home
RSS
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. Robert Acuna

    My mother was a full blooded catholic a very devoted one ,a role model got married had 5 kids her husband my dad died when he was 45 yrs old and she died 57 yrs of age she tried to live life like the bible orders and life was evil to her ,in the other hand you have evil people they live a beautiful good quality life up to 100 yrs of age ,come on need l say more.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:18 am |
  2. Stephen Jones

    Ken78
    As former Southern Baptist from East Texas I assure you I am not painting with a broad rush. Almost every Fundamentalist Christian in the US (in the Western World actually) believes in the 19th century version of the rapture. It's a basic tenant of their faith.

    And if you think the prosperity doctrine isn't a huge part of the American Christian culture you have never heard of a mega church or watched Christian broadcasting.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:17 am |
  3. Don M

    Like most self-professed atheists, the article fundamentally confuses what an atheist is. Take category no. 5, for example, those "who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion." Those people are not atheists. My six month old child, and, for that matter, my dog, "do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion." Are they atheists? Of course not. An atheist is one who asserts the truth of this proposition: God does not exist. Of course, an atheist (like a theist) should also be able to give warrant for his belief. It can't just be an emotional or psychological state.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:15 am |
    • Greg

      Of course your six month old is an atheist. You haven't taught her to believe in God yet, right, so how else would she get the idea that one might exist?

      July 17, 2013 at 1:32 am |
      • Don M

        Greg: What is your definition of "atheism?" I gave my definition. And, what is your definition of theism - that is, a-theism without the "a"? I think you're confused, just like the categories in the article are confused - to the extent they posit to be categories of atheism.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:43 am |
      • Greg

        All an atheist is is someone who doesn't believe in any gods. So, children are atheists until they are taught to believe in some god, right?

        July 17, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • Sum Ting Wong

      Every person is born an atheist and then later taught to be a theist. There is a difference between indoctrination and the truth. If you teach your child to be theist, that doesn't necessarily mean you teach him/her the truth, it just mean you teach what you think is the truth.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:57 am |
      • hharri

        na so fatz

        born with innate desire to commune with god

        September 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
        • Edward

          That is inherently false. Food, warmth and need for touch. That's it.

          September 8, 2013 at 4:58 am |
        • hharri

          inherently? i don't think so

          September 8, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  4. Don

    I have a friend whose an atheist. As a Christian, I told them that to be an atheist is a contradiction in itself. Atheists believe that the God they think does not exist, does not exist. In order for one to be an unbeliever or doubter, they must believe that something is present; so that they can therefore doubt or deny it.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      So fairies and elves are real because you can't doubt the existence of something unless it's real? Loch Ness and Bigfoot in on this, too?

      Puh-lease. Believers all tell me about their silly gods, and they just all sound so stupid and horrible and boring and ridiculous. No, I don't believe in all those gods, and my disbelief does not mean they exist. How silly.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:17 am |
    • Dippy

      Don, it's "who's", not "whose." Keep trying.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:30 am |
    • Jess

      ...along with not believing in a god, I also do not believe in the existence of rainbows completely coloured green, or for that matter the pot of gold supposedly at the end of rainbows. Does this mean they exist too, in your world, so that I may 'deny' them?

      July 17, 2013 at 1:31 am |
    • The Word of Dog

      Classic Christian BS. To be an unbeliever you must believe. It's just too stupid for words.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:43 am |
    • Rick

      Don, may I ask you what you do not believe in?

      I'm going out on a limb and guessing that you don't believe in Zeus or the toothfairy. Does that mean Zeus and the toothfairy exist? We are ALL of us atheist Don. I just go one god further than you have.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  5. Ben

    It's better than assuming I don't believe in anything, but I still hate it. I'm an atheist...I don't believe in God. That's all it means.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:10 am |
  6. KRH12

    Seeker-agnostic

    July 17, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  7. Krishnanjan Pramanik

    Well...I don't believe in any supernatural god and so I don't believe that god created the universe in 6 days. I only care about science and Philosophy. Now it's up to you..in which category you want to put me....:)

    July 17, 2013 at 12:57 am |
    • Ken78

      You put yourself in the atheist category. No need for me to do it.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:00 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      non theist or atheist. Who cares, really. Religion is just philosophy bound to some self-propagating myth-meme.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  8. jon

    I am a "Maybe-Athiest". I don't know what happens when you die- but I know I feel connected to things in a way I can't explain. I don't believe there is a conscious being watching us-but I do believe in right and wrong (however not good and bad) Maybe God is Science... MAYBE is my holy word, but it must correspond with fact.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  9. Ken

    you forgot Passive-theists. those who feel a belief, but are unsure about the trustworthiness of religious activist orders claiming to have "the Truth".

