Famous atheists and their beliefs
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.


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.

Daniel Burke

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Faith Now • Holidays • Lost faith • Nones • Spirituality • Trends • United States

soundoff (9,488 Responses)
  1. Anonymouse

    These categorizations are biased and not definitive.

    First off, Atheism and Agnosticism are not the same thing. It's not simply that Agnostics don't know if a "God" exists or not; it's simply that they don't care. The quality of Agnosticism is indifference. They tend to be skeptical, but ultimately they find the whole debate irrelevant. Atheists, on the other hand come in many shades and there are varying types and degrees of Atheism, many not even mentioned in this article. A pure Atheist doesn't not believe in deities and considers believers irrational zealots. By nature this way of thinking is subject to the same dogma as that of believers. Falliblistic Atheists are skeptics which do not believe in deities, but consider themselves "open minded" enough to engage the posibility of a deity's existence given scientific proof. A Logical Atheist would find divine existence irrationally conceptualized and break down supporting claims to straw man arguments> There are other types of Atheists, but time is scarce, so I will focus on bashing this biased study, since the Author was clearly a theist, and an uneducated one, as the description of a "Ritual Atheist" does not even describe an Atheist, but rather anyone whom is uncommitted to any particular religion, but rejects Orthodoxy. Further, Agnostics by definition are Non-Theist, and as for Anti-Theist, well, therein is a novel concept; for Atheists are ostracized by almost every currently practiced religion, for people fear what they do not understand. Sure we will ridicule you in blogs and on the internet, for it's the only way we may have our voices heard; for Muslims have been ordered to execute us, and Christians consider us "Satanists, Pagans or Heathens" (several of which are by definition incorrect, I might add), while other religions and sects purely don't care, which is fine with us.

    February 6, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
    • Anne Keown

      "A pure Atheist doesn’t not believe in deities and considers believers irrational zealots. By nature this way of thinking is subject to the same dogma as that of believers." Really????

      February 6, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
      • Anonymouse

        Yes. If there were rational and logical proof for the existence of one or more deities a Pure Atheist would discount it because it would conflict with their direct belief in the Non Existence of any deity. This is why pigeonholing people into categories is purely pointless, for there are shades of gray in every train of thought and repercussions often not fully considered. The Theist does the same, for Theism is based on "Faith" which an Atheist would consider "Blind Trust" or ignorance. A true Orthodox Theist could not conceive of the world in any way which falls outside of their belief system. Such would be considered Heresy.

        February 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
        • Anne Keown

          You don't think it's pigeonholing when you say atheists consider believers "irrational zealots"? You make the rest of us look bad

          February 6, 2014 at 11:27 pm |
    • jesussavior44

      Whether there are 6 or 16 types either way you don't believe in god, when Jesus comes it will be too late for you, find Jesus pray to god even you can be saved if you truly wanted to wake up from this dream of a society, it's the devils dream

      February 13, 2014 at 11:57 am |
  2. personal training long lsland

    Here's a good question if we segment the Christian religion like they did for atheists and group them up by type would they be anger.

    January 30, 2014 at 3:03 pm |
    • Anonymouse

      I can do that for you.

      The different types of Christians;
      1) The Devout: To them you are a Heretic; They want as little to do with an Atheist as an Atheist wants to do with them.
      2) Catholics (Yeah, they're Christians too). The Orthodox Sect. Indifferent to Atheists. Consider themselves Moral. Devout.
      3) The Fair Weather Faithful: Go to Church for appearances, think there is a god because parents said so.
      4) The Soccer Mom: Got knocked up, has brats, wants to bore them with morals instead of education.
      5) The Midwest Hick: Doesn't really understand Religion, but fears God (and anyone else who approaches their porch)
      6) The Snake Oil Salesman: Religion is merely a tool to fleece people of their money. Often guised as "Faith Healer."
      7) The Unelectable: they are counting on your vote. Religion is a tool to manipulate you. The pretend to be believers.
      8) The Lunatic Fringe, aka, "The Bachmann Sect." (Usually carry pitchforks and torches). If you see them gathering, Run!

      February 6, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
  3. Erik

    Well quite frankly I think that they all and were idiots. I can not understand the concept of thinking that the most marvelous and intricate creation of all time, who can also create magnificent things, just got here by mere happansatnce without a supreme creator and designer, the most high. The Bible says syats that we were created in his own image, He made us gods like him with similar powers except for the power over and the answer to death which He holds

    January 18, 2014 at 7:41 pm |
    • Fullerene

      They're all idiots? Is that so? And the bible is true because it says it's true, and that's good enough for you? So then, it was all done in 6 days, and the universe is a few thousand years old? Idiots, eh?

