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. albie

    I respect every single one of them

    July 16, 2013 at 1:36 am |
  2. bajadelmar

    Pure BS. Oh these crazy xians always taking for granted that they're right, when they're unable to provide any proof whatsoever. How can you "disbelieve" something that has never been proven to exist in the first place??? Xians think simply because there is a higher percentage of people that are as simple-minded and brainwashed as they are on their side that makes them right.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:35 am |
  3. Ben

    I have such a strong dislike for god talk. When rational/sane seeming individuals do it, I feel the vex. It is a primitive concept born in ignorance. The prize? Eternity! (FALSE promise) The stick? Hell! (FALSE promise) . I tell you, if I met Jesus at a party tomorrow, I'd knock his block off

    July 16, 2013 at 1:27 am |
    • devin

      You would knock Gods block off? I'd pay good money to see that attempt.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:30 am |
      • sarah

        I think he means it as an existential non-implicit metaphor, i.e. there is no god of the Mediterranean so said non god could not procreate (with himself or virgins)

        July 16, 2013 at 1:33 am |
        • devin

          I think I was engaging in sarcasm.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:42 am |
    • John

      If you met Jesus at a party tomorrow, he'd be about 2030 years old. Which would suggest immortality, a miracle ... which would suggest that He was right and you are wrong. Just sayin' ...

      July 16, 2013 at 1:46 am |
      • Rodents for Romney

        Well that would be strange. The Hebrews, including Jebus, did not believe in immortality, in the sense you people do today. Neither did St. Paul. He thought only the saved were immortal, but he also thought the end was nigh, and the baptized would never die, as the end was coming in his lifetime, just as Jebus did.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:08 am |
  4. Fem A+er

    Okay, problem I have with this article:

    You define atheists by their disbelief in GOD. That is a VERY specific deity. I might add, he is not such a special snowflake/unique butterfly/wondrous unicorn that he stands out in any atheist's mind as "the one most to be disbelieved" – it is an entirely arbitrary choice to use God over Apollo. But by defining atheists' positions in that way (this happens often), you inadvertently reinforce the primacy of Christianity in this country by implicitly giving it more weight. It does not have it; that is what atheism is. By definition.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:26 am |
    • Javi

      Agreed! Theist in the US and most of the Western World tend to see atheism as solely relating to their deity. How self-centred of them! I always remind them that I'm just a bit more atheist than they are, for they themselves don't believe in any other deities other than their own "chosen" (imposed rather) one, and I just happen to not believe in any other deities either ... plus one more: theirs!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:45 am |
  5. gregroyse

    I am an atheist. As I read through this "list" of types – I thought... "yeah, I'm #1." Then I read #2... and #3. I can say the only one I didn't really associate with was #5, the non-theist. Although – parts of that I agree with, too.

    I think the fairly common thread among these "types" is the idea that religion is generally bad – although most religions have their positive aspects.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:25 am |
    • TheBob

      Religion has no positive aspects, no matter which religion you point to.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:44 am |
    • Javi

      Agreed. Problem is, often more bad than good. Any good is wiped out by soooooo much bad. And the "good" is something that we all should just get from common sense (the least common of all senses, may I add). Hence why I don't see the need for religions. Any of them.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:48 am |
      • Ken

        Bingo, Javi, could not agree more. The "good" associated with religious beliefs is a synonymous with common sense. If you need religious ideals to tell you not to kill people, steal things, sleep with others spouses, etc. then your ignorance is to the point of insanity. Religion is a simply a tool with which to control the masses...and sadly the most effective tool in the entire world.

        July 17, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  6. Torgo23

    It was really nice to see a category that I could fit myself into quite well: "non-theist." I even don't mind the term. Interesting.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:25 am |
    • G to the T

      But would "The Master" approve Torgo?

      July 17, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  7. herfules

    Number 5 in the article is called an "apatheist", not an atheist.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:23 am |
  8. freethinkr

    I only believe in gods who don't exist.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  9. dug

    2 going on 4

    July 16, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  10. Bpb

    you are all so freakin' special!