    July 17, 2013 at 12:53 am |
    • Greg

      If they "feel a belief", they're still believers, just independent from organized theology and definitions of what they believe.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:03 am |
  10. Maya

    Zealous Atheists resemble religious fanatics. *Cough, cough* - if you possess qualities of #2 and #4 you might be a zealot...

    July 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • .

      Do you have a cold?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:49 am |
      • Maya

        I do. Do you have Nyquil?

        July 17, 2013 at 1:02 am |
    • Greg

      However, the most a zealous atheist might do is put up a billboard, which is a far cry from the kind of carnage that a religious zealot do.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:51 am |
      • Maya

        I disagree. I know many Atheists who proselytize and debunk religion whenever given chance.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:06 am |
      • Greg

        Maya
        It's a free country, and people have a right to disagree with other people's opinions, even religious ones. And how is that harmful like the actual violence and anti-rights movements that religious zealots get involved in?

        July 17, 2013 at 1:40 am |
  11. whatever son

    Who gave CNN the authority to create six classes of atheists? I dont agree with the article

    July 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • The Word of Dog

      It's nothing but a report on a grad student's thesis. The student is part of a humanist club, and is atheist. CNN didn't do it.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:44 am |
    • Wondering

      I wonder who would have the authority to grant that permission?

      July 17, 2013 at 2:10 am |
  12. Micah

    Im in group three. Only because I have a humble mind and understand that we dont know everything.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  13. Tiff

    It's extremely narrow to think of people as either atheist or religious. These categories basically only describe people from a Christian point of view. For example, Buddhism is specifically an atheist religion. So a Buddhist is both an atheist and religious person at the same time. So which number would a Buddhist fit???

    July 17, 2013 at 12:42 am |
    • Ken

      Christians themselves are about 99.99% atheist. They don't believe in other gods for mostly the same reasons why we don't believe in theirs. Funny they can't see that!

      July 17, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • Ben

      And this is where you are wrong, the Buddhist religion does have gods. They are a polytheistic religion and thus cannot be categorized as an "atheist religion". You are correct that they do not believe in one absolute creator deity, but they do believe in and seek help in their lives from other gods or devas who are merely just beings more enlightened then humans. This is a good reference website if your curious to learn more http://buddhistgods.blogspot.com/

      July 17, 2013 at 1:01 am |
      • Tiff

        Clearly you don't understand Buddhism if you're calling it polytheistic. Yes there may be gods or devas in Buddhism, and people respect them, but they aren't even close to being worshipped like the Christian god... Buddhism is atheist because there is no one you are required to pray/respect/whatever to. The whole point is that each being has the Buddha nature in themselves.... So the only person you need to believe in is yourself. In fact, Buddha taught people that in enlightenment you become a NON-BELIEVER.

        Wikipedia article if you are curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion

        July 17, 2013 at 1:14 am |
        • Tiff

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

          July 17, 2013 at 1:19 am |
  14. Stephen Jones

    Religions come and go. Christianity will go the way of its pagan forbearers.

    Christianity constantly evolves to try to stay current. Just take a look at the whole McDonald/Darby rapture thing so many evangelicals believe today. Or the prosperity doctrine. Both 19th and 20th century manifestations of American Christianity. These are just two many new doctrines that lots of Christians hold to be true.

    The Jesus myth shifts jus as much as the doctrine shifts. In no way do modern Christians believe in Jesus the same way the early church did. Either it's all bunk or Jesus is real wishy-washy.

    Believers of other religions you can insert your religion/deity into the Christianity/Jesus spots and the above paragraph still works.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:41 am |
    • Ken78

      What new doctrines?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:43 am |
      • Stephen Jones

        I listed two in my post. Seek and ye shall find.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:45 am |
        • Ken78

          I don't believe in any of that nonsense. Neither do the Christians I know. Those aren't new Christian doctrines. They are false doctrines. And false doctrines go all the way back to . . . the first century!

