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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. HenryO

    What a lot of christians don't realize (or are simply to daft to care) is that the more they attack "non-believers" the more they lay the case for people that are dissatisfied with the ignorant, domineering, know-it-all side of religion.

    Christians are literally creating Atheists. Curious.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • urmomlol

      Literally!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Andrew

      I am a Christian and I would agree with you. All the apologetic and rationale arguments aside, and both have good arguments, it is always a choice the individual has to make and that needs to be respected by the Christian community. There is a difference between engaging and attacking, and most Christians who attack, or come across as attacking, either are very insecure about their faith, not too sure themselves about their faith, or don't know why they believe what they believe. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that generate buzz and get all the attention! UH!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  2. Gisthatright

    There's something going on in the mind where people can introduce things into reality and to me that is a powerful ability. I'm not sure what to say about it exactly. People call it many different things. People experience it through many different means. Keep an open mind and know that all is not known.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Huh? Do you mean to imply that your consciousness supersedes reality?

      That puts you at the highest point on the scale of people who shouldn't be walking around.

      I have to believe you said that incorrectly? If you meant it, seek therapy and major meds before you hurt yourself or someone else.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Harald

      Ehem.....what exactly do you want to "insert into reality" ? I'm afraid I can't follow you.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  3. urmomlol

    Oh look, an article about atheism. This is sure to stimulate plenty of original and insightful yet civil internet discussion!

    July 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  4. Harald

    according to this classification, I'm an anti-theist....lol

    July 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  5. boredofceleb

    Of all the above, I admire the 5th and 6th type, as they are not "in your face" about their non-beliefs. And it's not just atheism, but any religion at all that is "in your face" is offensive to me. Spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, should be a PRIVATE aspect of an individual's life. And definitely has no place in the public, secular arena!

    July 16, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Agreed, so as soon as you can get the zealots away from our schools, our government, their altar boys, little old ladies bank accounts and our woman we can all live happily ever after.

      Until then, the only good Christian, is a DEAD Christian.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • boredofceleb

        Hey, William....I sure hope you mean 'DEAD' in the spiritual sense!!!

        July 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
      • Lycidas

        Ah..the thought structure that brought such human greatness like Project T-4, the Red Scare and so many others.

        Keep up the good work Willy.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • William Demuth

      boredofceleb

      No, I meant the literal one.

      The key is to have the faiths fight each other. This way ALL the casualties increase the influence of the non believers.

      If we can survive it, a WW3 fought in the Middle East will be a BOON for us non believers.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
      • boredofceleb

        That's a rather radical concept, William. So basically you're saying let's kill everyone off who doesn't agree with your non-belief? As much as I can't stand the "in your face-ers", I would rather see their right to believe what they want rather than kill them. I said in my previous post, I would prefer people's beliefs–or nonbeliefs–to be PRIVATE.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
        • William Demuth

          Nah, no blood on my hands

          Just let the cults slug it out. Pretty much let nature run its course.

          Withdraw funding from Israel and Egypt, and let the fire begin.

          Within a generation, most will be dead.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  6. Rick

    Wow, another atheist story from CNN. Do you think you can balance this out??? How about a positive story on Christian values? There are plenty of them out there. Are all of your writers atheists?

    July 16, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • R.M. Goodswell

      Atheism = clicks

      July 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
      • Ted

        just like

        gays = clicks

        July 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
        • lionlylamb2013

          Once "clicked" all one needs do is pull the trigger...why don't you finish it?

          July 16, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
        • R.M. Goodswell

          Good morning LL,

          time to vent I see....

          July 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The writers are Jeebus Freaks.

      Please read more before posting.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • cmnsns

      Christian values? Hah! That's a joke. Tell me when the Christian values begins. Is it right after you tell a child that if they don't love some guy who never existed they will spend eternity in hell? Christianity is just a legalized form of brainwashing that has no redeeming values after teaching a child why they should believe.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
      • Athy

        Religion has no redeeming values before teaching a child why they should believe either.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Platypus Rex

      As you show quite well, Christian values are to be nasty about anyone else's way of life and demanding that others publish your propaganda.

      I am so impressed.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • Johnny

        The entire Christian religion is based on the immoral concept of letting someone else take your punishment.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Keith A. Sillsbury

    The researchers scope seems to only point to the non believers groups only and thus is incomplete as a whole. There are those of us that don't "not" believe but, Know there is no such animal as god. Man created god to control man and history is the proof. even biblical history shows us this.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • lionlylamb2013

      Afternoon Keith...

      Researchers claim that we are or rather our bodies are genetic constructs of superlative randomness in "molecular biologies" but just how does genetic engineering remain as a consistency so that it hardly ever wavers in genetic algorithms of "issuanced probabilities" remaining as a favorable constant?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
      • boredofceleb

        LOL! Yes, Keith, please do articulate your response to THAT post....

        July 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  8. Toms345

    One cannot "prove" God's existence because he exists outside of the space time continuum beyond scientific explanation. Faith is the ability of a human being to acknowledge supernatural facts and realities. Since we all have a free will we are free to believe whatever we want. Please stop attacking each other.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Oh sure, make nice while the Bible Thumpers trash our society?

