What Type Of Atheist Are You?


While atheists are privative (defined by what we’re not),
That doesn’t mean we’re all the same—the whole ungodly lot—
Analysis finds atheists of many different stripes;
Most recently, the factors give us six distinctive types.

They found them scientifically; the factors loaded well
But because the subject’s atheists, there’s one thing I can tell:
While others might be sortable—these groups are there to see—
I’ve looked at all the labels, and there’s not a one fits me!

So I was on the road Monday when the news broke on this–some more data-crunching has been done on the Non-Belief in America Research data. Earlier, a factor analysis on data from interviews yielded six types of atheists: the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, the Activist Atheist/Agnostic, the Seeker-Agnostic, the Anti-Theist, the Non-Theist, and the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. Follow the link for fairly detailed descriptions of each type (here it is again).

Monday’s numbers show the percentages of atheists (in a sample of just over a thousand) who self-identify with each category, as described at the link. They also, briefly, present some of the relationships between atheist type and various personality measures. It’s interesting, if still in the very early stages.

My favorite bit, though, comes at the end. This report is addressed to the public, not to a peer-reviewed journal, so the authors take pains to put their findings in context:

If prejudice continues to exist towards atheists in general, one source may stem from the perceived negative experiences by religious people interacting with a very small sub-segment of the overall population of non-believers, mainly the Anti-Theists. In other words, our research showed over 85% of the non-believers sampled to be more or less your “average Joe” when it came to being “angry, argumentative and dogmatic”, they fall right in line with current societal norms, nothing strange here – sorry non-believers, you’re pretty normal when it comes to being psychologically well-adjusted.

It is also important to recognize that the “angry, argumentative and dogmatic” vignette,as used here, does not mean that these Anti-Theists don’t have a right to be any of these things or that they are not even proper psychological responses when recontextualized in light of the Anti-Theists’ life experiences to date. For example, many of the Antitheist typology had responded as recently deconverted from religious belief or socially displeased with the status quo, especially in high social tension-based geographies such as the Southeastern United States. If we engage in a small thought experiment by taking on the perspective of a recent deconvert from a religious tradition (many times a very conservative one) to atheism, it may be easy to see how this small sub segment is, and perhaps deserves to be, angry and argumentative after having previously accepted a worldview at odds with their current beliefs, or lack there-of, especially in areas of the country where high social tension exists between believers and non-believers in general.

It is very important to recognize that these comparisons are being made only within “non-belief”. In other words, these results are not juxtaposed alongside “believers” or any subset of population that identifies as “religious” and therefore no conclusions or empirical inferences can be currently draw as to how the two groups, or rather sub segments of the two groups might stack up against each other. Certainly additional research should explore these typologies in relation to believers to see if such conclusions can hold true for outside perceptions.

And then, even further down, a little bit on the limitations of labels in scientific research. Factor analysis may show us which traits load together, but labeling that cluster of traits is up to the person doing the analysis. That person, as the researchers here, does their best to come up with a name that captures the feel of that subset of the data, aware that any one label must be incomplete, but needing one label. In this case, the label is supposed to represent a type of atheist–so good luck finding a label to please people, many of whom (like the crab in the William James quote they present) proudly reject labels of any sort:

As we finish writing this brief synopsis, Coleman is actually sitting across the table from a good friend (who we will call Bob which is not his real name but allows a reference point for this conversation) who self identifies as an “Anti-Theist” however, he says he does not consider what he, labels himself as, to be a reflection of our very specific research description of a typology we call “Antitheist”. To the readers’ credit, no doubt many of “you” might also share our friend’s sentiments as they speak directly to any social scientific construction of every typology.

As social scientists we are forced to label, yet at the same time, we recognize qualitatively the limits inherent in any label. Certainly this was a research challenge for the project, one that almost derailed our process. Many of the participants disagreed about common use of terms of nonbelief but there was common agreement related to definitions of nonbelief. With this said Bob is not alone. Many of the participants were concerned with issues of social agendas and the separation of church and state. Furthermore, individuals like Bob were in many respects critical of the religious institutions and their agendas. The differences here in typology relate to the mode and value each participant places on how they engage issues of ontology. In other words, what is their preference for debating and considering the place religion and secularity play in our society? For many participants they question such social structures and are critical (antitheist) but their mode of behavior and belief may be different from the group we label antitheist. These labels were chosen by the research team to be reflective of the emotional, personality, and cognitive structures of value these people place on their worldviews (types).

