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.
Despite the societal distrust and feelings of mistreatment, atheists may also enjoy the benefits of having a higher status at certain times—a concept called "status inconsistency." As an African-American man at times I enjoy the benefits of male privilege, but at other times in my life I have had to deal with my racial minority status. For atheists, data shows they are more likely to be white, male, educated and possibly wealthy than the general population, indicating they also tend to have more social power than others in society. Additionally, in venues such as academia, atheists clearly have an advantage, while conservative Protestants are the minority (as I wrote in Compromising Scholarship by Baylor University Press). It is overly simplistic to argue that nonbelievers are always at a societal advantage or disadvantage. We have to understand other factors and the contexts.
The common themes I found among atheists—a sense of logic and perception of mistreatment—help me to rethink the six categories Silver offers. Based on my research and my interaction with nonbelievers in my life, I lump together the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, Activist and Anti-Theist together as nonbelievers who proactively push secular ideas. For lack of a better term, let me call them aggressive nonbelievers. On the other hand, we have the Seeker-Agnostic, Non-Theist and Ritual Atheist/Agnostic, nonbelievers with "a live and let live" type of attitude. I'll refer to them as passive nonbelievers. These two, more general categories can initially help us as Christians as we consider strategies for ministry to a nonbeliever, and we can subtly adjust to the specific "type" Silver talks about.
The aggressives are more likely to be arguing with Christians in comment sections, attending political rallies, or joining activist secular organizations. With some appreciation of the subtle differences between the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, Activist and Anti-Theist, expect such individuals to argue for the rightness of nonbelief. New research I am working on, but have not yet published, indicates that some will intertwine their arguments with unreasonable hatred and fear of Christians. It is wise for Christians to prepare for such arguments through apologetical study and by expecting fair, and sometimes unfair, attacks from such individuals.
The passives don't show up publically nearly as much as the aggressives. Some keep their thoughts to themselves, believing it's not anybody's business what they think about the metaphysical. This group would be turned off by some of the same tactics that may be necessary in talking with the aggressives. Instead, interpersonal relationships may help Christians to earn their trust. (Of course, interpersonal relationships can also pave the way for reaching aggressives but Christians have to be ready for possible hostility that's less likely to emerge from the passives.)
The three largest categories of nonbelievers—Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, Activist and Anti-Theist—are the aggressive ones. According to Silver's survey about 3 of every 4 nonbelievers are part of these groups. From what I can tell he is not using a probability sample and so we have to be careful about generalizing his findings, but this does raise the possibility that aggressive nonbelievers greatly outnumber passives. Nevertheless, Christians still have the responsibility to assess a person's type of nonbelief, personality, and tone. Treating nonbelievers as individuals instead of grouping them all together with a presupposed plan is the way to find the best path to interacting with them and to take our rightful place in this emerging multicultural world.
George Yancey is a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He is co-author (with David Williamson) of What Motivates Cultural Progressives (Baylor University Press) and There Is No God (Rowman and Littlefield). He is currently doing research on Christianophobia in the United States and his work can be found at www.georgeyancey.com.