      Death to Theists.

      It's them or us.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
      • Lycidas

        Them or us?

        I would suggest you take a look at the stats on "Them"....I would guess that you would be outnumbered 9 to 1.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
        • EnoughAlready

          More like 19:1

          July 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • Zeus

          More like 7 to 1

          July 16, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Donna

      So.....he's like Doctor Who??
      I am a 4 and a 5 and I would be a 2 if I ever cared enough to put some effort in.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • ialsoagree

      Please provide a rational, logical reason to have faith in said god, and not to have faith in the invisible pink unicorn – who I contend also exists outside this universe, or Zeus, or Thor, or Ra.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Athy

      Tom, if god exists outside of our space-time continuum, how can he possibly influence our lives at all? Care to give us a valid scientific explanation for that?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Woody

      "One cannot "prove" God's existence because he exists outside of the space time continuum beyond scientific explanation."
      – Toms345

      Wow, pretty impressive! Where in the bible did you find this inside information? Does the same guy that talked to Adam, Abraham, Moses and the rest of the gang, just pop INSIDE the "space time continuum" now and then just for shi*** and giggles? Please, enlighten us.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • cmg

      "Faith is the ability of a human being to acknowledge supernatural facts and realities"...

      First – things attributed to the "supernatural" are far from "Facts and Realities". You should reserve the statement "Facts and Realities" just that proven Facts and Realities. "faith" is a way of avoiding the facts that can lead to the truth. Instead preferring to attribute those things to a supernatural god without the need to search and find the truth.

      There is no such thing as the Supernatural. If it occurs and is observable it is of the natural world and with enough time and scientific research the "Facts and Realities" can hopefully be explained. Even if we as human beings are unable to find the "Facts and Realities" to answer the question. There is still an explanation that is rooted in the natural world and not the false "supernatural" world of faith.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
      • cmg

        IGNORE THE SECOND SENTENCE –You should reserve the statement "Facts and Realities" just that proven Facts and Realities. - was supposed to be deleted...

        July 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  9. ScottWall

    I propose there's only one kind of atheist: the kind that pays taxes to support a crooked theocracy (especially here in the south).

    July 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  10. HenryO

    Ugh...same old trolls haunting this board. Either angry Atheists or crazy christians. Take your pick. People, you need to get a life!!!!

    July 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Troll

      This is our life!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Pete

      "Either angry Atheists "

      Just because you are challenging what someone believes does NOT mean you are angry. I am here for entertainment, which is what this site is used for so it can sell advertising.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
      • JimK57

        Pete, You have to be fair. Can you honestly read the comments by athiests and say they are open minded thoughtful people? Some are, but most are not. It is possible to challenge someone without insulting or talking down to them.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
        • Ted

          "Can you honestly read the comments by athiests and say they are open minded thoughtful people? Some are, but most are not. It is possible to challenge someone without insulting or talking down to them."

          That should read:

          Can you honestly read the comments by Christians and say they are open minded thoughtful people? Some are, but most are not. It is possible to challenge someone without insulting or talking down to them.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Antigone

      Says the man who needs to look in the mirror. Which category of troll are you?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  11. tony

    If you can't bring up your children to be good, loving and productive, without having to use their being a god, as an excuse to make them act that way, you shouldn't make children.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Dippy

      There, not their.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  12. Mike

    I was a seeker-agnostic.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      And found what?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  13. TiCKed

    I know people like to create categories, and this list might be useful in some academic way...

    But I'm an atheist, and I don't see myself represented by any of these categories....and yet I see a bit of myself in all of them. I guess that the beauty of atheism is that there ARE NO RULES. Nobody expects you to behave a certain way, hold certain doctrine, or "spread the word" in order to be an atheist. It's a free form belief system, free from doctrine or hierarchy defining the belief for all of the followers.....(assuming it's a belief system at all).

    My greatest desire is that atheism be treated with as much respect as any religion. I'll do you the honor of not questioning YOUR religious beliefs if you will do me the same honor. Religion should be a personal issue, and I think we would all be better off if we left it that way.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Derek

      Ah, if people could have only learned that respect a few thousand years ago, think of all the problems in the world that could have been averted.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Tick

      Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color

      July 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The point of the survey was to dispell the tactic used by the religious right that all atheists are militant religion haters (the anti-theists).

      These labels were created to bucket a sample of non-believers to bring out this conclusion. The study found that about 15% of the non-believers surveyed self-identified as anti-theist.

      This is a first step in recognizing non-believers as something other than people whose sole cause is directing venom at organized religion.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Hondendär

      Just what I was going to say. Atheist but none of them and a bit of all.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  14. tony

    If you can't bring up your children to be good, loving and productive, without having to use god as an excuse to make them act that way, you shouldn't make children.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  15. Faith

    Sad.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • tony

      So you are.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Nah, faith is mad, not sad.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  16. Debbie

    When all atheists stand before God at the Great White Throne judgement seat you will wish you would have believed in God's Son Jesus. It is written in God's word about those who are not written in the Lambs book of life. READ REVELATION 20 & 21

    July 16, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      Is that your Great White Hope?

