Can Atheists Be Classified by Behaviors?

“. . . for atheism . . . We lose a lot of the inferential richness that often comes from categorization. What kinds of behaviors are typical of atheists? Not going to church? Not praying? There are trends, to be sure, but the only feature that unites most members of the category is a belief. So it makes sense to define the category in terms of belief but, to fill out an otherwise thin classification, the most salient examples of atheists may play a disproportionate role in the inferences we draw — making it easy to think that all atheists are (say) like Dawkins when it comes to their behaviors, not (say) like Tyson.” ~ Tania Lombrozo, psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley. 

The preceding statement is the answer that Professor Tania Lombrozo provides to the question of whether Atheists can be classified in terms of action instead of belief. She seems to have a point, being that there are many types of atheists, with many types of actions, it may be impossible to to come up with a list of behaviors that are universally characteristic of atheists. And even though avoiding religious services may get pretty close to being universal, it’s simply a fact that every week many atheists, perhaps newly minted, perhaps married to a person with belief, will  find themselves willingly going to some religious service or another, perhaps even regularly.

The fact that Atheists exhibit such a wide variety of behaviors may be partly to blame for statistics showing Atheists are not particularly trusted in America.  This is because trust is in part a function of predictability. Deutch (in Rempel,  Holmes,  & Zanna, 1985) described trust as “confidence that one will find what is desired from another, rather than what is feared,” and Scanzoni (in Rempel,  Holmes,  & Zanna, 1985) describes that because trust involves some sort of risk, it is difficult to achieve when parties have limited experience with each other. It also stands to reason that given that trust is associated with risk, that it is hard to achieve when groups have a history of negative experiences with each other. Indeed Rempel, Holms and Zanna (1985) found that in interpersonal relationships belief that relational partners will behave in loving and caring ways regardless of uncertain and difficult circumstances, and that partners can predictably be depended upon is important to trust. Given that groups of people are likely to share similar psychology to individuals (groups are made up of individuals after all), the same may also be true when it comes to trust between groups of people.

Here at Secular Vision we are beginning to lay out a philosophy that nonbelievers should not just share their disbelief, their “No I am not,” they also need to share their “Yes I am,” if they are to be more trusted in society. The reason for this is pretty clear: throughout history disbelief has gotten a bad rap. This is perhaps because when what someone know about out is what you do not believe it is hard to predict how you will behave.  Shared belief is associated with shared values, and shared values are a means of predicting behavior. For instance if two people value the same music you can perhaps expect to see them playing together in a band or attending the same concerts or listening to the same radio station. These shared values translate into a reasonably predictable set of possible behaviors based on the shared value.

Atheists certainly must share some values with our believing brothers and sisters otherwise we could not live in pluralistic societies peaceably. In fact atheists and most believers in America probably do values separation of church and state (albeit for differing reasons), and both groups likely value democracy and the rule of law, peaceful gatherings, public safety, togetherness and a sense of community, and service to one’s community among many other values we’re likely to share. The challenge might just be for Atheists to publicly be seen reliably exhibiting behaviors that are predictors of these and other shared values.


Rempel, J. K., Holmes, J. G., & Zanna, M. P. (1985). Trust in close relationships. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology49(1), 95-112. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.49.1.95

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1 Response to Can Atheists Be Classified by Behaviors?

  1. Jeffrey Isbell says:

    I think it’s obvious that I’m going to continue to be really interested and pleased with this topic. But once again, I really like this, especially the citations on trust.

    Liked by 1 person

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