These are the 4 types of atheism
When we talk about religious beliefs, the language we use often sorts people into rigid, binary groups. You are either a theist or an atheist. A believer or a non-believer. But take a closer look at how people conceptualize God and the supernatural, and those distinctions start to lose their meaning.
When someone calls themselves an atheist, for example, what are they actually conveying about their beliefs or lack thereof? Even though the dictionary definition of “atheist” is pretty clear – someone who doesn’t believe in God or gods – the term doesn’t tell you much on its own.
“To be an atheist is to reject entirely belief in the supernatural, or belief in a god or deity,” Clay Routledge, an existential psychologist and writer, told Big Think. “But I actually think it’s a much more complex and much more interesting story. Even among atheists, there are many different ways to conceptualize this idea.
Four types of atheism
As religious affiliation continues to decline in the United States and other countries, it is worth considering the different forms that a lack of belief in the supernatural can take. Although not an exhaustive list, here are some ways to conceptualize what people mean when they use the word atheist.
Non-religious: One of the broadest types of atheism is simply do not subscribe to a religion. It often happens that non-religious people do not necessarily reject the existence of the supernatural or of God (after all, you can be non-religious and still believe in forms of spirituality), but rather the dogmas of traditional religions.
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Here again, not adhere to a religion does not require you to actively reject a particular belief system. It just means that you are not subscribed to one. As such, disinterest could be a key factor for some people in this group; perhaps they don’t care less about the big questions about “the other side.”
In 2021, the Pew Research Center’s benchmark National Public Opinion Survey found that 29% of American adults consider themselves “non-religious.” This “none” group included several subgroups, including one that arguably best describes selfless nonreligious people: people who said their religious identity was “nothing in particular.”
Emotional Atheists: If the non-religious are the “nones”, the emotional atheists could be considered the religious “facts”. Emotional atheists are atheists whose lack of belief – or active rejection of belief – stems primarily from negative emotions.
An example is someone who has become naturally irritated with religion. Perhaps they have suffered abuse in the church, been disowned because of their parents’ beliefs, or experienced a tragedy so horrific that they cannot understand why God would allow such a thing to happen.
The emotional atheist, driven by negative experiences, actively rejects God. This is a somewhat contradictory position to take, considering that “being angry at something means, on some level, [you] have some idea of its existence,” Routledge told Freethink.
Social atheists: This group may harbor different levels of religious or spiritual beliefs in their private moments, but they don’t care to share or broadcast them. Maybe they consider him rude. Perhaps they don’t care to participate in the cultural practices of religious life. In any case, religious or spiritual beliefs are a personal pursuit of this group.
Antitheists: In addition to lacking religious beliefs, antitheists take an active stance against religions. One of the most famous and outspoken writers to defend this view in recent history was the late Christopher Hitchens, who once said:
“I’m not even an atheist as long as I’m an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I argue that the influence of churches and the effect of religious belief is positively harmful.
Putting atheists to the test
Regardless of the type, atheists are generally inclined to think that God does not exist. But to what extent do the self-reported beliefs of atheists correspond to what they deeply feel?
This was one of the driving questions behind a 2014 study published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. In the study, researchers asked atheists and religious people to read aloud statements that challenged God to do horrible things. Examples included:
- I challenge God to cripple my mother.
- I challenge God to set fire to my house.
- I challenge God to turn all my friends against me.
When asked how distasteful it was to utter such statements, atheists said they did not find it as distasteful as believers. Not surprising. After all, if you don’t believe in God, these statements should be nothing more than empty words.
But less expected were the participants’ skin conductance test results, which are used to measure emotional arousal. The results showed that both atheists and believers displayed strong emotional arousal when reading utterances from God. So while atheists reported that defying God to do horrible things was not too unpleasant, physiological measurements suggested otherwise.
One explanation for why atheists felt heightened excitement when reading the statements is that it would be emotionally unpleasant for somebody to utter such ugly feelings, regardless of what they believe. However, the researchers also asked participants to make statements that were offensive or wished bad things happened, but did not mention God.
The results showed that atheists were more emotionally affected by statements from God, according to skin conductance tests. For Routledge, studies like this highlight our often startling ambivalence towards big existential questions.
“Hard-core atheists believe they are not guided by supernatural ideas and concepts at all, but we know from research that they tend to engage in purposive thinking – to see things in terms of design and purpose,” he told Big Think. .
Although binary categories like atheist and theist can make people seem like they are rigidly divided according to beliefs, ambivalence and doubt can make us more similar than it seems. CS Lewis, the British writer who converted from atheism to Christianity after a nightly conversation with JRR Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, once wrote:
“Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; don’t believe in Him and you will have to face hours when this material world seems to cry out to you that this is not all.