July 18th, 2013
03:14 PM ET

`Six Types of Atheists' study wakes a sleeping giant

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
[twitter-follow screen_name='BurkeCNN']

(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

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Faith • Nones

soundoff (4,594 Responses)
  1. DLC53

    Here's a little interesting FACT your Ministers or Teachers have ever told you Creationist ,, but your Creator had a hand in this Life or Death FACT when it comes to Organ Donor, Blood Transfusion and EVERY Childbirth in the world.

    85% of our world population has this RH+ POSITIVE Factor in their blood type,,,, Its the RHesus Monkey Antigen/Protein, for that is the ONLY reason anyone's blood type would be either O+, A+, B+ or AB+. The (+) means your blood tested POSITIVE for the RH'esus Monkey Gene (RH+).The same breed Chimp sent up into Space by USA & Russia and is tested on by Scientist for Big Pharmaceuticals.

    15% of us test(-) NEGATIVE for the RH'esus Monkey Gene or Antigen making us either O-, A-, B- or AB- (RH-).

    The more Religious, ProWar, Anti'Choice,, the more RHesus Monkey Protein running through Ones blood stream. RH+ are the actual MISSING LINK.

    Basque make up the largest % of people that are RH-NEGATIVE.

    Karl Landsteiner (Nobel Prize Winner)

    August 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  2. JonO

    Atheism is a religion. All of your "types," except agnostics (who AREN'T atheists) have faith that there is no supreme being. They cannot prove that there isn't one, but their belief system allows no alternative. No different really than the zealous Baptist or the proselytizing Muslim.

    August 14, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • photografr7

      You're a moron. 🙂

      August 14, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • john

      Atheism is not a religion. Religion requires a belief in a supernatural being or spirit or diety. Atheism is the absense of this supernatural being. Saying that Atheism is a religion is like saying "not playing baseball" is a sport. It's like saying bald is a new color of hair.

      August 14, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
      • Kelley

        Actually, religion does not require a supernatural being. Religion is simply a common belief that binds people together. It could be argued that, in America, football is a type of religion with thousands banding together every week to worship their deities...um, I mean teams. By this logic, atheism is also a religion.

        August 16, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
        • DLC53

          Religion binds people together so they can fly planes into buildings, blow up clinics, drop bombs on another country, to enslaves millions, gas millions, treat women like livestock, etc...

          "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."Steven Weinberg

          Here's the greatest debate where the audience is allow to vote on youtube
          This was an Epic moment in our world for Free Thinkers!!!

          August 16, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
        • Graham Epp

          I would agree that religion doesn't require a supernatural being, but I would dispute football being a religion. Atheism cannot be a religion unless a belief in natural continuation accompanies it, and at this point it's no longer just atheism.

          August 20, 2013 at 12:37 am |
    • Dandintac

      I've never been able to understand the mentality of people who on one hand, think religion is a great thing, then on the other hand, they hate atheism, but yet they try to equate the two!
      There's something infantile about it. It's kind of like–"You are too, so there!!" Or, "you tattled on me, so I'm going to tattle on you!"
      Religion is an organized system of supernatural beliefs–particularly in some sort of god or gods, atheism is–precisely NOT that! Using the definition of "religion" that some theists appear to be using in their desperate attempt to equate atheism with religion, one could call all sorts of things a "religion"–like Capitalism for example.

      August 14, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
      • photografr7

        Let me make it perfectly clear to everyone:

        1. Atheism is NOT a religion.
        2. Atheists do not believe that God exists.
        3. There is no God
        4. Therefore, atheists are correct.

        August 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • tallulah13

      JonO is yet another christian who has no idea what he is talking about. Not believing in god is a fairly simple concept, but perhaps it's too complex for those who are so deeply vested in believing that they have no idea how not to believe.

      August 20, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  3. sdfgsdfgghjkgjkdfghdfgh


    August 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  4. hharri

    Six and a half. Or six and three quarters

    August 11, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  5. photografr7

    Did dinosaurs and man co-exist? Watch this and decide for yourself. I never saw it before, but I am glad I recently found it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvHII6Vv06s

    August 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
    • shawn l

      Yeah cuz dinosaurs were all over cave paintings. Fool.

