As Christians we know what it feels like to be stereotyped. Despite our commonalities, we recognize the great diversity among our faith, so we should be sympathetic to the recent efforts by researchers to document various types of religious non-belief.
Not all nonbelievers—be they atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, or some mixture of all of these identities—are identical, and we are mistaken if we develop a singular, cookie-cutter approach in our interactions with them. Just as we do not want to be reduced to a simplistic stereotype, we also should not reduce our ideas about nonbelievers to some image developed through media or a few past friendships.
In a prominent new project, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga researcher Christopher Silver documented six types of nonbelievers. Here's a very, very brief recap of each:
1. The Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic: Sees his/herself as intellectually too advanced for religion and seeks to engage with other likeminded individuals through writings, YouTube videos and talks.
2. The Activist: Proactively works for issues connected to naturalist or humanist causes.
3. The Seeker-Agnostic: Considers the metaphysical a possibility but is comfortable with uncertainty as it concerns the interaction of science and the metaphysical.
4. The Anti-Theist: Believes religion to be evil, thus actively works against religion and religious influences.
5. The Non-Theist: Does not have much interest in religious concepts.
6. The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic: Does not have otherworldly beliefs but regularly attends a religious ceremony, finding that this meets some social or psychological need.
In a society where Christianity is losing its dominant social influence, Christians find themselves interacting more and more with these different types of nonbelievers. To be faithful to Christ, we have to continue to reach out to these people, who may see no need to accept us or our ideology, whether merely to affirm their humanity or to provide a culturally relevant witness that can lead them to Christ.
Even in these short descriptions of different types of nonbelievers, Christians can see that distinct approaches are necessary. Clearly one must be ready to contend with the Anti-Theist with a more proactive defense of faith than the Non-Theist. How Christians interact with Activists is going to be very different than with a Seeker-Agnostic. Thus, Christians who are seeking some sort of magic formula appropriate for all nonbelievers are doomed to be disappointed.
There Is No God, the book I co-authored with David Williamson on atheism in America, offers possible insights into learning how to deal with nonbelievers in a culturally sensitive manner. We focused more on what atheists have in common, while Silver focuses on the differences between groups of nonbelievers.
We found that atheists, with some exceptions, tend to see themselves as more logical than Christians and others who aren't atheists. Unlike religious individuals they cannot use their own experience with the divine as evidence, so they argue that reason and science support their positions. I suspect that even agnostics tend to argue for a rational basis to their skepticism. Atheists have more certainty in their belief of the nonexistence of a deity, and most attest they had no doubts that the supernatural is a myth.
Atheists share a sense that they are mistreated, a perception I suspect comes up to some degree among nonbelievers in all six categories (with the possible exception of the Non-Theists). Atheists have good reason to feel this way. Surveys indicate that they are trusted less than most other social groups, and my earlier research indicates they experience more relative hostility than any religious group.