Academic, activist or apatheist: What kind of unbeliever are you?

(RNS) Believers within Christianity, Judaism or Islam don't all believe the same thing, and atheists and nonbelievers are no different. Here are six different kinds of unbelief.

Dale McGowan. Religion News Service photo courtesy Dale McGowan

(RNS) In his book “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families,” author Dale McGowan writes that just as no one religion’s believers agree on everything, neither do all nonbelievers.

Drawing on a 2013 University of Tennessee study, he identifies six different types of atheists and agnostics:

Dale McGowan. Religion News Service photo courtesy Dale McGowan

Dale McGowan. Religion News Service photo courtesy Dale McGowan

1. The Academic — Intellectual activities such as reading, discussion and healthy debate are at the heart (or brain) of the Academic atheist’s self-image. These atheists prefer to associate with others who have the same intellectual approach to life, even if their opinions are different, as long as they are well-informed. They often engage with others, both online and in person, around topics of mutual interest, including skepticism and freethought. Academics made up 37.6 percent of the nonbelievers in the study — more than one in three.

2. The Activist — These people want to change the world. It’s not just atheist-related issues they’re interested in. They are engaged in the struggle for civil rights (including feminism and LGBT rights), environmental concerns, animal rights and other prominent social issues. Nearly one in four nonbelievers in the study (23 percent) were classified as the Activist type.

3. The Seeker-Agnostic — Seeker-Agnostics recognize 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. Some 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 1 in 13.

4. The Anti-Theist — The Anti-Theist doesn’t just disbelieve religious claims but is actively, diametrically 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 and well-known voices in modern atheism, including Christopher Hitchens, are best described as Anti-Theists. Even though they are often seen as the “typical” atheist, Anti-Theists made up only 14.8 percent of the nonbelievers in the survey — one in seven.

5. The Nontheist or “apatheist” — 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.” This was the smallest group in the study — just 4.4 percent.

6. The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic — This person 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, such as yoga or meditation, but just as often these people find beauty and meaning in the traditions of their own culture or family. Though sometimes thought of as “spiritual but not religious,” the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic is usually quick to clarify that he or she holds no supernatural or spiritual beliefs at all. Ritual Atheist/Agnostics accounted for 12.5 percent of respondents — one in eight.

From “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families,” by Dale McGowan. Used with permission.


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