Atheist/Agnostics whose lives are rich in community and symbolism.”

“They really want to create and promote social change for everyone, not just atheists and agnostics,” he concluded.

“Most of the non-believers we researched,” added Coleman, “they’re looking to affect the world, to make the world better. They do care, and they care about everyone.”

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David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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