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‘Six Types of Atheists’ study wakes a sleeping giant

CNN News Wire | 7/19/2013, 12:49 p.m.
They were trying to prove a simple point: That nonbelievers are a bigger and more diverse group than previously imagined.
Scientist Stephen Hawking has been quoted saying "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

They were trying to prove a simple point: That nonbelievers are a bigger and more diverse group than previously imagined.

“We sort of woke a sleeping giant,” says Christopher F. Silver, a researcher at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “We’re a bit overwhelmed actually.”

Silver and his project manager, Thomas Coleman, recently released a study proposing six different types of nonbelievers — from strident atheists to people who observe religious rituals while doubting the divine.

The study clearly struck a chord, particularly among triumphal atheists and uneasy believers. Articles appeared in in Polish, German, Russian and Portuguese, Silver said.

On CNN.com, “Behold, the Six Types of Atheists” garnered about 3.14 million hits and thousands of comments.

Half the fun seemed to lie in atheists applying the categories to themselves, kind of like a personality test.

“I guess I’m a 1-2-4 atheist,” ran a typical comment.

Other commenters questioned the study’s categories, methods, and even the religious beliefs of its authors.

Silver and Coleman agreed to answer our readers’ questions via email from Tennessee. Some of their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Several readers asked how you came up with your six categories of atheists?

A: In a sense we let the participants inform our theory.

The categories were devised from a series of 59 interviews conducted with people nationwide who don’t believe in God. Participants were asked to define various terms of nonbelief as well as their own religious views.

We also asked participants to tell us their stories and how their religious views have changed over time. We found the most commonly repeated stories and descriptions and formed them into types.

We then used those types in the survey portion of the project. Each of the six categories proved to be statistically unique in a wide array of psychological measures.

Q: @PaulTK asks: Are atheists limited to the six categories your study proposes?

A: We suspect that further research exploring people who don’t believe in God will certainly expand the number of categories and fill in more details about the six we’ve named.

For example, we found that the Intellectual Academic Atheist type may produce a 7th type reflecting those who are more “philosophically orientated” versus those who are more “scientifically orientated.”

Our study also gives some evidence that individuals may not believe in God but still identify with religion or spirituality in some way.

Q: @JessBertapelle asks: Can people fit into more than one category?

A: The typology of nonbelief is fluid. Based on our interviews, we suspect people transverse the various types over the course of their lives. Since we did not conduct a longitudinal design (a study conducted over time tracking the same people) we are unable to validate this assumption.

For those of you who found yourselves agreeing with multiple positions, you may find characteristics that you identify with in all types but there is likely one type which is your preference.

Q: @Melissa asks: Why isn’t there a category for “closet atheists"?