Varieties of atheist experience

The so-called six types of atheists based on a University of Tennessee study are: activist, anti-theist, intellectual, non-theist, ritual, and seeker.

A recent blog in the London Guardian entitled “The six types of atheist” has created quite a stir among atheists. The six types are based on a study at the University of Tennessee. Curiosity has led many an atheist to consider if he or she really belongs to any of them. Please bear with me, as I explain why I’m not contradicting myself when I call the study both meaningless and constructive.

The so-called six types of atheist, listed here alphabetically, are: activist (vocal about issues), anti-theist (assertive and outspoken), intellectual (philosophical and scientific), non-theist (apathetic), ritual (enjoy culture and ceremony), and seeker (open to different views).

Even the authors acknowledge that separating atheists in this way is arbitrary, and atheists can fall into more than one category. Many atheists prefer different labels, including agnostic, humanist, and freethinker. Depending on context, I put myself in these as well as all six of the atheist categories.

Most of my life I was a non-theist because I didn’t much care about my atheism. I became an activist atheist after moving to South Carolina and learning that the state’s Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. I worked for eight years to change that unconstitutional provision. As a curious intellectual who questions all religions, you could call me both a seeker and an anti-theist because I have the audacity to challenge religious belief. I also appreciate some religious ritual through godless Humanistic Judaism.

My biggest disappointment about the study is that it left out the largest category: closeted atheists. They are the elephants in the room and the ones most likely to change the culture by coming out. However, many of them feel they have good reasons not to, including potential ostracism from family and friends as well as loss of income or employment. Another unmentioned category is what I call functional atheists, those who may or may not have vague supernatural beliefs that play no practical role in their lives. They live as if there is no god, just as all atheists do.

An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any deities. But disbelief in gods doesn’t describe individual atheists any more than disbelief in the divinity of Muhammad, Krishna, and Zeus describes individual Christians. Everybody disbelieves in some gods; atheists just disbelieve in more gods than theists do.

What I like best about the study is that it recognizes a variety of atheists. Moreover, atheists can have good and bad traits, as can Christians, Jews, Muslims, and whoevers. I hope the takeaway from the study will be that we must not stereotype or prejudge based solely on religious affiliation. And of course that means atheists, like other minorities, shouldn’t be stigmatized or marginalized in their communities.

Religious people sometimes assume that atheists are angry at God, which is like telling us that we are angry at the Easter Bunny or at unicorns. We are also bewildered when people express pity for us because we must be living sad and empty lives. Several Christians have actually told me that they didn’t think they would be able to go on living without a belief in God, which sounds to me like the ultimate sad and empty life!

Atheists occasionally talk about atheism in ways I find inaccurate or misleading. See, for instance, God-Talk for Atheists. Here are four terms I dislike, and why.

Nonbeliever: I believe in many things. I just don’t believe in any gods.

Lack of faith or lack of belief in God: I think of it as a gain, rather than a lack or a loss. I’ve gained freedom from religious superstition.

Abandonment of religion: I didn’t abandon religion, as one abandons a child. I matured and put aside my childhood religious beliefs.

Atheist, but spiritual: I was recently on a three-atheist panel at a Unitarian Church forum on atheist spirituality, with me as the lone unspiritual atheist. The others said they were atheists—”but spiritual.” I began, “Jonathan (the previous speaker) is a child molester, but .” I then paused. The stunned attendees heard me say something awful about Jonathan, which I qualified with a “but,” leading them to believe my initial remark about him wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded. Of course, Jonathan wasn’t a child molester. I used this device to pronounce him guilty of distancing himself from “typical” atheists with his “but.”

Jonathan didn’t mean to imply what I inferred, and we continue to be friends. He remains a spiritual atheist, except now without a “but.” Thank goodness (not God) for small victories. And thank you, Jonathan.

About

Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
  • LorettaHaskell

    I was just having a conversation with a friend the other day who described himself as an “atheist, but spiritual” and I wish that I had had Dr. Silverman’s example readily available to deepen the conversation. The article that Dr. Silverman is referring to came across my Facebook news feed a couple of days ago and I read it with great interest. I’m glad that we’re hearing more open discussion in the media on the varieties of religious experience, and more openness and recognition, without demonization, of those of us who do not choose to follow a religion.

