Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Atheists Just Like Everyone Else

A study from a Tennessee university has reached the completely obvious conclusion that atheists exhibit the same distribution of personality types that believers do. In other words, people are people. Funny how that works. The study found that non-believers can be broken down into six basic groups spanning a range of personality types that are also found among religious adherents.

“Previous research and studies focusing on the diverse landscape of belief in America have continually placed those who profess no belief in a God or gods into one unified category infamously known as the ‘religious nones,’” reads the report’s overview. “This catch-all category presented anyone who identified as having “no religion” as a homogenous group in America today, lumping people who may believe in God with the many who don’t.”

The University of Tennessee researchers found that, on the contrary, religious non-believers actually break down into groups. The study identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).

Among believers, the Intellectual type would seem to correspond to individuals who are is drawn to theology and philosophy, seeking to understand the divine through intellectual means, and the Activist type to those who are primarily motivated by social justice concerns. Likewise, the Seeker type corresponds to those who are drawn to contemplative religious practice, and the Ritual type to those who are attracted to complex and involved liturgies.

As the study defined Non-theists as those who gave little thought or attention to religious beliefs or the lack of them in their lives, it's more difficult to find a precise match among believers. Still, such individuals could correspond to those who attend religious services primarily out of a sense of social obligation. As believers they basically accept the tenets of their religious group, but do little actual practice aside from showing up and being counted.

Lastly, the study defined Antitheists as atheists who are openly hostile to all forms of religion. This group was found to be small, but very vocal. They were found to have higher levels of anger and dogmatism than the other groups, and as such the believers who seem to share their personality type are their sworn enemies, the fundamentalists. It makes for an interesting parallel that Antitheists are over-represented as "public atheists," just like fundamentalists are over-represented in media portrayals of religion.

The first point this study supports is that "atheism" cannot reasonably considered a religion in its own right. Believers often try to make this case, claiming that non-belief is as monolithic a concept as theistic faith. But even among subgroups of atheists substantial differences exist, and all that they seem to have in common is a lack of positive belief in a deity and their overall worldviews come across as widely divergent. As a common atheist saying goes, if atheism is a religion then not playing baseball is a sport.

The study's second point, which I find more interesting, highlights how regardless of belief, the human mind simply works in certain ways. The same individual differences can be found in any sample, and it's not the particular beliefs themselves that create them. Rather, these differences seem to stem from something far deeper that may be part of our fundamental biological makeup. As a mystic I find the nature of these deep structures highly relevant to any analysis of spiritual practice, and further evidence that contemplative practitioners of different religions are working toward the same underlying realization.

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