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. theemptyone1

    These researchers, sweating away in the Bible Belt, seeking to understand the non-believers ways, have come up with six categories in their need to find comfort in pegging the opposition in space. I find a bit of myself in every description. But when I do rituals they are based on my racial/ethnic culture, not based in a belief of anything, but the season of the year and the factual, celestial facts of nature. As a result, I know who I am and who my people were, and I feel connected to the universe and my land.

    June 10, 2014 at 11:53 pm |
  2. samsjmail

    I don't think there is an easter bunny, but I can't prove it.

    June 10, 2014 at 5:02 pm |
    • the1observant

      That rabbit stew sure was good. So were the eggs I found beside him.

      June 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm |
      • tesmith47

        you mean, IN HER!!

        June 11, 2014 at 1:15 am |
        • the1observant

          Nah, my Easter Bunny is a Male. See what happens is, Mrs. Easter Bunny makes the eggs and Mr. Easter Bunny delivers them. It's all in the scope of the lame gender roles we see in our society. That's another reason why I shot him... LOL

          June 24, 2014 at 6:45 pm |
  3. ruth1940

    Agnosticism implies a sense of unknowable, not just that the agnostic doesn't know. Science has figured out a lot of things that humans previously thought were unknowable, so it's probably not a good category, The atheists I know would be willing to believe if reliable evidence were presented.

    May 31, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
    • hotairace


      May 31, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
      • tesmith47

        yep , you are right.
        as a thinking agnostic , i came to the conclusion simply by looking at what we do know.

        June 1, 2014 at 12:00 am |
        • theemptyone1

          But if you were an honest agnostic you'd admit that the balance is tilted far against the likelihood of the existence of any deity. It is not such a great leap to conclude that belief in myths as facts is erroneous. See, you must realize first that the very concept of god is historically a product of human produced myth.

          For me, agnostics are at best, impish types that think they can be right no matter what, or at worst, cowards that secretly only wish to cover their A's.

          June 10, 2014 at 11:49 pm |
  4. the1observant

    Behold, the other Atheist. Introducing the Gnostic-Belief Anti-Theist (GBAT). This type views the concept of God to be the Belief itself as demonstrated by most Theists of a "Faith" (believing without material evidence). The GBAT understands it's all about an immaterial Belief, knows the Belief exists in the mind of theists, and views an "external intelligent being or force" claim to be an adolescent one; "with knowledge of Belief". The GBAT does not use the Belief system, nor finds any reason to do so. When asking a GBAT, "Do you believe in God?", the GBAT will respond with, "No, I don't believe, rather I KNOW your Belief exists, which belongs to you and not me. I have no reason to use such Belief, but even if I had decided to use a God Belief, then the chances of my Belief being the same as yours would be slim to none. But, that's not going to happen since I find such Belief to lead to blind irrational fears and loony supernatural concepts. It clouds the mind and I would recommend you to reanalyze your Belief, consider slowly removing it, and replacing it with reality instead. Have A Nice Day."

    May 27, 2014 at 10:32 am |
  5. Anonymouse

    These categorizations are biased and not definitive.

    First off, Atheism and Agnosticism are not the same thing. It's not simply that Agnostics don't know if a "God" exists or not; it's simply that they don't care. The quality of Agnosticism is indifference. They tend to be skeptical, but ultimately they find the whole debate irrelevant. Atheists, on the other hand come in many shades and there are varying types and degrees of Atheism, many not even mentioned in this article. A pure Atheist doesn't not believe in deities and considers believers irrational zealots. By nature this way of thinking is subject to the same dogma as that of believers. Falliblistic Atheists are skeptics which do not believe in deities, but consider themselves "open minded" enough to engage the posibility of a deity's existence given scientific proof. A Logical Atheist would find divine existence irrationally conceptualized and break down supporting claims to straw man arguments> There are other types of Atheists, but time is scarce, so I will focus on bashing this biased study, since the Author was clearly a theist, and an uneducated one, as the description of a "Ritual Atheist" does not even describe an Atheist, but rather anyone whom is uncommitted to any particular religion, but rejects Orthodoxy. Further, Agnostics by definition are Non-Theist, and as for Anti-Theist, well, therein is a novel concept; for Atheists are ostracized by almost every currently practiced religion, for people fear what they do not understand. Sure we will ridicule you in blogs and on the internet, for it's the only way we may have our voices heard; for Muslims have been ordered to execute us, and Christians consider us "Satanists, Pagans or Heathens" (several of which are by definition incorrect, I might add), while other religions and sects purely don't care, which is fine with us.

    February 6, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
    • Anne Keown

      "A pure Atheist doesn’t not believe in deities and considers believers irrational zealots. By nature this way of thinking is subject to the same dogma as that of believers." Really????