      How about this: We don't know what the deal is, so if we're not idiots, we recognize and admit that fact. Since you really have no idea whatsoever how we got here, is it really honest to impose your wishful thinking and prejudices as the right answer?

      January 30, 2014 at 11:59 am |
  4. tegthesnake

    I always got a kick out of the following quote, from beloved author Douglas Adams, regarding his experience with his fellow Brits when he told them he was an atheist:

    “…People will then often say, ‘But surely it's better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I would choose not to worship him anyway.)”

    (the "just in case" POV is what is known in certain circles (mostly (1) types) as "Pascal's wager")

    (Oh, BTW...I suppose I'm a little bit of each — except, of course, #3 )

    January 14, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
  5. Bible Teacher

    The irony of this issue is that atheism and theism both involve faith—atheism in purposeless blind chance; theism in an intelligent First Cause. Unfortunately, among the things that undermine belief in God is evil perpetrated in his name, leading the conclusion that mankind would be better off without religion. But a compelling question to consider is: Is there any evidence that universal atheism would lead to a better world?

    Few would deny that religion has caused much suffering. But is God at fault? An open mind would reasonably answer 'No!' He is no more at fault than a car manufacturer would be for an accident caused by a driver using a cell phone. Mankind’s suffering has many causes, one of which is more fundamental than beliefs.

    January 11, 2014 at 9:14 am |
    • Fullerene

      Your generalization indicates that you don't understand what atheism means, which is simply not believing in god(s).

      Now, who created your creator? Or do you simply shove that question off the table? If the creator has been around forever, why can't all the matter and energy (what you like to call "creation") have always existed?

      Are you a deist, Bible Teacher? If not, then if your god exists, it has a lot to answer for. The question of suffering has caused a lot of thinking Abrahamics to leave their faith. Are you familiar with the Old Testament and all the God-sanctioned cruelty it contains?

      And guess what? Most atheists are agnostic.

      January 16, 2014 at 6:26 pm |
      • Bible Teacher

        Hi Fullerene,

        My intention wasn't to categorically generalize the atheist belief system. My understanding is as you've stated, that atheists & agnostics define themselves as such based on a disbelief either in God or in a supreme being or beings. On the whole, though, a common foundation for both atheism and agnosticism appears to be the negative impact or perception of God that you mention: that the God of the Bible is cruel and wanton with regard to human suffering.

        Although I am not atheist, I think you raise a valid point that deserves consideration. I also think it's fair to conclude that not all atheists were raised as such. Many were exposed to a form of religion and at one time believed in God. But, serious health or family problems or certain injustices they experienced weakened their faith. For others, courses taught in schools of higher learning have had a negative impact on their concept of God.

        Another fair question to ask first is: Why do we hate cruelty? Simply put, we hate cruelty because we have a sense of right and wrong. We differ greatly from animals in that respect. If we're to consider the Bible's perspective, our Creator made us “in his image.” (Genesis 1:27) What does that mean? He gave us the capacity to reflect his qualities and moral standards, his sense of right and wrong. Consider this: If we received our sense of right and wrong from God and we tend to hate cruelty, does that not suggest that God hates it too?

        The Bible confirms such logic, for in the Bible, God is quoted as assuring us: “My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) If we were to judge God to be cruel, would we not be stating the opposite—in effect saying that our ways are higher than his? It would definitely be wise to gather more facts before taking such a stand. Perhaps we should ask, not whether God is cruel, but why some of his actions may appear to be cruel.

        When we call someone cruel, we judge his motives. A cruel person is one who enjoys seeing others suffer or who is indifferent to their distress. A father who disciplines his son because he enjoys hurting his son’s feelings is cruel. But a father who disciplines his son to instruct or protect him is good. Motives are easily misunderstood, as you may have experienced if anyone has ever misjudged you.

        As you've examined the divine judgments we read about in the Bible, have you ever considered the basis for God's actions? Would you say that the facts really show that God is cruel?

        January 17, 2014 at 3:27 pm |
        • Edward

          Your whole point is moot as an atheist would never consider whether a god has a higher moral compass or thought process than we do. You cannot argue a point of divine power with an atheist as the defining moment of your thesis begins with the belief in the divine, which in all cases is immediately disregarded by an atheist.

