Dale McGowan. Religion News Service photo courtesy Dale McGowan

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

(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.



  1. I am a reluctant Anti-Theist.

    I wish I didn’t have to fight against religion.
    I wish people could go to church and stay out of shoving Jesus into our politics and laws.
    I wish religion were treated casually by churchgoers, like an old custom.
    I wish religion were not tone deaf to the harm it causes.
    I wish religion did not fight the Climate Change science.
    I wish Pogroms and Witch burnings were a thing of the past.
    I wish nobody ever taught Hell to children.

    But wishes don’t make things true.
    And if I thought living a wishful life was good for people I would be defending religion instead of ripping it up.

  2. I am all of these (except number 5). These categories aren’t cut and dried, are they?

  3. The author should probably state (assuming that it is true?) that the respondents of the survey were all USA-based. For example, in secular and mostly non-religious countries such as the UK, the category percentages would be completely different – most people here in the UK are category 5.

  4. I agree with John Moore about the categories. I agree with Vexen Crabtree about the prevalence, (probably in the world in general), of category 5.

    1) I listen to discussion and debate related to atheism and read many articles such as this one. But on the other hand I’ve never read an atheist book nor gone to an atheist conference or group or otherwise sought out like minded company.

    2) I would certainly like the world to change but I’m too apathetic to make it happen except for a few blog comments.

    3) I’d like to think I’m open minded but on the matter of a god’s existence it just ain’t so. I think it more likely that the sun won’t rise tomorrow than any of the gods I know about exists. I don’t miss religion because I’ve never been religious.

    4) I’m certainly an anti-theist. I believe religion is probably a net bad thing. Error in belief will eventually lead to error in action.
    On the other hand I’m not so certain about this that I promote it. I know a few very good people who are religious. If religion vanished tomorrow it would be replaced by other irrational beliefs not grounded in evidence. We might end up with new philosophies as bad as communism or fascism given the nature of humanity.

    5) Most of the people I know are apatheists. They just don’t care about the matter sufficiently to take an interest. I can believe the low figure for apatheists in the US. However, I suspect American apatheists just don’t “come out”. I suspect the world wide percentage of apatheists is more like 80%.
    I suspect the apatheists have got it right. Imagine an alien tuning in to our communications signals. Who is going to impress him? Those arguing the pros and cons of non-existent entities or those getting on with something useful?

    6) I do find some rituals soothing and reassuring. But they tend to be mundane like wet shaving with a bog standard safety razor. I wouldn’t recognize spirituality if it slapped me in the face with a wet fish.

  5. I’m also surprised at the lack of apatheists. This is the group I would affiliate with.

  6. Hard to imagine being an Apatheist after 9/11.

    I can’t imagine too many better news headlines
    than this one:
    “Middle East Shows Signs of Fast-Growing Secularism”

    IF ONLY!
    The whole world would breath a sigh of relief.

  7. I think the problem with apatheists as something to be identified with, is that “activist” and “academic” sound cooler on paper. That there is some reason and zeal behind one’s non-belief rather than just lack of interest.

    It is definitely the category which would have fit me growing up. But current conditions make “activist” the personal choice. I am far too annoyed by the confluence of religion and politics to just leave things alone. I can abide by religious belief if people don’t act like raging jerks about it.

  8. You wished will never be fulfilled. But continue to waste you time if you must.

  9. You are still here, my wish is not fulfilled. 🙁

  10. I identify with numbers 1, 3 and 4. I have little sympathy with apathy, which I regard as freeloading and lacking in empathy.

  11. I would identify with category 4 as arguing about whether there is a god is equivalent to me as arguing whether there are unicorns. It does sadden me when people use religion to justify killing or harming other people.

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