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July 15th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Behold, the six types of atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - How many ways are there to disbelieve in God?

At least six, according to a new study.

Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.

“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.

“These categories are a first stab at this," Silver told the website Raw Story. "In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types.”

Silver and Coleman derived their six types of nonbelievers from 59 interviews. We're pretty sure we've spotted all six in our comments section.

1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic

This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism.

They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites.

(Ahem.)

They're also well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently.

2) Activist

These kinds of atheists and agnostics are not content with just disbelieving in God; they want to tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise.

They tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals.

3) Seeker-agnostic

This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.

Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”

That doesn't mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

4) Anti-theist

This group regularly speaks out against religion and religious beliefs, usually by positioning themselves as “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” Silver and Coleman wrote.

“Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”

Anti-theists are outspoken, devoted and – at times – confrontational about their disbelief. They believe that "obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another.”

5) Non-theist

The smallest group among the six are the non-theists, people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion.

In many cases, this comes across as apathy or disinterest.

“A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “Religion plays no role or issue in one’s consciousness or worldview; nor does a Non- Theist have concern for the atheist or agnostic movement.”

They continue: “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religion in any form from their mental space.”

6) Ritual atheist

They don't believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the "profound symbolism" inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.

-

The authors of this study have graciously agreed to field questions from our commenters. If you're interested, please post your question below or tweet it to us at @CNNBelief. 

We'll take the best questions to the authors and the Q&A will be posted in a follow-up article. 

Please try to keep your questions related to the study itself.

Thanks,
Daniel Burke

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Holidays • Lost faith • Nones • Spirituality • Trends • United States

soundoff (9,518 Responses)
  1. Give them time.

    When you are young and death is literally a lifetime away it's easy to say you're perfectly fine with becoming worm food and nothing more. As the end draws near the chinks in the armor of a pretty number of supposed Atheists begin to appear. Not saying they become born again, or even start to attend church, but as the end draws near they find they need to find something to make it all seem meaningful as you waste away. I've seen it many times, and there's nothing wrong with it if it makes coming to the end easier.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • The Reverend

      You could also liver in denial of the fact that you will be worm food, which is where you seem to be.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Saraswati

      There are definitely life cycle and event differences in what people believe about others, their own lives and the universe. For a Christian to say they will never be atheist or an atheist to say they will never believe in gods is foolish. People never know what they will believe.

      My mother, btw, moved from theist to atheist as the end of life neared.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  2. Why??

    What is the point of all of the religious or non-religious debates? What happened to live and let live? So many people (and social media) make such a big deal out of this, and I have yet to understand why. Same thing with gay rights, race differences, etc. If the media would stop putting the spotlight on these issues, we wouldn't have the protesting, riots and such that go on over these things. We all bleed red, all walk on the same soil. Let go of the differences and just LIVE!

    July 16, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      If the media hadn't put a spot light on these things blacks in the south would still have trouble voting and gay couples wouldn't have the rights afforded by marriage.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:57 am |
      • lol??

        Blacks and atheists?? What a marriage. When did they say, "Yes"?? This inclusivity thing might just have crossed the line, the squishy line.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Chris

      It's a big deal because religion continues to try and push its way into our government. ie. They are trying to pass a bill in AZ that doesn't allow atheists to graduate high school.

      This is a big deal because our country is supposed to be secular. Live and let live, yes. But until religion stays in the churches and out of the town halls (including paying their fair share of taxes) this debate will continue.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Edward

      "We used to say 'Live and let live,' you know we did, you know we did, you know we did. But in this ever-changing world in which we live in, it makes me break down and cry....'Live and let die!'" – Sir Paul McCartney

      September 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
      • photografr7

        I've been told more than once I was going to burn in hell for being an atheist. That's when I stopped living and let living, and i was only 8-years-old at the time, in the presence of my public school teacher. Can you imagine what the people on this board said about me in their private religious schools?

        September 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  3. lol??

    Which category has the forti*tude and consti*tution to stand up for the consti*tution?? I suspect none, because they believe rights come from fairies.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • The Reverend

      Your daddy is your uncle, isn't he?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:56 am |
      • lol??

