The term “non-religious” is so broad as to be almost meaningless. The words secular, agnostic, atheistic, humanistic, irreligious, or non-religious are not synonyms. This is not some nit-picky pedantry. For the billion plus people in the world who are one particular type of atheist, the difference matters.
It is widely thought that there are roughly 10,000 religions in the world, today. Most of us are familiar with the big ones—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on—but hundreds of millions believe in folk, traditional, or tribal faiths, too.
Theologians, anthropologists, and sociologists are very good at classifying religions. People devote their entire lives to delineating between the tiniest, most esoteric of differences. Iconography, creed, ritual, worship, prayer, and community serve to draw the borders between these faiths.
But this misses something. Outside of the churches, mosques, temples, and pagodas is a shifting, enigmatic, indefinable mass: the group of people who belong to some type of atheism. It is no small fringe, either. Over a billion people do not follow a religion. They make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. population, making it the second largest “belief.” Roughly 60% of the UK never go to church, and there are now more atheists than believers in Norway.
Notably, not all atheism is the same. The various types of atheism deserve greater examination.
The Types of Atheism
The problem is that these statistics do not tell a full story. The term “non-religious” is so broad as to be almost meaningless. The words secular, agnostic, atheistic, humanistic, irreligious, or non-religious are not synonyms. This is not some nit-picky pedantry. For the billion plus people in the world who are one particular type of atheist, the difference matters.
It is no easy task to delineate these belief systems, not least because a vast number of them balk at being defined as “believers” at all. Some suggest it is better to describe non-religion as a scale (such as the 1-7 “likelihood of God” scale Richard Dawkins suggests in The God Delusion). But this, too, puts the cart before the horse. Not all religion is about probability, certainty, or assent to various truth claims.
Broadly speaking, atheists can come in three varieties: the nonreligious, the nonbelievers, and the agnostic. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, and the types of atheism often overlap.
The first type of atheism means not subscribing to one of the big, traditional religions.
Consider China. It is a country, on first glance, that is hugely irreligious: 91% of Chinese adults can be called atheist. But so much of this data, as in most demographic surveys, hinges on “self-identification” by respondents. The issue is that most people in the world today will understand religion in a particular way. They see it as being the formal creeds or practices of the established, organized religions. It means going to church, praying five times a day, or believing the Four Noble Truths. But religion is much broader than that.
In the case of China, while 91% claim to be “atheist,” 70 percent of the adult population practices ancestor worship. Twelve percent self-identify with some folk belief, and the vast majority practice the pseudoscientific, quasi-religious “traditional medicine.”