    July 16, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  11. Robert

    Define atheist? Might as well try to define what kind of Christian you are. Or better, what kind of Hindu. I don't believe in the supernatural or magic, so that pretty much precludes belief in any deity or higher power. I believe that the universe is knowable without recourse to the supernatural, but I am unsure if science will ever be able to explain everything...which would be pretty boring, if you think about it. I understand why belief in a deity or deities or The Great Pumpkin is comforting to people, and I admire people of true faith who require no empirical or rational proof of their deity's existence (as long as they don't advocate killing people who disagree with them), but I believe that most people just don't want to question or analyze things too much and get out of their comfort zone (and maybe lose the economic/political/social benefits identifying with a particular religion or faith). So what kind of atheist am I? A well-educated one who made an informed decision not long after I was exposed to Darwin's Theory of Evolution in middle school (in the gifted program...the other students were not corrupted until high school) and realized that it made much more sense than any of the various books of mythological history I had read. I don't push it, I am not an activist or a quiet atheist. I try to lead people to question their assumptions about ideological paradigms and engage in a bit of critical thinking about other 'false' religions and belief systems that circles back on their own. Some don't get it, some get angry to varying degrees, some don't care, but some actually think outside of the closed loop of fitting evidence to support a cherished theory for the first time. That is as good as it gets. I don't care to convert anybody, I just want them to think.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:19 am |
    • gregroyse

      I think the simple definition of an atheist is one who does not believe in the existence of a higher power (god). What "type" of atheist you may be doesn't really matter.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:27 am |
  12. faith

    what if god could and would make himself known to people?

    July 16, 2013 at 1:16 am |
    • Jesus

      I tried, but was mugged and killed again

      July 16, 2013 at 1:42 am |
      • Javi


        July 16, 2013 at 1:49 am |
  13. MG

    I am a combination of #s 5 and 6. I would suggest another category of very active, compassionate atheists, who reach across divides and engage collaboratively with theists and non-theists alike. I'm hopeful that I will become more comfortable in engaging my community in this way, once the stigma against atheism lessens.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:10 am |
  14. AllOfTheAbove

    Why must everyone have a label? Aren't labels the reason for so much of what is wrong with society? We say to ourselves – "I don't hang out with so-and-so because they are ____." (fill in the blank –atheist, jewish, protestant, muslim, black, white, stupid, a snob, ugly, etc.) I'm a person that doesn't believe that supernatural events/beings are possible and if I HAVE to be labeled, I have been one or more of all of those types of atheists at some time in my life:

    – I, like everyone else on this entire planet, was born a #5 non-theist.
    – In my teens I became a #3 seeker-agnostic, attending every type church in town that would let me in.
    – Once I realized that the supernatural aspect of religion made no sense to me, I saw a bigger picture and purpose in religion and now I practice daily acts of kindness and am a productive member of society. I am the one type of atheist you neglected to identify, the #7 enlightened atheist.
    – When I stopped being a self-centered teen, grew up, and became an enthusiastic and considerate family member, I felt a need to observe traditions that encourage fun shared moments, so I became a #6 ritual atheist.
    – A couple times in my life, when I was being bullied by someone that didn't like that I wasn't religious, I did become a #4 anti-theist and a #1 intellectual atheist/agnostic, but I felt bad about challenging someone's belief system and telling them in a roundabout way that I thought they were stupid, so I will never do that again.
    – Nowadays, I'm a combination of #5 anti-theist or #3 seeker-agnostic, and a #6 ritual atheist. When articles like this come up, I’m a #7 enlightened atheist for reading it and some comments, and a #1 intellectual atheist/agnostic for posting a non-confrontational response. I was reading a book about Buddhist wisdom earlier this evening, so I'd say I'm a 3-6-1-7 today. 🙂

    See, people are so much more nuanced than a single label!

