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Friday, February 4, 2011

What would the Atheist community want to know about itself?

Much of the social science literature on Atheism/Irreligion/Non-religion is written with very little reference to empirical data1, particularly data coming from Atheists or the non-religious themselves. The research I am currently doing will include the voices of Atheists in a number of forms such as documents, twitter feeds, movies (youtube or standard), blogs and interviews with participants (more on this in a later post).

In the social sciences many practitioners use qualitative methods to extract the voices of actors in particular social settings, in order to add them to our understanding of that social group or social structure (well known e.g. Denzin and Lincoln 1998). This data adds another dimension to the research via accessing the participant view of the system. It helps to ensure that the thoughts of those inside the social group are not (even accidently) misrepresented or skewed by an outsider view. 

In contemplating all this, another level of participant voice and thus a question occurred to me...

"What does the Atheist community want to know about itself?"

I'd appreciate any answers or comments on this question... 

I hope you are all as curious as I am :-) 



1 There are some exceptions. see for example Demerath 1969; Mauss 1969Caporale & Gumelli 1971; Campbell 1972; Caplovitz & Sherrow 1977; Dudley 1978; Hale 1980; Hunsberger 1980; Hunsberger 1983; Bromley 1988; Hadaway & Roof 1988; Feigalman, Gorman & Varacalli 1992; Altemeyer & Hunsberger 1997; Hout & Fischer 2002; some chapters Martin 2007; Zuckermann 2007, 2010 (vol 1 & 2); Bullivant 2008, 2010; Nall 2010. 


Denzin, N. And Lincoln, Y. (1998). Strategies of Qualitative Enquiry. U.S. Sage Publications.


  1. I am interested in the class structure of atheism. Here is the US godlessness seems to be more of an upper class phenomenon.

  2. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for replying I appreciate your input.

    Intersting question and one to which I think many people feel there is an intuitive answer. But study needs to be done. From what I currently understand, there is already some data linking higher levels of education and better life chances to levels of Atheism (e.g. Zuckerman 2010, 2007). The U.S is cited in these studies (and in earlier secularisation literature) as one of the exceptions to the secular path due to its high levels of Religiosity in relation to other western nations. However, sociologists such as Professor Grace Davie have argued that modernisation does not necessarily equal secularisation in the European sense and that in fact Europe may be the exception when compared to the world. However it is interesting to note that 85% of America’s National Academy of Science claim to be Atheists(Fuller 2010). These are people who would be considered to have higher levels of education and better life chances in the 'exceptionally' religious circumstances of the U.S.

    I hope I can address your question further as I proceed. Post more questions here if you think of anything else.

  3. As a former believer and full-time evangelist, I am interested in if there are any major differences between those who move from strong belief to atheism and those who become atheist without a rigorous religious past.

    In a somewhat related note, I'm interested why anyone who is atheist would ever turn to faith, and what their past belief has been like.

    So I guess mostly I'd love to know about who makes major shifts in worldviews, and why.

  4. Hi Dave,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

    There is some work on 'Amazing Apostates' by Hunsberger and Altemeyer (The opposite being 'amazing believers'; 1997; see also Altemeyer 2010).

    They described them as people who had grown up in a very religious family, but had rejected religion. This rejection normally occured (often at an early age) as a result of general enquiry into the world, and caused them to reject many things, including religion.

    They were overall characterised as having tolerant, nonauthoritarian attitudes toward others, in contrast to the more authoritarian views among the highly religious (Altemeyer 2010). Amazing Apostates make up a small percentage of Atheists up until now. Who knows, maybe we'll see an increase soon?

    Most atheists (ordinary Atheists; Altemeyer 2010) grew up in households where religion was rarely discussed or acted on, but which may still have been religious to some degree. They also show less authoritarianism, etc than 'religious people'.

    As to the exact difference between them, Ill have to get back to you, as I don't currently have my copy of Zuckerman and can't remember off the top of my head.

    Much more research needs to be done, but I hope this points you to some reading for now.


    -Hunsberger and Altemeyer. 1997. Amazing Conversions
    -Altemeyer 2010 Atheism And Secularity In North America in Zuckerman (ed.). Atheism and Secularity [2 volumes] (Praeger Perspectives)

  5. Only half the number of people where found to be Amazing believers' in comparison to 'amazing apostates'. They spent less time considering their conversion than the apostates and generally turned to religion after a crisis. Amazing believers may have had some religious training in their youth despite growing up in non-religious homes (Hunsberger & Altemeyer 1997).

  6. Great question, yo. what I would like to know the honeymoon over for the New Atheist. is this Golden Age of Atheism on the decline like a fashion trend that is passe. I believe it is in the decline. My data-my blog reader and the Atheist Blogroll. Both in 2004-ish were full and vibrant. Lot's of daily blogging, lot's of activity. Now, not so much. So does that indicate the beginning of the end of T.G.A.o.Atheism (even though studies show that 'we' are the fastest growing group), or does that just mean I need to subscribe to more blogs. super awesome homie. good luck,


  7. Hi Kriss,

    Thanks for bringing my attention to this fantastic question.

    I don't have a direct answer for you on this at the moment as I don't have any data to compare. But there are a number possible ideas that could work here.

    As Andy pointed out in your article "The Times Are A Changing, And So Should We" (good article :-)): 'the early boom of blogging is over and the market has "matured".'. This would definitely be a defining factor in numbers dropping off, we would need to compare the drop in Atheist Blogs to the overall percentage drop in Blogs to see if Atheist blogs fair better, worse or the same. You said you have some data on this (understand it may not be enough). If we can find the data this would make an excellent article and I'd be happy to help or take the data off your hands ;-).

    Another factor could be in the maturing of the Atheist movement itself, after 5 years many of the original bloggers / Activists may have moved on. The bloggers who are left could be seen as the hardcore crew who will stick with the movement. Interviews or surveys of ex-blogging Atheists could give some insight into this process. Why did they stop? etc.

    The level of the perceived religious threat may have gone down. People may be feeling less confronted by religion and therefore less inclined to speak out. Atheism has often been a reactionary process that critiques the current form of Theism (Thrower 1971; Armstrong 1993).

    Could the form of Theism have changed? are Atheists feeling less threatened by it? Are we just seeing the effects of Blog decline? perhaps Atheist fatigue at a never-ending / intractable fight, or maturity?

    As I said at the beginning I don't have the answers, but we do have a number of ways to get to them and a community of 'hardcore' Atheists to help do the research.

    We have a community of people on the net who understand research and are obviously interested in advancing the Atheist cause (Even without a clear path). The New Atheists started the ball, maybe it's time for the 'normal' atheists to shine, for the second gen to rise?