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. Dodger

    Also, the atheists on CNN forums (ahem) aren't the intellectual kind. They very much fit the proselytizing activist and anti-theist definitions, though.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:29 am |
    • William Demuth

      It depends on formal definitions, but any disinterested third party would surely recognize that the Theists are mentally disorganized at best, and in many cases are clearly ill.

      Religious folks would be well served in policing their own, because each and every crazy Fundie does your group a great disservice.

      Without naming specific posters, you have within your midst's several individuals who are poster children for the cause of lamenting the collapse of our mental health system in this country.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:34 am |
  2. William Demuth

    Top five categories of religious people

    1. Those who don’t actually believe, but pretend to because it’s expected of them
    2. Those who recognize belief as a means to an end in the pursuit of power, and use it as such
    3. Those who fear death so much that suspending reality is easier than confronting their own mortality
    4. Those whose belief is skin deep who publicly maintain the rituals and organizations yet still do as they please.
    5. Those who’s mental illness manifests itself as religious fervor

    July 16, 2013 at 7:27 am |
    • lol??

      You're one category short of a full creature. Six days of creation, remember?? And Satan is always bragging about his power, and signs his pride with a six.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:33 am |
  3. Dodger

    Type number 1 may be interested in atheism and read about it. They are merely looking for scientific information to bolster their atheism. But they rarely or never look at challenges to atheism; they simply ignore the challenges.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:27 am |
    • William Demuth

      Primarily because challenges to Atheism are like challenges to Gravity

      They tend to fall on their faces

      July 16, 2013 at 7:29 am |
      • Moonraker

        "Primarily because challenges to Atheism are like challenges to Gravity"


        July 16, 2013 at 7:34 am |
    • Dodger

      I have yet to hear a coherent explanation of morality from an atheist. Good luck with your research.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:30 am |
      • Poppa

        ? Explanation for morality? Why is an explanation needed? Doesn't it just make sense that you'd want to treat others the way you'd like to be treated?

        I think much of religion has it's roots in common sense. It's not that religion creates a belief system, it simply reinforces what we SHOULD know but often let greed or other selfish acts overrule.

        July 16, 2013 at 7:42 am |
    • William Demuth


      Morality is a human construct.

      In other words, it exists only in your head.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:38 am |
    • Poppa

      Dodger... The "challenges" of atheism have always come down to the inability to defy "faith". All the "facts" of religion boil down to faith, and faith is not contradictable (else there is no faith).

      I'd interested in reviewing your list of the Challenges of atheism though.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:49 am |
  4. CelticEejit

    I like how you front load the list with actors and singers – we're 20 in before meeting anyone with substance.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:23 am |
  5. trollol

    If you managed to divide atheism into 6 types, I wonder how many types you would get if you tried to divide a religion. I dare you to try.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:21 am |
    • Saraswati

      Here's a breakdown for Catholicism. People do this stuff all the time:


      July 16, 2013 at 7:29 am |
  6. Rath R. Weird

    Since I spent a great deal of time on talk.origins, and pipet and pymol for living I could lay a claim to the first category. But then debating half-wits and imbeciles got rather tedious – so many of them, so one of me. So I guess I got myself into Non-theist group (Apa-theist according to Bill Maher). I leave my in-laws be when they go to Mass, and just do dishes. Then again somebody like those Westboro cretins gets on my nerves and I go full anti-theist. I guess they should put in an Irritable Intellectual Non-theist category just for me...

    July 16, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  7. Saraswati

    In addition to the selection bias from the online survey that will favor activists over laissez-faire types, there's also a huge bias towards the southern states:


    Which goes as much to show how much more the smaller atheist group that feels oppressed in the south cares about these things than to atheists in the northeast and west where it is largely a non-issue.

    Another big problem is the use of self-identification. Few anti-theists really recognize themselves as such, and a much larger group of people will always consider themselves 'open' than really are. I'd love to see this done a little more professionally – not to knock what was done which is an interesting start.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:16 am |
  8. faith

    a spiritual person may not be afflicted with mental or personality disorders. true or false?

    a spiritual person may be skilled at differentiating between her subjective experiences and her cognitive processing. y or n?

    July 16, 2013 at 7:10 am |
    • G to the T

      What do you mean by a "spiritual person"?