        Unca Suga has many wives.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:08 am |
        • The Reverend

          inbred numbskulls using computers surely signals the end of days!

          July 16, 2013 at 10:12 am |
        • lol??

          Yup, European royalty did have some problems with haemophilia.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:20 am |
  4. Truth

    Atheists are nothing but bunch of cowards who can't take responsibility and accountability of their own actions.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • The Reverend

      Actually, atheists do good because they are good, not because some mythical being says they should be.

      You're a hypocrite.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • Chris

      Pretty sure it is more cowardly to push your 'sins' off on another (ahem, Jesus Christ). Atheists hold themselves accountable to themselves and others, rather than an imaginary man in the sky. An man in the sky that they believe they know the thoughts of and can interpret them as such.

      I don't need an omniscient father figure lording over me to be a good person or take responsibility. Understand your ideology before you start spouting about others'.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • lionlylamb2013

      Even religionists are of your sameness perspective views. Atheists and religiously debonair pseudo-sensualists are intellectually prone antagonists...

      July 16, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Trixi

      No, we can just do those things without an imaginary being tell us to do so.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • omegadevelopment

      Hi "Truth".

      Interesting observation, but that's actually the exact opposite.
      Atheists understand they are responsible for their own actions, and don't blame or credit a super natural power for the good or bad in their lives. "God did it", or "it's God's will", or "by the grace of God" are not something an Atheist says- they are things believers say. Atheist take full responsibilities for their own actions.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • JJ

      Lol...what a dip-shit. Atheists are the ultimate in taking responsibility for their own actions. We don't say "it's god's will" or "it's Satan's fault".

      July 16, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Samantha

      Funny, I see the opposite. I have a very religious side in my family. My father is a Pastor and 1/2 siblings missionaries. The take no responsibility for their life. They don't work and send out letters asking for donations "so they can continue to spread God's word". When something doesn't go right it's always "Gods will". They wait for God to tell them what to do next. Maybe they should get a job like normal ppl and if they want to spread Gods word- think of it as an after hours activity. And most "good Christians" I know have the worst morals. Why is it that ppl believe you have to have religion to have morals. It's called being a good person and doing the right thing, not because you fear some God- but because it's the right thing to do. Religion is bad for the world- it's one of the biggest causes of hate and war.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Johnny

      Really? Seems like it is Christians who let Jesus take their punishment, and thus are not held accountable for anything in the end.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Edward

      Being an atheist means that when we do something wrong we are forced to acknowledge that fact and live with it for eternity. We do not have some cult forgive our sins, ergo we tend not want to sin in the first place. Can you say the same when you have that option to sin because you can pray it away?

      September 2, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
      • photografr7

        Just the opposite Edward ScissorHands. When I'm faced with a crisis, I try to solve it. I don't pray beg) an invisible deity to solve the problem for me.

        September 2, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  5. Jeremy

    I am all 6 of em, depending on what time of the day you catch me 😛

    July 16, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Big Daddy

      EXACTLY! Well, I personally don't fall into any of the agnostic categories... But I still buy my child Christmas presents, I'm not concerned about religion until someone tries to shove it down my throat, and then I'll be vocal about my disgust... I'm a firm adherent to the golden rule. If nobody brought religion into my space, I would never talk about it... Everywhere I turn, though, is the church trying to tell me how to live... This list is definitely a first draft =)

      July 16, 2013 at 10:38 am |
  6. usa rules

    behold 6 types of foolish people, mostly narcissists from the looks of it...

    July 16, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • The Reverend

      Behold yourself, believer of bronze-ago myths perpetrated by fearful fools of limited intelligence.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  7. Blogmudgeon

    I must be either #7, or perhaps #32, or even #143. I did not note what discipline these doctoral candidates were mired in–but I do with them the best of luck in quantifying personal spirituality. Even those engaged in a dialog with the abyss have defined their ontological dogma. What about those who went from religious, to some flavor of atheistic, and became agnostic in the sense of identifying with the codified religious movements–but feel that there is something else? It's a good thing that there is always important work like this for those pursuing the scholarly life...

