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 • Holidays • Lost faith • Nones • Spirituality • Trends • United States

soundoff (9,518 Responses)
  1. DJ Glass

    I love you guys....feels good to not be alone.

    July 19, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  2. Joel in Richmond

    1, 2 and 4 here! I do not try to embarrass or antagonize religious people, but love to openly discuss why they believe what ever they believe. In my study of very early man it's obvious that man developed a sense of cooperation and empathy from the chimps and even earlier mammals in the lineage well before religion. I think that humans had a questioning nature, almost a scientific curiosity, that got buried and suppressed as soon as religion arose claiming to have all the divine answers. While I know that religion provides a lot of comfort to many people, it's a false comfort. Think where we might be if all the resources wasted on churches (and wars, many based on religion) could be put toward more useful projects.

    July 19, 2013 at 8:12 am |
  3. Reality


    The Twenty (or so) Worst Things GOD'S CREATURES Have Done to Each Other:

    M. White, http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (required reading)

    The Muslim Conquest of India

    "The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

    Rank …..Death Toll ..Cause …..Centuries……..(Religions/Groups involved)*

    1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and "Shintoists")

    2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

    3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

    4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

    5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

    6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of Christianity)

    7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

    8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

    9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

    10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

    11. 15 million First World War 20C (Christians vs. Christians)

    12. 15 million Conquest of the Americas 15C-19C (Christians vs. Pagans)

    13. 13 million Muslim Conquest of India 11C-18C

    14. 10 million An Lushan Revolt 8C

    15. 10 million Xin Dynasty 1C

    16. 9 million Russian Civil War 20C (Christians vs Communists)

    17. 8 million Fall of Rome 5C (Pagans vs. Christians)

    18. 8 million Congo Free State 19C-20C (Christians)

    19. 7½ million Thirty Years War 17C (Christians vs Christians)

    20. 7½ million Fall of the Yuan Dynasty 14C

    July 19, 2013 at 7:55 am |
  4. Duane

    Dear author, you missed one. Research Chogyam Trungpas' term 'non-theist'. THis applies to Buddhists who look inward at the nature of mind and the freedom found when discovered. Buddhists do not question an external God. They seek mind. Good luck.

    July 19, 2013 at 5:27 am |
  5. devin

    I've always been intrigued by the degree of animosity and visceral hate that is directed towards theists, and more specifically christians, on these forums. For the life of me, I can't understand what it is that generates such intense feelings of bitterness and malice towards those who simply believe in a deity. Granted, some christians can be hypocritical, judgmental and overly self righteous, but this is the case in any group, there will always be that small percentage that likes to stir the pot. There has got to be some other dynamic at work here which produces such ill will, but I just don't know what it could be.

    I lied. I do.

    July 18, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • Hal

      Most bullies can't understand why people dislike them.

      July 19, 2013 at 12:22 am |
      • devin

        I am not, nor ever have been a bully. How is this relevant to the discussion?

        July 19, 2013 at 12:29 am |
      • Hal

        Anyone can be a bully from time to time because most people really don't realize that they're being a bully. I'm sure that the Christians who use their faith to bully people don't see it as doing anything wrong but, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

        Believe what you like, but if you wish to use your beliefs as a grounds for your political decisions that affect us all, be prepared to have those beliefs evaluated. Fair enough?

        July 19, 2013 at 12:52 am |
        • devin

          Fair enough. We live in a pluralistic society and I accept the fact that the majority, and at times the SCOTUS, will not side with my opinions. I'm fine with that, but it does not hamper my right to voice an opinion.

          July 19, 2013 at 1:02 am |
        • Hal

          And we have a right to question that opinion, but there mere distinction that you're calling it your "opinion" and not some solid fact, that many believers like to do, probably places you outside of the type that we generally argue with most of the time. Even you would probably argue with someone who claimed something was a "fact" despite not having a shred of evidence to back up such a claim, right?

          July 19, 2013 at 2:33 am |
        • devin

          But do you not also believe, for the most part, that your opinions are fact. I would assume that is the reason you hold a particular position, because you believe it to be true.

          July 19, 2013 at 3:12 am |
        • Hal

          I try to limit my opinions to those that are based on facts, facts backed up by data and evidence. What I believe it to be true then are things that are supported by objective evidence. Simpler, more likely answers to things rather than convoluted, incredibly unlikely answers that usually open up more unanswered questions, and who wants that?

