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. The Big T

    Thank God I am NOT an atheist.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:20 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
      ...Stephen F Roberts

      July 16, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • Edward

      We thank your god you are not one too......

      September 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  2. Zon

    I'll tell you what kind of atheist I am when you break down the different kinds of theists into categories.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  3. faith

    who was jesus christ?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:15 am |
    • G to the T

      A character based on the life of Yeshua bin Josef?

      July 17, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  4. Neo Atheist

    I always found it funny how the "God Particle" is named after a Peter Higgs who is an Atheist.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:12 am |
    • thedoctor

      The story I heard was that the Higgs boson was so difficult to find that it was called the "God damn" particle. Most physicists cringe when they hear the phrase "God particle."

      July 16, 2013 at 6:18 am |
  5. Ted Testerson

    I don't believe in these categories.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:02 am |
  6. Neo Atheist

    As an Atheist I stand on the following principle. You have your belief and I have mine. I'll respect you if you respect mine. I have the right to not believe in God as much as you have your right Believe in God. You will never convince me that God is there, that God is caring, that God is great, that God exists. What I have gone through in the past tells me that there is no God. You will never get me to change my mind no matter how much you quote scripture at me, tell me otherwise, and argue in Gods favor. As long as you respect this, I am Okay with you and your beliefs. I wont try to do the same to you.

    July 16, 2013 at 5:59 am |
  7. Common Sense

    Which one is Christopher Hitchens? That's the one I want to be!!!

    July 16, 2013 at 5:53 am |
    • Dawkins-Fan

      Hitchens is obviously the combination of intellectual and activist categories

      July 16, 2013 at 6:10 am |
      • Common Sense

        That sounds like my kind of Religion!

        July 16, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  8. Neo Atheist

    I'm a non-believer. I generally don't care about what others believe, just leave me alone about my lack of belief in God.

    July 16, 2013 at 5:49 am |
  9. Paul Wilson

    I am outspoken when I come upon a person or a tract that bugles any "onetruechurch" and shuts the door to heaven to just about everybody else. They also describe the tortures of hell, or the Great Tribulation, I let them know about how I feel.

    Lately too many people have died in horrible ways, and that's awful enough without some Baptist saying they went to hellfire.

    July 16, 2013 at 5:16 am |
    • R.M. Goodswell

      aye – creator of the universe, But late to the game here on earth....only spot unrented was the ME.

      July 16, 2013 at 5:19 am |
  10. David Thompson

    I guess I have multiple personalities, as I can relate to 1 – 5. I definitely don't have number six. I can range from combative to simply not carrying whatsoever about contemporary religion. It simply depends on what mood I am in that day or week. I love ancient history, biblical history, and reading about the other religions from the near east. Each religion builds on the other and in that respect ancient religion has played and continues to play a big role in world history and development. It's difficult to remain detached from religion for too long, but sometimes I just need a break.

    July 16, 2013 at 5:03 am |
    • TheBlanton

      Happy Festivus!

      July 16, 2013 at 5:07 am |
  11. Water to Whine

    I'm a half- caf. low caf. de-caf, caf. theist, with a twist of lime. I'm also a little of all of these "types." So, I guess there's seven types, which is a holy number. Hmm.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:56 am |
  12. Andrew Thall

    I certainly fall into category 5. I respect people of faith. I have seen the comfort that they derive from their beliefs. I simply don't believe. I have very little respect for the anti-theists. They don't respect the beliefs of others. In philosophy classes, I learned that one cannot argue a belief. One believes or not. People can argue about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin only AFTER they agree that angels exist.
    Live long and prosper.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:52 am |
  13. Kevin

    If you are #4, you are also #1. These lists are silly. 100 years ago it was probably lists of 'different types of black people'.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:51 am |
    • R.M. Goodswell


      Rwanda comes to mind ... Tutsi and Hutus ..mostly because colonial Europeans picked one tribe over another based solely on facial features. lead to the horrific genocides in 92?

      July 16, 2013 at 5:03 am |
  14. R.M. Goodswell

    I am an atheist..no 1, 2, no!@# 3,4 or 5 about it....

    once you start boxing people in its easy to marginalize them – Oh yer just one of those #1s...

    July 16, 2013 at 4:47 am |
  15. sean

    I am both 4 and 6.. 4 because I do not believe there is a God. I think every bit of it is made up by goat herders from 2000 to 5000 yrs ago, to help control the population and for free money and services and in some cases to explain what they couldnt figure out back then. That is the same with judism, islam, christianity, greek myths, roman myths, mayan myths, egyptian myths, norse myths, etc.

    6 for the reason that if I didn't let my kids participate in Christmas events they'd be shunned and that would stunt my kids in this area of the bible belt. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, can be fun. I don't believe in God.. or gods or what not.. but if you don't at least act like you do, people who do will hold it against you. And they out number me.. So It is go with the flow or have your house burned down by religious nuts or be run out of town and have your life made miserable.. And they will do just that too. I have seen it here before and it aint pretty...

    July 16, 2013 at 4:41 am |
  16. Danielle

    I'm a mix of 1 and 2. You could say I'm an Intellectual activist atheist. However, I don't think agnostics can be, by definition, activists.
    I was born an atheist (as all people are) and luckily for me I remained that way. Mostly thanks to my parents. And until I came as a child to Israel I didn't even knew the concept of religion. It was never in my lexicon. So I can really thank my parents and the communist society I was born in for not corrupting my mind with religion.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:36 am |
  17. Docente

    There are lots of Gods in which I do not believe!

    July 16, 2013 at 4:14 am |
    • Kevin

      I kind of like it...

      July 16, 2013 at 4:52 am |
  18. Terry

    There are many unbelievers on this topic. You know, those that believe and know God did not just read a book and was pulled in by the text. We actually discovered something that made us realized that God exist. A true Christian experience is something you find, and when you find it, you will hold on to it with all your might, and we do not particular care if we sound and look stupid. There was a large part of my life when I strongly disbelieved in God as well, but now I know without a doubt... I hope everyone find what I talking about.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:11 am |
    • Lola

      Can you seriously look around you and see all the things that exist in this world/universe and believe God did everything? All the bad stuff that is everywhere and is not human made?
      How does that fit into the good and loving christian God image? Malaria killing so many people around the world in what is not a very pleasant death. how about worms that burrow into children's eyes making them blind? and there are so many more examples...

      July 16, 2013 at 4:41 am |
    • Saraswati

      This is exactly what my Buddhist friends tell me. Who should is right? And what is the difference in certainty?

      July 16, 2013 at 8:45 am |
  19. Chuck

    I believe in Aliens. That's good enough for me..

    July 16, 2013 at 4:09 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.