      August 11, 2013 at 12:14 am |
    • chrisnfolsom

      Again, more false claim – from the video – not all. There is a great interview between Christians regarding young/old earth theories. Quite interesting http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgueGotRqbM . One guy Ken Ham who is about as literal as you can get – although does say that there is some interpretation. Goes back and forth, and as I don't believe in the Christian God it is interesting to see the struggle.

      August 11, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  6. The Tennets of Atheism

    1. There is no God.
    2. I hate him!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 10, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • photografr7

      So,we're diverse (not unified)? I get it now.

      August 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • *

      Don't bother responding to this troll. He/she posts this same thing on many of the articles and has been set straight numerous times.
      (she/he can't spell correctly either... pffft!)

      August 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
      • photografr7

        But he speaks the truth, and the truth shall not be silenced.

        August 10, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
        • Dippy

          But he should spell tenet correctly, don't you think?

          August 10, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
        • photografr7

          I don't even care if he spells God, "Gawd"

          August 10, 2013 at 5:51 pm |

    I wish I could see every atheist's face when they die and there soul is sent to hell.....morbid yes, but I just would like to see it 🙂

    August 9, 2013 at 7:25 am |
    • Saraswati

      I suspect the Christian hell holds a place for sickos who would wish for such twisted things. I know an infinite number of other possible hells sure have such a spot waiting.

      August 9, 2013 at 7:46 am |
    • photografr7

      ODD BALL - nice name by the way - I'm sure you'd like to see it. I would personally like to see pixies dancing on the head of pin, but that won't happen either.

      August 9, 2013 at 7:52 am |
      • TRuth

        WRONG# Summer of 2000, 2 drops of PurpleAcid and 12 pixies dancing on the head of..nope your rite it wasn't a pin at all!

        August 9, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • John

      Wishing torment on a fellow human being, how Christian of you. For tens of thousands of years Atheists have been persecuted for not buying into the paranormal protection racket of the time. Your group is just the latest to try and fail, which explains the paranoia. Must suck to live in fear.

      August 9, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Then pray for that, then. Supposedly, if you pray with enough faith, god will give you your desires. Enjoy the show; your god will.

      August 9, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • IslandAtheist

      When Santa Claus comes to town and does't bring you any toys, Ill be laughing at you.

      August 9, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
      • photografr7

        Actually, I've seen Santa at the maul. I even saw him grab the ass of a little girl when her mother wasn't watching. But I've never seen God.

        August 9, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Hello

      You should read the history of myth and religion and the evolution of myth in humanity.
      Then read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill on the christian myth..

      August 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
      • photografr7

        That's what the Romans used to say about Zeus and my mother used to say about the tooth fairy. I love her to death, but she was as wrong about the tooth fairy as you are about a mythical God in the Heavens.

        August 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
        • Hello

          photo.. read the book... it tells how the ROMAN Flavian family created the christian myth using the Jewish myth as its root and why.... the christian myth is a scam... a lie... a political tool just as it is used today... That is why it was created.. as a tool to control the masses using supernatural tales as its foundation... combining older myths to create a new one..

          August 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
      • Hello


        August 10, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • Revelati

      Uhm, according to everyone elses religions you are going to hell. Good thing yours is the only one that could possibly be right...

      August 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • photografr7


        August 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Hello

      the myth that there is a life after death is a old but never proven one. The older myths like Hindu, believe in reincarnation.. that you come back as another species... also not proven... humanity has created my myths with many strange ideas on how to deal with death and tie it to a consequence of how the person lived. It is not more valid than if you assumed the same for all other life on this planet.. there is no life after death... there are no gods, heavens , h3lls etc.. is all just primitive stories to feed the fear of death.. to one degree or another. Believing in a death myth or the supernatural does not make it real....fanciful stories...of the supernatural are not real... Read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill on how the Christian myth was created from the Jewish one.... myth making is a political tool to control the masses.

      August 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Dippy

      It's "their," not "there," Odd Ball.

      August 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
      • photografr7

        He's so sure he's right about God, Heaven and what happens to you when you did, but he's not quite sure how you spell "their."

        August 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • chrisnfolsom

      Just as I am sure Jesus would have said it.... idiot. The difference is I wish good will to all – and will work for it – even though I don't believe id Dog, but you do believe in him, and will ill will on others??

      August 11, 2013 at 9:24 am |
    • DLC53

      Did your God tell you he created 85% Humans from a Monkey Gene called the RH FACTOR for that is the ONLY reason anyone's blood type would be either O+, A+, B+ or AB+. The (+) means your blood tested POSITIVE for the RHesus Monkey?? This fact is extremely important when it comes to Blood Transfusions, Organ Donations and before every Child Birth.