      July 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
      • JAM

        No, you got it all wrong, Debbie meant the Great White Throne that most athiests worship early Saturday and Sunday morning, many while still in college, kneeling to a deity named Ralph!

        July 16, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      When you stand before Allah or Thor you will be shatting your pants.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Madtown

      Where has God written any words? Would love to read them, I'm sure they're interesting.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i'll walk up and ask God why he was such a d.ick. i'll ask him how he justified drowning children in his great flood. i'll ask him why he doesn't make children bullet proof so we can avoid school shootings. i'll ask him why he would distribute his holy book in one place on all of earth but expect everyone on earth to follow it. i'll ask God why he is so fail.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i'll walk up and ask God why he was such a giant d.i.c.k.. i'll ask him how he justified drowning children in his great flood. i'll ask him why he doesn't make children bullet proof so there'll never be another school shooting. i'll ask him why he would distribute his holy book in one place on all of earth but expect everyone on earth to follow it. i'll ask God why he is so fail.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Closet Atheist

      Thunderbolts and lightning... very, very frightening.....

      July 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • AAAAHHHHhhhhhhh

        That......was funny.

        July 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
      • Antigone

        Galileo! Figaro...magnifico!

        July 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i'll walk up and ask God why he was such a giant d.i.c.k.. i'll ask him how he justified drowning children in his great flood. i'll ask him why he doesn't make children bullet proof so there won't ever be another school shooting. i'll ask him why he would dist.ribute his holy book in one place on all of earth but expect everyone on earth to follow it. i'll ask God why he is so fail.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • AAAAHHHHhhhhhhh

      You should go read some other books for a while.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • NickZadick

      I don't like reading fairy tales... and that one sucks bad!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Jesus

      Wow, was that meaningful. Thank you. You've changed my whole outlook.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • OTOH

      Debbie,

      There is no verified evidence that The Book of Revelation is the "word" of any god.

      It is an ancient example of Sci-Fi, FanFic, and horror stories. Antiquity (and modern literature) is rampant with them, complete with fire-breathing dragons, 10-headed snakes, 3-headed dogs, angry, raging maniacs and all the rest.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  17. Tony

    After reading this, I believe 3,5, & 6 describe the greatest number of people who currently don't beleve. 1,2, & 4 describes the polar opposite of the original creators of religion as we know it today. All living things are given "instincts". Being human, isn't that what we feel inside when we do good or bad? The creation of God and religion is how man translated our inside feelings into outward expression. An atheist just doesn't agree with how those doctrines came about. Doing what you feel is right doesn't always work, but I know you will have led a good life by always trying to.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  18. Apocalypse_91

    There are really only 2 types of Atheists. First are Atheists because they were taught to be Atheists as a child and have carried it forward, often times without exploring what they really believe. The Second are Atheists by choice. They basically were brought up in an organized religion, and have chosen to not follow those teachings and foundations of religion. Now, in that second category there are lots of factors. like: Can't separate any facts from Fantasy, were hurt by Church leaders emotionally or physically, Parents or children died unexpectedly and were told it was part of God's plan. There are lots of reasons people become atheists. I do not believe that there are all these planned atheist factions though, most atheists are private atheists.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Can't separate any facts from Fantasy,

      I'd argue that it is precisely because they can separate fact from fantasy that people embrace atheism.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Everyone is born an atheist. You are taught religion through the brainwashing of your parents.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • New User

        So true.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • tom LI

      Uh, raised as Xtian never questioning, or exploring ones own beliefs is the trademark of American Xtians. Your fantasies are just xtian propaganda.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Closet Atheist

      Wow.... just wow...

      Please... pretty pretty please... do not procreate.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      So if you can trim down the 6 types of atheists into 2, how many types of Christian can you trim off of the 41,000 denominations?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  19. Doug

    This is an interesting article. I was trying to discern what type of atheist I am and what number applies to me. I realized that all of them do. So the article doesn't establish that there are 6 types of atheists, but that there are at least 6 main characteristics of atheism, and someone may have one, more, or all of them.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  20. Seeking Enlightenment

    Being a quasi-atheist-agnostic-Buddhist, my response to this article is that I am probably all 1-6, it just depends on who I am around and what I'm exposed to by religious zealots. Personally, I never thought religion made much sense to me, even as a kid, but once I was able to have my own thoughts and experiences I realized it was just a hoax. Like Santa Claus really. I remember taking a religious studies course in college and the was the beginning of my enlightenment as to what religion was about, control. Our mind is also constantly seeking control of our actions, much like religion. So, once you can free yourself from your mind and religion, and it's control, then and only then will you understand what life is about. I think man in his attempt to deny death (denial, being the first human reaction to anything unfathomable or bad) uses a religion as an out. Such a primitive and ignorant way to deal with things. Live in the now. The past is over, the future is not guaranteed. Live for now and seek enlightenment, then and only then will one be happy.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Closet Atheist

      Well said... I find your "atheist/agnostic/buddhist" stance interesting. It's funny because my wife is loosely buddhist/agnostic and I'm a non-believer... it works out perfect. We will never have a disagreement about religion. I find buddhism to be by far the most tolerable religion.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
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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.