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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. avoiceinmyhead

    I'm not sure if I can call myself an atheist but I am at least an agnostic. I am a man of science. We can show that we don't need the concept of God to explain any phenomenon. I believe that any phenomenon that is not yet explained can eventually be explained without the concept of God. God is not necessary, but it does not mean that it does not exist.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      If you are indeed a scientist, I would supposed that you are skeptical as well. If so, what is the default position to take on a claim for which there is no evidence?

      July 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • JJ

      Easy. If you lack a belief in a deity then you are an atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  2. Imagine No Religion

    Really CNN???

    You censored the following one line post, which I submitted yesterday evening...

    "Behold, the 40,000+ xian denominations!"

    ...It was still there this morning (with several responses to it), but now it's gone.

    Do your moderators not have a sense of humor?

    -–
    "There ain't no jesus gonna come from the sky.
    Now that I found out, I know I can cry." - John Lennon

    July 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Imagine No Religion

      Sorry for the accidental double post.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
      • kerfluffle

        god (sic) willed it

        July 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  3. Tom

    I love all these stories that do nothing but stoke the fire and don't offer any answers.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Tom, what is folly is believing there are actual answers to questions like 'what happens after we die'. Hey, I understand that it can be fun to play a 'what if' type of game, but that is all it is a game. One doesn't learn the truth by making up answers. One just has to accept that certain things cannot be known in this lifetime.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  4. Bob

    Why do I read anything on CNN? Tries to kick self in behind...

    July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  5. TexAnne

    I guess there's still no category for someone like me.

    My belief; if there is a god or gods the truth about them has been lost to the eons of time. There is not a single religion practiced on the earth today that is any where close to correct.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Alias

      Agnostic

      July 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
      • TexAnne

        Yeah, probably...I don't condemn and I don't convert, and I expect the exact same respect in return.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • illusive

      Closest thing is Deism
      Basically "God crated the universe, but is no longer around or does not care anymore"

      Kind of Pantheism "God is nature" "god is the universe"

      Both are in essence a re-defining of already known labels such as "nature" or "Universe" or "beginning".

      If you answer "No" to "Do you believe a god exist?" your an Atheist, any other answer is theism of some sort or another

      July 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
      • Crated

        God crated the universe? That must have been one really big box!

        July 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • peripateopneuma

      Be more honest. You mean to say, there is no religion practiced today, that would pass what you perceive to be correct. Which begs the question, what qualifies you as determining what is correct.

      The term for you is unsure. 🙂 PERHAPS agnostic, but not even really that. You are most likely a Deist with no direction.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • peripateopneuma

      Be more honest. You mean to say, there is no religion practiced today, that would pass what you perceive to be correct. Which begs the question, what qualifies you as determining what is correct.

      The term for you is unsure. 🙂 PERHAPS agnostic, but not even really that. You are most likely a Deist with no direction. People like your description, USUALLY have more issues with how people practice their faith, and the examples that they show in their living it than they do with the religion itself. You don't approve of the results of those people, basically.

      it doesn't allow, very often, to admit the faith could be fine, the people, however suck.

      I use the "you" pronoun, in the general, group sense. I don't know you personally enough to address you directly.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  6. Keith

    Atheism is a choice, and a well-thought out choice. I was raised as a christian, and made my own choice on what I should believe. I think everyone should have that choice, and not forced onto one particular ideal or religion...Including Atheism.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • illusive

      I agree but I will point out that atheism is not a religion, it is a stance on a single point.

      To further define you have to remember all atheist means it "I don't believe there is a god(s)", so technically even Buddhists are atheists.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      I am not even too sure you can claim its a choice in the true sense of the word. You are either convinced or not. You cannot choose to believe, say on the off chance it may be right, so not sure you can choose to not believe.
      Its just something you know or you dont.

      July 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      can you choose to believe that marvin the martian is the creator, and coming to us in a cartoon?

      July 16, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  7. Imagine No Religion

    Really CNN???

    You censored the following one line post, which I submitted yesterday evening...

    "Behold, the 40,000+ xian denominations!"

    ...It was still up this morning (with several responses to it), but now it's gone.

    Do your moderators not have a sense of humor?

    -–
    "There ain't no jesus gonna come from the sky.
    Now that I found out, I know I can cry." - John Lennon

    July 16, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • Alias

      Once they get started they take out the entire string.
      I kind of like that they are at least doing something, it was getting out of hand.
      And i should know – I've posted some truely rude things.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
      • Imagine No Religion

        So, to get any comment (that one does not like) removed, all one has to do is post rude replies within the thread?

        Wow! Ain't that America, little pink houses for you and me.

        -–
        "There ain't no jesus gonna come from the sky.
        Now that I found out, I know I can cry." - John Lennon

        July 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • Donald

      Communist News Network working there magic.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  8. L Black

    I am a ritual atheist

    July 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  9. Donald

    Religion is the reason we are at war and why we have so many hate crimes against people who are different. Religion should have NO place in politics.. who are you to tell people what is best by refering to your FICTIONAL BOOK OF GOD! I could care less what people do with there own lives as long as it does not effect me and my family.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
  10. thomas

    Wow, can I make a offensive article that profiles the 6 types of Christians, Muslims or Jews?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      The study might be misguided but how is the article about the study offensive?

      July 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  11. Alexis

    Im a mix of 1..2..and 6.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
  12. Burger

    I tend to be non-theist, but I would like to be an activist. Religious groups are active on their behalf, and atheists need a voice too. I have also seen firsthand how theistism is validated by one's peer group. The more I can say "I'm an atheist." The better. Lionlylamb, get a mirror.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
  13. Neo Atheist

    You can quote the bible all you want, pray for me all you wont. But you will never ever convince me that God exists. Just as I will never convince you that he doesn't.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
    • ME II

      Most Atheists that I've met are more than willing to believe if provided with sufficient evidence.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • Neo Atheist

        That is true, but all I get are people who quote the bible and use natural phenomenon, and simple "Because he does." as proof.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
      • illusive

        This (at least for me) is true. If sufficient evidence is put forward I will believe god exists, does not mean I would worship such a god, but at least I would know one exists.