    If you take the time to get to know someone despite the obvious label, you'll usually find something about them that you like that lets you overlook the thing that initially made you want to write them off. Being an atheist in the Texas, I'm obviously a despised minority, yet I have lots of friends - it is because I don't care so much about their label, but that they are generally a good person - and my friends see that and treat me in kind.

    People should feel good in knowing that there is a universal path to goodness and happiness and that having a label isn't an essential part to achieving it.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:05 am |
    • mhd.sulhan

      Because human great at giving label (I prefer the word "categorizing"). I.e. you just labelled yourself "AllOfTheAbove", even if you can just put "anonymous".

      July 16, 2013 at 1:22 am |
  15. Bec

    I also do not feel that I fall into any one of these categories. Im a Biologist by training, environmentalist by spirit. While I don't believe in god I often ask my religious friends that if they're so dedicated than what are they going to say when their god see's what they've done to the earth, his most precious gift...that is usually responded with a nod and a "yeah...but if he didn't want it to happen then it wouldn't" Saddest most irresponsible response ever! I'm not aggressive with my atheism but Im happy to defend it, I will admit to provoking a conversation from time to time because I was in the mood-I even allowed the little old ladies that knocked on my door and asked if they could come in for tea and discuss Jesus to come in for tea, and discuss Jesus...they both left in a huff, insulted and angry-not my problem. Hey! I didn't knock on their door! I've taken many classes trying to wrap my head around religion-any or all of them, I've had many conversations, but I still just don't get it...and some of the stories people tell me...honestly it makes me want to shake them and scream "do you realize how utterly stupid you sound?!?!" I celebrate holidays, not for the religious reasons that many believe in, but because its a chance to spend time with family and friends, dye eggs with the kids, give a gift that makes someone smile, share a dinner and wine...I don't feel that god really has anything to do with those moments, I feel those are intimate moments shared with people I love-imaginary friends optional-but they can't have any wine!!

    July 16, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • Yolande

      Thank you. There are more of us out here than you know 🙂

      July 16, 2013 at 1:22 am |
    • Dippy

      Bec, you're a biologist (presumably college educated) yet you misspell "sees" as "see's." Care to explain?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:59 am |
      • devin

        Dude, our you like the grammatical "Rain Man" of the CNN blogs? And yes, I know, it's are.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:04 am |
        • devin


          Come on, fess up, you just got your nose bent out of shape because you didn't pick up on it the first time around. Your user name betrayed you.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:38 am |
        • Observer


          Yep. Missed it the first time, but didn't have any problems spotting your grammatical error. It really stuck out.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:43 am |
      • Observer

        Wonder what college had an alumnus saying:

        "our you like the grammatical "Rain Man"

        July 16, 2013 at 2:08 am |
        • devin

          Probably the same college that didn't teach its students to read and comprehend the intent of the second sentence.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:16 am |
        • Observer


          Probably the same school that doesn't teach that the word "are" should have been in quotes.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:20 am |
        • devin


          Come on, fess up, you just got your nose bent out of shape because you didn't pick up on it the first time around. Your username betrayed you.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:40 am |
      • Bec

        Yes Dip, you caught me, I added and unnecessary colon. Sorry if my fingers were a little "tap-happy." And to respond to your inquiry; I graduated with concurrent degrees from ASU with a BS in ABS (that's applied Biological sciences-in case you didn't know) In Biology-Wildlife restoration and Ecology and a BS in Natural Resource and Environmental Management, and minor in Geology. Though I fail to see how any of that relates to either religion or my grammar.

