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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. ArbitraryGuy

    Been atheist type 1 through 6 at different times in my life. Life advice – do what you like but try not to screw up others' lives too badly.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Talal Ghose

      Brah, what happens when you die? huh. you think you become a tree, you fool!

      July 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Gee, what happened in the infinity of time BEFORE you were born?! Why should the infinity AFTER be any different? DOLT!

      July 16, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
      • Tom Wilson

        I am going to return to where I came from! I have no idea who/what/when/why I was prior to my birth. But I feel I am going back to the same place when I die.

        Nothing prior to life, Nothing after life!

        July 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  2. NothingButTheTruth

    I wouldn't have broken the atheism into these 6 categories if I was writing the article. An atheist is anyone who isn't fully convinced that a god (or many gods) exists. The only philosophic divisions among atheists that I can think of are maybe (1) people who aren't sure whether a god exists or not and have no evidence to work with, (2) those who don't think that god exists and have evidence to support it but cannot prove it, and (3) those who think that they have a proof for why there cannot be any god. I would be interested to find out the percentage of atheists that also claim to be skeptics. A skeptic being someone who refuses to believe in anything based on faith (conviction without evidence).

    July 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  3. Chelsea

    I am a combination of an intellectual atheist/agnostic, Activist, and Anti-theist. Once you become aware of the dangers that religious mind sets create, you begin to see the consequences that result. Thomas Jefferson, often mistaken for being a religious President, took the bible and literally cut all of the magical nonsense. He left the basic teachings of Jesus, the lifestyle that Jesus Christ lived and taught to others and THIS is what Christianity should be, but is not. You cannot have an organized religion without destructiveness and corruption. Why would you ever choose blind faith over logical reasoning? We don't do it for any other topic on Earth... The reason? Because to BELIEVE in God means you get the grand prize. If you don't, well apparently you're left out of that small group and nobody wants to be the guy who wishes he woulda just joined the masses.

    I think more and more people are beginning to see the corruptions and narrow mindedness of organized religion and feel the positive effects of free thinking. There is no harm in chasing logical, reasoning, and knowledge. This statement cannot be said for religion.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Austin

      the doctrine of apostacy prophetically gave you this information ahead of time. you didn't forget that part did you ?

      July 16, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  4. scientificpoetry

    I'm an atheist – and felt a great burden was removed when I gave up any belief in God or any involvement in religion. Trying to reconcile reality and religion just doesn't work because none of the tenets of religion are based on reality...

    July 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  5. Sankarshan Das Adhikari

    One leading atheist tell us that everything comes out of absolutely nothing, but where is the science to back up this preposterous claim? I challenge the atheists to show me anything that comes out of absolutely nothing.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Tim

      It come from God; not A god, but God. You're looking in the wrong direction.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
      • TDM

        This. This right here is why religion is divisive.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
        • Tim

          Exactly! If people would stop trying to capitalize on A God, we would be living in harmony! If people would just wake up to the fact that God DOES truly exist, just not in a deity form, then we'd be fine. Except some humans long ago, decided that there HAD to be SOMEONE OUT THERE controlling this all. Then, the powers that be, when they decided that there was A God, if we didn't believe in It then we should be put to death. And that's what happened to Jesus: he was a Gnostic and was trying to help others understand the true meaning of God.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Where is the SCIENCE that explains how some "god" could just have EXISTED..... OUT OF NOTHING? We're supposed to just accept that he/she/it was always there? HA HA!

      July 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  6. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Agnostics are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE from atheists!!!

    They are absolutely NOT the same thing and should not be lumped together. You (the author) must also buy into the B.S. two-party political system of pigeon-holing overly-generalized topics into LEFT and RIGHT! DUH! Simpleton! Binary-thinker!

    July 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • G to the T

      Ummmm... I can tell you're really upset but... no. They aren't exclusive at all. One is a statement of knowledge (gnosis) and one is a statment of belief.

      I don't believe we can know for certain if there's a god or not (agnostic), but I find the probablilty so low that I don't believe one exists (Atheist).

      You could also be a gnotic athestic (I believe it's possible to prove, but it hasn't yet to my satisfaction), an agnostic deist (I believe there is a god but he is unknowable) or a gnostic theist (there is a god and it is knowable).