  • 3vandrum

    Sam Harris says “In fact, ”atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer”. I do not like the term “atheist”. I agree with you “atheists can fall into more than one category. Many atheists prefer different labels, including agnostic, humanist, and freethinker” Call me a “free thinker”. Atheism is accepted within some religious and spiritual belief systems, including Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Atheist but spiritual comes under this category. True atheists are rare.
    “Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them” including atheism.

  • Hildy J

    edbyronadams makes a valid point that it isn’t just about gods. Having said that, I don’t agree with his belief.
    I reject all forms of all supernatural claims, the buddhist rebirth as much as the christian resurrection.

    As 3vandrum says, the word atheist shouldn’t exists. We are realists (except for those who are realists-but).

    (Although I must admit the troll in my likes the term “brights” because that make theists the “dims”.)

  • inreasonitrust

    Yes, there are numerous closeted atheists who are know that they will be killed, tortured, or deprived of their basic human rights or at best will be shunned from the society if they are discovered by those who believe in God.
    Yes, as an atheist, I am angry at God but not angry at Easter Bunny and Santa Clause.
    How many people do you know who have been killed, tortured, or deprived of their basic human rights in the name of Easter Bunny or Santa Clause?
    But I know numerous people including many of those of my family members and very dear friends who were killed, tortured, or deprived of their basic human rights in the name of God.

  • inreasonitrust

    Yes, I agree with you.
    Actually, I regard myself as a “beilever.”
    I believe there is no god or gods.
    The non-believers, do not.

  • h5r2

    I’m sorry about your friends and family members. I don’t think you are angry at God. You are angry at God’s followers. Nobody kills in the name of the Easter Bunny.

  • Hildy J

    I have to agree with h5r2, being angry with god is not a good atheist position. Job was angry with god because he believed in god and didn’t like what god did to him.

    It is god’s believers that are the problem. I don’t think that, except for a few mentally disturbed people, they believe god has told them to kill people. Rather it’s religions of the gods that tell their believers that it’s okay or even mandatory to kill those who are not of their religion.

  • inreasonitrust

    Yes, God kills. Remember Abraham and Isaac. You don’t need to be sorry for God’s orders. God should be ashamed of himself or herself. Saying God doesn’t kill is like saying Hitler didn’t kill but his followers did.

  • h5r2

    One difference between Hitler and God is that Hitler existed. How can a non-existent God kill anybody? If I kill someone because I think that’s what the Easter Bunny told me to do, would you be angry at the Easter Bunny? Should the Easter Bunny be ashamed of himself?

  • Hildy J

    inreasonitrust – there is nothing wrong with believing that a god exists but also believing that he is not worthy of worship. If I believed in the bible, in a god who became angry because the Israelites had only killed the adult male Midianites and told them to go back and slaughter all the non-virgin women and every boy, even the babies, and take the virgin girls as slaves, I could not worship him either.

  • inreasonitrust

    Overall, agree with h5r2 and HildyJ.
    Yes, God or gods do not exist.
    The man created God to rule the mass (the sheep).

  • edwills

    I think this is why Herb doesn’t like being called a nonbeliever.

    “Nonbeliever: I believe in many things. I just don’t believe in any gods.”

  • SimonTemplar

    My goodness this is silly. If God exists and he has killed, then you can choose, at your peril, to hate Him but doing so does not make Him cease existing. In this case, you may claim to have a reason to hate Him but you have no reason for claiming to be an atheist because, of course, He exists.

    If He does not exist, then He has not killed anyone and your reason for hating him is gone and this one rationale you have provided for your atheism is meaningless.

  • photojack53

    I think some of the biggest inroads could be made by dispelling the myths and falsehoods about atheists and enlightening society with true statements about the origins of morals and ethics. I comment frequently on sites that discuss evolution v. Creationism and constantly remind people that morals and ethics existed millions of years before mankind arrived on the scene. Our animal forbears evolved ethical and moral behaviors as an enhancement toward their group survival rates and this has been proven from the likes of Dame Jane Goodall, George Schaller and Frans de Waal, among others. We inherited those traits from our simian ancestors. A book I frequently recommend is Dr. Carl Sagan’s ”Pale Blue Dot”, a truly poetic introduction to the realities of science, evolution AND atheism. Though he may seem confrontational in his speaking engagements, Richard Dawkins confronts religion with impeccable logic, reasoning and rationality in his book, ”The God Delusion.” Anyone who has the slightest doubts about their religious beliefs owes themselves a favor by reading that great book. I frankly find it astounding that religion holds such a grasp on people’s minds in this 21st century. I never swallowed the indoctrination virtually all of us receive from ’those religious folks’ and decry the brainwashing of Sunday schools, churches and even our own parents in most cases. If there was something more akin to ”Science Fridays” on PBS that could direct a child’s natural curiosity about dinosaurs, the stars and life around us into a fuller and deeper understanding of palaeontology, astronomy and biology, this world would be a much better place! Plausibility enters in this discussion also. Would you take seriously the Bronze Age myths from 2,000 years ago or the rational progression of scientific thought since the Age of Enlightenment? When you know about how the scientific method works and the exacting rigors of peer-reviewed scientific publication, I think the choice is obvious!