        July 16, 2013 at 3:20 am |
  16. ovy13

    These categorizations are mostly BS. You shouldn't generalize atheists anymore than you should generalize... well, theists, I suppose. In fact, you should generalize atheists even less so than theists, since atheism doesn't espouse any real ideology, just a single, solitary tenet: No God. Many colors, many nuances, and by no means confined to arbitrarily designated 6 categories that seem to be based on internet turmoil more than anything.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:49 am |
    • Gilly

      I agree that its ignorant to categorize a whole group of people into 6 categories. Everyone is a little bit different. Its like organizing different colors of orange into red or yellow. Orange is in between, and by putting it into red, you lose the color orange.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:53 am |
      • WeWereOnTheMoon

        You know how you can have 6 numbers and make millions of combinations out of them? So, there you go

        July 16, 2013 at 1:01 am |
        • Gilly

          good point

          July 16, 2013 at 1:05 am |
        • WeWereOnTheMoon

          I just thought about it and its probably not millions, but still a lot:)

          July 16, 2013 at 1:06 am |
        • Athy

          Actually, it's exactly a million, by definition. 000,000 to 999,999, one million unique numbers.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:17 am |
        • Waterandsewerbill

          To Athy, it's not exactly 1M, even if you think that every option is binary, you can't have 000000, because that would mean you were none of the atheist options, which would, by 'definition', be not atheist. And I don't know where you got the 1M number for six options. 2 possibilities for six options would be 2^6 = 64 pairings. But that would be if you limited yourself to pairings and not triplets. You seemed to just say 'six options equals six zeros'. Which is arbitrary and not necessarily wrong, but only right with very specific reasoning that you didn't explain.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:34 am |
        • Athy

          OK, would you settle for 64?

          July 16, 2013 at 2:01 am |
        • Athy

          Make it 63.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:12 am |
  17. Gilly

    I don't think I fit into any of them. I would say that I am partly an Activist in my thoughts, but I'm not vocal unless provoked. Also, I think you should make a category for Atheists who are afraid to stir up trouble by saying they are atheist. I go to a catholic school although I am an atheist. I try to avoid stating that I am an atheist, because it often offends people strongly and makes them angry or upset. What category is that?

    July 16, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • Elise

      Not a stated category, but you would be considered a closet atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:52 am |
      • Gilly

        when I say that I avoid stating I am an atheist, I am certainly not ashamed. I just feel like its obnoxious to go around in a Catholic school stating that there is no God, there is no logical reason to do that. If people ask, I say I am an atheist. I'm certainly not in the closet.

        July 16, 2013 at 12:56 am |
        • Elise

          You are putting connotations onto the word "closet". You don't advertise it. Many don't.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:16 am |
    • Harvey D. Rabbit

      That would he a duck-and-cover atheist in a hostile environment.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:54 am |
  18. faith

    if god exists, do you think he could manifest his presence?

    July 16, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • God


      July 16, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • Elise

      You don't care about any of our answers, why do you continue to ask these questions?

      July 16, 2013 at 12:49 am |
      • Harvey D. Rabbit

        faith, like LionlyLamb, is one of our village idiots. Best to just smile and move along. She post 18 hours a day, every day.

        July 16, 2013 at 12:53 am |
        • Elise

          Ah. Thanks for the heads-up.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:22 am |
    • MikeyZ

      My God is so great, He doesn't *have* to exist.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:53 am |
    • faith

      what id he could?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • faith

      what if he could?

      and would?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • atomD21

      What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home... Back up to Heaven all alone...

      July 16, 2013 at 1:42 am |
      • faith

        What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home... Back up to Heaven all alone...

        warm. very warm.

        "he's inside you and me"

        July 16, 2013 at 1:54 am |
  19. Feekoningin

    I would say I come from a long line of ritual atheists, though there are members of my family who do profess a belief in a god or other higher power. I grew up Unitarian-Universalist and attended a Lutheran grade school. On Christmas Eve, we still often attend mass. Over the past several years, since watching a show about archaeology on the history channel, I have more or less described myself as a non-believer with a Lutheran ethic. Basically, the show said that archaeology, like many disciplines has its roots in religion as those who believe tried to prove the existence and events of Christ's life. The problem, however, is that the closer they come to those events and places cited in the Bible, the further away they find themselves from an actual Christ the person. The producers asked a rabbi (not sure why it wasn't a priest or minister) what he thought about that inconsistency. The profound revelation I took to heart was that there is a difference between truth and fact. The events described in the Bible may not be factual, but they often contain truths anyone can apply to his or her life. I have found that people who do believe usually deeply associate religion with morals and ethics. So my description of myself simplifies the conversation and usually is effective at sending those with an evangelical bent into retreat.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:32 am |
    • Johnny Noir