        "I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible" Matt Dillahunty, and I agree

        July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  14. Bharadwaj

    I have been through a few. I was a Ritual Atheist, then a non-theist and now, would look at myself as an "Intellectual Atheist Activist"!! Moving slowly towards Anti-theism, with care and caution.

    So, I would call this list as more like "Stages of Atheism" instead of "Types"!!

    July 16, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  15. B. Stroller

    As an agnostic who does not harass people about their religious beliefs or lack thereof, I'm shocked and disappointed by the pseudo-scientific rudeness of this article. 3 out of 6 of these "types" are just different descriptions of unpleasant people and the other 2 condescendingly imply that atheists are deficient, whether from absences in their "mental space" (wonder how they measured that...) or no ability to think on their own. After reading these descriptions, I'm not surprised this study was performed by a doctoral student and an undergrad. This would never be published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, not without a lot of work. Good luck to them, but boxing people in poorly constructed, negative categories is exactly the kind of thing that we atheists get so much flak. The hypocrisy is obvious.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  16. IT IS ALL GOOD AND GOD IS AT THE END

    Direct quote from Mary the mother of Jesus...in the year 2012..at Medjugorje:

    Do not impose your faith in God on unbelievers instead show it to them by your good example and pray for them.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • kerfluffle

      cool

      pray me up a sammich

      July 16, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
      • URcavemanEZ

        lolololol too funny

        July 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
      • Stephen Jones

        Me too just make sure it's kosher!

        July 16, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  17. kerfluffle

    your trolling wherewithal is lacking

    July 16, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  18. David from Nor Cal

    Not sure these are the best grouping, but its not a bad attempt.

    I'd probably fall somewhere between #1 (at least the attempt of this one) and #4. My lack of belief in any religion or deity results from reason, critical thinking, logic, and the scientific method. However, I think that at a core, religion is one of the most harmful ideas humanity ever conceived. It is a by product left over from the intellectual infancy of our species, and we would be far better leaving it in the past.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  19. Dutchy

    How come the first link in the article doesn't take you to the study and leads to this article again?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  20. mzh

    To British Actress Emma Thompson “I am offended by some of the things said in the Bible and The Quran, and I refute them”:

    When a federal law is being passed, it passes for all the citizens whether its citizen like it or not, at the same time these fed laws are passed not with the intention to punish its citizen but to maintain the law and order to that every single citizen will live with peace.

    The laws in the Quran for the mankind whether you like it or not but if you don’t like it and disobey it, you will not be punished in this life as one is being punished for disobeying the law of the land. This is also another example of ‘Free Will’ that you have been given to obey or disobey in this life. And the compensation will be given in the next life. But compensation of obeying or disobeying any laws of the land we see it and that compensation will be given in hereafter which is not known to anyone but the mankind is instructed by prophets or messenger by time to time…

    67:6 – And for those who disbelieved in their Lord is the punishment of Hell, and wretched is the destination.

    67:7 – When they are thrown into it, they hear from it a [dreadful] inhaling while it boils up.

    67:8 – It almost bursts with rage. Every time a company is thrown into it, its keepers ask them, "Did there not come to you a warner?"

    67:9 – They will say," Yes, a warner had come to us, but we denied and said, ' Allah has not sent down anything. You are not but in great error.' "

    67:10 – And they will say, "If only we had been listening or reasoning, we would not be among the companions of the Blaze."

    67:11 – And they will admit their sin, so [it is] alienation for the companions of the Blaze.

    67:12 – Indeed, those who fear their Lord unseen will have forgiveness and great reward.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Rob Sellers

      Announcing "I'm offended" is basically telling the world that you can't control your emotions. Get a hold of yourself...

      July 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
      • mzh

        “I am offended by some of the things said in the Bible and The Quran, and I refute them” – this is what she says... please click on the pic # 8

        July 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
        • Rob Sellers

          Ah ok, my apologies. I'm disabled and about 10' away from a small screen, couldn't see that bit. I thought it was a fundie being offended by the article.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'The laws in the Quran for the mankind whether you like it or not but if you don’t like it and disobey it, you will not be punished in this life as one is being punished for disobeying the law of the land.'

      So you wont be stoned to death or have your head cut off? because you know, there are more than a few signs that quran followers are taking part in that.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
      • mzh

        The laws of the land varies country to country… there is not a single country on the face of the earth who follow completely the laws of the Quran and as a matter of fact you can’t because not everyone believes in quran.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
        • cedar rapids

          but those that do have such punishments claim their justification for them from the quran, not from some cultural idea of punishment.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • mzh

          The laws are not meant to punish people... but to control as human is always like to go out of control which is why in USA we a huge number of killing by drunk driver even though law is there...

          So the laws are to prevent the crime and I do not see any problem with that... if I wanna be law abiding citizen... and I respect when I see cops pulls me over for breaking any traffic laws... otherwise peoples life will always be in danger, don't you think?

          Peace be upon you...

          July 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
        • G to the T

          "The laws are not meant to punish people" – ahh so at last we've found the "true Muslim". I was wondering how long that would take.

          July 18, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • AwesomeAtheist

      The Quran is a book of fiction as is the Bible. They should be given no more respect that an Amazing Spiderman comic book. (Less so because I like the art in the comic.) All of your prophets are false.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:16 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.