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. lol??

    Do alien-atheists get citizenship when they arrive at intellectual??

    July 15, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
    • pookergirl

      my husband is an ancient alien believer, so there really should be a 7th group...

      July 15, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
      • lol??

        And he's tired and wants a rest??

        July 15, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  2. thegadfly

    There are two kinds of people: Those who try to categorize and classify everyone, and those who have better things to do with their time.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
    • lol??

      Evil divides by 2 infinitely, well almost, 6 of one and half a dozen of another.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • tallulah13

      No kidding.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  3. Michael

    To the CNN Editors:

    I'm none of the above. I'm an apatheist, meaning that I just don't care if there are gods or not. You tried to cover that with the "non-theist" label, but the problem is that I'm a Buddhist and you said non-theists don't care about/involve themselves in religion, and that just isn't true for many folks. It is admirable that you pointed out there are many different perspectives among atheistic thinkers, but your own perspective is still too limited and you're pigeonholing people.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  4. trueindifference

    What if god is a non-humanist?

    July 15, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  5. trueindifference

    Does God exist? meh

    July 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Precisely, who gives a rat's tail? Except for the fact that religious folks ram their beliefs down our throats by passing laws forcing good and decent people like me to obey their religious laws masquerading as civil laws.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
      • JimK57

        Could you post a few of those laws so I read them. Thanks.

        July 15, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
        • MikeFright

          Another is the prohibition of assisted suicide. The conservative position on this issue should be for governments to mind their own business. After all, to whom does anyone's life belong if not to him/her? The only reason I know for governments to impose barriers to assisted suicide for folks with chronic, incurable afflictions is to support religious views that suffering is sanctified by the almighty and that he owns everyone's life.

          July 15, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        They just passed one in Texas last week.

        July 15, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
        • JimK57

          I am religious and I am pro-choice. So agree with you on that one.

          July 15, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  6. Gscottmcg

    Anti-Theist but less vocal about it. I run an Atheist Facebook page called The Atheist Revelations.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  7. Peteyroo

    I guess I'm a 4. I can't understand how people can believe in utter nonsense, whether it's unicorns, leprechauns, God, Jesus, or the Easter Bunny. It makes me wonder what other ridiculous things they believe.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • lol??

      Somebody in bin 3 says she thinks yer a 10. She wanted me to pass the message to you.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
      • Peteyroo

        Looly, thanks for passing on the message. She seems shy but obvious a fine judge of character.

        July 15, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
    • sjc1007

      I guess it has something to do with the historical evidence regarding the life of Christ and His resurrection from the dead along with the blood of the martyrs who were eyewitnesses to the event which is the foundation upon which the church was built. Just saying.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        Where is the historical evidence of which you speak?

        July 15, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • JB

      It is easy to say someone else's beliefs are nonsense. It is more difficult to explain your beliefs. How would you explain the existence of the world and animals that are very different (snail, giraffe), the different planets, and the rest of our universe? I would be willing to bet that your explanation takes more "faith" to believe in than believing that God created everything. I bet this simply because I have never heard an explanation that seemed more likely than a creator/creation model. I would love to hear your beliefs if you are willing to share.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
      • tallulah13

        JB, you may be content to say "god did it" rather than make the effort to learn current scientific theory, but your lack of curiosity and comprehension is not proof of god. It's just proof that you are not interested in learning

        July 15, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Do you have actual documentation, sjc1007? You can't use the bible: No one actually knows who wrote it, and there's no non-biblical, contemporary sources to support any of it's supernatural claims. In fact, a major chunk of the bible, the exodus from Egypt, has been shown to have no factual basis at all.

      All you have is hearsay, and ancient hearsay liberally laced with mythology at that. If you choose to put your faith in something so dubious, it is certainly your option. But don't claim to have evidence when all you have is your own wish to believe.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  8. lol??