      Then why is it that the more secular a country or region is, the less crime and more prosperity? Why are Christians overrepresented in prison populations but atheists are way underrepresented? The link between religion and morality is often claimed, but the actual evidence says the various forms of seculars are noticeably better at actually practicing morality.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • Ken

      The problem is that Jesus was the "person", not Christ. The closer you go towards supernatural Christ and worshipping him as a god onto himself, the further you get from the wise rabbi Jesus.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:56 am |
      • Elise

        I think Rabbi Jesus would be so mortified to see what happened to his simple tenets, he would facepalm himself a concussion.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:36 am |
        • Edward

          I see what you did there....made laugh!

          September 2, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  20. WeWereOnTheMoon

    How can we believe or not believe without realy knowing? I guess I'm a "Seeker-agnostic" most of the time. Why base life on assumptions when we ( humans) are so good at researching and understanding things? Lets just keep on looking, God or no God, there are amazing things to discover out there.
    P.S I still can't understand why Jesus didn't say how important it is to wash hands, that would safe millions of lives...

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

      I meant to say "save"

      July 16, 2013 at 12:31 am |
    • faith

      if they created a hoax that we landed on the moon, do you think they would sacrifice their lives to defend it?

      July 16, 2013 at 12:41 am |
      • WeWereOnTheMoon

        There were to many powerful people who would love to prove the landing was a hoax...no body did. Do you know about the mirror on the surface of the moon which will reflect a laser beam from earth? Americans left it there so that there would be no doubt.

        July 16, 2013 at 12:53 am |
        • faith

          the question is, if they created a hoax that we landed on the moon, do you think they would sacrifice their lives to defend it?

          July 16, 2013 at 1:20 am |
        • faith

          How can we believe or not believe without realy knowing? I guess I'm a "Seeker-agnostic" most of the time. Why base life on assumptions when we ( humans) are so good at researching and understanding things? Lets just keep on looking, God or no God, there are amazing things to discover out there. P.S I still can't understand why Jesus didn't say how important it is to wash hands, that would safe millions of lives...(he may have. if everything he did and said had been written done, we might find that he did.)

          why can't we know?

          July 16, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • Ken

      Of course, we can't really be sure about any god's existence, but the "truth" of religions is a whole other story. I'm pretty confident ruling out all of Scientology and Mormonism, for example, and the supernatural stuff linked to Christianity and Islam doesn't pass the sniff test either. Same for reincarnation. I find none of that stuff one bit believable even if there are some bits of wise advise to be found in all religions. That's just the human side of it coming through.

      July 16, 2013 at 12:44 am |
      • faith

        Of course, we can't really be sure about any god's existence

        why not?

        July 16, 2013 at 1:34 am |
      • Ken

        If none are supported by any actual evidence and all rely on faith, then all could equally exist (or not). God is no more "obvious" than Thor, or Ra.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Ken

      Do you think that the kamikazes didn't believe in what they sacrificed their lives for?

      July 16, 2013 at 12:47 am |
      • faith

        what difference would it make?

        July 16, 2013 at 2:46 am |
      • faith

        they blocked about 6 of my responses.

        read max kennedy's book on ww2

        July 16, 2013 at 7:56 am |
      • Ken

        Willingness to die for a god isn't actual evidence for that god, unless you actually consider the Ja panese emperors to be gods, or that Allah really does reward terrorists. In general, lots of cults have members kill themselves for their faith as well. So, the argument that the willingness to martyr oneself for one's religious beliefs isn't a very compelling one.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:59 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.