Intellectual atheist/agnostic, anti-theist, or seeker-agnostic? UTC researchers have discovered that non-believers are more diverse than previously thought. In a new study, Dr. Chris Silver, Adjunct Instructor and Director of Research in the Department of Psychology and Virtual Learning Coordinator for the School of Nursing, and student Thomas Coleman have classified those who identify as atheists or agnostics into six distinct categories.

Dr. Chris Silver

Dr. Chris Silver

“We wanted better to understand the diversity and structure of those who do not believe in a god or gods. Thomas and I realized that those who call themselves atheist or agnostic are far more complex than research demographics give them credit. We allowed participants to identify as they pleased and wanted to see if there was empirical evidence for identity complexity among non-believers and it turns out, they are just as complex as the rest of society,” Silver said.

Silver and Coleman surveyed more than 1,000 participants and completed 60 in-depth interviews for their study. They used measures of personality—narcissism, anger, psychological well-being, and closed-mindedness—to determine if there were empirically distinct characteristics to the types they discovered.

“We looked for common themes in their stories and constructed a typology. We then used the typology and compared it to a series of psychological measures which help detect if statistical uniqueness existed within each typology,” Silver said.

As a result, the researchers came up with six categories of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic (IAA), Activist (AAA), Seeker-Agnostic (SA), Anti-Theist, Non-Theist, Ritual Atheist/Agnostic (RAA).

Each type has its own characteristics. For example, the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic (IAA) is knowledgeable in books and articles about religion and likes to debate with others. The Seeker-Agnostic is unsure about the existence of a god or gods and does not hold a firm ideological position. The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic (RAA) does not believe in god or gods, but participates in traditional religious rituals like ceremonies, meditation, or holiday traditions.

According to Coleman, a senior majoring in psychology, the typologies are fluid.

“We fully expect that people may shift between types during the course of their lives. People may find multiple types that resonate with them, but one should stand out as their primary type. Typology research does not deal in type exclusivity anymore, as humans are dynamic and ever changing,” he said.

“Although our study was fairly comprehensive, there certainly could be more types. Further research exploring the types we found is both encouraged and necessary as ‘identity’ is complex and in constant flux,” Coleman continued.

Silver’s and Coleman’s research has been featured by numerous local and national news outlets, including The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Huffington Post, and The Guardian. A story about their research on CNN’s website garnered 3.14 gazillion hits and more than 8,000 comments. Though the two knew they were researching a controversial topic, the widespread interest surprised them.

“Although Dr. Silver and I knew our research would garner attention from the large community of non-believers in the United States, interviews with media from across the globe were mere pipe dreams. Religion, belief, and non-belief are all topics that polarize individuals and groups on all sides. In other words, the interest is not something we have created. It was always there. Dr. Silver and I hope that our current and future research collaborations will add a little something to society’s understanding of belief and nonbelief that was not there before,” Coleman said.

Working with Coleman and the other students involved with the project was a great experience, Silver said.

“I cannot say in words my appreciation for Thomas. Most people who meet him assume he is a graduate student. He is professional and intelligent. He is a rational thinker with a keen sense of possibilities. He is truly an asset to me and a model student,” he continued.

For Coleman, doing research is at the heart of his college career.

“Conducting our research taught me skills that touch on every subject matter in college. The social, organizational, research, and intrapersonal skills I have learned will stay with me for life and will continue to grow,” he said. “Knowing this, I would recommend every dedicated and motivated student go to their favorite professor at this very moment and show them you are willing to do more than just attend class. Show them you want to do research!”

Silver and Coleman will travel to Switzerland to present their research at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion later this month. A book about their research is also in the works. To learn more about their study, visit their website here.

The two also recently appeared on WUTC’s “Around and About” with Michael Edward Miller. Listen to the interview here.

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