    Nah, there are 666 types.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
    • What is going on? FREEDOM

      Yeah that would be you obviously. Everyone knows that.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  9. zekes

    What is it with CNN and their obsession with writing about Atheists? I don't get it. So Atheists don't believe in God. So what? Good for them. I wish them the best in their non-after life, or what ever it is they don't believe in.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • Danny-Boy

      Probably because when they do, they get a high number of hits and comments in the soundoff section.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Zero, don't be foolish. There is no afterlife for anyone regardless of belief or disbelief. Unless, of course, you mean being food for the worms.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
      • zekes

        Poorboy. Thats exactly what I meant. No after life, and we can all be miserable together.

        July 15, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
        • Johnny

          I'm not miserable so you will just have to get by with being miserable by yourself.

          July 16, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • kev

      and we wish you the best as you prepare for your after-life... that's going to happen, right?

      July 15, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  10. JLS639

    Anti-theist is what I think. Non-theist is how I act. The former does not work well in society and is too much like the more annoying kinds of theists.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
  11. Alex

    I'm an atheist and will try to explain to people why I am, and I hope more people will convert.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • james


      July 15, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • james

      I guess he was only kidding or does not really know.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Tom

    Seeker-agnostic isn't a atheist dumdass!! They are agnostic...duh!

    July 15, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Why is that distinction important to you?

      July 15, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  13. PleaseDontLabelMe

    Hey CNN, please don't try to cookie cutter atheists like you and the rest of the media does with everyone.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
    • rickharrison

      I'm glad other people realize this. It's a much more complex issue than 'what type are you'

      July 15, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  14. Intergalactic Pimp

    I guess if I had to label myself I'd be a non-theist. I act as if the concept of god doesn't even exist. Out of sight, out of mind.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
  15. Mark Carroll

    If there is a just God, he will be so impressed at athiests who led a good life. Only a petty God would damn a good person to Hell based on what they believed (as opposed to their actions). Also, believing isn't always a voluntary thing. I can't make myself believe something that I don't.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      If there is a just God, he will be so impressed at athiests who led a good life.

      Which incidentally is what the Pope said.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • sjc1007

      Only one problem with the good person theory and that is the scripture says that there is "none good, no not one for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." That is why Christ came to die for the sin so that those who believe in Him may have eternal life and not be condemned. The Bible says that He came to those who were already condemned that they might have eternal life. Just saying.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
      • Johnny

        Which makes the god of the bible unjust, and one of the reasons I don't believe the god of the bible exists. There could be a god out there somewhere but it is not the Christian god.

        July 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • liveinpeace7

      Excellent, Mark. And Bravo to the new pope...

      July 15, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  16. Archer

    Most definitely a non-theist. I am entirely indifferent to both organized atheism and organized theism. In fact, I find both equally obnoxious.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Athy

      What is organized atheism?

      July 15, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        American Atheists

        July 15, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • Johnny Noir

      I for one am a disorganized atheist. No associations and a messy desk.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • Athy

      Organizations are generally formed to promote something. Atheism doesn't promote anything. We simply don't believe in a supreme being. No organized anything. Why is that simple concept so damn difficult to understand? You can't possibly be that stupid.

      July 15, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  17. Danny-Boy

    I would say I'm a mix of 5 and 1, but mostly a 5. I've also come up with more atheist types. One I call pwnage atheism, people who are only interested in reciting clever, yet meaningless quips to get one over on theists. The other is short-bus atheism. I give these people a lot of credit, they really put themselves out there. But despite their efforts, they only set the atheist movement back.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  18. lol??

    "..............Are you an atheist? Tell us what kind in the comments below..................."
    Nope, and coming up with 32 types in 30 years isn't intellectual, it's copycattin' prophesying.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • Candiano

      Then GTFOH.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
  19. Sondra Ickes

    As an atheist I find the six categories interesting, but are not valid for any real understanding of the complex relationship most of us have with religion and how its practice affects our lives daily. If I tried to classify myself, I would fall into several of the six categories. I enjoy the study and discussion of it, I am strongly opposed to any form of organized religion and become very angry if anyone tries to deny my right to non-believe. But then I enjoy the tradition holidays because they are part of our culture and are a time to love and family.

