July 15th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Behold, the six types of atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='DanMericaCNN']

(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. Lou

    Pat Robertson tells viewers to pray over household objects in case they are possessed by demons:


    October 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm |


    October 9, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • Aunt Sid

      Scuse me while I kiss this guy...

      October 9, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Truthm0ng3r

      athiests and drug addicts have one thing in common – they are both in denial

      October 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • jo

      You probably right we seen things that you think never exist but the difference we as religious we hear the voice of God while drug addict hear the voice of evil.

      October 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
      • Lou

        Either way, you still hear imaginary voices – a mental illness.

        October 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
      • ME II

        But you don't really hear the actual voice of God, do you?

        October 9, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  3. Not an atheist

    Hypocrisy and cruelty have caused most atheists to loose their faith in gods, I've kept my faith in the gods but lost my faith in man kind.

    October 9, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      How exactly can an atheist lose their faith in god?

      October 9, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  4. Anybody

    My question is why are atheists so convinced that all forms of consciousness exist within the confines of space time?

    October 8, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Why must christians invent places for their god to exist? Every time science shows that he's not where you claim he is, you invent a new place for him to hide.

      October 9, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • ME II

      "My question is why are atheists so convinced that all forms of consciousness exist within the confines of space time?"

      First, Atheism is a single negative position on the existence of god(s), nothing else.
      Second, it is not that Atheists and others are convinced that everything that exists, exists in our space-time, but there is no evidence of any other existence. That being said, Atheists and others are open to the possibility of other universes, but to claim that you know they do exist and influence our universe is unfounded.

      October 9, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Anybody

      T13 why do you assume I'm Christian? Mx2, you are correct I do not know only strongly suspect.

      October 9, 2013 at 10:26 am |
      • tallulah13

        Quite sorry. You posed a question that implied that you were a Christian and I replied accordingly. So why the misleading question?

        October 9, 2013 at 10:43 am |
      • Anybody

        I still don't get why that question is misleading. Or why you feel I'm owed an apology.

        October 9, 2013 at 10:48 am |
      • ME II

        Asking "why atheist..." generally implies that the questioner is at least a theist and on this blog most theists are Christian, though not all.
        I suspect that the apology from tallulah13 was for presuming that you were something that perhaps you are not.

        October 9, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  5. Donald Wilton

    My question is where do I fit as a Unitarian Universalist humanist? I do go to church so the ritual atheist designation doesn't apply, as I have a use for church. In fact I pledge financial support, and involve myself with regular church activities.

    October 8, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • paul

      either you actually do, or you actually don't believe in a god or gods. If you personally do not, then you are an atheist. doesn't matter whether you go to the elks club or church. So if you are an atheist, you just happen to be correct.

      October 9, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  6. broncofanssuck

    This article completely miss the biggest atheist group "Contriarians" some people just have a inward draw to be against a big group. So people say the hate a certain movie or lifestyle just so they can be on the outside.

    October 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  7. Samele

    Activist Anti-theist with Ritual overtones, aspiring to Non-Theist.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  8. youngman

    it's just silly if you don't believe in GOD

    October 8, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • Lou

      Which god?

      October 9, 2013 at 8:18 am |
  9. Autumn

    ATTENTION: The Bible is 100% true and God's word. There IS a Heaven and Hell and the only way to Heaven is Jesus! If you reject HIM now, it will be too late when you are suffering in Hell. Don't worry about the why's and if's and how's, READ THE BIBLE and if you don't FEEL anything, then I'd give you a million bucks if I had it! EVEN THE DEMONS BELIEVE! Don't be a fool, I want to see you in Heaven, read the BIBLE now and do what it says!

    October 7, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • knowledgeistheway

      i can't hear you la la la la la.
      I'm being you whenever someone talks about evolution or science. Its time for this country to grow up.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • mrgus

      Do what the bible says? Autumn, how many people have you smited(smitten?) for not keeping the sabbath holy?

      October 8, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Charles

      Dear Autumn-Such a lovely name-,I have read the Bible from cover to cover many times and have never experienced this feeling that so many have felt.Maybe this feeling was in your mind because you want to believe so bad.After many years of trying,I mean really trying, I have concluded that people believe what they want to believe and can justify anything in their minds.No need in a million dollars, I just want the truth.

      October 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Gustavo

      Sorry but the bible is an fictional book, nothing is true.
      The bible doesn't have any more historical proof than any comic about super heroes.

      October 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Felix

      OK, I've read the Bible and didn't find it believable or feel anything–where do I collect my million bucks?

      October 9, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  10. C. P. Klapper

    Actually, even the so-called "atheists" believe that God, as the foundation of Being, exists. They prefer to muddy the waters with their confusion of this philosophical topic, instead of engaging in a coherent discussion about the nature of God, i.e. the nature of Existence. To translate their blathering into something intelligible: "atheists" are more properly called "materialists" (Alfred North Whitehead called them "scientific materialists") since they believe God is entirely material in nature. The rest of the world includes other aspects to the nature of God - Spirit, Love, Righteousness, Logic, etc. - without excluding the physical aspect or the "laws" we discover through science. As such, we are unimpressed by their limited and paltry philosophy. However, they do give an adumbration of some common fallacies which plague our social interactions. [ See my book "The Fallacies of Atheism" for a critique of the new "atheism". ]

    October 7, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
    • GrimJesta

      No. We don't. Nice strawman, chief.