          January 17, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
        • Bible Teacher

          Hi Edward,

          Thanks for your reply. My intention wasn’t to categorically generalize the atheist belief system, as I mentioned. My response was in direct address to Fullerene's reference. I can't assume what an atheist will regard or disregard in all cases; the fact that the article lists some atheists who "keep an open mind" is proof enough that no two atheists base their beliefs on the same factors, so I'm sure you aren't venturing to speak for other atheists either. If a person, like Fullerene, is open to honestly evaluating the concept of the concept of God as presented in the Bible, then who are either of us to decide for the other?

          The argument is a valid point for discussion for any who choose to consider it.

          January 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
        • Edward

          Once again you have predisposed the assumption that an atheist would have a discussion of the concept of god. This is just not the case. It presumes we have a concept, and therefore a belief in the idea. This is also, simply not the case. One can ponder the idea, but it is a fractured processed of determining what was in the mind of the people who originally fostered the ideas that something beyond mortality exists.. This is also, simply not the case.

          January 20, 2014 at 4:11 am |
        • Fullerene

          Whatever our sense of right and wrong come from (and societies that have no concept of anything like your god have that sense, as do secular modern societies), the God of the bible is hideously cruel. He has an ugly temperament and a hair-trigger temper. He will not aid those in crisis, even though he can. How many children must die of the horrible diseases that, according to you, he created?

          There is no evidence that our sense of morality came from any magical supernatural being, but that it evolved with humans and their civilization. Isn't it amazing what wanton cruelty religious people can perpetrate, while believing they are doing God's work?

          You start your argument with the premise that your God exists. You have no choice. There is nowhere else for you to go, since your argument is based on faith and nothing more. It's a non-starter. It's intellectually bankrupt. It's completely absurd.

          January 18, 2014 at 10:17 pm |
        • Bible Teacher

          Have you always felt this way about the God of the Bible?

          January 20, 2014 at 12:35 am |
        • Fullerene

          Why are you trying to make this about me? Rather, why don't you address the points raised? Have you actually read the bible?

          So, God created the world, but he couldn't see what a mess he was going to make — he was simply clueless? So instead of fixing the problem, he killed everything and nearly everyone. That is the act of a psychopath.

          How many more did he kill afterwards?

          He's such a petty little creature that, for the sake of a bet with Satan he tortured the hell out of Job just to prove a point? And it's all better because God gave Job a new set of kids and wife after he was done? So, the old family was dead, but who cares, because according to the OT, they were just possessions — property of the father/husband.

          Thankfully that is all a fantasy, and you don't have a shred of evidence to show otherwise. You are living a lie, but now you are so deep into that lie that you can't afford to come clean. It's a sad situation indeed. You are a mental prisoner.

          January 20, 2014 at 2:01 am |
        • Anonymouse

          A man is not defined by his motives. He is defined by his actions.
          We don't punish criminals for "Wrong Thinking," we punish them for what they have done.

          February 6, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
    • Ben

      Atheists don't blame "god" for extremists doing stupid things because it's a mythical being. I don't think there's anything wrong with belief in a higher power on its own but for some reason people find it necessary to force their belief on others and discourage or kill people who disagree. People are to blame for our problems but they should stop . using supernatural beings to justify things that clearly hurt society.

      February 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm |
  6. KAL

    How do you explain that I am 1,2,5 and 6? Not sure why the author is categorizing in this way.

    January 9, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
    • pawpawskeptic

      Agreed, it seems all but 5. I think it should say the six aspects of atheism and that each atheist may have tendencies towards one or more.

      January 12, 2014 at 7:51 pm |
    • Stymbo

      Right on. I was wondering if anyone would bring that up. I have been 1, 2, 4 and 6 all in one afternoon. It’s kind of like in the epistemological sense you have to be agnostic, but in a empirical sense you can’t possibly believe in the magic, and being a human being, you want to tell everyone the truth as you see it. The “types” is way too much of a pigeon-holed concept to really tell much about real people.

      February 4, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
  7. Frank Sellers

    Quit trying to neatly categorize everyone and everything! This is just an effort to identify "acceptable" atheists.

    January 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
  8. Frank Sellers

    It's good to know Andy Rooney said SOMETHING that wasn't ludicrous.

    January 9, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
  9. floop

    The one type of atheist: the one that doesn't believe in a god

    any other attempt to pigeonhole people into these (not mutually exclusive at all) groups seems unnecessary.

    January 9, 2014 at 8:58 am |
  10. John G

    I wish CNN would cover Atheism more, I see the Pope almost every day. Atheism will grow as our knowledge of the universe increases.