    July 16, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  8. The Jackdaw

    I guess I’m kind of like 6 only I don't often engage in the rituals and when I do, it’s only to appease family. I find no satisfaction in it.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  9. JJ

    If such a large part of the population believed in fairies you would have a similar list of those heretic types who dare lack a belief in fairies.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  10. stevie68a

    If religious people could only understand that most of them were brainwashed as children.
    Laura Nero wrote in the sixties, "I was raised on the good book, jesus, 'till I read between the lines".
    The article does not include my category, someone with common sense.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      I agree. Type 1 was logic based but they are argumentative. Not all logic based athiests are argumentative.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • SAM

      Really? You certainly don't speak for me. I didn't grow up in a home that trusted in God, yet I knew I was not meant to be the author of my own life, even at a young age. Accepting the truth of who Jesus is and living for him was the most rational and wisest decision I've ever made. Religion is empty and meaningless. Relationship with Christ is something all together different that the majority of people just don't get.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:54 am |
      • The Jackdaw

        I think you just made your own religion.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:58 am |
      • Jefe El Guapo

        SAM, jesus was a fraud. You aren't fooling anyone here. Especially with that whole "it's not a religion, it's a relationship" line... No. It's a religion. A relationship is something you have with someone that exists.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:00 am |
      • The Reverend

        Having relationships with non-existent beings is a sign that your are mentally ill.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:03 am |
  11. SAM

    Interesting. Gee CNN, you're really trying to flog this dead horse. You're not biased about religion vs atheism at all. (sarcasm intended) Every couple of weeks you're bringing this issue up again. One would almost think you have an 'agenda.' How about some actual news?

    July 16, 2013 at 9:46 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      Well, as long as other media outlets continue making "news" out of some guy in Mississippi seeing jesus on his toast, this is the better alternative.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Someone Rational

      We Atheists are constantly bombarded by religious rhetoric in every form of media. Is it really too much to ask that we get represented somewhere?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  12. Ron

    I'm an Atheist and I fall under #5. I wish everyone would just stop talking about religion. I don't like other Atheists pushing their non-beliefs on people just as much as I dislike thumpers pushing the bible on people. I wish people would just shut up and let people be as they are.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Ashley

      Amen, Ron. 😉

      July 16, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Samantha

      Agree 100%.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  13. Paul

    What's the difference between #2 and #4? They sound the same to me, except that #4 has more detail and is presented as being more motivated.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      Number 4 is confrontational. That's the big difference.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:47 am |
      • Saraswati

        I think that's a big part of it, but I think it has. to do, too, with what is more important. Are you most interested in helping the poor or relieving suffering or bringing about social justice? Or is you main interest in combatting theism which you feel initself an enemy? Most people will say they are interested in the former, but looking at how people actually talk and act you see a lot really fall into that latter group. I suspect the anti-theist group has a lot of people who think they are the activists, but would really be identified even by other atheists as primarilyanti-theist.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Saraswati

      I believe the activist is more likely to have an ethical system (such at utilitarianism of humanism) in place whichis central to their life and whichthey act on regularlyby volunteering and fighting for the welfare of others. They prefer atheism and think it's the right answer, but do not necessarily feel anger toward theism. The anti-theist is more centrally motivated by their distatse for theism, where atheism may be more incidental for the activist.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  14. ggirl

    And Agnostics are in no way the same as an Atheist...

    July 16, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      Sure they are. They don't believe in a deity. But they believe in the possibility. Many atheists would tell you that there is the possibility, but they just don't believe that a deity exists without evidence. They're very similar.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:45 am |
      • blammage

        I would disagree with your statement. The difference is that Atheists have taken a position on the issue, whereas Agnostics have not. Agnostics by and large say that the jury is still out.... so to speak. Atheists believe that the question of God has been answered to their satisfaction.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:51 am |
        • Jefe El Guapo

          Atheists may have taken a position, but they are still open to possibilities with evidence. Atheists and agnostics are far closer to the same page than people like to admit.

