July 15th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Behold, the six types of atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN
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(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. Mark


    October 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  2. RandomAnonymousPerson

    I don't know why everything has to become an argument. Seriously, I respect the beliefs of others even if I don't agree with them. I might say "I believe this or I don't believe that because..." but I would never demean or belittle someone saying like "Well you're stupid or ignorant for believing that!" To do so is rude and childish and once someone does that they've lost my respect and I pretty much stop listening to anything they have to say.
    There are plenty of religious people I know who HAVE done their research and know what science has to say, and just have a different frame of mind that allows them to believe in the unseen. I don't really see what the problem is unless they start trying to push their beliefs on people (but many of them DON'T). If someone chooses to believe in God, goes to church on Sunday and is generally a good person, and pretty much mind their own business then that's not hurting anyone. Likewise if someone doesn't believe in God and they're a generally good person, then it's not hurting anyone.
    I think we just need to stop fighting about it (because that seems to be a reason people don't like religion is because it starts fights/conflict/war) and start respecting each other as human beings and individuals instead of being petty about something that frankly just someone's own personal belief.
    (Note: I do not return to look at comments. I've said what I need to say; I have no troll food. You may talk amongst yourselves, but I won't see it. Have a great day!)

    October 6, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  3. inthebrotherhood

    religion is a bad word, that conjures up many bad actions. man has become numb to its power of control. when he said the devil has come to plant these similarities beforehand, he is correct. Satan is the ruler of this age., and he knows it, for it is already written. The demons also believe, and tremble. believing in one God, would be very difficult with a history of Gods. the sun, and the Son are not the same, but people will think that by so many years of worshipping it. Jesus, the Son of God, paid a price for our death sentence. Its up to us to find the true God of this world, if we want to have eternal life here on earth, the renewed paradise, reigning as kings and priests. If your not for Him, your against Him. If your against Him, then you accept the big bang theory and believe you are related to a distant relative of the monkey. seek His face, not religious dogma.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
  4. Xtian

    The article doesn't cover ex-Christians who recently realized their religion is just crap.

    October 5, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Nate

      That category doesn't fit at all with the author's scheme of categorization. Such an atheist would presumably fall into one of the six categories enumerated in the article.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  5. Mark


    October 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  6. Mark


    October 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  7. kamanalono

    All humans are born atheists and must be coerced into being religious.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  8. TrayvonThug

    Religion has become the largest force for division and destruction on the planet. The battles between Shiites and Sunnis will be this planet's undoing....All because humans can't deal with their upcoming death.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  9. Shawn Irwin

    The sermon was based on what he claimed was a well-known fact, that there were no Atheists in foxholes. I asked Jack what he thought of the sermon afterwards, and he said, 'There's a Chaplain who never visited the front.' [Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus, pg. 182]

    "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile." Kurt Vonnegut – Author of "The Burden of Guilt", Kurt Vonnegut wrote about and understood the causes of the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler advocated belief in god, invoked god, and even prayed in some of his speeches.

    October 5, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  10. cheryl

    i'm a combination of 2 types of Atheist. totally Ritual Atheist (i celebrate holidays that have been celebrated by humans since long before the existence of all modern religions added them to their rituals and turned them from seasonal celebrations to mystical mambo-jumbo to get Pagans to feel more comfortable with their forced conversion to monotheism. but i also am a good deal of Activist which reflects back aspects of Ritual Atheism like coloring Easter eggs red when i can find the dye. look up the pre Christian history of Easter.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  11. asdhj

    We can wait well GOD takes his huge wang out of the authors as

    October 5, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  12. Ignostic

    The category that I would fit into would be Ignostic: according to Wikipedia: Ignosticism or igtheism is the theological position that every other theological position assumes too much about the concept of God and many other theological concepts; including (but not limited to) afterlife, damnation, salvation, sin and the soul.

    Ignosticism is the view that a coherent definition of a given religious term or theological concept must be presented before the question of the existence or nature of said term can be meaningfully discussed. Furthermore, if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence or nature referred to by the term, for the given definition, is meaningless.

    October 3, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  13. Youtube - The Origin of Religion


    October 2, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • Edward

      True origin of religion = mankind's imagination.
      Get a brain.

      October 3, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
  14. IDGAF

    Footbal now that's my god

    October 1, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
  15. icdogg

    I don't know. I'm a mixture of types, I guess. In a sense you could say I'm a ritual atheist because I go to events like funerals and religious weddings and go along with everything, stand up when I'm supposed to, sit down when I'm supposed to, say the mumbo jumbo when I'm supposed to, and don't argue with people about my beliefs.

    I don't spend a lot of time arguing my lack of beliefs over the Internet. I will say that though I do not believe in the existence of any gods or in the importance of religious rituals, I do subscribe to a moral code that involves treating others the way they themselves would wish to be treated. I do not believe that "golden rule" comes from any god, it is a human creation, and a good one.

    On the other hand I don't go around telling people what they themselves should believe. And am only mildly tolerant of those who would presume to tell me what I should believe without proof. It shouldn't matter to you what I believe. If it does, that's your problem, don't make it mine.

    September 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • George

      It's not the beliefs that cause problems, it's the resulting actions. I couldn't care less what someone's religious beliefs are as long as they don't try to use them to influence public policy.

