Six Types of Atheists- Relevance for UUs & Pagans

December 12, 2014 at 5:06 am 9 comments

Atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers and humanists- I identify loosely with several with those labels with the exception of atheist- in fact I feel atheists have a tendency to take over words for themselves which apply more broadly. The latest one is Pagan. Who has a “claim” to the word pagan? A messy question for another day! I see heathen get used, but usually in a more joking manner, and they generally aren’t aware of its use by Norse/Germanic pagans. What types of atheists make good allies for Pagans & UUs, and which types mesh well enough to even be included in UU & Pagan groups?

I came across this study- copy pasted it here, with some added commentary

How many ways are there to disbelieve in God? At least six, according to a new study.

Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.

“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.

“These categories are a first stab at this,” Silver told the website Raw Story. “In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types.”

Silver and Coleman derived their six types of nonbelievers from 59 interviews. We’re pretty sure we’ve spotted all six in our comments section.

1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic (often but not always activist type) Some friendly to religious liberals, others more broadly anti-religion

This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism.

They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites.


They’re also well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently.

2) Activist (generally also the intellectual type, some anti-religion/anti-theist, others are more like “faitheists” 

These kinds of atheists and agnostics are not content with just disbelieving in God; they want to tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise.

They tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals.

3) Seeker-agnostic- Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) many UUs, many Pagans- this describes me! Agnostic with a polytheistic worldview & an aesthetic/intellectual enjoyment of ritual & mythology. I feel that’s a more intellectually honest description, though I use polytheist for short. At the end of the day I feel I have more in common with them. 

This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.

Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”

That doesn’t mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

4) Anti-theist (sub-type of the activist) New Atheists, typically. This is the type that probably would *not* mesh well in a Pagan group, interfaith group, or a UU congregation! Ableist attitudes (such as “religion is a mental illness/neurological disorder” or “religious people are stupid” are disturbingly common.

This group regularly speaks out against religion and religious beliefs, usually by positioning themselves as “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” Silver and Coleman wrote.

“Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”

Anti-theists are outspoken, devoted and – at times – confrontational about their disbelief. They believe that “obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another.”

5) Non-theist (Apatheists, functionally agnostic) my partner falls in this category

The smallest group among the six are the non-theists, people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion.

In many cases, this comes across as apathy or disinterest.

“A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “Religion plays no role or issue in one’s consciousness or worldview; nor does a Non- Theist have concern for the atheist or agnostic movement.”

They continue: “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religion in any form from their mental space.”

6) Ritual atheist (secular Buddhists & Jews, UUs, some Pagans?) Alain de Botton- Religion 2.0

I suspect for a lot of sci-fi/fantasy/comics & games fandom, fandoms can function as surrogate religions for the ritual atheists. Music & sports do as well.

They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the “profound symbolism” inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.

(Problem is I couldn’t figure out where a non-theistic path such as Buddhism would fit in- though I suppose it would depend on the kind of Buddhism. By secular Buddhism I mean the practice of meditation & some philosophy without the belief in karma & reincarnation. )


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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amanda  |  December 12, 2014 at 5:46 am

    A very helpful post! This certainly explains some of the awkwardness that can happen when pagans try to team up with atheists. I remember when I was a college student and our pagan student group had someone from the student atheist group come over as a guest speaker, and after talking with him for a while, it started to dawn on him that some of us really believe in pagan gods. Oh dear! (Maybe he thought we were all Type 6 or something.)

    My husband shifts between being a 3 and 5, while my mom is a Type 4 (I remember many conversations with her about how stupid religion and religious people are when I was growing up). I couldn’t handle being married to a Type 4.

    • 2. caelesti  |  December 12, 2014 at 7:12 am

      The anti-theists (as I call them) were often raised fundamentalist or brought up around a lot of them and are reacting against that mentality. People need to get over their hangover from their birth religion before they join another one. Unfortunately in particular there are a lot of Heathens with that mentality. If their Yahweh *just happens to be one-eyed, and the Devil is Loki, watch out!

      • 3. Amanda  |  December 13, 2014 at 1:40 am

        “Anti-theist” does seem to be a better term for these people. “Atheist” just means you don’t believe in a god or gods, but “anti-theists” take it a step further and are against anyone believing in a god or gods.

        I think I waffle between being an actual (poly)theist and being a Type 6, “There may not be any gods, but these rituals feel meaningful, so I’m still doing them anyway.”

  • 4. Wilson  |  December 12, 2014 at 7:02 am

    Well so dont pagans have some deity or deities?

    • 5. caelesti  |  December 12, 2014 at 7:05 am

      Typically yes, but the word Pagan is so broad that it’s meaning is disputed. There are some self-identified pagan atheists that regard gods as symbolic & archetypal or just honor the cycles of nature.

      • 6. Wilson  |  December 12, 2014 at 7:25 am

        Well thats just strange.

  • 7. stitchgnomercy  |  December 12, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    I waffle between 3 & 6 🙂

  • 8. Tree Hugging Humanist  |  December 13, 2014 at 10:59 am

    I’m a #6 but I do still associate with religion. I also enjoy debate to an extent but not on all topics. I enjoy reading books and blogs by atheist authors.

  • 9. Chris Highland  |  December 14, 2014 at 8:25 am

    I’m fairly comfortable with Freethinker. If one needs a label or a sense of “community” perhaps people gather around some, any, non-supernatural fire. Not sure how a “polytheist” is any kind of atheist. One thinks or feels or believes there is a god/dess or gods, they are theist in some sense. Saying “I don’t know” is honest, yet what do agnostics say about unicorns, fairies and ufo’s? I think we can be fairly certain, that we know, some things, don’t you think?
    Good post.


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