published Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Study: World of atheism diverse, nonbelievers can't be lumped together

Poll
Are atheists misunderstood?
DIFFERENT SHADES OF DISBELIEF

In arguing that “atheism” is too generic a term, UTC researchers came up with six new categories of nonbelief. They include:

• Intellectual atheist/agnostic: These people are highly motivated to study and read up on matters of belief, science, philosophy, “rational” theology. These people often belong to skeptic, free-thinking or rationalist groups that meet online or face to face.

• Activist atheist/agnostic: These people aren’t content to just hold positions of nonbelief, but are vocal and proactive in the atheist community. Their activism often stems from or spills over into other social areas, like feminism, gay rights, environmental or political concerns.

• Seeker-agnostic: These people aren’t sure about the existence of God or the divine, hold no strong ideological positions and often keep an open mind in the debate between the religious, spiritual and antitheist elements of society.

• Anti-theist: These are some of the most assertive nonbelievers and are diametrically opposed to religious ideology. They tend to view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental.

• Non-theist: These are people who are apathetic or disinterested. They’re not active in social or intellectual pursuits having to do with religion or anti-religion.

• Ritual atheist/agnostic: These people hold no belief in God or the divine but aren’t always open about their lack of belief. Yet they may find some usefulness with religious teachings — viewing them as good philosophical teachings on how to live life, not a path toward spiritual fulfillment. Some even partake in religious-like rituals including meditation, yoga or holiday traditions.

Hunched in front of wire shelving, hangers and a bright orange bottle of Tide, the woman ducked from her family members to answer questions about her faith.

Do you consider yourself religious, spiritual or nonreligious?

How do you define atheism? Freethinker? Secularist?

She couldn’t risk her religious family members overhearing her answers. As an atheist, she was literally in the closet.

The woman, from the American Southwest, was among dozens of people who helped round out a national study of nonbelievers by researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. And the results might make you question everything you think you know about atheism. Because atheists aren’t all playing to the typecast. Their beliefs — or lack thereof — are so complex and surprising that some are even sitting in the church pews on Sunday morning.

The very word “atheist” could be on the way out, as researchers contend it doesn’t come close to describing the variation of beliefs, values and practices of America’s nonbelievers. Because the views nonbelievers hold are every bit as complicated and varied as those of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Sure, some atheists may agree with vocal, liberal figureheads like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, both prominent authors and speakers on atheism. Some want to convince others that there is no God, that creation is a myth and that organized religion is for suckers. But others keep their beliefs and doubts quiet, with little interest in evangelizing. Plenty more may not be quite convinced one way or another or are looking for something they just haven’t found yet.

The study was in part designed to dig into that differentiation, because most academic research tends to treat all nonbelievers as a common group, said Chris Silver, a UTC psychology instructor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the research project.

“If you hang out with six atheists, you’re going to have six different views of the world,” he said. “To sit and make the massive assumption as a researcher they’re somehow all the same is kind of stigmatizing, actually.”

After interviewing and surveying hundreds, Silver’s research compiled six categories of nonbelievers. He found everything from hardcore, vocal atheists to those who attend church weekly because they still find meaning in the ritual, if not the dogma.

“You can’t say, ‘I’ve met one atheist, I’ve met them all.’ It means different things to different people,” said Thomas Coleman, an undergraduate UTC student who also worked on the yearlong study.

Coleman gained local notoriety as an atheist with his federal lawsuit challenging the Hamilton County Commission’s practice of public prayers at meetings. That suit is still making its way through the court system.

Coleman and Silver said they weren’t wildly surprised by the study’s results, because they’ve come to understand the variety of disbelief through their interactions with family and friends. But the research could prove consequential in the wider academic community, as the nation continues to grow less religious as a whole.

The number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated is constantly growing, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. According to 2012 data, one-fifth of the adult population has no religious affiliation and one-third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation — the highest percentages ever recorded by Pew.

LEARN MORE

To read more on the UTC study about disbelief, visit atheismresearch.com.

HOW THEY DID IT

UTC psychology instructor Chris Silver’s yearlong research project was actually two studies. Researchers first conducted interviews with about 60 nonbelievers from around the country to gauge the variety within nonbelief. They then compiled a 300-question written survey of psychological measures that was filled out online by more than 1,000 subjects who self-selected to participate.

That mass loss of religious identity — and thus the rise in atheism — may seem threatening to believers, especially in the South, where Bible verses dot the highways and our public officials are regularly criticized for being too religious. But this trend can actually be good for Christians, especially if the nonbelievers are in their midst, said Terry Cross, dean of the School of Religion at Lee University, a socially conservative liberal arts college sponsored by the Church of God.

“Sometimes if we’re just amongst ourselves, we become rather incestuous,” Cross said of Christians. “We tend not to be challenged. And unchallenged Christianity, I think, becomes a very aberrant and misunderstood form of the faith. Because it has no connection to the real world at that point.”

Cross, a former pastor, says it comes as no surprise that atheists are coming to church. He knew of nonbelieving spouses who would regularly accompany their family members to church just to appease them.

It’s probably easier to evangelize atheists when they willingly show up on Sunday. But their presence can also help church leaders refine their message and practice. He said pastors shouldn’t shy away from them, but should engage them and pick their brains on the church.

What did you see in this service that was strange? What is it that affects you? What do you like the most?

And there should be some level of understanding, because people lose faith — or never find it — for all kinds of reasons. Some experience a personal trauma, while others are turned off by the actions of certain Christian groups, Cross said.

“I think increasingly churches are having to come to an understanding that the nonbelieving world is much more complex than it used to be,” he said. “But that shouldn’t surprise us because the believing world is much more complex than it used to be.”

In fact, the worlds of belief and nonbelief can sometimes begin to mirror each other. UTC researchers said some atheists thought their study pointed to a need for nonbelievers to come together in a more organized way, since so many people still find comfort in the ritual and fellowship provided by churches.

And atheists in our area already do connect with each other often, said Jennifer Ross. A local group of atheists, agnostics and the like have built an online community. They meet up for dinners and beers. And they even perform charitable work — which is sometimes hard for some community members to come to grips with.

“They look at me like, ‘You’re not going to hurt me, are you?’” Ross said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m a regular person just trying to help.”

Many members of the group are closeted, she said, and afraid of the business, social and family implications of being labeled an atheist. But 36-year-old Ross has been calling herself an atheist since high school. She doesn’t shy away from it, but expects most people would never know.

“Probably in everyday life, people don’t know I’m an atheist,” she said, “unless the subject comes up or someone asks me.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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