So… take a look at their types. Which type are you? Are you, perhaps, a sub-type? (They are actively looking for subtypes at least within their first category.) Do you defy type? Myself, I suppose I mostly fit in the first category, but I see bits of me in the others as well.

Comments

  1. magistramarla says

    I agree with you. I mostly identify with the first category, but will sometimes fit into one of the others.
    The category with the rituals, I mostly have no use for. Our family’s version of Xmas has no resemblance to a religious ritual whatsoever, so that doesn’t even count.
    There are some of us who live and work in very religious communities, so we have to keep quiet and “blend in”, even though we would like to be a bit more vocal about our Atheism.
    My husband once wrote a letter in to the local paper, refuting an article denying science and evolution.
    He signed his name, which was a mistake. For several weeks after, we found religious tracts and somewhat menacing letters stuffed into our mailbox.
    We’ve learned to keep very, very quiet.

  2. says

    I find the breakdowns as ridiculous as the beakdown of rock and roll after going through the trouble of unifying the genre out of its subsets. We are atheists – we don’t believe in gods. Anything else is a subset at best, but more likely the REASON we do not believe in gods. Label me all of the above because at times I will subscribe to each position, but mostly label me atheist – I do not believe in gods.

  3. Jake Jakoubek says

    Why are labels even needed? If we aren’t religious or ritualistic in some tradition, why is there a need to have labels to that effect? The whole topic is uninteresting and unproductive. I’m don’t resonate with theist or non-theist? This is scientific button counting at best, and a distraction. I do not “believe.” Null term. Knowing is much more interesting.

  4. Al Dente says

    I’m primarily in the Intellectual Atheist group but I’ve got a foothold in the anti-theist group. It’s not that I’m “diametrically opposed to religious ideology.” I couldn’t care less if someone believes that Jesus can magically
    infest a bit of bread or that God has a snit if people eat ham and cheese sandwiches. What I do object to is people using their faith to justify bigotry and other forms of anti-humanism. If a celibate bachelor thinks God hates contraception then I’m just going to think the guy is nuts. It’s when the celibate bachelor tries to deny contraception to others that I get angry.

  5. gardengnome says

    I dislike the idea of being categorized but, having said that, I am more or less in the anti-theist camp; certainly not academic. I am there, I think, as a reaction to my own experience with religion as a child – I feel real anger and resentment towards those who tried to twist my mind to their ideology. It took me decades to undo the crap in my hesd and I’ve never fully succeeded. I wonder how many other anti-theists are so inspired.

  6. Jake Jakoubek says

    “Closest” doesn’t cut it. Language is useless unless it’s precise.

  7. Cuttlefish says

    Useless? Hardly. Anything that improves on random chance gives an advantage. There are times when precision is necessary, but many times when it is not.

    Indeed, the probabilistic language of science has been far more useful than the absolute language of religion.

    Or, in Ogden Nash’s wonderful verse, “The Purist”:

    I give you now Professor Twist,
    A conscientious scientist,
    Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
    And sent him off to distant jungles.
    Camped on a tropic riverside,
    One day he missed his loving bride.
    She had, the guide informed him later,
    Been eaten by an alligator.
    Professor Twist could not but smile.
    “You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

  8. grumpyoldfart says

    Non-Theist

    The fifth typology is termed the Non-Theist. While not many individuals identified themselves as this type, they did have experiences with others who self-classified as being non-theists.

    How does that work? Did the survey record the opinions of the people interviewed, or their anecdotes about other people who were not interviewed?

  9. says

    “Closest” doesn’t cut it

    Well, I did not define the terms. Find a precise definition for 80% anti-theist, 10% non-theist and 10% intellectual theist, and I’d be glad to provide a closer answer.

    Language is useless unless it’s precise.

    Fortunately, opinions vary. Some even matter.

  10. Fred C. Dobbs says

    Those daffy-nitions are as much bunk as astrology or political terminology. They’re nothing more than attempts to paint the widest circles around people without concern for what individuals actually think. I have *some* of the traits from four ot the “groups”, but the most of what’s claimed about each does NOT apply.

    Defining terms for oneself and others is inane, but I’ll try anyway. The best term for me is “born again atheist”. All babies are born atheists and know nothing about gods until other people try to ram it down their throats as they grow. I start from the babies’ view that all gods are nonexistent and the religious have to prove itn. Without proof, belief is a rather silly idea.

