Six Shades of Nonbelievers

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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.

18 Responses

  1. roz c says:

    Great article. So glad I found aa agnostica.

  2. Rosemary H. says:

    I haven’t read this yet but in no case does one have to justify when they don’t believe something (they can discuss it if they feel like it) – rather the “believer” has to say why they believe.

    I will read the article but the title seems to indicate that the logic will be off –

    BTW I was brought up in a Evangelical Christian Exclusive Plymouth Brethren Home and was very much “saved” till I was 17 or 18 and then saw/realized that my group and family were all pretending to believe this whole complex story – but some reason I am not very hypnotizable and it didn’t last on me. I almost had a nervous breakdown – perhaps did – when I realized that it was all just made up.

  3. Neil F says:

    Thanks Joe. The article is thought provoking. I did see myself in a number of boxes and while I am certain I started as a 6 and remained a 6 for many years, I’ll have to read the article again and do a bit more thinking before I decide which category best describes where I currently sit.

    It also might be interesting to find out how others see us.

    Thanks again.

  4. Thomas B., Seaside, Oregon says:

    Thanks, Joe C. — today is a bonus day for me: I get to ponder this excellent article as well as to read today’s reflection from Beyond Belief, which my wife Jill and I use during our morning quiet time.

    It’s difficult for me to definitely place myself with one of the six categories delineated by the University of Tennessee study. I find myself waffling mostly within the first four categories, depending on a variety of influencing factors, of which some I may not even be consciously aware, as I gratefully live my life a day at a time. Hardly ever, am I in the fifth category of passive apathy, and sometimes I’m envious of the certainty and community of true believers, although rarely do I subscribe or practice any ritualistic set of beliefs. My “scared space” contains icons from many of the world’s wisdom traditions, which symbolically augment artifacts that mark significant episodes from the varied lives of my wife and myself.

    Mostly, I’m inordinately grateful for my continued sobriety a-day-at-a-time through “the grace of AA,” because I am enabled to experience much more awe and wonder at the beauty of existence, despite all the suffering and ugliness, than I would be capable of appreciating were I still to be drinking and using.

  5. Donna H. says:

    I think Bill W. would have been pleased with this conversation. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen enough in the rooms. I find myself somewhere in the 4-6 spectrum today – after 16 years in the rooms. Thank you for your service to the fellowship!

  6. Eric T says:

    Fascinating stuff! Thanks for this perspective. What amused me while reading is that I still don’t know where I fit in! What reassures me is that I meet the only requirement for membership, and I know I’m not alone within AA. Today I am now sober longer than I have ever been, and feel completely authentic about my agnostic nature. I am sober AND happy! Honesty seems to be working for me after all…

  7. ernie k. says:

    Joe: Good piece, but why “infamous”?

    • Joe C says:

      Busted! OK, this was a sloppy use of, or sensational use of, an adjective. “Infamous,” meaning notorious, suggesting that one is publicly known for a particular trait: in the case of the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, the adjective, herein referred to as “the accused,” is suggestive that the Per Research Center reveals inconvenient truths about the changing landscape of America. On sober, second thought, that is a rather bias suggestion.

      Rigorous honesty commands a universal standard be held to each and every word. If I had it to do over again, “heedful” or” progressive” would be used in its place. Thanks for holding me accountable, Ernie.

      • Mark C. says:

        I suppose the word “infamous” is as appropriate as any in this context. In a sense, any study that shows a decline in theistic religious belief would be deemed “infamous” by a great many Christian fundamentalist types of “Christian” believer, at least in my neck of the woods, and seems to be a general reaction from those ideologies.

        On the other hand, “infamous” could be applied from the perspective of the secular communities simply for the simplistic, often (theistic inspired) culturally biased ways in which “nonbelief” is dealt with in general.

        Its good practice to remember that all studies can be improved, and that improvement comes through honest, analytic criticism. That is always the way forward; studied, informed criticism (honest inventory if you will) will bring clarity to confusion every time.