      October 1, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  16. Matt D

    The way I see it, most (prob 85%) humans have a psychological need to believe in something. It comforts them and provides structure. The other 15%, for whatever reason, are exempt from such a need, thus giving birth to the seekers and deniers (agnostics/atheists). I am an agnostic, and I think the prefix of "seeker" is accurate. I find that it takes equal faith to be a christian (theist) or an atheist...but I find it pointlessly combative to fight with people about their beliefs. That's akin to yelling at a zebra because it has stripes. Occasionally people change their minds and beliefs, but most of the time it simply leads to more feverish fighting. The WORST, IMO, are the extremists, who feel the need to kill and destroy in the name of their gods. Again, this is all a psychological effect of extreme renditions of a religion (and peer pressure) on those who are uneducated, weak, and impressionable.

    September 30, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • MasterWooten

      When you start off a discussion "the way I see it" then throw unsourced numbers out there like "85%" then all hopes for an intelligent discourse from you are lost, just saying. If you non-believers are going to try to get "intellectual" on us dumb Christians then frankly you're going to have to do a much better job than currently is the case.

      October 5, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  17. Uthor

    This sure tries to wrap it all up neatly and put a bow on it. Truth is, many of us don't hold religious beliefs, but we seldom even think about it much. This makes it seem as though atheism is some kind of cause or pursuit, but it's often not an activity. We simply don't practice a religion. It's not as though something else has to fill that space.

    September 30, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • icdogg

      Yeah, most of the time, that's about right. But some of us have families that keep trying to draw us back into the religious stuff, and we either have to go along with it or strike out against it.

      September 30, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  18. Guy

    Atheist and Theist are blinded by their beliefs. Belief and non-belief in God are both faith based. The agnostic, on the other hand, is open-minded. He or she realizes that it is impossible for humans, in their current state, to understand anything about god. Agnostics take the middle road because it is the only logical path a person can take. This middle road is that of neither belief in God nor non-belief in God. An agnostic can't believe in God because there is no way to verify his existence, and an agnostic cannot Not-believe in God because there is no way to verify that he does not exist.

    An atheist does not believe in god because there is no evidence to support his existence. However, they fail to understand that the lack of evidence for one thing is not evidence for the contrary. Atheist are close-minded, but maybe not to the extent of the Theist. Atheist argue that no evidence exist, has existed in the past, or ever will exist for God, yet ironically, they have no evidence to support that claim.

    A theist believes in god based on faith rather than evidence. The theist has never encountered anything physical that supports their belief in god. Some will claim that they have encountered god in a spiritual, mental sense, but how do they know that that feeling is god and not just emotion? Emotions are very powerful, and difficult to explain. Emotion has the power to change the truth an alter perception. Emotion makes you see what you want to see. If a theist prays for rain on Tuesday, and it rains on Tuesday, he or she will claim that it was God answering their prayer. If it doesn't rain on Tuesday, a theist will explain that it didn't rain because it wasn't God's will. The point is, a Theist is close minded and only sees things the way he or she wants to see them. It is impossible for a rational person to argue against a Theist because a Theist's belief is not based on logic.

    disclaimer: This isn't suppose to be some profound comment with the power to alter people's beliefs. Im not trying to convince people of anything other than to think. Play with the question in your mind. Is it logical to be an atheist or theist?

    September 29, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • George

      "...they fail to understand that the lack of evidence for one thing is not evidence for the contrary."

      So, then... what's your take on leprechauns? Unicorns? Odin?

      October 1, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • John Dunkelburg

        Can you prove that leprechauns or unicorns do not exist? Lack of evidence that something exists is not in and of itself evidence that something does not exist. I acknowledge that there is much I do not know, but that does not mean that what I do not yet know does not exist.

        October 5, 2013 at 7:43 am |
        • George

          That kind of thinking can be applied to anything imaginable–makes no sense to me.

          October 5, 2013 at 8:58 am |
        • scotiatom

          The ONLY difference between Jesus and Leprechauns is it is difficult to make a living off of a belief in leprechauns.

          October 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Nick

      You equate beleif with faith. An atheist can make a reasoned assessment of the likelihood of an immaterail being who can contravene known physics. Most athiest would be willing to listen to positive evidence for such a being, unfortunately there is none. Intercessory prayer is demonstrably ineffective. Just as i "beleive" that the sun will rise in the east tommorrow, i can use historical evidence, geology, physics, i.e. science to come to a "beleif" re the existence of a "god". while is is very difficult to prove a negative, at some point the absence of positive evidence can be considered when such evidence should exist. Atheists need not prove god is dead, it is the religious who need to prove he was ever alive.

      October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
      • George

        I saw this posted somewhere the other day and thought it eloquently summed up the idea of faith.

        "The level of faith involved in making any assertion is inversely proportional to the amount of evidence supporting the assertion."

        October 3, 2013 at 9:35 am |
    • SeaTurtle

      Sorry, Guy, but that's not where I'm at.

      I refuse to believe, PERIOD. If I hold an opinion, then it must be based on the knowledge, facts, evidence etc. available to me. Belief implies doubt, holding an opinion in spite of a lack of supporting knowledge, facts or evidence, and sometimes even in spite of knowledge, facts or evidence TO THE CONTRARY. I reject that mindset utterly. If my opinon is countered by new information, I have no problem changing that opinion; in fact, I welcome it. The last thing I would do is ignore information that refutes my opinion.

      Unfortunately, the nature of the human animal is that most would rather be wrong and feel good about it, than be right and feel bad about it.

      October 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  19. lol??

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    1Cr 3:19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.

    Jhn 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

    September 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • lol?? pointlessiest, Oui.

      What does this have to do with the topic? Are you ill?

      September 29, 2013 at 12:34 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.