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. 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 |
  2. 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 |
  3. 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 |
  4. 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 |
  5. 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 |
  6. 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 |
  7. 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 |
  8. 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 |
    • Chuck

      Sounds like fun!

      January 5, 2014 at 1:52 pm |
  9. 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 |
  10. 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 |
  11. tallulah13

    As far as I can tell, there is one type of atheist: The kind that doesn't believe that god/gods exist.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:59 am |
  12. jim

    I am sick of atheists and agnostics being lumped together as if we are the same. We are not! An atheist will say, unequivocally there is no god. An agnostic will say I don't have any reason or evidence to believe there is a god. Theists and atheists are similar in that both makes claims that are not provable (or disposable).

    January 5, 2014 at 11:54 am |
    • jim


      January 5, 2014 at 11:55 am |
    • UncleM

      The burden of proof is with the theist.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm |
    • nepawoods

      To put it in perspective, atheists are similar to those who would say unicorns, leprechauns, etc. don't exist. You can't prove they don't.

      It's reasonable to say something doesn't exist if there is zero evidence of its existence. Once you get into things that may exist with zero evidence, invisible deities, leprechauns, unicorns, werewolves, etc. are all on the same footing. The vast majority of theists, atheists and agnostics would say that invisible leprechauns, unicorns, werewolves, etc do not exist.

      January 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm |
  13. jack

    "We are all atheists; some just believe in one fewer god than others."

    January 5, 2014 at 11:43 am |
  14. Virginia

    Don't know where I fit in the six categories, but I believe religion is used to control the masses. I stopped going to church when I figured it out, but don't argue with anyone if they are ignorant enough to believe. It is amusing to me to see how many ministers children take up the ministry when they see how easily their parents slide through life being taken care of by the congregation as if they were queen bees. Never having to work or getting their hands dirty doing manual labor.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:30 am |
  15. Chuck

    Interesting but perplexing. Depending on the day and my mood, I can fit in 5 of the 6 categories listed. (Agnostic is not atheist.)

    Either I'm in a 7th category (6th really) or this study is a lot of nonsense.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:28 am |
  16. t_wicker

    You are trying to mix apples and oranges here. This study poorly defines atheism, which has led to a classification error.

    Atheism is a philosophical view and the relevant observation of that process is in the understanding of what atheism is and how to utilize that view to the best advantage. The focus of the observation should be on the subject's intellect and their understanding of it, not on their ancillary activities.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:19 am |
  17. orangeboy

    There's a new app that might be of interest to all six types, and religious people as well. It helps explore the question of "Does God Exist?" It can be useful for guiding group discussions or thinking about issues like the existence of evil and fine tuning.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:12 am |
  18. Amy

    Religious fanatics get so bent out of shape because people believe they control themselves and there is no puppet-master (god) pulling the strings.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:01 am |
  19. James

    My atheism is a by-product of a larger (and more important) philosophy. One of evidence and reason...

    We should cultivate a society where people demand evidence and make evidence-based decisions. We should emphasize and value reason..all this focus on "not believing in God" must never be an end unto itself...

    January 5, 2014 at 10:56 am |
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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.