    July 15, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      As do most of us.

      The purpose of creating these labels seems to be an effort to prove that not all atheists are militant religion-haters (the anti-theists) the way the religious right likes to characterize atheists.

      The study demonstrates that about 15% of the non-believers surveyed were anti-theist.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • devin

      " very angry if anyone denies my right to non-believe". As a theist, having many other friends and acquaintances who are also theists, I have never known anyone who is interested in denying another their right to "non-believe".

      July 15, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
      • Candiano

        Then you've obviously don't run in the same circles as the people that confronted Sondra, hmmmmmmmm?

        July 15, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
        • devin

          Or more likely, Sondra is prone to hyperbole.

          July 15, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
        • Johnny Noir

          Oh no, you are totally full of it, devin. If Christians find out I am an atheist, they become mildly hostile or cold, attack me on it when they have an audience, and the absolute worst of all, they secretly try to convert my children and tell them my beliefs are evil and I'm going to hell. All that has happened repeatedly to me.

          You may not do it, but other Christians absolutely do.

          July 15, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Yep. Thanks for speaking out. My partner has lost jobs. I've seen people get bricks thrown threw their windows and receive threats, but really it's more likely to show up as slight political jockeying where the atheist among peers never gets promoted and shoved off in the corner office.

          Recently, a colleague of mine was told by his supervisor that he had to take another job that paid the same but was much worse in almost every detail. Horrible situation for one of the best in his field and department. Interestingly, he's gay (though extremely discreet-most have no idea) and he's borderline agnostic. The boss is hard, right-wing, republican. Thinks teachers should be praying with students. It made me glad I was just under a contract until the consulting work was completed, and you better believe I hid my nonbelief status, there. And people wonder why there are "closet atheists."

          July 15, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
      • liveinpeace7

        Oh, my, Devin. You are very lucky if the theists you talk to are that reasonable. I can't count the number of times I or my children have been told we're going to hell, etc. by the not-so-loving folks in the christian community. We are certainly not treated with any sort of respect or allowance for having different views. We are just wrong, wrong, wrong, evil.

        July 15, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
        • devin

          And I would never condone the actions of those individuals. The question at hand, however, is not if some christians are judgmental or self righteous, but rather, do they wish to deny you your right to non belief?

          July 15, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
        • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

          Devin, in what part of the country do you live?

          July 15, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
        • liveinpeace7

          They deny my right to non-belief without condemnation and harassment. I believe that I have a right to my beliefs without someone telling me I am wrong and evil, and without someone telling my 4 and 6 yr olds that they're going to hell. I had been teaching my kids that everyone has different beliefs, etc. Now I feel like I need to teach them some ammo, like "Hell isn't real, it's just something parents make up, like Santa." But I really don't want to go there... But in a way I do.

          July 15, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
        • devin

          But again, as reprehensible as the actions of those individuals may be, I would imagine, ultimately, they would not be prone to denying the right of unbelief.

          July 16, 2013 at 12:02 am |
        • Johnny Noir

          Oh devin, that's so self-deluded. With the slightest imagination you can easily see that if atheists did that same stuff to you, the things we have said, you would find it very oppressive.

          You are in denial.

          July 16, 2013 at 12:25 am |
        • devin


          As malevolent and condescending as many atheists can be, I have never once felt that they were interested in denying me right of belief.

          July 16, 2013 at 12:38 am |
  20. John Staggs

    Why can't we all agree that something CREATED this vast and unreachable UNIVERSE and stop letting religion control us. I'm happy you read a book, more people should be reading books but if everything I read in a book should come to truth under my say... this planet would be a whole nother place

    July 15, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • Agnes

      Well no, even this view is FAR TOO 'theistic' for some of us...you say '...agree that something created...' and you've already lost me. Maybe the answer if more complex than that

      July 15, 2013 at 11:21 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.