The Typology of Unbelief

In a recent survey conducted under project leader Christoper F. Silver from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it was shown throughout a study of over 1,153 participants that the atheists of America can be categorized into six main groups.  The largest of this group (37%) have been known as the “cultural non-believers,” [1] or the “intellectual atheists/agnostics” (IAA) [2]. Andrew Brown’s article over at The Guardian [3] defines IAA’s as “people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers.” However, Brown calls them “cultural because they are at home in a secular culture which takes as axiomatic that exclusive religious truth claims must be false.”

To quote the study:

IAA typology includes 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. They enjoy dialectic enterprises such as healthy democratic debate and discussions, and are intrinsically motivated to do so. These individuals are typically versed in a variety of writings on belief and non-belief and are prone to cite these authors in discussions.

To discuss the context of the study, the project was funded from the researchers themselves and through other volunteer student assistants of those researchers. Christoper Silver explains the reasoning behind this study was to “to start a conversation and raise awareness of the diversity of the nonbelief community.” Silver further explains that 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” [4]. To quote Silver at length:

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.

It is a far more interesting note I think to say that the leaders behind the project were Christoper Silver – a doctoral student in learning and leadership – and Thomas Coleman III – an undergraduate student at UTC. Chris Silver in particular, has served as a board member for the Chattanooga Free Thought Association for 2 years. To quote the biography his length:

[Christopher Silver] currently served as the public relations co-chair for the Chattanooga Free Thought Association. He has assisted in organizing and scheduling speakers for Skeptics in the Pub, a lecture and debate series in Chattanooga. Mr. Silver also serves as the faculty advisor to the UTC Secular Student Alliance. Mr. Silver’s research has focused on a variety of topics including religious deconversion, spirituality, new religious movements, and research theory. [5]

However, as to Silver’s particular views on religion, one CNN article writes that Silver was ” raised in the rural South to a deeply religious Methodist family,” however, Silver goes on to say that “[t]oday I consider myself an agnostic in the real philosophical sense. The more I learn, the more I recognize the extensiveness of my ignorance” [6].


The Six of Groups of Unbelievers

The study categorized unbelievers into six groups (typologies are also sided with their respective percents):

  • (1) Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic (IAA) – 37.6%
  • (2) Activist (AAA) – 23.0%
  • (3) Seeker Agnostic (SA) – 7.6%
  • (4) Anti-Theist – 14.8%
  • (5) Non-Theist – 4.4%
  • (6) Ritual Atheist/Agnostic (RAA) – 12.5%

Another article reported by David Ferguson states that “[e]ducation, [ … ] particularly college education had a more deleterious effect on religious belief than any other single factor” [7]. As Coleman said in an interview with Raw Story, “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 Activist Atheist/Agnostics relates to being “socially active.” The study goes on to say, “Individuals in the AAA typology are not content with the placidity of simply holding a non-belief position; they seek to be both vocal and proactive regarding current issues in the atheist and/or agnostic socio-political sphere.” Thus, as Ferguson notes, “Their atheist activism often sprang from other forms of activism and an interest in social justice, like women’s rights, LGBT rights or wealth inequality.”

Seeker Agnostic(s) “consists of individuals attuned to the metaphysical possibilities precluding metaphysical existence, or at least recognizes the philosophical difficulties and complexities in making personal affirmations regarding ideological beliefs.” More so, according to Silver, these people tended to test out as the happiest of non-believers. To conclude then, Seeker Agnostics “keep an open mind in relation to the debate between the religious, spiritual, and antitheist elements within society.”

Anti-Theists have been rated to have the highest scores in anger, dogmatism, and have the lowest scores in positive relations with others. To quote the study at length:

The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.  They view the logical fallacies of religion as an outdated worldview that is not only detrimental to social cohesion and peace, but also to technological advancement and civilized evolution as a whole.  They are compelled to share their view and want to educate others into their ideological position and attempt to do so when and where the opportunity arises.  Some Anti-Theist individuals feel compelled to work against the institution of religion in its various forms including social, political, and ideological, while others may assert their view with religious persons on an individual basis.

Non-Theists “have never made religion a large part of their life and don’t even give much thought to the question” (Ferguson). Silver says that “the alignment of oneself with religion, or conversely an epistemological position against religion, can appear quite unconventional from their perspective.” Thus, the Non-Theist has no real particular concern or activity regarding the subjects of “social or intellectual pursuits.”

Ritual Atheist/Agnostics  are ones that have been considered the most interesting yet unexpected. Respectively, RAA’s do not hold belief in the divine or the afterlife, yet “they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions.” Silver gives an example of RAAs participating in “specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.” However, many RAAs are seemingly misrepresented as spiritual but not religious, hence they are quick to point out that they are atheist or agnostic in relation to “their own ontological view.”

Dave Muscato of the American Atheists in his interview with Raw Story said that in respect to the study, American Atheists could be seen as “focused on the Anti-Theist crowd and that type of activism, people who are against religion specifically and want to fight it” (Ferguson). Nonetheless, Muscato was sympathetic to the study, saying that “It’s useful to understand that atheists are not all the same, in the same way that religious people aren’t all the same.”




  • [1] I gathered this term from Andrew Brown’s article, The Six Types of Atheist (The Gaurdian: 2013), see the article here.
  • [2] The full study can be seen at
  • [3] See note [1] for the link.
  • [4] Daniel Burke, Six Types of Atheist Study Wakes a Sleeping Giant (CNN: 2013), see the article here.
  • [5] See note [2]’s link for the biography.
  • [6] Daniel Burke; see note [4] for the link.
  • [7] David Ferguson, Atheism Study Authors (The Raw Story: 2013) see the article here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s