      Did he tell you why he didn't create 97.5% of earth's water drinkable for his children too??

      August 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
      • photografr7

        i.e. salt water? Cool!

        August 16, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      I wish I could see every theist's face when they realize they're partly to blame for the creation of hell.

      August 20, 2013 at 12:49 am |
      • Tim Haley

        The churches have taught that there is a "hellfire" for centuries, but the Bible does not. Through a misrendering of the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek words, Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus, they have been rendered as "Hell" and "Hellfire" in many Bibles such as the King James Bible.(Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 2 Pet 2:4)

        The Hebrew word Sheol means the same as the Greek word Hades, with both meaning the common grave of mankind, not a place of fiery torment. The Greek word Gehenna has the meaning of everlasting destruction (Matt 5:22; 10:28), and in which a person is placed in this position by God, will never return to life, but is dead forever.

        The Greek word Tartarus is used only once in the Bible at 2 Peter 2:4, and has the meaning of an abased condition, whereby Satan and his demons are placed there, being cut off from our Creator, Jehovah God, both physically and spiritually.

        The word "hell" is actually derived from an old English word that means to "conceal". Hence, when the King James Bible was written in 1611, to "hell" potatoes was to bury them in the ground or cellar, not roast them.

        November 1, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • Now that's just stupid...

      Maybe you can sit in a circle jerk with god while you watch.

      December 12, 2013 at 6:43 pm |

    I find it quite humorous that Atheist who dont believe in anything are so on fire angry at those who do.
    stop being hateful humans........live and let live 🙂 I respect everyones right to believe in what they want but strangley enough its the atheist who get butt hurt and bent out of shape over those that do...

    August 9, 2013 at 7:17 am |
    • In Santa we trust

      I don't really care what you believe as long as you keep your religion to yourself. Many theists want their religion to be the basis of society and law and that is an imposition on those who do not subscribe to that religion. There are many christians pushing local laws that ban sharia law while at the same time pushing christian belief into law and common practice.

      August 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • John

      Butt hurt? Sure you're not thinking of the Catholic Church?

      August 9, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Just Me

      Wait a second, so you say that you want to see these people being tortured and watch the looks on their faces as they are, yet you have the audacity to call them hateful humans? Really? Projection much?

      August 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • Dandintac

      This is rich coming from a person who just said "I wish I could see every atheist's face when they die and there soul is sent to hell.....morbid yes, but I just would like to see it".

      And we're the hateful ones? This is so typical of all too many Christians.

      August 14, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
  9. doctorstrangeluv

    Blacks got what they wanted, gays got what they wanted, not its Atheists turn in line for what they want in America. You ain't seen nothing yet. Bigots will and Bible-thumpers will fondly look back at the days when when it was just Blacks and Gays wanting their rights respected in thie country.

    August 8, 2013 at 9:41 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Are you saying that black, gay atheists are finally going to get a fair shake in this nation?

      August 9, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  10. Dyslexic doG

    Yesterday morning there was a knock at my door. A pleasant and enthusiastic young couple were there.

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    Mary: "Well, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."

    Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"

    John: "In this town, Hank is the same as good luck. All good things are attributed to Hank'"

    Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."

    From the Desk of Karl
    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it plausible that it might be made of cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists don’t know everything, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind.

    from Jhuger.com

    August 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • doctorstrangeluv

      Dyslexic ... something tells me you don't date much

      August 8, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • Ben

      Omgosh, this is hilarious! I'm actually a devout Christian and just came back from serving a two year mission for my church but I can appreciate good humor. 😛 Thanks for posting!

      August 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
      • Hello

        Old Hank stories have been around for a long time.... Like IPU.... look that up on the net too. But now there is more info on Christian myth that is available.. and well.. more serious and verifiable.

        Read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill. Check out his web site and YouTube site. The video is good too. but you need to read the book.. and soon to be out The Single Strand...

        August 10, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  11. WArning Second Coming

    Google Warning Second Coming. You will find Truth

    August 6, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • midwest rail

      " You will find Truth "

      August 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  12. Stupid mods

    The main difference among the different categories of atheist, is how they deal with the abrasive, obnoxious Jesus Schmucks around them.

    August 5, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
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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.