Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga report that atheists are just as heterogenous of a group as people of faith, in a study done by doctoral student Christoper F. Silver and project manager Thomas J. Coleman III.
Many previous religious surveys placed people without religious beliefs into a catch-all category known as the "religious nones," but that oversimplifies the wide spectrum of opinions that fall into that group. The report idenfified six different groups of religious non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).
The research was born out of Silver's dissertation project and takes a new approach to religious classification. Silver commented in a RawStory interview, “These categories are a first stab at this. In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types.”
The largest group identified was the "Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic" group, which was defined by the report 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.”
"Activist Atheist/Agnostics" were found to be the least narcissistic atheists with the highest degree of community involvement, often in issues of social justice, and "Seeker Agnostics" were characterized as the happiest slice of non-believers. They see themselves as non-believers open to possibility when it comes to belief.
Not all of these so-called "religious nones" are anti-religion, except for the most visible group, the "Anti-Theists." They are defined by their belief that religion is a destructive force in society, and rate highest in levels of anger and dogmatism, according to the survey results. On the other hand, "Non-Theists" are the most non-active group when it comes to religious or anti-religious pursuits.
The researchers had not initially thought to study the "Ritual Atheist/Agnostic group," which was described by the report 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." Silver and Coleman observed that many U.S. Jews fit into the model of this group.
Education has a significant correlation with non-belief, according to the study, and Coleman noted, "College was certainly a huge theme that popped out in this. 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.’”
The survey was welcomed by Dave Muscato, the PR Director for American Atheists, who said, “It’s useful to understand that atheists are not all the same, in the same way that religious people aren’t all the same.” American Atheists made headlines in June for erecting the first-ever atheist monument on government property in Starke, Florida, where a Christian group put up a Ten Commandments monument at the courthouse last year.
Silver and Coleman hope their study is just the beginning of a greater conversation about atheism and hope to defy the stereotype of atheists as a monolith of angry and confrontational non-believers. Many of them constitute "majorly socially engaged groups," who truly believe in social change for all. Goodness is not limited to people of faith.
“Most of the non-believers we researched,” said Coleman, “they’re looking to affect the world, to make the world better. They do care, and they care about everyone.”