Six Shades of Nonbelievers
By Joe C.
The nonbeliever world is a hexagon shaped world, according to a University of Tennessee finding. Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman III derived their six types of nonbelievers based on an analysis of interviews across the United States.
Well, let’s see. Do you fall into one of these subgroups?
1 Intellectual atheist/agnostic: Well read, eager to engage in debate or any social intercourse that will stimulate them intellectually.
2 Activist atheist: This unbeliever isn’t content with just disbelieving in God; they speak to the dangers of theism and the religions that preach theistic dogma. Politically engaged, the activists bring their brand of scientific realism to causes from minority rights to the environment.
3 Seeker-agnostic: “I don’t know and can’t know—and neither can you.” Divinity, if it exists, is beyond human understanding. These seekers, although searching, are skeptical that any of the book-based messages from God are anything other than political/cultural, man-made fiction. Doubt is a greater state of enlightenment than certainty. Type 3s don’t see themselves as undecided, rather, they are firmly committed to middle ground.
4 Anti-theist: Being “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” anti-theists view religion as promulgating ignorance and delusion in a way that is socially detrimental. This group feels that theirs is the more enlightened and superior worldview. Confronting belief and opposing religion is a duty.
5 Non-theist: This group is apathetic. Rarely giving the matter any thought, this smallish group wouldn’t care about the truth or fiction of a Divine creator any more than someone from New York would care about what day of the week that trash was collected in Beijing. Non-theists don’t feel part of a team nor do they find the great worldview debates entertaining.
6 Ritual agnostic/atheist: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” would be a theme for these nonbelievers who still find cultural connection to their religion of birth or worthy philosophy from religions as a whole. Secular Jews, Baptists, Muslims or Hindus might not worship God, Allah or Shiva or be invested in an afterlife but they feel a connection to the community that religious rituals offer. Even a priest could be an atheist but fulfill his role in a community of adherents. Some who check off, “Protestant,” in a survey might not believe the Jesus fable or virgin birth myth but they identify with their cultural background.
The authors of the Tennessee study agree that any of us may identify with more than one of the six sub-types although nonbelievers have a primary sub-type. Even in a college town, this type of study in the bible belt will draw a range of attention from, “Finally,” to “You better not have spent my tax dollars on this blasphemy!”
Silver says, “One of the main purposes of this study is to start a conversation and raise awareness of the diversity of the nonbelief community. Tommy and I both accept that there are other academic researchers out there with far more psychometric and methodological sophistication. Certainly these researchers may be able to explore the community in greater detail, shedding light on aspects of the community not detected in this study. We welcome others to explore the diversity of nonbelief and share their data and conclusions.”
The infamous Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in America separated their respondents as claiming to be a member of a named Christian or other religion and if they didn’t fit in one these numerous categories, there was “atheist,” “agnostic” or “none” left to choose from. Silver and Coleman try to expand on who this growing category of nonbelievers really is.
How might each of these six sub-types fit in to a Twelve Step fellowship?
1 The intellectual atheist/agnostic will know our history, from Jim Burwell to the official endorsement that the first Buddhist AA groups received to re-write a God-free version of the Steps from Bill W., to how many agnostic groups are found in the world directory and where to find and quote Warranty Six in Concept XII of the AA Service Manual:
Much attention has been drawn to the extraordinary liberties which the AA Traditions accord to the individual member and his (or her) group; no penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity to AA principles; no fees or dues to be levied—voluntary contributions only; no member to be expelled from AA — membership always to be the choice of the individual; each AA group to conduct its internal affairs as it wishes—it being merely required to abstain from acts that might injure AA as a whole; and finally, that any group of alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group provided that, as a group, they have no other purpose or affiliation.
Type 1 wouldn’t shun or discourage theistic devotion. However, she or he would prefer lively debate over everyone keeping to themselves regarding worldview issues.
2 The activist atheist may feel strongly not only about the erroneous conclusions about a sobriety-granting loving Father but some of the other AA dogma, too. Can the religious morality be purged from the Twelve Steps? Along with sexism, Americanism, and canonization of the founders, the activist might ask that we remain open-minded about the disease, allergy and incurability model as it makes us look like rigid religious crackpots if we seem fearful of studies that try to debunk our most heart-felt tenets about addiction.