          As Christ said, not everyone who calls Him "Lord, Lord" will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

          People can call themselves whatever they want. I can call my aunt my uncle but that won't make her grow a penis. I suppose some atheists think that the members of the Westboro "Church" are Christians (?). Because they say so. Uh . . . no.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:53 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          No one can tell who might or might not be a Christian because it can't be done. There are scripture verses and exegetical methods to back up any position any person might take on any issue. There's no possible way to tell who is a Christian and who is isn't or whose doctrine is any bit closer to "true" or "false" because you all use the same tool: faith. And faith can be used for anything. WBC is a fine example. But faith can't determine who is right or wrong, and it gives equal power to both believers who stand diametrically opposed.

          July 17, 2013 at 1:06 am |
      • Stephen Jones

        Ken78 sorry for the repost. I'm not used to this format.

        As former Southern Baptist from East Texas I assure you I am not painting with a broad rush. Almost every Fundamentalist Christian in the US (in the Western World actually) believes in the 19th century version of the rapture. It's a basic tenant of their faith.

        And if you think the prosperity doctrine isn't a huge part of the American Christian culture you have never heard of a mega church or watched Christian broadcasting.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:21 am |
    • Greg

      Original Christianity has gone the way of the Dodo. I doubt that any of the apostles would recognize a modern Christian as a fellow believer.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
      • Ken78

        If you are going to keep using that broad brush, you're going to need a bigger canvas.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:54 am |
      • Greg

        Name one Christian denomination that behaves and believes just like NT Christians? Which Christians sell all they have and give the money to the poor? Which only meet in their humble homes?

        July 17, 2013 at 1:08 am |
        • greg

          cysin joes church on the corner

          July 17, 2013 at 1:18 am |
        • greg

          n 2010, Quantcast paid $2.4m to settle a class action lawsuit alleging it

          July 17, 2013 at 1:30 am |
  15. tony

    I don't believe in goblins, elves, etc.Nor I suspect do most grown ups. I wonder if there are six types of those not believing?

    July 17, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  16. Maya

    "Zealous Atheists resemble religious fanatics."

    July 17, 2013 at 12:40 am |
    • Greg

      Except, the most atheists do is put up billboards, which is a far cry from flying jets into office towers, or shooting doctors.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:54 am |
      • Ken78

        You mean good atheists like Stalin, Castro, Mao? Yes, just billboards.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:07 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Your god slaughtered a planet's worth of humans. He's the worst by far.

          July 17, 2013 at 1:09 am |
        • Greg

          Ken78
          Stalin, Castro, and Mao were dictators in regimes that closely resembled religions, with hard doctrines and cults of personality. They more closely resemble televangelists than free-thinking atheists. They also closely resemble Hitler, who was a Christian. Name one repressive regime that was based on promoting MORE reason and skepticism?

          July 17, 2013 at 1:16 am |
  17. sciencebetter

    I don't think these are types of atheists at all, more like stages of atheism to be more precise. As an agnostic atheist (the terms are not exclusive) I have personally taken each of those positions. But to suggests that there are types of atheism takes part of what I think it means to be an atheist: individualism. In my view, an atheist is the sole person responsible for their actions, and the sole person that has to accept that responsibility. I would argue that there are as many types of atheist as there are atheists, every one has their own take on it.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  18. Bob

    If there is a god s(he) is one uncaring deity to let so many people on this planet suffer so. Watch all the religious people line up to "explain away" suffering.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:26 am |
    • Ken78

      So what? If there is no God, just do whatever gives you the most pleasure and don't worry about anything else. You will be dead soon enough – stop wasting your very limited time on anything that does not increase your personal pleasure.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:33 am |
      • sonofkenny

        So the only reason the religious believe they need to act "morally" is not because they want to, but because they think the sky puppeteer will damn them to eternity in hell? Doesn't seem too moral to me!

        July 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
        • Ken78

          Doesn't seem moral on the basis of what morality? What is the source of your morality? And what purpose does it serve you? Just get as much fun out of life as you can before you die. Stop wasting time on nonsense like morality that does not advance your personal pleasure and may in fact impede it.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:59 am |
        • Greg

          Ken78
          Hedonism at the expense of other people doesn't make much logical sense because we depend on others to help us be happy. That's why that old chestnut doesn't make any sense. We're social beings, so only looking after number one would lead to isolation, which is against our nature. Why wouldn't we behave well towards others, then?