    January 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm |
    • Chuck

      Agreed. It's a growing group, not only here but in other parts of the world as well. As usual, Europe and Australia are ahead of our curve.

      January 8, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
  11. NotYoDaddy

    How many time do I have to tell you, that you are missing the 7th?

    Bill Mahr's group.

    The Hatetheists

    January 8, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
  12. john davies

    I am most certainly number 6, but I live in the Bible belt so most discussions are futile. I celebrate Christmas because I got time off of work and got paid for it.

    January 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  13. Kate Macaulay

    I'm a little bit of most of them. But hey, let's try to classify and pigeon-hole people some more.

    January 8, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
  14. Guest

    I'm the anti-theist.

    January 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm |
    • Chuck

      i would be more outspoken too but I live in the Carolinas. First it's like talking to a brick wall. Second, Christians here can be downright mean and abusive.

      January 7, 2014 at 5:25 pm |
      • Gabriel Leal

        oh really? as if you atheists are nice. hypocrite.

        January 9, 2014 at 8:18 pm |
        • Chuck

          Well now, I suppose I could fill a volume or several with all of the wonderful things "believers" have done. Just look at the violence in the Middle East. (They are all believers and it's the same god.) Or, closer to home, there's Scott Roeder that murdered a Dr. Tiller in a Kansas church because he was an abortion provider. I'm sure he is a believer. How about that Westboro clan? I'm sure they're all "believers". History is fraught with examples of evil perpetrated by "believers".

          I suspect the percentage of truly "good" believers is no different than the percentage of "good" atheists.

          Myself, I'm retired and do volunteer work. The wife still works and has a well paying position. As such, we donate quite a bit to several non-profits (well into five-figures annually). We also run a craft side business, of which the proceeds are donated to animal rescue.

          So, what do you do for your community?

          You're statement is just about as asinine as this article, maybe more so.

          January 9, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
        • Jaden

          Save your breathe Chuck. I believe Gabriel just proved your point.

          January 10, 2014 at 11:02 am |
        • Chuck

          I know, but it frosts my chops when these so called "believes" think they are the only ones capable of being "good" when many of them are anything but.

          January 10, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  15. Kathy

    The Activist and Anti-Theist sound the same.

    The idea that a person who believes in the divine is doing so blindly is amusing. Most belief is founded in evidence.

    January 5, 2014 at 4:55 pm |
  16. James

    Why would anyone live a lifestyle, devote large amounts of time, offer huge amounts of money, to make a statement against something that they don't even believe exists in the first place?

    January 5, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
    • Chuck

      That's easy. See types #2 and #4.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:56 pm |
    • Tre

      because all it takes for bad to succeed ...and theism is bad...is for good people to do nothing.

      more than 80% of the planet beleive in theism. WE NEED people to be outspoken and active against that evil...

      ..just like we needed it during slavery and a thousand other examples.

      I hope I've answered your question

      January 8, 2014 at 11:00 am |
    • Sean

      What sort of lifestyle do you assume for atheists? Also, RELIGION exists. RELIGION is the problem, not some imaginary friend. It's the fan club that is opposed.

      January 8, 2014 at 11:20 am |
    • Anonymouse

      Probably because they are counting on your vote.

      February 6, 2014 at 10:24 pm |
  17. DogBitez

    There's hostility in this list. You can feel the vibe. The author(s) is missing the point of many atheists or nonbelievers celebrating religious holidays - it's the cultural connection. It isn't necessarily due to the "profound symbolism." It's more of a when in Rome situation. If I moved to the island of Nanoducky and every year they decorated their homes with wasp nests and fig leaves and sang songs about the little mermaid trolls who live under the river, I'd be right there celebrating with them. I'd now like to see, from these authors, a similar list of the different types of Christians that would include this same snarky categorizing.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
  18. davecu

    I'll believe what I believe and you believe what you believe.
    Don't try to change my mind and I won't try to change yours. Detente? Cool.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
    • None of yer business

      If more theists felt that way, the world would be a much better place. As it stands, given that religious folks are always trying to mould society to fit their doctrine, some of us need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that we don't stray into a theocracy, and to prevent certain things like gay people being shamed and having their civil rights curtailed.

      January 8, 2014 at 6:59 pm |
  19. Fiona

    According to this, I fall somewhere among three categories : seeker agnostic, ritual atheist, and non-theist.

    The ones are rarely as clearly drawn as this list would imply.

    January 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
    • Bill

      I saw myself in each of those three categories also. Just goes to show that you can't break everyone down to specific "types." Hard to take this list seriously.

      January 5, 2014 at 1:16 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.