      October 9, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  11. me

    Sometimes I think life would be easier if states were separated by religion. Look at Utah. You never hear of any crime or much of anything for that matter because they don't have the animosity. It's either the Mormon way or the Mormon way. I think if states were separated by religion or lack of it, much more would get accomplished than trying to silence those who speak loudest. It would be more fair and people would be generally happier instead of trying to tolerate everything and please a little of these people and and little of those people. It would be nice if the one who spoke loudest represented a majority, if not all peoples in the same demographic. Catholics could dominate an entire state and have no abortion or gay marriage. Then we wouldn't have to worry about electing a president based on state rights. Just a thought. It would be too simple to actually implement. We need to "tolerate" and "celebrate" diversity instead of embracing what we have in common and building infrastructure based on that. Yea melting pot!

    October 7, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • ErinNoone

      Maybe you should google a Utah newspaper, I can assure you they have crime and lots of it.

      October 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  12. Rob

    Mark, you make an interesting statement. I've never experienced an atheist try to convince anyone of the non-existence of a god. I have, on the other hand, experienced many religious people try to convince others their god is the only god. We humans are at the top of the evolutionary chain, for now, but we are nothing more than high functioning animals. Our purpose is, like all animals, to continue the species. I am torn about the impact of religion. For many it is a reason to live and its tenets guide one how to live a good life. For many of these people, no religion would mean no reason to live, no reason to obey laws – life would be without meaning. While religion keeps many docile, it does the opposite for others. It is the leading cause of war and hatred in the world. It's effect on people is undeniably frightening.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • Charlie

      I am confronted all the time by athiests wanting to prove there is no God... I refuse to argue with them ... but nonetheless, I have more athiests argue with me than Christians trying to convert me...( rarely happens)... all I have to say is that I don't believe in evolution and I am bombarded by athiests who assume I am their stereotyped example of a Christian... I try to decline the argument... just saying there are some athiests who are very vocal and very annoying in the way they try to push their beliefs on me ... I try to keep my beliefs to myself as it is no body elses business what I believe

      October 8, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  13. NOTA

    Only six types of atheists versus hundreds, if not thousands, of types of Christians all claiming to have the exclusive truth about god.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  14. Eric

    It is amazing how atheists point out all the evil religions have committed in the past considering the two most murderous governments humanity has ever know, Communist Russia and Communist China, were atheist dominated.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • Rob

      You can't seriously be comparing the (high) estimate of 70 million people killed by the combined Communist China and USSR regimes with the hundreds of millions of non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Protestants, etc.), including indigenous peoples throughout the world who have been killed in the name of Christianity. Even if you are, you are missing the point entirely. Communist China and USSR tried to eradicate religions from their respective atheist states. Religion, or the lack thereof, still played a role in the killing of millions. Intolerance is intolerance.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
      • Sue

        You need to learn to count. Religions have not killed 70-100 million in their histories. Atheists managed it in about 50 years. He did not mention the other atheist countries like Cambodia and such.

        October 8, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • George

      The episodes you mention were about political ideology, not atheism or religion. Religion was discouraged because it was a source of challenge to their authority.

      I challenge you to find one example of mass killing where atheists were targeting non-atheists. I can come up with lots of examples where people of one religion were targeting people with different beliefs (even within the same religion).

      October 9, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  15. mycroft

    I've been all 6 of these types of atheist at one point or another. religion is all hokum but who doesn't enjoy xmas?

    October 7, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  16. Jethro

    Wow, 6 types, the number of the Beast! Good job Dan Merica, you religious nut!

    October 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  17. The story of Jesus

    How the story of Jesus differs from the ancient myths[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88GTUXvp-50 version=3&w=640&h=390]

    October 7, 2013 at 11:26 am |

    Behold, here is the "1" Type of Real Remedy
    for "6" or "66" or "666" types of Atheism!


    October 7, 2013 at 4:43 am |
  19. Mark

    If you believe God doesn't exist, does all your effort to convince people to believe like you really matter? After you and I die, nothing happens. Science says the sun is going to engulf the Earth in a billion years. It's all going to end for everyone one way or another. Why such passion? Yet, if you believe in God, then everything does matter, in this life and the after life!

    October 6, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • Dave Green

      First of all Mark, while I'm sure you probably didn't intend to on purpose, you should understand that the statement "If you believe God does not exist," is a leading statement. It assumes there is a God to not believe in.
      Second of all, while I can only speak for myself, I'm not out to convince you of anything, but the way you trivialize life is somewhat disturbing. You seem to think that if you don't exist forever then right now ceases to matter. I disagree.
      Seeing as that right now is all there really is, it is the MOST important thing to matter.
      Right now, I exist and that has meaning to me. I'm not concerned about a billion years from now. If you choose to be concerned about it, more power to you, but this idea that for life to have meaning it must be eternal is alien to me.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:59 am |
    • senseiwest

      First off, a billion years is a very, very long time. 65 million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the earth, the continents were in unrecognizably different positions and humans beings wouldn't arise till the far distant future. You're talking about the sun swallowing the earth in a billion year (not the right time frame, btw) like its tomorrow. If you fast forwarded the time between us and the dinosaurs ten times over, you'd still have to wait 350 million years to see the sun burn out (by your numbers.) This is the problem with you churchies. No critical thinking skills.

      Secondly, no, belief in God doesn't make things matter any more or less. It just makes you feel better about things. Life has whatever meaning you give it. Since there is no god, that good feeling you get when reading the Bible actually comes from your own mind.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  20. jackkazim

    Reblogged this on The Freelance Libertarian and commented:
    For once CNN posts something good.

    October 6, 2013 at 4:52 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.