          The kinds of things that believers cite as evidence for their gods, are the exact same things that other people cite as evidence for different gods, aliens, monsters, ghosts, or dozens of other things. That leads me to believe that most, if not all of these interpretations are false.

          July 19, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • sam stone

      if those theists would keep their beliefs to themselves, there would be way less animosity. instead, they attempt to legislate their beliefs, and blather empty proxy threats about what their god will do to us....blah, blah, fvcking blah

      July 19, 2013 at 12:11 am |
      • devin

        It's a two way street. As an atheist (I'll assume that's your position) you have your own set of beliefs and in turn would promote legislation based on your particular bent. We are no different, our moral code is the only variable. As for threats of divine retribution, I myself or any of those in my "circle" don't engage in such silliness, neither are we responsible for the loose canon, Pat Robertson types that do.

        July 19, 2013 at 12:27 am |
        • sam stone

          fair enough. the "loose cannon" types are the ones who seem be prevalent on these boards

          July 19, 2013 at 12:42 am |
        • sam stone

          the legislation i would support does not deny others their civil rights. the same could not be said about many christians (i.e. gays having equal rights regarding marriage)

          July 19, 2013 at 12:55 am |
        • devin


          I understand your point, I would just disagree with the premise. That's a whole other can of worms we probably shouldn't open.

          July 19, 2013 at 1:08 am |
        • skytag

          The atheist "bent" is based on logic, reason, and evidence. As a believer you're more than welcome to argue policy positions based on these principles. The believer's "bent" revolves around beliefs for which he can produce no evidence whatsoever.

          Suppose I said I believe Santa Claus is real, and that the reason we see no evidence of him is that he's unhappy with us because too few of us have chimneys. On the basis of this argument I propose legislation requiring all homes to have chimneys.

          I'm sure this sounds silly to you, because you don't believe Santa Claus is real, nor do you believe my claims about his unhappiness over the lack of chimney's has any basis in reality, so I feel confident in assuming you would oppose my proposal to require everyone to have a chimney.

          July 19, 2013 at 2:34 am |
        • devin


          I had considered responding to your assertion, but then realized that "another idiotic post by devin" would be of no interest to you.

          July 19, 2013 at 3:07 am |
        • skytag

          devin: "I had considered responding to your assertion, but then realized that "another idiotic post by devin" would be of no interest to you."

          True. If that's all you have then it's better to not respond, and apparently you decided that's all you had.

          July 19, 2013 at 4:24 am |
        • sam stone

          i am curious about what premise you speak of?

          citizens deserving equal rights?

          marriage is a civil right?

          July 19, 2013 at 6:25 am |
        • sam stone

          Denying others their civil rights is the action of a bigot. Using a religious text to do so is the sign of a pious bigot

          July 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
      • Benny

        When it comes to defending our various positions, we atheists can typically point to sound reasons and common sense, whereas believers usually resort to emotional pleas to win their arguments. That's very often comes down to debates being won by religious folks not because they have the better, more logical arguments, but because they can charm an audience with their speaking skills, and that ain't the way it ought to be if we want good decision-making.

        July 19, 2013 at 12:45 am |
        • devin

          " charm an audience with their speaking skills" I have yet to hear anyone more adept at this than Christopher Hitchens. I think on a good night he could have had the Pope second guessing.

          July 19, 2013 at 12:57 am |
        • sam stone

          devin: have you ever heard mike murdock? he charms the money out of people even when it is an obvious (to me) scam. i am about halfway between despising him because of his duplicity and (from a libertarian viewpoint) admiring him for fleecing the sheep (after all, that is what sheep are for)

          July 19, 2013 at 1:01 am |
        • devin

          No, but I imagine he is just a clone of the 99% of tv preachers/charlatans I see that usually send me into gastric convulsions.

          July 19, 2013 at 1:06 am |
        • Benny

          As good as he was, Hitchens was no scientist. All I'm saying is that, in debates between scientists and religious leaders, even Richard Dawkins's skills are usually out-shinned. Where scientists are trained to present their arguments usually in written form, to be evaluated by peers who have a close knowledge of their field and work, pastors are trained to persuade orally using appeals to emotion, right? Being personable and charming are valued in pastors, but not a big part in being an effective scientist.

          So, given an average audience it's the pastor who has the clear advantage in communicating with people in a debate in much the same way that a skilled lawyer can make even the most damning evidence look bad if they can make the testifying expert stumble while presenting it. Con men also share this skill, the ability to charm people into putting aside their better judgment and common sense, wouldn't you say?

