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. rick

    Here is a question for any of you. Wouldn't it be better if you believe that you will live forever than to die and not know? I don't know of anyone personally who wants to die. If God does not exist, then I have lost nothing when I die, if He does exist then I have lost everything I could have had.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • nepawoods

      "if He does exist then I have lost everything I could have had" this is an unfounded assumption. Your argument is essentially Pascal's Wager, and that unfounded assumption is why it fails.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:06 am |
    • Graham

      What you're articulating is a version of Pascal's Wager, but there are three problems. Even if I accept the premise that it would be "better" to believe, there's a difference between saying it's "better" to believe and actually believing. I just don't believe. I can't force myself to because it might be "better" for me. The second problem is: believe in what? In which God? (And how – different denominations worship in very different ways.) The third problem is your assumption that, if God exists, I'll be punished in the hereafter for not believing in him. Even with Christianity there is no longer any consensus on this point and, I'd add, I personally would want nothing to do with any God who punishes people for the harmless act of disbelief.

      January 5, 2014 at 11:53 am |
  2. Captain Jack

    I believe that religion leads us away from, or distracts us from, the Universal Truth: God is Everything, and Everything is God.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:37 am |
    • Theodore Majewski

      If god is everything and everything is god, this is totally useless from a worship standpoint.
      We attempt to explain the unexplainable from a spiritual perspective.
      I think we can achieve all that is through the power of focus, the ability to convert the energy and information that is our universe to the advancement of humanity and others.

      January 6, 2014 at 7:40 am |
  3. Theodore Majewski

    Why do you call an Atheist a non believer in god, id that an Adeist?

    It ocurres to me that an Atheist is a non believer in Theism, a theory of God.

    December 20, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Uyi Iredia

    Interesting ! Someone I know lifted this article; I can't recall if he acknowledged its source or not. In any case, I don't fit in the list save for the fact that I consider myself an intellectual deist.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
  5. In home personal training long lsland

    My husband is in Group 3 Seeker-agnostic. He is confused. He is the type that needs to see the answer and touch the idea. He finds things hard to believe when he doesn't see them. He refers to religion as the oldest running game of Telephone ever played. At the same time he is not, not a believer. He believes, but he is always looking for a different answer. "Free Thinker"

    Sometimes it bothers me, But God made us all so different how can I get mad.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
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    November 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  10. elise

    wow elise, let me apologize for that jerk. he was a big atheist at one time and its roots r not all gone!

    btw, have u rebuked the asp yet? no? shucks. point being, so, u seriously might agreed to it!
    Please stop it. We know you are a Christian, and trying to use reverse psychology is unlikely to suddenly make atheists have an epiphany. Many atheists were believers at one point in their lives.

    Lying to make your point makes one look foolish. Is that the impression you were trying to make?

    November 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  11. jeff

    dear bro Burke at CNN


    what are the names, addresses and phone numbers of the medical professionals who informed you that you were otherwise normal?

    "Once or twice I've gone for medical attention and was informed that this experience is similar to what some others experience with their religions. I was informed by medical professionals that as I was otherwise normal there was nothing to be done. As this person in my mind's eye is not Allah, YHVH, Jesus, Krishna, Zeus or any sort of deity I've read up on before I never thought of him as my religion. Apparently he is. I turned to atheism for help. What I've learned is that no one is in control of my thoughts, but me so turning to anything or anyone for help is mostly pointless."

    u turned to atheism for help. to whom did u speak? they taught u not to let ur brain be controlled. and, "I've also learned that just because my friend doesn't exist doesn't mean I'm not able to enjoy his company." how do u no he doesn't exist?

    November 10, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  12. Ted

    "I was informed by medical professionals that as I was otherwise normal there was nothing to be done" as your doctor i never said that.

    November 8, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  13. Ed Kidwell

    I consider myself a cross between a ritual theist and an anti-theist. I think churches should pay taxes the same as any business(churches being professional beggers) They have been conning people for much too long. I don't think you have to join a club to be an atheist. You have the right to be an atheist as much as you have a right to be a believer in America.You either believe or you don.t. I choose the latter and expect to NOT believe freely as much as others want to believe freely.

    October 19, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  14. Bill Shakespeare

    I can't help but think this is nothing more than assimilation of the original researcher's shema on how people of any 'faith' might operate from a levantian understanding of people. Basically, pattern recognition where there may be no pattern. It's putting rather hard definitions on something that isn't a dogma – it's trying to fit the approach the religious take to the approach the non-religious take when really it's comparing apples and oranges.

    I think an entirely new schema is needed to describe the non-religious, and while this is a noble attempt at that, I feel it's ultimately superficial and doesn't reflect the reality of atheism.

    October 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  15. clay

    I am an Anti-theists in the scene that I see belief without evidence harmful. However, I do NOT view religion as ignorance. Many religious people are clearly very intelligent. I, and most of the anti-theist I know view it as people holding on to ideas that contradict reality out of a deep need for things like purpose, and certainty. They can not accept that bad things have no purpose. We can have purpose, but we must create it for ourselves by choosing to make a difference in the world. We can choose to turn bad things into motivation to do good.

    October 18, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • Edward

      clay...intelligence and the acceptance of delusional dogma are mutually inclusive and the backbone of the cults you belong to. What a coup it is for them to say, "Behold, blah blah balh," and have men and women of talent and distinction agree. Until mankind reasons through the insanity of the statements and thoughts expressed as fact, we may be doomed to destroy ourselves from secular reasoning for no other purpose than to say my side was right and your side was wrong.

      As an atheist, I do not have to participate in this type of mind game and therefore live my life in relative peace and harmony.

      I strongly hope you see reason and experience the world as it was meant to be, not under the rules of some ancient prophet.

      October 19, 2013 at 5:01 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.