      February 6, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
      • Anonymouse

        Yes. If there were rational and logical proof for the existence of one or more deities a Pure Atheist would discount it because it would conflict with their direct belief in the Non Existence of any deity. This is why pigeonholing people into categories is purely pointless, for there are shades of gray in every train of thought and repercussions often not fully considered. The Theist does the same, for Theism is based on "Faith" which an Atheist would consider "Blind Trust" or ignorance. A true Orthodox Theist could not conceive of the world in any way which falls outside of their belief system. Such would be considered Heresy.

        February 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
        • Anne Keown

          You don't think it's pigeonholing when you say atheists consider believers "irrational zealots"? You make the rest of us look bad

          February 6, 2014 at 11:27 pm |
        • samsjmail

          "If there were rational and logical proof for the existence of one or more deities..."

          .....then there wouldn't be any atheists or agnostics. I don't believe because there's not a shred of evidence, logical or otherwise. Nobody just decides they will be an atheist. Unlike "faith", It's a rational decision based on logic.

          June 10, 2014 at 5:08 pm |
    • jesussavior44

      Whether there are 6 or 16 types either way you don't believe in god, when Jesus comes it will be too late for you, find Jesus pray to god even you can be saved if you truly wanted to wake up from this dream of a society, it's the devils dream

      February 13, 2014 at 11:57 am |
      • hitchslapper

        Knock, knock.
        "Who's there?"
        "It's me, Jesus. Let me in."
        "Because I am here to save you."
        "From what?"
        "From what I'm going to do to you if you don't let me in."

        May 27, 2014 at 3:10 am |
      • the1observant

        You have a Belief which rejects other "Gods". You are an atheist to those religions. Just because you hold onto to ONE version, it doesn't make you more correct than the others, nor does it make you more sane than the others. You must accept the fact than Non-Theists exist in this society without any help from your irrational Belief. You have transferred the imaginary concept of the Jesus World into your mind and are attempting to live in it while being ignorant of the real world around you.

        You are partially disconnected from reality, but you can still save yourself from this unstable condition. All you have to do is reanalyze your Belief, dissect your scripture with skepticism, deploy rational thinking, and use reason to reach a conclusion. If you can't do this, then I'm sorry for your loss of rational logic. I would have to consider you as Handicapped and apologize for any torture I may have caused upon your mental faculties. Have a nice day.

        May 27, 2014 at 11:22 am |
      • tesmith47

        hold your breath for jesus comming, I know that the great god , Cthulhu will get here first!!!!

        June 1, 2014 at 12:25 am |
    • icowrich

      "It's not simply that Agnostics don't know if a "God" exists or not; it's simply that they don't care."

      Nonsense. May agnostics care a lot. They simply don't have enough data to merit a conclusion.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:53 am |
  6. personal training long lsland

    Here's a good question if we segment the Christian religion like they did for atheists and group them up by type would they be anger.

    January 30, 2014 at 3:03 pm |
    • Anonymouse

      I can do that for you.

      The different types of Christians;
      1) The Devout: To them you are a Heretic; They want as little to do with an Atheist as an Atheist wants to do with them.
      2) Catholics (Yeah, they're Christians too). The Orthodox Sect. Indifferent to Atheists. Consider themselves Moral. Devout.
      3) The Fair Weather Faithful: Go to Church for appearances, think there is a god because parents said so.
      4) The Soccer Mom: Got knocked up, has brats, wants to bore them with morals instead of education.
      5) The Midwest Hick: Doesn't really understand Religion, but fears God (and anyone else who approaches their porch)
      6) The Snake Oil Salesman: Religion is merely a tool to fleece people of their money. Often guised as "Faith Healer."
      7) The Unelectable: they are counting on your vote. Religion is a tool to manipulate you. The pretend to be believers.
      8) The Lunatic Fringe, aka, "The Bachmann Sect." (Usually carry pitchforks and torches). If you see them gathering, Run!

      February 6, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
  7. Erik

    Well quite frankly I think that they all and were idiots. I can not understand the concept of thinking that the most marvelous and intricate creation of all time, who can also create magnificent things, just got here by mere happansatnce without a supreme creator and designer, the most high. The Bible says syats that we were created in his own image, He made us gods like him with similar powers except for the power over and the answer to death which He holds

    January 18, 2014 at 7:41 pm |
    • Fullerene

      They're all idiots? Is that so? And the bible is true because it says it's true, and that's good enough for you? So then, it was all done in 6 days, and the universe is a few thousand years old? Idiots, eh?

      How about this: We don't know what the deal is, so if we're not idiots, we recognize and admit that fact. Since you really have no idea whatsoever how we got here, is it really honest to impose your wishful thinking and prejudices as the right answer?

