July 18th, 2013
03:14 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - They were trying to prove a simple point: That nonbelievers are a bigger and more diverse group than previously imagined.
"We sort of woke a sleeping giant," says Christopher F. Silver, a researcher at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "We're a bit overwhelmed actually."
Silver and his project manager, Thomas Coleman, recently released a study proposing six different types of nonbelievers – from strident atheists to people who observe religious rituals while doubting the divine.
The study clearly struck a chord, particularly among triumphal atheists and uneasy believers. Articles appeared in in Polish, German, Russian and Portuguese, Silver said.
Here on CNN.com, our story "Behold, the Six Types of Atheists" garnered about 3.14 gazillion hits and thousands of comments.
Half the fun seemed to lie in atheists applying the categories to themselves, kind of like a personality test.
"I guess I'm a 1-2-4 atheist," ran a typical comment.
Other commenters questioned the study's categories, methods, and even the religious beliefs of its authors.
Silver and Coleman agreed to answer our readers' questions via email from Tennessee. Some of their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Several readers asked how you came up with your six categories of atheists?
A: In a sense we let the participants inform our theory.
The categories were devised from a series of 59 interviews conducted with people nationwide who don’t believe in God. Participants were asked to define various terms of nonbelief as well as their own religious views.
We also asked participants to tell us their stories and how their religious views have changed over time. We found the most commonly repeated stories and descriptions and formed them into types.
We then used those types in the survey portion of the project. Each of the six categories proved to be statistically unique in a wide array of psychological measures.
Q: @PaulTK asks: Are atheists limited to the six categories your study proposes?
A: We suspect that further research exploring people who don't believe in God will certainly expand the number of categories and fill in more details about the six we've named.
For example, we found that the Intellectual Academic Atheist type may produce a 7th type reflecting those who are more "philosophically orientated" versus those who are more "scientifically orientated."
Our study also gives some evidence that individuals may not believe in God but still identify with religion or spirituality in some way.
Q: @JessBertapelle asks: Can people fit into more than one category?
A: The typology of nonbelief is fluid. Based on our interviews, we suspect people transverse the various types over the course of their lives. Since we did not conduct a longitudinal design (a study conducted over time tracking the same people) we are unable to validate this assumption.
For those of you who found yourselves agreeing with multiple positions, you may find characteristics that you identify with in all types but there is likely one type which is your preference.
Q: @Melissa asks: Why isn't there a category for "closet atheists"?
A: This is an excellent question. Many of our interviews were done in strict confidence where the participant’s own parents, spouses, or children had no idea they were participating in the study. One participant hid in the back of her closet because she did not want her parents to discover she is an atheist.
But while there were plenty of “closeted” participants, they didn't agree in how they describe their religious views. That is, they ranged across a variety of our six types.
Q: stew4248 asks: How is this any different than religious divisiveness?
A: There is vast diversity among religious believers, but it's unclear if such diversity exists within nonbelief.
We do know that the Antitheist category has much in common with religious fundamentalism. Likewise the Intellectual atheism/Agnosticism type has a lot in common with intellectual theology, although they are clearly not the same.
Q: How did you find the participants for the study?
Participants were recruited through nonbelief communities across the country. They were recruited face-to-face, through snowball sampling (participants sharing the study with friends), and through the Internet.
Project manager Thomas J. Coleman III is well known in the atheist community because he is suing the Hamilton County (Tennessee) Commission for their involvement in divisive sectarian prayer at meetings. His reputation helped locate “closeted” atheists to participate.
The regional breakdown of participants is presented on the project website.
Q: A number of readers have also asked about your own religious affiliations, if you don't mind.
Christopher F. Silver answers:
I was born and raised in the rural South to a deeply religious Methodist family. In my hometown everyone was Christian. As was the case for many in our study, during college I was introduced to people from different cultures and ideologies. I was interested in studying different faith traditions and why people believe.
In many respects, research for this was a selfish enterprise for me. There is nothing more transformative than sitting with someone as they share their life story with you. Today I consider myself an agnostic in the real philosophical sense. The more I learn, the more I recognize the extensiveness of my ignorance.
Thomas J Coleman III answers:
My mother has been active in the Methodist church as a choir member and pianist for most of her life. My grandparents were very active in the church and went every Sunday. Growing up, I would often go as well.
But for me, “religion” was always something that other people did. I prefer to identify as a secular humanist.
Silver and Coleman would like to point out that their study was supported and conducted in collaboration with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Psychology and the Doctorate in Learning and Leadership.
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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.