        I’m just happy that finally we nonbelievers are being studied at all!

        Thanks to all of you who contribute and to AA Agnostica for this forum!

  8. life-j says:

    Joe, thanks.
    I think I’m all six, depending on which sort of folks I’m having to deal with. I’m trying to start a freethinker’s meeting here, I’m going to call it that because I don’t want to make a lot of waves by calling it atheist/agnostic, after all I was raised protestant and know how resourcefully intolerant christians can be, makes me a number 6 of sorts.
    In intelligent company, I may sometimes be a number 1, though I confess I have somewhat “retired from the debating society”, I’d just like to be left alone by the god people, but I used to roam this area a lot before I got sober.
    Trying to establish the freethinker’s meeting I have found myself to be a number 2 a lot lately. We have a few staunch believers here who have monopoly on interpreting the 12 step program. I find myself fighting with them a lot. Way more than I would have liked to do. We all get real non-AA in the course of this fight, it’s been borderline vicious at times.
    I’d much rather be a number 3. Not that I can relate to the idea that there is a god somewhere who actually cares about my personal life and from time to time intervenes in it, or otherwise guides the world at large, but I did find it, at least theoretically, if not in practice lately, a great relief to arrive at a place where I could just say, I don’t know, it’s not my business to know, maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, its just not that important to me since I strictly speaking can’t know one way or another, so I’m just going to leave it alone.
    A great step forward actually from once being a number 4. Before coming to AA I had to be right, of course, and I was a proselytizing atheist.
    But no really, if it wasn’t for all those god people trying to tell me how to run my program, what to believe, and what kind of meetings to have, I’d much rather be a number 5. I do have a peace on standby, waiting for the day when I don’t have to fight with the god people anymore, when I can finally live my life without AA deacons, without the religious committee, live a spirituality that makes sense to me, the spirituality which I have been seeking for 25 years in AA, but which the god people are so scared of, because it is not their brand, and which I so much of the time have spent time defending rather than nurturing and developing. In short, I’m yearning for the day when I can really be myself in this program, and just not give a rat’s ass about all the god stuff.
    Alas, I just found a place to start up a Freethinker’s meeting, and should probably expect that a long and vicious battle with the god people and the AA police lies ahead …….

  9. John M. says:

    As always, Joe, a thoughtful look at exploring perspectives we often in our day to day lives don’t take time to consider — sometimes as if we still drunkenly stumble from one moment to the next and let life pass us by.

    As usual, your reflections also demonstrate that you have actually read AA literature, carefully listened to people in the rooms and are interested in applying this “in all your affairs.”

    You note that Coleman and Silver want to “start a conversation and raise awareness about the diversity of the nonbelief community.” Ironically, this is where we nonbelievers turn into “believers” since we believe that starting a conversation is a good thing whereas some “believers” don’t believe starting a conversation is beneficial since they think (by their words or behaviour) that matters were settled long ago and hence closed.

    Some of us take our “fire” from the granddaddy of atheists — Friedrich Nietzsche. But “who are we after all?” Nietzsche asks in a self-reflective aphorism entitled, “Our Note of Interrogation.”

    “If we wanted simply to call ourselves in older phraseology, atheists, unbelievers, or even immoralists, we should still be far from thinking ourselves designated thereby: we are all three in too late a phase for people generally to conceive, for YOU, my inquisitive friends, to be able to conceive, what is our state of mind under the circumstances.”

    Joe, you like Nietzsche mention the phase(s) of non-belief and I think that this reflects an inner-conversation we all have had (must have) and we share these phases with our fellow nonbelievers and believers alike — something akin to sharing our experience, strength and hope vis-a-vis our alcoholism.

    So, where am I? — Type 1 leaning toward Type 5 like you. Perhaps then we can live “beyond theism and atheism” in the realm of love and service!