          July 19, 2013 at 1:22 am |
        • devin

          That's a very interesting perspective and one which I would have never thought your side would hold. Given the fact that those in the scientific community usually have the greater intellectual prowess, I just assumed you would conclude they would have the upper hand in the debate arena.

          July 19, 2013 at 1:33 am |
        • Benny

          As sad as it may sound, the stereotype of the inarticulate genius is not even a partial fiction. "Giftedness" comes in may forms, and often those who are gifted in the maths and sciences are not also gifted in interpersonal communications and interactions. Some of our most brilliant scientists (and others) are actually somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

          On the Christian side, someone like William Lane Craig may be effective in the structured debate format, but take him out of his element and how well would he do in an informal debate where he doesn't have the luxury of having the uninterrupted time to set up his arguments? I suspect that thinking on his feet isn't his strong suit. On the other side of the coin, there are doubtless many Christian apologists who do better in the informal debate format, where they can play to the audience better. They may have difficulty the other way round, or trying to write a book of their arguments, something that many scientists would be far better at doing.

          All I'm saying is that you can sometimes be carried away by a person's talking skills, and be "sold" an idea that wouldn't hold up if you double-checked what they said later on, right? That's how con men operate.

          July 19, 2013 at 2:28 am |
        • devin

          I agree with your line of reasoning, I just don't think you can isolate it and apply it to just one side.

          July 19, 2013 at 3:16 am |
        • Benny

          I didn't think that I was applying it to just one side. In my previous post I made it clear that preachers and scientists often have different strengths, didn't I?

          July 19, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • The Church Lady

      Hmmm...now let's see...what could you possibly be talking about...could it be...oh, I don't know...SATAN?

      July 18, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
      • devin

        Nope, but good guess.

        July 19, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • skytag

      Seems dishonest to pretend you don't know the reason. The reason is obvious, or I should say the reasons are obvious.

      July 19, 2013 at 2:58 am |
    • silvawebdev

      "I've always been intrigued by the degree of animosity and visceral hate that is directed towards theists"
      1. I find online responses the opposite, in that theists generally are more vocal, an respond not with an actual statement, or argument, but with insults and taunts – not where near those attached to guns and such, but still quite negative – as I am sure Jesus would have done if there were blogs 2000 years ago.

      "For the life of me, I can't understand what it is that generates such intense feelings of bitterness and malice towards those who simply believe in a deity"
      2. I and many lost souls had and have little problems with theists until they start to try and run a government using it, rewriting history, and creating a climate in which you are either with us or against us – the dreaded righteous moral litmus test for legislators which has hobbled our current government.

      "Granted, some Christians can be hypocritical, judgmental and overly self righteous, but this is the case in any group, there will always be that small percentage that likes to stir the pot."
      3. I have met many religious people who are fully rational, religion is part of their life, their personal life, and they don't go overboard with all the righteousness and treat the bible as a book that was put together by humans of many very good stories and parables. Unfortunately today's mega-church going American Christians are all about hypocrisy as they profess freedom, but only the kind they like, they profess believing and following Jesus, but believe in the death penalty, judging others, and their own personal wealth over others, and for charity only if it does not inconvenience themselves.

      "There has got to be some other dynamic at work here which produces such ill will, but I just don't now what it could be."
      4. Self loathing that causes you to feel paranoid about others especially when you cannot defend yourself along with the FUD spread by all you oppressed theists out there.

      July 19, 2013 at 5:17 am |
    • onecanaweek

      Think about tribalism. That is the source.

      July 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  6. skytag

    Perhaps the best evidence against God, especially the Christian God existing is the human race. Supposedly we were made by this all powerful, perfect being in his image (whatever that's supposed to mean exactly). If so, why do humans suffer from so many flaws?

    Why do we have not only sociopaths, but so many people willing to follow them? Hitler didn't kill anyone in WWII, it was millions of his followers who killed tens of millions of other human beings, and most of his followers were Christians. Why would millions of beings created in the image of a perfect god be willing to follow a sociopathic, genocidal maniac and do his bidding?

    If God did such a great job when he created the human race in Adam and Eve, why did he become so disgusted with the result at one point he wiped out all but eight of them with a flood to start over almost from scratch? How could he experience such a massive failure in creating what should have been his greatest creation?