      July 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  7. j

    our WordPress.com Account and Site. If you create a blog on the Website, you are responsible for maintaining the security of your account and blog, and you are fully responsible for all activities that occur under the account and any other actions taken in connection with the blog. You must not describe or assign keywords to your blog in a misleading or unlawful manner, including in a manner intended to trade on the name or reputation of others, a

    lol

    July 16, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  8. j

    our WordPress.com Account and Site. If you create a blog on the Website, you are responsible for maintaining the security of your account and blog, and you are fully responsible for all activities that occur under the account and any other actions taken in connection with the blog. You must not describe or assign keywords to your blog in a misleading or unlawful manner, including in a manner intended to trade on the name or reputation of others, a

    July 16, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  9. Jim

    You could say that I'm 1, 2, and 4, of the above...

    July 16, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  10. Cliff

    I am an athiest who falls somewhere between categories 5 and 6 above. I completely respect religion and believe that great philosophical principles can be gleamed from the many religions around the world. I also see the good influences on culture and progress as well as the bad. This all being said, I wish sometimes people could better understand what it means to have a mindset like mine. I did not understand anything about religion until I was a teenager and at no point in my young childhood did I ever have the belief in a higher power or the assumption that I was created. Because of this, it is just not possible for me to accept any creationism as truth. I am not the over-analytical type that looks for contradictions or seeks to prove/disprove any religious theory. Rather, the theory just never really occurs to me in the way I live my life or in the way I perceive the universe.

    Even if I wanted to, it would be truly and utterly impossible for me to ever believe in a higher power. The part of my brain that understands this world I live in can't consolidate that idea into my state of living. But that doesn't mean I can't be made to believe in any of the philosophical lessons that people who do follow in the "light" have come to learn. Go ahead and quote righteously to me but make sure it is in a language I can understand or I will just stare blankly at the screen.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • Vic

      Hello Cliff,

      Trust me on this. When you think about God, don't concern yourself with which God nor Religion (DOs & DON'Ts) but with Faith. Start with asking yourself, where did all of this Universe & Life in it come from? Then, follow your heart.

      I started with this myself, and have always been compelled by the Design I see in everything, and I always believed there is a God who created all of this.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
      • Athy

        Well, Vic, that's the train of thought that most people without critical thinking skills follow. I know many (maybe too many) people in that same boat. Nice people, but just can't think logically. Since you can't do it, just stick with your beliefs.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
        • Cliff

          When I follow my "heart" I don't come to the conclusion that the universe was created by design. But that doesn't make it any less mysterious or beautiful. I don't believe it's possible to scientifically prove the deeper questions in life. But at the same time I can't believe that there is a "plan" to the world. So yeah...didn't help.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:13 am |
  11. k

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    July 16, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  12. k

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    July 16, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  13. k

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    July 16, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • tom

      Observer
      Real Tom is a very smart person who prefers to insult and name-call rather than debate with facts. She constantly violated the rules for conduct. It's a shame since she has much to offer. Don't blame anyone but her for all the nasty names she called others. Hopefully, she'll be back with a different att-itude and make all the valuable contributions that we all know she is capable of.

      so, u no quite a bit about other posters and y they r banned

      lol

      July 17, 2013 at 1:14 am |
  14. k

    « Previous 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102

    July 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  15. Austin

    Tom, Tom, the Other One
    Real Tom hasn't been on since Daniel the CNN co-editor started acting out against people he didn't care for. Couple of weeks..

    @ Tom Tom..........how did he act out? did he block peoples comments? I could not register any comments on one blog.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      See my post on the previous page. I should add that the editor, Daniel Burke, and Really-O? had an entertaining exchange and that may have been the start of Daniel's more pro-active activities. My experience was simply having all my posts instantly marked for moderation, most of them removed in minutes. Amusing when I posted the Nicene Creed and had that marked for moderation on this "Belief Blog".

      July 16, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
      • Observer

        What scares me is that we could lose this forum. Does anyone think FOX is an option?