  • nkri401

    Well,

    I’d rather perish than listening that God love this and God love that while women are raped systematically and the children die of hunger, for an eternity too boot.

  • RichardSRussell

    Whenever I run across comments from religious people asking why we atheists are ALL (their word) ALWAYS (their word) so angry, hostile, contentious, arrogant, condescending, unhappy, insulting, grim, etc., two thots immediately pop up:
    (1) Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. Any attempts to turn the discussion toward amateur psychoanalysis of the ADVOCATES of atheism is, consciously or unconsciously, trying to steer the discussion away from the SUBSTANCE of atheism, probably because they really can’t find anything wrong with what the atheists have to say, and this makes them insecure and defensive about their own unjustified beliefs.
    (2) I can’t imagine LESS apt adjectives to apply to Herb, who’s funny, kind, brilliant, polite, and looks like your favorite uncle, always with a twinkle in his eye and a little sly grin that makes you think he’s been up to something you’d like to get in on, too. Which, as it happens, he has.

  • nkri401

    My take on different A/Theists…

    Don’t call me Atheist –

    Stamp collectors are called Philatelist – what do you call those who do not collect stamps? Exactly!!

    Logical Atheist –

    God is said to be omnipotent and omniscient and loving and therefore would not allow misery and injustice.
    There are misery and injustices ergo God does not exist.

    Rational Atheist –

    If sufficient evidence is presented, I will believe in God or Pink Unicorn or whatever. Why shouldn’t I?

    Strong Agnostic Atheist –

    There is no way, no how to know if God exists.

    Weak Agnostic Theist/Atheist –

    God may or may not exist but at times I am worried.

    Deistic Theist –

    The universe cannot be an infinite recursion; therefore there must have been a first cause which we will call God.

    Spiritual Theist –

    How could sunrise be so beautiful if God did not exist, it’s the church leaders that I don’t trust.

    Traveling Companion Theist –

    In this cold, confusing and unpredictable world, isn’t it nice to have this all powerful being that loves me and looks after little old me?

    Unitarian Theist –

    God strongly recommends us to all get along. All are welcome.

    God of Gaps (Intelligent Design) Theist –

    If God did not design us, how could we have two perfect eyes? Not one, not three but perfect two eyes? And you the smarty pants, show me who’s got this “intermediary” eyes that evilutionist talk about.

    Circular Theist –

    I know God exist because the Bible says so and of course I know Bible is right since God wrote it (through inspiration or whatever, telepathy may be).

    Law and Order also Crime and Punishment Theist –

    I have seen/felt God and God will send me to hell for the transgressions unless I repent. Also, believes making others repent will earn many brownie points with the said God. Likes to address God as The Almighty. Also argues if God did not gave the Law where did it come from? Hah, HAH?

  • nkri401

    Most of the time if an atheist is responding, it’s because of an inane or Theocratic proclamation of the Religious. So it’s likely that the atheist may sound annoyed. Of course the proclaminant has no idea why an atheist is annoyed after all he’s doing this for you out of Godly love.

  • GulfShoresMan

    Oh boy I look forward to discourse like this! My absolute best friend ever, who is now passed on, was a devout atheist. We argued for decades about the spirituality of atheists. My friend was a true scholar of letters and contributed to his field until his untimely death last year. Ii often accused him of being the spiritual man I knew and he would fight back in earnest. However, my argument was hard to counter. It was this: atheists are typically the most moralistic, sensitive, ethical people, aside from being very well read in other religions, that I have ever met. The core of their spirituality is their ethic and therefore their basis of their character. It has absolutely nothing to do with organized religion other that that is what usually sent then towards atheism in the first place. Any else have a thought?

  • arwash

    Where do they get there ethics and morals from. Was it inherent or were they taught this? The ones who taught them the basic foundations of ethics and morals did not just conjure it up either. There had to be a foundational basis somewhere in history. The Bible talks about ethics and morals. It was the first book to do so. So there foundations must have come from…….. the Bible.