  11. dogfightwithdogma says

    I have the most in common with the Non-theist category. There is a Culture War in our society. Religion is one of the cultural combatants. I am in the opposite camp. My responsibility is to actively participate in the campaign to end religion’s influence in and grip upon our culture. I see small parts of me in the the others, except Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. I have need of ritual.

  12. Psychopomp Gecko says

    Seems to be an awful lot of us in the South, unless I’m reading the columns incorrectly. It’s entirely possible that if a lot of us had been exposed to more moderate Christian views, without all the fundamentalism and literalness, we may have taken to religion differently.

    That’s the problem with an extreme “All or nothing” view. You can force everyone not as extreme as you into a group you oppose.

    The large number of activist atheists in the South is pretty clearly explained by the science books that teach the Loch Ness Monster is real and disproves evolution, as kids in Mississippi are being taught. Lots of destructive abuses of Christian power around here to get people riled up, as they mentioned about the antitheists.

    A little surprised at the nontheists in the South. Seriously, I want whatever they have on their car windows that keeps out the street preaching. And the times around Halloween when they start passing out Chick Tracts. And all the billboards and yard signs saying “Keep Prayer In School”.

  13. Psychopomp Gecko says

    Correction, science book in Louisiana. Good thing I didn’t bet money on that sentence at a casino in Mississippi.

  14. Jake Jakoubek says

  15. Cuttlefish says

    Jake, that book review is old news here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2013/03/09/where-are-the-honest-atheists/

    Gecko, the numbers from the south are, I suspect, an artifact of the sampling. They certainly don’t reflect the raw numbers of atheists seen in census data.

    I’m reserving judgment on whether this is “as much bunk as astrology”–there is certainly reason to be wary of Barnum Effect sort of artifacts in any personality testing, but until a proper paper lets us know the methodology, this could very well simply be the first steps in a methodologically sound attempt at herding cats–rather, taking an admittedly diverse group of people and looking to see if they cluster reliably into subgroups. The names of those subgroups are (as always the case in such research) imperfect markers for what is really going on (Pluto is what Pluto always was, whether we label it a planet or not). Remember that *any* operational definition is necessarily imperfect, and the lack of perfect fit between their description and your own self-description is now a part of the process, not a fatal flaw.

  16. Jake Jakoubek says

    That I’ll accept my friend. A more interesting discussion to me is “knowing of a subjective certitude” apart from psychology and philosophy, a careful discussion on the source of thought and such. Work such as this to me is simply a casting out of inapplicable label/definition pairs, nth derivatives of something more basic. I’ll be watching your blog here for suitable entries now that I’ve found it.

  17. sailor1031 says

    at times in the past – all of the above
    at the present – none of the above

  18. Psychopomp Gecko says

    As far as the question of if science can solve racism, that’s pretty simple. There is no scientific evidence to support that any race is inferior to the others. It’s as arbitrary as persecuting people for hair color or eye color.

  19. says

    Atheist. A-Theist. Without god beliefs. When did we forget how to parse a word as simple as that?

    Which leaves me in none of the above.

    I spent a little while as #3, but discovered the whole question/seeking to be an irrelevant waste of my life. Even “Non-Theist” is too strong, implies some position on Theism, a belief in the non-existence of god(s). Even more so, “Agnostic” implies keeping some sort of eye out for evidence one way or the other.

    I don’t care.

    I have no evidence of godly influences on my practical reality, so I do not need to consider their existence or otherwise, since whatever answer I might come up with is both unprovable and of no practical use.

    I do however have plenty of evidence of chaos as an influence. 5% chaos + 95% inertia, enough chaos to explore novelty, enough inertia for the discoveries to be stable (mostly). Like, if life is possible given the physical laws of this Universe, then it is inevitable, given enough time, and an environment with that 5/95 distribution characteristic. The application to lesser ideas is a trivial extension. And a useful one. (5/95 is approximate)

    Plus I observe there to be at least 14B different ideas of what it all means in the world, i.e. at least two cognitively dissonant concepts of deity per human brain. With a chaotic distribution.

    Surfing the Currents of Coincidence for 40 years and counting

  20. A Hermit says

    There are two types of people; those who divide everybody into types and those who don’t…

  21. Nathanael says

    Um, I fit neatly into FIVE of the six categories. Everything except “non-theist”.

    These categories aren’t very exclusive are they?

    I suppose I’m intellectual first,… but I am therefore *anti-faith*, which puts me in opposition to theists (since a belief in most gods depends on either faith or ignorance). And I think *ritual*is valuable and important and am *seeking* suitable rituals. While of course trying to be *active* in making this world, the only one we have, a better place…

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