        We all need to show more respect for our fellow human beings.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
        • devin

          Now that made me chuckle.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
      • Austin

        wow ! was that the blog with the gay marriage thing? I had the same experience, i figured it was what you are talking about. o well . thanks for taking the time here.

        what does Daniel think he is going to accomplish? i think he enjoys messing with people.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
        • Observer

          Austin

          "what does Daniel think he is going to accomplish? i think he enjoys messing with people.'

          If that was SUPPOSED to be humorous it failed completely.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
      • Austin

        i really like this forum too? is it really in jeopardy?

        July 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
      • CNN Belief Blog Co-EditorCNN

        If your comments are "awaiting moderation" that means a certain number of fellow commenters have reported it as abusive. We editors don't see the reportedly abusive comments before they're sent for moderation. When we do, we usually unblock and publish them.

        Point is, we're not moderating comments on the front end, only when they're flagged. Also, some people folks who won't abide by CNN's terms of service, usually by using profanity and personally attacking other commenters, have been blocked from commenting any further. That will continue to happen. We're quite serious about making this blog a place for sharp - but civil - debate.

        Thanks,
        Daniel Burke

        July 17, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  16. William

    Would be #6. Good Episcopal upbringing, considered going into the ministry. Became a physician instead. Belief is difficult, but I can sing more than half of the old hymns from memory and remember the liturgy. Still go to musical performances in Church, eg. Handel's Messiah.
    My son is going to graduate divinity school based on discussions we had growing up and his desire to help others. No objections there.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
  17. Stacy S

    I am not one type. I am a mixture of 2 through 6. I strongly believe in educating yourself about religion I.e. origins, history through the ages and the psychology aspect. I could not just accept what my parents told me or what a church told me. I sought out answers from secular educational resources and made my own conclusions.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  18. Christine Guirguis

    First I want to confirm my love and respect to every human being whatever background they are from or beliefs they may embrace. Second I am Christian Coptic Orthodox baptized under the name of "Marina" after a Coptic Martyr in the Roman Empire era. Thirdly I want to put just two verses before atheists and agnostics: 1)"I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19) / 2) "God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him. (1st John4: 16).

    July 16, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Probably the only thing God said to us was "You're on your own" and "Good luck".

      July 16, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • Veronica

      What you don't understand is that we all believe that it is a book of fairy tales, so how does that prove anything? Circular thinking never solved any riddle.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Humanity

      Why in the world would you think that a couple of lines from your holy text would be at all persuasive to people who aren't of your religion?

      July 16, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Austin

      people who submit themselves to God, end up experiencing His supernatural presence.

      I have evidence and data of God's presence. You can have your own.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • NothingButTheTruth

      The problem with quoting the Bible is that most atheists call into question the divinity and validity of the Bible, as well as the existence of a god. There is quite a bit of evidence out there to show that the Bible is merely a collection of ancient stories/poems/tales/oral histories/etc. that were clearly and obviously plagiarized and edited from other mythologies and religions that preceded the writers. I don't mean to be insulting because you seem to be well intentioned, but it borders on being humorous that you or anyone else would think that merely quoting a few verses from an unfounded and frankly brutal book (the Bible) would somehow change someone else's mind about being an atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
      • Austin

        the HOly Spirit is a supernatural spirit that bears the truth of God's word on a persons heart. Reading a bible verse can bring in the Holy Spirit into action. but you have to have your heart prepared.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
        • NothingButTheTruth

          I used to belong to a religion that basically believed as you do, that the Holy Spirit can testify to each of us in a supernatural way, and I used that for my personal testimony of God and my religion. But, later, I realized that personal witnesses can also be explained through psychology, and since many people from conflicting religions claim to have supernatural witnesses testifying to them that their specific brand of religion is the TRUTH, then psychology actually provides a better, more comprehensive, and more plausible explanation to why people feel that they have received such witnesses. I highly recommend you look into the psychology of belief. Here is an excellent series of videos to get you started... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1A9vrsw6Hw&list=PL9D9336926EF60BB0

          July 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
        • Tim

          Is this a joke? Because it was absolutely ludicrous!

