In a new study of the various types of nonbelievers, researchers from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga say "one of the most interesting and unexpected" types they examined is the "ritual" atheist or agnostic, who finds some value in religious teachings and practices.
Those who fall into this category, according to the researchers, are nonbelievers who may have a philosophical appreciation for certain religious teachings, who like being part of a community, who want to stay in touch with their ethnic identity or who simply find beauty in certain religious traditions, symbols or rituals.
"The implication of this particular typology is that you could be sitting next to somebody in church right now who may, in fact, not buy into the theology that the rest of the congregation buys into," said principal researcher Christopher F. Silver in an interview with The Christian Post.
Thomas J. Coleman III, who also worked on the research, said he interviewed one person in particular who participates in church services and sings in the church choir, but doesn't believe in God.
The goal of the research was to more closely examine nonbelievers, who are a diverse group of people that are often lumped together in other studies. The study identified six different kinds of nonbelievers, though Silver says even more types could appear as the number of nonbelievers in the U.S. climbs.
The study was conducted in two parts. First, researchers conducted personal interviews with 59 people who were given the opportunity to speak freely, with some guidance, about their life and non-belief. They then conducted a mass survey of nearly 1,500 nonbelievers nationwide (though the results posted online as of Thursday morning reflect only 1,153 surveys).
The results showed that the largest portion of unbelievers are Intellectual Atheists/Agnostics (38 percent), who actively seek out knowledge on non-belief and the search for truth, followed by Activists (23 percent), Anti-theists (15 percent), Ritual Atheists/Agnostics (13 percent) , Seeker-Agnostics (8 percent) and Non-Theists (4 percent).
Silver and Coleman say the terms they used to classify each group may not align with what some nonbelievers consider themselves to be, which is why it is important for them to refer to the study's definition of each term rather than to focus on the term itself.
Silver, who has played a key role in several Chattanooga area organizations for nonbelievers and has worked on a number of psychology of religion studies in the last 12 years, says the complexity of unbelievers as a group should be considered by churches and other organizations that are attempting to reach out to them.
"In some ways, I would almost encourage those that are at least trying to work with or connect with this community, in whatever way they are, that they need to take into account that a variety of different people that come from different backgrounds, and that really they need to be speaking to the person more than the identity," he said.
The researchers also found that only a small percentage of nonbelievers, the Anti-Theists, would be considered "angry, argumentative and dogmatic," while more than 85 percent of those sampled would be considered normal based on current societal norms. Anti-Theists, they say, may be part of the reason why certain negative stereotypes continue to be associated with nonbelievers in general.
"They're the ones who get noticed," said Coleman. "When someone says, 'Oh man, atheists are angry.' Well, it's a zero-in, a focusing on, perhaps, some bad experiences with a very small percentage...of nonbelievers."
During the personal interview portion of their study, researchers also discovered that college was often a turning point in the lives of those who would become nonbelievers. They emphasized that college education in and of itself may not be the cause, however, as a number of other factors could play a part.
"It's not to say that college is a transformative process for everyone, but in our interviews we heard time and time again that, for many of the folks who identified themselves as nonbelievers, college seemed to be a milestone in their life's story. College seemed to be a transition point," said Silver.
Silver also said he was "surprised" to find that approximately half of nonbelievers are not publicly or socially engaged somehow in their non-belief.