          July 17, 2013 at 1:22 am |
    • Ben G.

      When you say there's too much suffering this world you assume there's good. When you assume there's good, you assume there's such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral Law Giver, but that's Who you're trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there's no moral Law Giver, there's no moral law. If there's no moral law, there's no good. If there's no good, there's no evil. What is your question?"

      July 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        That is extremely poor reasoning full of nonsequiturs and assumptions. Pitiful. I hope you don't consider logic one of your strong points.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:49 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        The first claim in the argument is erroneous. An atheist doesn't say that there's too much suffering; and atheist knows why there's so much suffering. It's merely evolution and biology that makes us all uncomfortable at times and eventually kills us. Where there's too much suffering is where humans have not stepped in and helped out our fellow 'man.' WE are to blame, not god.

        And secondly, what we call "good" are merely ideas in which we place value. We just give a name to that emotional state in our minds. God is invisible and undetectable; math and chemistry are far more relevant because they are so measurable and precise and the answers emerge from reality as we test unto greater and greater accuracy. If you can't test it and show measurable improvement through verified means, you're just telling tall tales. Tall tales are fun, but they tell us about ourselves, they don't define reality or some weird magic force that nobody can ever find (sin / soul / spirit / god & etc..).

        July 17, 2013 at 12:58 am |
      • Greg

        Ben
        How can you determine that God is actually "good" without an instinctual sense of what "good" is? If you don't have an innate sense of what's good then you're basing God's goodness on his own definition of "good" according to the Bible, which is an illogical, circular argument.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:59 am |
      • Don M

        Ben G. sounds like Ravi Z. Either way, I like it.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:08 am |
      • Rational Thinker

        "Goodness" does not come from a god/gods/goddess – it comes from human empathy (which is biological). Those who lack human empathy or act without human empathy are those who are doing "bad"

        July 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  19. Skylarc

    A very famous archeologist once said, "[science] is the search for FACT, not truth. If it's truth your looking for, Dr. Tyree's Philosophy class is right down the hall".

    Theists and Atheists will never see eye to eye because we aren't even searching for the same thing.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:23 am |
    • JimK57

      You are so right and that is okay.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • Observer

      Skylarc,

      Yes. Atheists don't have to try to defend and make excuses for a Bible.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:35 am |
      • JimK57

        Yes that is true. Actually noone does.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:39 am |
      • Ken78

        No. But they have to explain why it makes sense to adopt any sort of morality. It is stupidity. If you are an atheist who is not on autopilot, the only reasonable approach is to follow the advice of that old Schlitz beer commercial and grab all the gusto you can get your hands on, and the hell with anything and anyone else. The rest is just the sentimental schmaltz of the feebleminded.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:42 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Not necessarily. We are all "particles" in an ocean called "society." Society has quite a say in the matter. You have to work, be lucky, and have great intelligence in order to have the resources to do "whatever you want."

          And many folks do just that. How many minor drug dealers are living off the government AND making plenty of cash each week? They're working the system just like everyone else, but they're pretty much doing exactly what they want to do. (I don't know if they are "happy" or not, though; that may be a different issue).

          July 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
        • Stephen Jones

          People are moral because it is an evolutionary and culturally learned imperative. Anyway morals are very subjective. I don't think it was very moral for "God" to test Isaac or Job so cruelly but most Christians think it was just hunky-dory.

          July 17, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I think we're all searching for the same thing. We want some connection. We all just want something great and wonderful to be concerned for us. A deity is perfect for projection because there's no real data to get in the way of our imagining. The great thing about god is that he can be whomever you want him to be, and he always agrees with you.

      Science simply makes accurate predictions by building more and more precise models of reality. If you need "truth" as much as I do, then work your philosophy, but by all means, don't let it work you. Ultimately, each person is his own arbiter of truth. You trust your own reasoning above anybody else's, and you decide what you will accept and what you won't and why. That's true for everyone whether or not their reasoning is that there should never be any reasoning against "faith X," or whether they are the most severe and sensitive critic.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:40 am |
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 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111
Advertisement
About this blog

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.