          July 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • Trevor Williamson

      Replying to atheists with scripture as a means to prove god exists just makes you look silly.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  19. Jen

    I'd rather live my life believing in God to find out later I was wrong....than to live my life not believing in God and then finding out I was wrong.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • TDM

      Pascal's Wager. Weak argument.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • Colin

      Jen, that insipid logic is called "Pascal's Wager." That logic is called "Pascal's Wager." This is why it is a fallacy:

      a) Pascal's Wager assumes that there are only two options.

      b) Pascal's Wager assumes the Christian god doesn't care whether someone actually believes, or simply goes through the motions.

      c) Pascal's Wager discounts the price paid for belief before death.

      d) Pascal's Wager vastly overestimates the likelihood of the risk times the gravity of the risk.

      a. Positing only two options is ridiculous. There are, of course, thousands of possibilities when it comes to gods. Based on the evidence available for these gods, it is not reasonable to assume one is more likely than any of the others. To increase the odds of a positive outcome of this wager, the believer would have to believe in, and worship, every possible god, including the ones that haven't been invented yet. Aside from the drain on the available time, it presents the problem that quite a few of these gods are pretty selfish. They frown upon believers believing in other gods. In some religions that is enough to not be eligible for the reward (making the belief position a lose/neutral one).

      b. One cannot “choose to believe” something. That has to be an honest conclusion drawn from the facts. I could not “choose” to believe in the Hindu god Shiva or Leprechauns, for example, as that would make no sense. What I can do is SAY I believe or PRETEND to believe. But going through the motions and pretending to believe may fool your community, but it can't fool an all-knowing god. It is very unlikely that anyone would gain the ultimate reward for simply faking belief (making the belief position a lose/neutral one).

      c. The price paid for the belief position isn't nothing. It involves going through the rituals, day after day, week after week. It may have severe side effects on physical and mental health. $ex life may suffer for some, too.

      d. In estimating whether the cost of any given action is worth it, an evaluation of risk versus reward is in order. Here is where proponents of the wager say they have a leg up, as an eternity of perdition must be valued very highly. However if the concomitant likelihood is close to infinitely low, it balances out to close enough to zero to be ignored. If one were to take the believer’s approach, one should live about a mile down an abandoned coal mine, to avoid a very, very unlikely, but fatal meteor impact.

      When extrapolated to the extreme of a god, the math becomes meaningless. For e.g., if I posited a god a billion times more vengeful and gruesome than yours, would you drop your belief and run over to my super-god?

      July 16, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • Ryan

      This is called "Pascal's Wager" and it's honestly a very weak argument. If the only reason God lets you into Heaven or whatever after you die is because you threw aside all your logical faculties and brainpower (which he supposedly gave you in the first place) and believed in him without evidence, then is that really moral on his part? You can be a perfectly good person but because you didn't believe in him you're going to Hell? Would you really want to be in a "Heaven" with a being that acted that way toward people in the first place?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager

      July 16, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
      • Melissa

        If you only believe in your deity because you are scared you might be wrong, then you don't really believe and, if your deity exists, you will go straight to hell. According to your bible, your deity holds more value in honesty than lies.

        July 17, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  20. Christine Guirguis

    First I want to confirm my love and respect to every human being whatever background they are from or beliefs they may embrace. Second I am Christian Coptic Orthodox baptized under the name of "Marina" after a Coptic Martyr in the Roman Empire era. Thirdly I want to put just two verses before atheists and agnostics: 1)"I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19) / 2) "God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him. (1st John: 16).

    July 16, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
    • Tim

      EXACTLY!!! God IS within you; this is what Jesus taught. Not that he was God himself, no, that would be insane. But that WE are God. Jesus was pointing to us!

      July 16, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
      • Austin

        John 1
        New International Version (NIV)
        The Word Became Flesh

        1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
        • Tim

          You and I are EXACTLY the same. We're both spiritual beings. You can quote your fallacious text to me all day long, but you can NEVER defeat the Love and Compassion I have... even for you. You're a sad, mis-directed individual who is going the wrong way. I hope someday you wake up and realize the truth of who you really are: you're a powerful, conscious human being who's capable of Love beyond measure. But you've been deluded with hate and anger that you have chosen to disregard the Truth!

          I know that when I die, Life, as it always has and always will, will go on. There is no beginning and there is no end to Life. I'm quite happy and content knowing this, because someday I will come back again in another form, and so will you. That's the glorious nature of Life. Live it and love it! God bless.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:26 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.