Salon recently had a great piece discussing researchers done at the University of Tennessee that discerned not one, but SIX types of atheists.
Here's a distillation:
1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic (38%) -- "Bemused Debaters"
- Enjoys intellectual discourse; very certain about their beliefs, but not belligerent about it
- Joins skeptic’s groups or other avenues to discuss non-belief with others
- Associates with fellow, well-read and scientifically-literate intellectuals regardless of the other’s position
- Not interested in chasing down believers to give them a hard time
- Strong sense of humanist values to change the world
- Supports issues like feminism, gay rights, or the environment, not simply advocating atheism
- Advocates for a better, more egalitarian atheist community
- Not particularly critical of religion. Prioritizes not-knowingness
- Embraces uncertainty
- Routinely accused of intellectual cowardice by atheists
- Aggressive about arguing about religion. Seeks out religious people to disabuse them of their beliefs
- Ending religion is the real goal, not supporting a more secular society
- Many are recently deconverted from religious belief or socially displeased with the status quo, especially in high social tension-based geographies such as the Southeastern United States
- Don’t believe in any gods, but don’t think about those who do very often.
- Simply does not concern him or herself with religion
- Called “shruggies” because they simply shrug when asked their opinion on religion.
- Doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but likes participating in the community aspects of their religious tradition
- Participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g., Jewish, Catholic)
- May think participation makes them a better person
- Seen as the most alarming of atheists by some Christians, concerned that people in their own congregation may not actually believe in their God.
I was most surprised about the last category -- the ritual atheists -- who might show up at worship, maybe mouth the words, but inwardly not believe in what is going on at the altar or ambo. Yet I do know a few of them in my own community. They are great people, sometimes even taking leadership roles in the community. It's the ritual that speaks to them -- the gathering around the altar; the distribution of bread and wine; the embraces at the sign of peace. They make my mad sometimes, because they are so allergic to religious language, which I am familiar with. They prefer to "meditate" rather than to "pray." They refer to "God" when the takes lead roles at worship services. But I wonder what they mean by it. Nature? The totality of the Cosmos? Fate? Evolutionary Fatalism? An unseen Force or Intelligence?
But, frustrating as they are, I have to recognize two things. One, that each person has a unique history of interactions with the divine and with the ministers of the divine. Those who have experienced the Church as parochial (in the worst sense), or small-minded or abusive might love the best parts of worship, while feeling disgusted and cramped by the rest. Two, that each person brings their own gifts and flaws to the table. Those of us who are educated and "smart" are sometimes at a disadvantage. Too smart to believe the pious banalities of Christ's ministers and God's people (like, "God had different plans for him" or "God is in charge") they are not quite sophisticated enough to develop more palatable and comprehensible understanding of the divine. They live in a theological limbo.
Tough place to be. But my God still knows them and cares for them there.