          July 16, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • blammage

      Agreed! It is just as arrogant to state that one knows God does not exist, as it is to state that one knows that God does exist. Both views are unproven.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:47 am |
      • Jefe El Guapo

        I would go as far to say that it is far more arrogant to claim that a deity exists. No evidence has ever been presented to prove there is one. The complete lack of evidence weighs heavily on the side of the non-existence of a deity. Therefore it is within reason to claim the non-existence of such a being without being arrogant about it.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:51 am |
      • Indi

        In logic, one assumes the negative until the proof is offered of the positive. If you follow your own reasoning, you're agnostic about the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, because it hasn't been proven NOT to exist. But I'd bet money you are quite certain there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:00 am |
        • Jefe El Guapo

          I'm quite certain that the heavenly Lord Pizza Van Pepperoni is far more delicious.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:03 am |
      • louruiz

        You prove something exist without proof it does not.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • Eric

      Agnosticism is not a position of belief (or non belief). It is an all too common error to think that being unsure if there are deities means that you are agnostic instead of atheist. Belief is a binary position, either you do believe or you do not. It is not possible to not know if you believe something. You can be unsure if something is true, but by definition that means a lack of belief.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:51 am |
      • Someone Rational

        My thoughts exactly. I don't wake up every day and CHOOSE not to believe in a god, nor could I if I tried. Whenever I hear somebody claim that they chose a certain belief it makes me cringe a bit. You can decide what you think, you can decide what you would LIKE to believe, but you can't really choose a belief.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  15. Saraswati

    For an interesting comparison, a typology of Catholics:

    ULTRATRADITIONALIST
    TRADITIONALIST
    LIBERAL
    CHARISMATIC / EVANGELICAL
    CULTURAL
    POPULAR FOLK
    POSTMODERN

    http://withchrist.org/catholic.htm

    July 16, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  16. lol??

    Death is too clean and can be attributed to the ugly rise of funeral homes and all that makeup. Elect me mayor and I'll change the building codes so every dwelling has a parlor for the datin' and dyin', err marryin'. The dead can wait to be buried after the visitations are over.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:37 am |
    • Antigone

      I wouldn't elect you dog catcher.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:43 am |
      • lol??

        I worked at a funeral home as a kid. He paid well. I never questioned why it was called a home. Any ideas?? Could just be the state of marriage in americult and Satan chuckling.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:49 am |
        • Antigone

          Yes. Leave the living to care for the dead in the way that brings the most comfort to the living. If your family wants to throw your dead carcass to the curb after you're dead, that's their business.

          And what the hell has this to do with anything? Do you hate everything?

          July 16, 2013 at 10:00 am |
        • Candiano

          "Any ideas??"

          Yes. I suggest you seek therapy.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:04 am |
        • lol??

          Why are you antiparlor?? Culture??

          July 16, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • Candiano

      I doubt you'd be elected if you ran unopposed with a platform of turning funeral parlors into necrophilia broels...you have a very twisted thought process. I hope you don't have children.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  17. Peter

    As an apathetic I can't be bothered to comment on religion or politics!.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  18. mk045

    Next they'll have a Myers-Briggs style test to tell you how you fit into these buckets.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Saraswati

      Probably Big 5 or a system more used by psychologists...but I suspect it would be predictive.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  19. SixDegrees

    Behold the two types of christians:

    – Those who hold their religion to be a matter of faith, between themselves and their god, who do not attempt to force their beliefs on others because they understand that faith lies outside the realm of reason.

    – Those who are convinced that their beliefs are the only ones that are right, that anyone who disagrees with them even slightly is wrong and blasphemous, and who seek to impose their beliefs on everyone, including abusing the power of the state to criminalize and punish those who disagree.

    The latter are, not surprisingly, those most visible, especially in the American south.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      The one thing that you stated that stands out the most is in the first type, where you say "faith lies." That about sums it up. Thank you.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  20. ggirl

    To the author...agnostics do not "disbelieve in god"...

    July 16, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Many agnostics are also atheists and they don't believe in god. The terms are not mutually exclusive.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:07 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.