What kind of atheist are you?

News reaches me from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga that a study of non-belief has identified six common categories within the unhelpfully broad category of “religious nones”. I doubt it’s the last word on the subject – the categories were formed based on interviews with just 59 people – but I rather like the idea behind it, although I think there’s a lot of overlap and I identify with at least three or four of their descriptions.

GaneshaYou can read the full details at their website, but here’s my attempt at a brief summary of the different sorts of atheist they’ve identified:

1. Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic: Thinkers with interests in discussion, debate and arguments for and against the existence of a god. They’re happy to discuss the issues with anyone, regardless of what they believe, as long as they know what they’re talking about. Often found online, reading blogs and forums and leaving their thoughts.

2. Activist: Campaigners for specific issues related to their (non) beliefs, such as feminism, secularism and LGBT issues. The degree and nature of involvement in these campaigns can vary, and may involve alliances with other related movements.

3. Seeker-Agnostic: Those who are aware that they don’t know everything, recognising the limitations of both their own knowledge and human knowledge in general, and seeking to rub along with other people of different viewpoints. They may miss many aspects of belief, without being inclined to return to it.

4. Anti-Theist: Strongly opposed to religion, viewing it as nothing more than ignorant fairy-tales and generally being very keen to share those views. Will probably be involved in public campaigns to some extent, but unlike an Activist, this is about the evils of religion per se, rather than working towards specific secular goals.

5. Non-Theist: Not active, and not greatly concerned by religion either way. This probably includes apatheists or meh-theists as people who just can’t get that worked up about it, and have no interest in any sort of atheist movement or common aims.

Meditation6. Ritual Atheist/Agnostic: Despite a lack of belief in any deities, they find value in some religious teachings and rituals. Religious holidays may be marked, meditation techniques adopted, or ceremonies joined, either for cultural reasons or because they draw a distinction between what’s true and what’s useful.

I see myself mainly as an Intellectual within this model, but with strong elements of both Seeker-Agnostic and Ritual Atheist/Agnostic, especially given my occasional feelings of loss on leaving the church and my view that rituals and practices can have value and significance regardless of the truth of the claims behind them.

I know I have quite a lot of readers who would fit within the survey sample of “Nones”, and I’d love to know where you think you fit into this, but I rejected the idea of running a poll because I don’t think it’s likely to capture the complexity of people who sit between two or more categories, and that’s what comments are for.

So, what sort of atheist are you?

Images courtesy of malamantra and tung072, used with permission


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

10 responses to “What kind of atheist are you?”

  1. Neil Rickert says :

    For me, I guess it is somewhere between “Seeker-Agnostic” and “Non-Theist”. Neither of those positions is a clear fit, but I do fit some of the characterizations of each.

  2. Colin Mackay says :

    lol…stupid categories!

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      More or less stupid than just describing all these people as atheists? Is there anything missing?

      It says a lot about me, but I appreciate the effort to achieve greater precision.

      • Colin Mackay says :


        sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you.

        I guess my position, on my atheism, having agonised over categories, for a while, at some point, has become quite simple. I am an atheist, I reject god claims, out of hand, in the absence of reliable evidence. I have always been an atheist but in recent years, with the growth of atheism was forced to review my position more critically, I am satisfied with my original position.

        That said, I understand the need to explore the various ontological frameworks and categorisations. I just don’t see the process offering much value.



  3. mgm75 says :

    I’d say I’m split between 1 and 4. But even from a 4 perspective I use the methods of 1 to demonstrate why religion is bad.

    Interesting list but perhaps a little simplistic. Might work better as a pie chart 😉

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      A pie would be interesting, especially as their survey suggests that some of these are common, even typical, while others are fringe categories. As they say, the large groups may contain further sub-divisions.

  4. Howie says :

    3 describes me best, and parts of 1 as well. There are also days when I do feel like an apatheist (5), usually when I’ve thought too much about this kind of stuff.

  5. ubi dubium says :

    Looking at the categories, they are just too simplistic, because so many people will fit into more than one of them. In my head I’m probably mostly an antitheist. But just flailing away at religion all the time isn’t a practical approach to helping decrease the overall influence of religion, and so online I’m a more of an activist/intellectual. If you talked to me in person in a venue where I’m among other non-religious people, you’d probably think I fall into the purely intellectual category, and if you met me at work or at the community organization I work with you wouldn’t have a clue because I refuse to talk about religion at all there.

    I like the pie chart idea too, or maybe some kind of venn diagram analysis would help.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I agree, they’re broad strokes that came from a very limited number of open interviews. But our self-identification will be based on the one group that seems to fit us closest. You might as well criticise the labels “atheist” and “agnostic” because there’s so much overlap.

      I don’t mind that everyone will be a mix of different types, as long as it’s understood to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

  6. Chris says :

    First off, I should lay my cards on the table by saying that I work with Chris Silver, who is the lead researcher on this project… where ‘work with’ means that he is one of the Assistant Editors for the podcast/website that I run… and he’s also a pal too – a top bloke 🙂

    Secondly, just to put my own oar in here as an academic researcher who has also attempted in the past to produce types of ‘non-religion’ – these types should always be understood as Ideal Types (in the sense employed by Max Weber in the first instance). They are larger than life caricatures which are based upon distinct discernible patterns within the data. Every individual person will embody characteristics of a number of types to different degrees… most will tend towards one more often than not… no one will exemplify a single type in totality. They are analytic constructs to be used for understanding, explanation and potentially for prediction. And you’d be surprised how strong a theory can be when based on comparatively few interviews.

    And finally… after all that… I think I probably fit somewhere into 1 and 5 with a bit of 2 (in principle, if not in practice). Although I spend a lot of time researching and reading about ‘religion’ I have remarkably little interest in talking about my own beliefs or lack thereof, or debating the existence of God etc. Strange? Maybe…

    Anyway, thanks for the post, and sorry if I’ve come across as patronizing – not my intent at all 🙂

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