      January 30, 2014 at 11:59 am |
    • the1observant

      "I can not understand the concept of thinking that the most marvelous and intricate creation of all time, who can also create magnificent things, just got here by mere happansatnce without a supreme creator and designer, the most high."

      Reiterated Translation = "An idea in my head created everything before a brain existed to hold such Belief."

      Furthermore... We don't know the absolute beginning yet. We're still waiting to find out. Meanwhile, what's the purpose of using a supernatural Belief as the answer?... Is it just so you can "pretend to know"? Trying to fill in a void so your fears of the unknown will be satisfied? Why can't you settle with "I don't know"? It's no different from having an empty file cabinet waiting for material evidence. Religion is immaterial and goes in a different file cabinet. Separation is the key here.

      May 27, 2014 at 11:56 am |
    • tesmith47


      June 11, 2014 at 1:29 am |
  8. tegthesnake

    I always got a kick out of the following quote, from beloved author Douglas Adams, regarding his experience with his fellow Brits when he told them he was an atheist:

    “…People will then often say, ‘But surely it's better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I would choose not to worship him anyway.)”

    (the "just in case" POV is what is known in certain circles (mostly (1) types) as "Pascal's wager")

    (Oh, BTW...I suppose I'm a little bit of each — except, of course, #3 )

    January 14, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
  9. Bible Teacher

    The irony of this issue is that atheism and theism both involve faith—atheism in purposeless blind chance; theism in an intelligent First Cause. Unfortunately, among the things that undermine belief in God is evil perpetrated in his name, leading the conclusion that mankind would be better off without religion. But a compelling question to consider is: Is there any evidence that universal atheism would lead to a better world?

    Few would deny that religion has caused much suffering. But is God at fault? An open mind would reasonably answer 'No!' He is no more at fault than a car manufacturer would be for an accident caused by a driver using a cell phone. Mankind’s suffering has many causes, one of which is more fundamental than beliefs.

    January 11, 2014 at 9:14 am |
    • Fullerene

      Your generalization indicates that you don't understand what atheism means, which is simply not believing in god(s).

      Now, who created your creator? Or do you simply shove that question off the table? If the creator has been around forever, why can't all the matter and energy (what you like to call "creation") have always existed?

      Are you a deist, Bible Teacher? If not, then if your god exists, it has a lot to answer for. The question of suffering has caused a lot of thinking Abrahamics to leave their faith. Are you familiar with the Old Testament and all the God-sanctioned cruelty it contains?

      And guess what? Most atheists are agnostic.

      January 16, 2014 at 6:26 pm |
      • Bible Teacher

        Hi Fullerene,

        My intention wasn't to categorically generalize the atheist belief system. My understanding is as you've stated, that atheists & agnostics define themselves as such based on a disbelief either in God or in a supreme being or beings. On the whole, though, a common foundation for both atheism and agnosticism appears to be the negative impact or perception of God that you mention: that the God of the Bible is cruel and wanton with regard to human suffering.

        Although I am not atheist, I think you raise a valid point that deserves consideration. I also think it's fair to conclude that not all atheists were raised as such. Many were exposed to a form of religion and at one time believed in God. But, serious health or family problems or certain injustices they experienced weakened their faith. For others, courses taught in schools of higher learning have had a negative impact on their concept of God.

        Another fair question to ask first is: Why do we hate cruelty? Simply put, we hate cruelty because we have a sense of right and wrong. We differ greatly from animals in that respect. If we're to consider the Bible's perspective, our Creator made us “in his image.” (Genesis 1:27) What does that mean? He gave us the capacity to reflect his qualities and moral standards, his sense of right and wrong. Consider this: If we received our sense of right and wrong from God and we tend to hate cruelty, does that not suggest that God hates it too?

        The Bible confirms such logic, for in the Bible, God is quoted as assuring us: “My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) If we were to judge God to be cruel, would we not be stating the opposite—in effect saying that our ways are higher than his? It would definitely be wise to gather more facts before taking such a stand. Perhaps we should ask, not whether God is cruel, but why some of his actions may appear to be cruel.

        When we call someone cruel, we judge his motives. A cruel person is one who enjoys seeing others suffer or who is indifferent to their distress. A father who disciplines his son because he enjoys hurting his son’s feelings is cruel. But a father who disciplines his son to instruct or protect him is good. Motives are easily misunderstood, as you may have experienced if anyone has ever misjudged you.

        As you've examined the divine judgments we read about in the Bible, have you ever considered the basis for God's actions? Would you say that the facts really show that God is cruel?

        January 17, 2014 at 3:27 pm |
        • Edward

          Your whole point is moot as an atheist would never consider whether a god has a higher moral compass or thought process than we do. You cannot argue a point of divine power with an atheist as the defining moment of your thesis begins with the belief in the divine, which in all cases is immediately disregarded by an atheist.