  • TylerSisBack

    I really enjoy articles like this that stand-up for atheists. I understand that, stereo-typically, most “religious” people can have a superiority complex as they assume what they believe in is right and that all others, including atheists are just plain wrong, in effect contradicting the concept of “faith”. But, what is also equally belittling is when people disrespectfully refer to other peoples pro-God beliefs, like has been done in this article. Including belittling God by comparing him/her to the Easter bunny, or basically claiming that atheist’s don’t believe in God because they have attained a level of maturity that someone who believes in God most certainly cannot have because God is like Superman or some other fictional character. Truthfully, anybody who has a belief in a God, or a belief that God doesn’t exist is having a belief instilled in a faith that what they believe is to be true. Science can coincide with a belief in God just because science isn’t dependent upon God existing. When the author of this article basically says he is more mature than a God-believer, it is incredibly unbecoming of anybody who values genuinely coexisting with individuals with differing beliefs without being condescending or disrespectful. To make such claims literally belittles multiple groups of people, and leads readers to believe that there is inequality between atheists and religious people as atheist must be more superior intellectually or at least in matters of maturity. Like the author said, people should be able to be diverse and have diverse beliefs, without being ostracized. I’m a Christian, but I believe that all other religions could be right as well because I don’t consider my faith above others nor do I confuse my opinion for a fact like this author seemingly does with his remarks about religious beliefs.

  • m&mkuhn

    Arwash, what about the Torah? What about The Book of Changes (Confucianism)?

    Morality and ethics certainly predates the Bible. And new studies have shown that even babies prefer characters that show kindness and shun characters that are mean.

    Your ideas are so Christian-centric that it is laughable. You’d think that Buddhists, Hindus and other religious people around the world must be depraved and immoral since their ideas do not originate from the Bible.

  • m&mkuhn

    Arwash, what about the Torah? What about The Book of Changes (Confucianism)?

    Morality and ethics certainly predates the Bible. And new studies have shown that even babies prefer characters that show kindness and shun characters that are mean.

    Your ideas are so Christian-centric that it is laughable. You’d think that Buddhists, Hindus and other religious people around the world must be depraved and immoral since their ideas do not originate from the Bible.

  • nkri401

    Tyler,

    I think you mean well – much better than saying the Godless are the agent of the devil, worse of the communist.

    As far as the facts and opinions are concerned, the fact is you cannot prove the non-existence. It’s an opinion something exist if you cannot provide evidence for it.

  • Rongoklunk

    Atheists would believe in a god if there was some evidence that showed he existed. We would love to believe in an afterlife too. How wonderful that would be. But we don’t believe it because there’s not a scrap of evidence to justify it. To most atheists it’s all about wishful thinking. We think that that childhood religious indoctrination is essential in creating believers. No indoctrination = no believers.

  • Rongoklunk

    9/11 showed us that faith is nothing to be proud of. The terrorists believed in God and an afterlife, and expected to go to heaven for their brave behaviour. God even threw in virgins galore for their duty above and beyond. You don’t have to be crazy to believe what the terrorists believed. Just religious.

  • Rongoklunk

    God-belief demands childhood indoctrination. Childhood indoctrination is almost the only way to grow up believing in a God. I’m an atheist because I escaped being indoctrinated. I was allowed to grow and develop without the mention of a god. As a father i raised my kids the same way — without mentioning a god. So naturally they grew up to be nonbelievers. Now that they’re all married with children of their own, they are raising their kids the way they were raised – God free. And I’m very proud that none of them are superstitious as adults. It’s a far better way to raise children honestly, without teaching them superstitious nonsense about gods and life-after-death. Truth is infinitely more important than any religion, which is what the ancients made-up in the days before knowledge. Science has much better explanations of reality than religion ever had. Religion is about wishful thinking and the denial of death; while science continues to search for truth.

  • Rongoklunk

    After the holocaust many Jewish people realized that there can’t be a god. No god could completely ignore what the Jews experienced in Auschwitz, It was god’s moment. Mass murder was happening against Jews on planet earth, the perfect opportunity for god to come out of his hiding place and show us his stuff. But he did what he always does – nothing. No matter what happens god never does anything. He always behaves as if he doesn’t exist. That can only be because he doesn’t exist.