3 The seeking agnostic might get more heat from other nonbelievers in the rooms than the more religious God-conscious members. “Stop fence-sitting! ‘Half measures avail us nothing.’ How could you still think an interfering/intervening deity might be keeping you sober? There’s no Zeus, no Santa, no Unicorn, no God.” This might be the grief Type 3 gets from their fellow none so righteous as the recently converted apostate 12 Step member. While, to the deeply devoted, anyone on the search is a legitimate 12 Stepper. To them, the searching agnostic hasn’t found God YET!
4 The anti-theist will quote Jim Burwell, “I can’t stand this God stuff! It’s a lot of malarkey for weak folks. The group doesn’t need it and I won’t have it.” Type 4 will always be ready in a meeting to counter someone’s fear-mongering proselytizing such as, “You might as well leave if you aren’t going to believe in God, because you’re going to get drunk anyway!”
The most dogmatic of all nonbelievers would be the anti-theist. Seeing oneself as the voice of reason or sober, second thought, the anti-theist is ready to pounce with his or her own script and AA verse about the wider tent, suggested program and Bill’s own words, “The wording was of course quite optional, so long as we voiced the ideas without reservation.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63.)
Of course, many Type 4s won’t stay. They really think AA would be better off without the God talk because atheists are superior. Many will migrate to SMART Recovery, SOS or another secular recovery fellowship where they are in the company of only like-minded folks.
5 Non-theists might not stay too long in the rooms either. If everyone is so sure of what they believe why don’t they just shut up and get on with it? All the description of how God is working in each of our lives is really boring to a non-theist. There is so much more about recovery to talk about — why focus on what we believe when the material world has all the awe and wonder we need. One day at a time, don’t pick up the first drink, stick with the winners, personal inventory, making amends, meditation: these are things the non-theist will be heard talking about. They are real and concrete and what living sober is about.
6 Type 6 Twelve Steppers enjoy camaraderie and the idea that faith in something bigger than self-will alone helps keep us sober. The power may not be ethereal. The esprit du corps felt in the rooms is powerful enough. The ritualistic atheist might even be heard saying the Serenity Prayer or telling us how they turned their life over to God, not because that’s what they believe — they are going along to get along. Ritualistic atheists might be closet agnostics. Either they are sure or they aren’t sure but they want to fit in — not take a stand. If it’s all bull shit, what does it matter saying “God could and would if He were sought?” Who knows how many of our 12 Step members are closet atheists who want to speak, chair meetings and get elected to service positions so they say what people like to hear. “What about rigorous honesty,” you ask? “Except when to do so would injure them or others,” is their response. Why make waves?
So what number are you? Some of us evolve from one type to another. I was a closet-atheist 6 for years of my sobriety, an anti-theist 4 during my recently converted phase when I first came out. I was suddenly offended by the blatant and sometimes bullying pro-theism. Today I think I am a Type 1, self-proclaimed “post-theist.” Maybe one day I will be non-theist # 5 and grow bored of the whole discussion.
I don’t think there is a right type of nonbeliever to be; “to thine own self be true.” The Twelve Traditions ensure that there is room for you and me and everyone. Even before the Twelve Traditions were ratified by the membership, co-founder Bill Wilson was expressing the need. In The Grapevine (July 1946), in an article called, “The Individual In Relation to AA as a Group,” Wilson writes:
So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!
Like other types of inventory it is worth exploring our own beliefs, the evolution of our thought process and our gut feelings. Tommy Coleman talked to me about categorizing ourselves, “Now in terms of individuals looking to find out which type they are we say that due to the nature of all typologies, you may see yourself in more than one. However, we ask that you pick what describes you best as most people usually have one type that fits them better than the rest.”
For me, the better I know myself, the more apt I am at understanding my triggers and preferences. It makes me less reactive and more self-aware. So bravo, U of Tennessee; thanks for keeping the discussion going. (Of course a Type 1 would say that).
You can follow the work of Christopher Silver and Tommy Coleman on their Facebook Page: Non-Belief Research in America.
Joe C. was one of the founding members of the first agnostic AA group in Canada: Beyond Belief. He is the author of the book, based on the same name: Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. This article was first published on July 22, 2013, on his website: Rebellion Dogs Publishing.