The Course of Reason

The Atheist Identity

August 21, 2013

Identification, or how one identifies, is a reflection of our particular place in time and culture. While many people lack a belief in God and identify as atheists, others do not due to a variety of reasons involving personal or cultural factors. This shows us that the reality of identity in general, and non-belief identity in particular, is complex.

Moreover, one's identify is not set in stone, it is fluid. On one hand, the terms "atheist" and "agnostic" are "loaded words" (hence the scare marks), and on the other hand, they might not be a proper reflection of one's belief or non-belief in America today. These labels carry with them a variety of meanings and social perceptions (for better or worse), and often inform our initial impressions if we hear them upon meeting a new person (believers and non-believers alike). Important here, is to recognize that these labels and the social / psychological interpretations that accompany them vary depending on the person using the term and in what context the term is being used. Identity in any form is complex.

A research team (of which I am the project manager) hosted at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga explored nonbelief identity in detail. This study consisted of two parts. The first study consisted of a qualitative portion, where we sought to uncover how some commonly used terms for "non-belief" were used by the population of non-believers' themselves and not just the iconic few who write books or the personalities we read about in the news. In other words, instead of looking to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris as the authority on non-belief identity, this study explored how the average individuals defined themselves within their own terms.

Despite the popular discourse as to what individuals should or should not call themselves, our research provided a look at terms commonly used at the individual level. Atheist pop culture may tell us one thing about how to use these non-belief terms, or what exactly we should call ourselves, but recent research by Silver & Coleman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga points to more complex identification that goes beyond the simple terms of atheism and agnosticism.

There is no such thing as identity,
only operational acts of identification.
- Jean-Francois Bayart

The qualitative interview portion consisted of over 59 interviews where we asked participants to define commonly used terms for non-belief and walk us through their life history as it relates to belief and non-belief. From this study we obtained rich, firsthand accounts, on the "non-belief" experience or journey in relation to belief that many encountered in their life. These interviews produced a multitude of rich autobiographical realities that detail the lives of non-believers in today's culture and it is directly from these interviews that a typology of non-belief was formed. We spoke with non-believers who would never identify as an atheist due to societal stigma, others who participate in their local church choir and find the togetherness in music to be of great experiential value even without believing in a God. We had participants who had suffered mental and sexual abuse in their youth at the hands of religious figures and institutions, while others in our sample grew up in secular households with a non-believing parent or parents themselves. The interview participants ran the gamut from "closeted non-believer" to prominent atheist / secular rights advocates active on the national scene, with the majority of the participants we interviewed falling somewhere in-between those two vignettes.

(In one case we literally had a ‘closeted' non-believer. We conducted an interview with a participant hiding in the laundry closet of their home so that no one in their family would know that they did not believe in God as they responded to our interview questions.)

Below is a very brief breakdown of the Non-Belief Typology we found. Please note that the descriptions as seen here are not word for word the typology descriptions used in the research. For the empirically validated descriptions please go to

  • Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic (IAA) - The IAA is on the hunt for stimulating discussions and they always find them. When they are not connecting and exchanging ideas with others in person they are plugged into social networking sites discussing the latest blog posts with friends and watching debate videos on youtube. The IAA makes up the largest group in the non-belief typology. 
  • Activist (AAA) - The AAA is out to change the world and they just might do it! This type is active in not only fighting for the separation of church and state, but they devote time to many causes outside of atheism. The AAA might volunteer at their local animal shelter, march in support of LGBT rights at a Pride parade, or fight for women's reproductive rights. 
  • Seeker-Agnostic (SA) - This SA is attuned to the philosophical nature of belief or unbelief in a God. They have no firm ideological position and are always searching for the scientifically wondrous. The SA knows that they might not "know" when it comes to the existence of a deity and they are comfortable in their position. 
  • Anti-Theist - The Anti-Theist is assertive in their non-belief and they will let you know it. With their scarlet letter "A" t-shirt on they take every opportunity they get to educate the religious about their irrational beliefs and outdated worldview. Simply put, they are atheists and they will let you know it!
  • Non-Theist - For the Non-Theist, he or she who cares the least "wins" when it comes to atheism and or matters of religion. This type simply doesn't give much thought to belief or unbelief. 
  • Ritual Atheist/Agnostic (RAA) - The RAA typically shows appreciation for certain "religious" practices or rituals and may even participate in them. But don't get them confused with the laity, they still don't believe in God! In fact, according to Dr. Silver, they might be seated in in the church pews this very moment.

Thanks to the over 1,153 participants in the quantitative data set used for Dr. Silver's dissertation (1,485 at the close of the survey), we were able to empirically test the typology constructed from the qualitative interviews. We found the six non-belief typologies as constructed had specific psychological characteristics associated with each one as they were statistically distinct in widely used empirical measures of personality covering autonomy, wellbeing, narcissism, positive relations with others, anger, and openness to experience, just to name a few.

With over 300 questions on our survey, we have a wealth of data to further the conversation regarding nonbelief research. We are currently writing a book that will provide greater detail of the findings and provide some empirical evidence of social trends within nonbelief. Our research collaborations will continue into the future and we look forward to inviting you to participate as we expand research into an important area that is often neglected.


About the Author: Thomas J. Coleman III

Thomas J. Coleman III's photo
Thomas J. Coleman III is currently a Psychology major attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He works as the Assistant Project Manager at his school conducting cross cultural research studying spirituality between the USA and Germany. He is a board member for the Chattanooga Freethought Association, as well as a founding member of the UTC Secular Student Alliance and Hamilton County for Separation of Church and State.




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