  • Rongoklunk

    Man certainly is the only religious animal. Man is the only god-inventing animal too. We seem to be addicted to making them up. Over time our ancestors invented more than 3500 of them. And this is very strong evidence that current gods were also made-up. And that is a lot easier than believing such thingies actually exist.

  • nkri401

    If there is after-life, is there also “before-life”?

    Where do you think you were before you were conceived? Inquiring mind want to know…

    Could it be that after-life is same as before-life?

  • nkri401

    Ron,

    I’m with you but like to pose a rhetorical question that how did the first religious person get his/her childhood indoctrination?

    Certainly, the majority of religious people follow their parents religion but I think they continue to follow the religion because it fills certain social and psychological need of a person.

    Understanding the cultural need for a religion may be more important than trying to simply remove religion as it could be filled by other charlatans or worse.

    Just a thought…

  • nkri401

    An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:

    Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
    Person A makes claim C about subject S.
    Therefore, C is true.

    from “www.nizkor.org”

  • edwills

    drmwlau sites Francis Collins, a believing scientist, as if that should settle the matter. He didn’t mention that 93% of the National Academy of Science members are atheists. Every article about Collins mentions his religious beliefs because it is so rare among distinguished scientists. Even Collins admits he came to his God belief through faith, not through scientific evidence. The best he can say is that God can’t be disproved, and I feel better about myself being a believer.

  • veginpost

    It would be informative to know what the 7% that are believers believe. I always find it amusing to read the wide range of what is called belief. When I was a young reader I read a lot of Science Fiction. Arthur C. Clark’s Nine Billion Names of God comes to mind in that it speculates on what the supernatural would be up to. Clark by the way was an atheist. It seems to me that among those that believe their beliefs are so personal that it is ludicrous to dwell on the meaning of what God could possibly really be if it really did exist. To attempt to define a universal God one would have to first understand all the beliefs of the billions of humans on earth. It’s a lot easier and seemingly rational just to accept that it doesn’t exist.

  • edwills

    Good point. Also, those who didn’t respond to the survey are likely to be unbelievers, so the percentage of believers is probably even lower than 7 %

  • drmwlau

    edw10:47

    Your survey (93%…) addresses quantity not quality.

    And the best you can say is option (1), wholly unobservable, or option (2) must be true because God can’t be proved.

    Of course many atheists claim they don’t believe anything, because they’re patiently waiting for the scientifice evidence. Bull. They are full of passionate intensity (religious?) about their belief in the unproved absence of God; if this this were not so, they would call themselves agnostics.

  • TylerSisBack

    nkri401,

    It’s also a opinion that something doesn’t exist if you cannot provide evidence that it doesn’t. To make either statement takes an equal leap of faith. That means both of our beliefs are just theories. There was a point in time were humans couldn’t prove that the world was round, but eventually the science concluded that the world was round. I’m not claiming that i’m sure that science will prove me right, I’m just saying that it hasn’t proven my beliefs wrong yet. If God does exist, that means he created nature, that means he exist outside of nature and cannot be proven to be real or not real through the study of nature (Science).

    I’m just a Deist/Theist that wishes for Atheist to stop being so apathetic and unwilling to admit that our beliefs are equal. To believe one or the other takes equal assumption, because science can coexist with both of the beliefs.

    Rongoklunk,

    I’m tired of the stigma associated with organized religion to reflect belief in God. Extreme beliefs in general, and killing and terrorizing in general is bad. There are people that believe in Allah that don’t believe in the same sect of beliefs that most terrorist do. It is a over simplification to assume that believing in God or any religion for that matter leads to terrorism, even Islam. Christians were threatened with Genocide for years by the Romans before the Romans tried a different angle and organized the religion and killed in the Name of God. Christianity, just like Islam, wasn’t born a evil weapon. It was corrupted and turned into a weapon by people with radical beliefs who used it to manipulate there respective nations. Religion in general, spirituality, and belief in God are not evil or less than the beliefs of a atheist. Only the beliefs of Extremest (Religious or not) are inferior and evil.

  • Joe Chisholm

    I think the ritualistic atheist is the the closet doubter. A preacher could be a ritualistic atheist/agnostic, not believing the jesus or virgin birth myth but feeling that as parables the “holly book” is useful to the adherents in his or her congregation.

    I bet a lot of people talk of God and prayer and don’t believe it – they go along to get along. As secular jews, buddhists, hindus etc, one can have cultural connection without believing the mythology that goes with their cultural/family/community roots. So why couldn’t a “closet atheist” be a RAA?

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.