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.