    It's estimated a third of all pregnancies end in miscarriages. (10-20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriages, and many more end in miscarriage before the woman realizes she's pregnant.) Anti-abortion believers tell us all life is sacred, even the unborn, yet their God does nothing while millions of those supposedly sacred unborn die annually in this country. If all those zygotes, embryos and fetuses were defective in some way it would mean the human reproductive system God invented is horribly flawed, as that's a very high failure rate. If they die for no reason at all, what does that say about how much value God places on the unborn? If they aren't defective is says that the female reproductive system arbitrarily kills millions of perfectly fine zygotes, embryos, and fetuses every year in this country. Is that the best a perfect, all powerful God could do?

    Why are humans so incapable of understanding even the most basic aspects of God? Over the millennia humans have been incapable of agreeing on any aspect of God's nature. They couldn't even agree on whether there was one God or multiple gods. Many cultures have embraced religions based on multiple gods. Even Christians agree on very, very little about God. If, as Christians would have us believe, God is "always with us," answers our prayers, and reveals things to us through "the Spirit," why does history show us humans have been wholly incapable of agreeing on any aspect of this God's nature whatsoever?

    Believers always manage to rationalize why these facts aren't inconsistent with their belief in God with explanations based on no more facts or evidence than anything else they believe. It seems to me the obvious explanation is the simplest one: There is no God.

    July 18, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  7. Aislinn

    Atheism means you don't believe in God(s). There is nothing to be proud of – it just is. All of you come on here and comment about and proclaim you are an Atheist like it is a religion. You defend your position too. Why? It's simple – I'm an atheist. I don't need to proclaim or defend it or be proud of it. It just is. Everyone has the right to believe as they wish! If someone believes there is a God, they are not ignorant as militant Athiests are saying. Some of you sound as bad as religious fanatics. Religion isn't the world's problem. People who think everyone should believe as they do are the world's problem!

    July 18, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Benny

      Some Christians really hurt people with their judgmental att itude. Are we just supposed to keep quiet when we see such abuse?

      July 19, 2013 at 12:27 am |
    • mzh

      @ "People who think everyone should believe as they do are the world's problem!"

      In my opinion, people should be helpful to each other to find out the truth... for example, when someone goes and believes that a piece of mater or mud or anything else shaped in a way by other human and go ask a favor to this objects... where these objects has no power to move themselves or they can't save themselves if someone attempts to break it... this can't be truth.... sometimes we find the truth or discover something which perhaps never thought about it by talking to someone...

      Quran also teaches that advice each other nicely when it comes to advice and in a best way... (chapter-103)...

      peace be upon all of u...

      July 19, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • Emily

      I couldn't agree more. I know wonderful christian people who make me want to be a better person. They are the true definition of what a christian is supposed to be. I've also met christians that are everything people dislike and criticize about the religion. The same goes for other religious and non-religious peoples. There is a difference in being open in your beliefs and being comfortable with them and feeling the need to make sure everyone else just knows, really knows why you're right and they're wrong and "let me tell you why". All sides have extremes.

      July 19, 2013 at 6:20 am |
      • mzh

        Every religion has good and bad ppl... i do not judge a religion by seeing ppl but the message which is very important... you have to figure out the truth... i am a good person that you can trust on and i say this is better for you... i don't think you should accept me but you should use your intellects and then see which one make sense and then go for it...

        July 19, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  8. Brian

    Wait, we have fundamentally the same beliefs but, we slightly differ in the most trivial way? Let's start a war over it!

    July 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
  9. faith


    I broke a finger nail this morning. do u think gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwd is smart? huh? r u insane?

    July 18, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  10. faith


    July 18, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      This should be interesting faith Vs. mzh

      July 18, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
      • Akira

        mzh is at least coherent.

        Hey, I noticed you haven't made it on faith's List-O-Love, yet. Try harder, Ken.

        July 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
        • Ken Margo

          Oh trust me I am.

          July 18, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
        • mzh

          Thanks Akira...

          July 19, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • mzh

      Allah does not burdens a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned. – Al Quran 2:286

      July 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  11. faith


    July 18, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  12. faith


    July 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Well since you're made up. Not really.

      July 18, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  13. faith


    July 18, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Ken Margo


      July 18, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      I have to be like Dippy..................You mean know not no.

      July 18, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • Austin

      don't tell me.

      July 18, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  14. faith


    July 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Some of the people that were vaporized at the twin towers on 9/11 had faith also. How did it work out for them?

      July 18, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
      • mzh

        what about those kids got killed in Elementary school massacre in Connecticut ?

        July 18, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
        • Ken Margo

          I'm sure the parents had faith. What about the victims of suicide bombings? I'm sure they had faith also.

          July 18, 2013 at 8:41 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.