          January 17, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
        • Bible Teacher

          Hi Edward,

          Thanks for your reply. My intention wasn’t to categorically generalize the atheist belief system, as I mentioned. My response was in direct address to Fullerene's reference. I can't assume what an atheist will regard or disregard in all cases; the fact that the article lists some atheists who "keep an open mind" is proof enough that no two atheists base their beliefs on the same factors, so I'm sure you aren't venturing to speak for other atheists either. If a person, like Fullerene, is open to honestly evaluating the concept of the concept of God as presented in the Bible, then who are either of us to decide for the other?

          The argument is a valid point for discussion for any who choose to consider it.

          January 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
        • Edward

          Once again you have predisposed the assumption that an atheist would have a discussion of the concept of god. This is just not the case. It presumes we have a concept, and therefore a belief in the idea. This is also, simply not the case. One can ponder the idea, but it is a fractured processed of determining what was in the mind of the people who originally fostered the ideas that something beyond mortality exists.. This is also, simply not the case.

          January 20, 2014 at 4:11 am |
        • Fullerene

          Whatever our sense of right and wrong come from (and societies that have no concept of anything like your god have that sense, as do secular modern societies), the God of the bible is hideously cruel. He has an ugly temperament and a hair-trigger temper. He will not aid those in crisis, even though he can. How many children must die of the horrible diseases that, according to you, he created?

          There is no evidence that our sense of morality came from any magical supernatural being, but that it evolved with humans and their civilization. Isn't it amazing what wanton cruelty religious people can perpetrate, while believing they are doing God's work?

          You start your argument with the premise that your God exists. You have no choice. There is nowhere else for you to go, since your argument is based on faith and nothing more. It's a non-starter. It's intellectually bankrupt. It's completely absurd.

          January 18, 2014 at 10:17 pm |
        • Bible Teacher

          Have you always felt this way about the God of the Bible?

          January 20, 2014 at 12:35 am |
        • Fullerene

          Why are you trying to make this about me? Rather, why don't you address the points raised? Have you actually read the bible?

          So, God created the world, but he couldn't see what a mess he was going to make — he was simply clueless? So instead of fixing the problem, he killed everything and nearly everyone. That is the act of a psychopath.

          How many more did he kill afterwards?

          He's such a petty little creature that, for the sake of a bet with Satan he tortured the hell out of Job just to prove a point? And it's all better because God gave Job a new set of kids and wife after he was done? So, the old family was dead, but who cares, because according to the OT, they were just possessions — property of the father/husband.

          Thankfully that is all a fantasy, and you don't have a shred of evidence to show otherwise. You are living a lie, but now you are so deep into that lie that you can't afford to come clean. It's a sad situation indeed. You are a mental prisoner.

          January 20, 2014 at 2:01 am |
        • Anonymouse

          A man is not defined by his motives. He is defined by his actions.
          We don't punish criminals for "Wrong Thinking," we punish them for what they have done.

          February 6, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
    • Ben

      Atheists don't blame "god" for extremists doing stupid things because it's a mythical being. I don't think there's anything wrong with belief in a higher power on its own but for some reason people find it necessary to force their belief on others and discourage or kill people who disagree. People are to blame for our problems but they should stop . using supernatural beings to justify things that clearly hurt society.

      February 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm |
    • tesmith47

      wrong, a car has no intelligence, IF there were a god he / she could take one day and tell everyone on earth at one time "hey knock it off, or i will get you!!!" that would end the debate. and get us straight.

      April 26, 2014 at 11:25 pm |
  10. KAL

    How do you explain that I am 1,2,5 and 6? Not sure why the author is categorizing in this way.

    January 9, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
    • pawpawskeptic

      Agreed, it seems all but 5. I think it should say the six aspects of atheism and that each atheist may have tendencies towards one or more.

      January 12, 2014 at 7:51 pm |
    • Stymbo

      Right on. I was wondering if anyone would bring that up. I have been 1, 2, 4 and 6 all in one afternoon. It’s kind of like in the epistemological sense you have to be agnostic, but in a empirical sense you can’t possibly believe in the magic, and being a human being, you want to tell everyone the truth as you see it. The “types” is way too much of a pigeon-holed concept to really tell much about real people.

      February 4, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
  11. Frank Sellers

    Quit trying to neatly categorize everyone and everything! This is just an effort to identify "acceptable" atheists.

    January 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
  12. Frank Sellers

    It's good to know Andy Rooney said SOMETHING that wasn't ludicrous.

    January 9, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
  13. floop

    The one type of atheist: the one that doesn't believe in a god

    any other attempt to pigeonhole people into these (not mutually exclusive at all) groups seems unnecessary.

    January 9, 2014 at 8:58 am |
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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.