  10. Joe C says:

    Hey everyone, Thanks for the feedback. Young people especially, resit being labeled, it’s one of the boxes Gen Y gets put in (much to their chagrin)by demographers. These two researchers from UTC really do welcome your feedback. Find them on Facebook or from the link provided in the article. If you can’t find a category that you can call home, let them know what is lacking and they will surely be grateful for your feedback.

    Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America,who wrote a July 31 article on this study for The Washington Post and he found it lacking. The point is that this discussion is in the early stage and more study and more refining is needed. I hope this inspires some to read how they analyzed the data and offer your feedback.

    Have a great day everyone.

  11. Denis K says:

    Thank you Joe for this interesting and informative piece.
    Much like you I was a 6 evolving to a 4 over the past 38 years. Today, I am sometimes a 1 depending who I am speaking with; usually someone with an inquiring and open mind who wants to engage in fruitful discussion rather than a pointless argument.

    For the most part though I am quickly becomming a 5. AA for me is not a debating society. My (our) primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. For me this entails sharing my own experience and allowing others to pusue their own path just as my sponsor of many years allowed me to do and never imposed his opinion.

    Having recently gained some unwanted attention from other little informed nor forgiving close minded members over my involvement with AA Agnostica I have concluded there is no point in bothering with debate that appears to be never ending. My position today is simply, One day at a time, don’t pick up the first drink, stick with the winners, personal inventory, making amends, meditation and self improvement in all departments of my life: these are things the non-theist friends I associate with will be heard talking about. These are real and concrete and what living sober is about.
    Again, thank you and thanks to the other commentators on this forum for the wonderful breath of fresh air that is AA Agnostica.

  12. Michael says:

    I don’t fit into any of these categories. I’m a pagan but I have no problem admitting that I can’t prove that my spiritual experiences are ‘real’ (whatever that means). I feel no need to prove them, even to myself. I think this would define me as an agnostic but my agnosticism isn’t about doubt, it’s about accepting that I don’t really know what the heck is going on and probably never will. My experiences feel like something coming from outside of myself but maybe they’re just a projection from my subconscious. I don’t really care, pagan practices are fun and nurturing and they’ve helped me with my sobriety.

    I mention all of this because the six categories seem to be about the way people in our culture navigate around organized religions which many spiritual people, including myself, have rejected absolutely. This isn’t the same as a belief or non-belief in a higher power which some of us define for ourselves in AA.

  13. Lech L. says:

    I’m pretty much a three, although I might sound like a four if I’m in a foul mood.

  14. KrisH66 says:

    I think I’m mostly a stage fiver, but can relate to parts of one two and three also.

  15. kevin b says:

    As a rule, I don’t like categorization like this but that IS the way the human mind works and these specific categories of nonbelievers are useful.

    Myself, I am good portions of 1, 3, and 6 and have been for some time.

    In AA practice, I’ve been a 6 and a 1 for the most part, mostly because I really do like the group dynamics in AA, for the most part. I never really hid the fact that I was an agnostic but (having studied religion) I do somewhat appreciate some religious-type rituals.

    I am also fortunate to live in a big metropolitan area where it’s very easy to opt to go to the less religiously-inclined AA meetings… I don’t know what I would do if I lived in an area where meetings like that weren’t much of an option.

    One thing that I did notice what this that you wrote.

    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?

    I’ve noticed those other “closet atheists” and those who come into the Fellowship with belief issues and on those occasions religion and God is oozing from every pore of the meeting, I do feel the need to speak out if only so that the newcomer isn’t too put off by that AA meeting (or more significantly AA as a whole).

    I am always baffled by those members who take my mere statement that I am an atheist/agnostic as an affront and as a personal insult. There is nothing about MY experience in recovery and how I stay sober that falls under the S9 “to injure them or others” in any way, that really is the other person’s stuff and when I get approached with that BS, I will tell them so.

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