      July 17, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  9. Patrick

    I don't like the idea of categorizing people like this. Beliefs are too diverse and I doubt you will find anyone who fits perfectly into any of them. Me for example, I'm part 'seeker-agnostic' with some 'activist', a touch of 'intellectual atheist' and a hint of 'anti-theist'. What does this really mean? Nothing. It would be far simpler and frankly less insulting to just ask what my beliefs are.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • Saraswati

      The thing is, though, that we all do it instinctually, because humans are too complex and diverse to interact without classifications. We check gender, age, ethnicity before interacting and adapt our behavior accordingly. No one is going to talk to everyone or read books by everyone or listen to everyone. We simply don't have the time to do that and feed ourselves and hold jobs. These are just shortcuts to understanding one another that I think should be viewed as a launchpad rather than a terminal understanding of who anyone is.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:19 am |
      • Patrick

        I agree that it is our nature, and I understand why it happens. It still doesn't mean its an accurate portrayal of peoples' views. The problem I, personally, face time and again is people here that I'm "atheist" and then lump me into one of their preconceived categories and start making assumptions about what I believe without even asking me anything.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  10. steven

    it bothers me that others associate me with agnostics – those that can't or won't make up their mind – and "non-believers." I absolutely believe that the existence of god or other higher power is a lie. my belief is just as strong and legitimate as any other. the difference is that my belief doesn't hurt anyone else.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:58 am |
    • Saraswati

      And it bothers me that I am associated with fundamentalist atheists and naive materialists. I think that categories are a good starting point for understanding the diversity. I also blame the atheist activist movement for trying to whitewash the differences to create a false 'big tent' lobbying and fundraising effort.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  11. Jake

    Where do those who believe in god but think organized religion has been the downfall of western civilization fit in?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      Not in an atheist categorization. They would be a type of unaffiliated theist or deist.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:22 am |
  12. lol??

    Six more Affirmative Action slots coming right up.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:54 am |
  13. faith


    July 16, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  14. jungleboo

    Not interested in categorizing people according to their beliefs or non-beliefs. That's an old routine evidenced by the primitive people who feel compelled to wear symbols like yarmulkes, or crucifixes, or burkas, or dots on their foreheads etc.

    It stems from the crude impulse to say to some of your neighbors, "I am not you. We are different from each other. I have an inside track on things you aren't a part of. I am a member of a secret society that stretches back (insert number of centuries here)".

    Then you fight with someone not wearing the same symbol to prove you are right. This article is a base swipe at freedom from categorization.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:40 am |
    • faith


      July 16, 2013 at 6:53 am |
    • Realist

      I think you are finding malice where only silliness is present. I don't disagree with you, but the study of humanity, society, and psychology sometimes requires ontological division. The silliness comes from the fact that religious beliefs are very complicated, and the expression of those beliefs is situationally dependent, not something that people can accurately self report.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:57 am |
      • faith

        complexity eliminates accuracy?

        July 16, 2013 at 7:03 am |
    • Saraswati

      It comes from the fields of anthropology and sociology (and marketing) which seek to understand our fellow human beings. Unless you plan to have over 7 billion different understandings, you'll be grouping and classifying.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:24 am |
      • lol??

        I could tell a funny story about Tiparillo smokin' liberated groupies, but I won't.

        July 16, 2013 at 7:47 am |
    • moh

      I know what we really should be dividing ourselves into are Phjillies, Yankess and Red Sox with the appropriately colored pinstripes. The human urge toward tribalism is still pretty strong.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:54 am |
  15. faith

    personal experience is a valid factor to determine what happened?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:39 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      The term "personal" is entirely qualitative and subjective. A person suffering from Affective Schizoid Disorder may have personal experiences of voices and visions. It doesn't make those voice or visions any more real.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:50 am |
      • faith

        we should throw out cross examination in court proceedings?

        July 16, 2013 at 6:56 am |
        • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

          What are you babbling about?

          July 16, 2013 at 7:03 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      The term "personal" is entirely qualitative and subjective. A person suffering from schizophrenia may have personal experiences of voices and visions. It doesn't make those voice or visions any more real.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:51 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      A mentally ill person having delusions is having "personal experiences". That doesn't make their delusions real.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:52 am |
      • faith

        s deluded, mentally ill patient may testify to things which are a function of her disturbed thinking?

        July 16, 2013 at 7:01 am |
  16. faith

    did you get the letter?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:37 am |
  17. Unitarian

    It seems to me like these comments themselves say quite a bit about what kind of atheist their writers are. For example, the anti-theists think the list is ridiculous. That should actually be listed as a characteristic of anti-theists - "will think this list is absurd."

    July 16, 2013 at 6:29 am |
    • Saraswati

      I don't imagine there's an inherent reason for anti-theists to dislike categorization so much as that most don't want to accept the label of "anti-theist". A category system isn't so pleasant when you come off with a new lesser self-image. Then again, several of these folks revel in that identi ty...but I bet they aren't the same one's criticizing the list.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:35 am |
    • Saraswati

      I don't imagine there's an inherent reason for anti-theists to dislike categorization so much as that most don't want to accept the label of "anti-theist". A category system isn't so pleasant when you come off with a new lesser self-image. Then again, several of these folks revel in that identi.ty...but I bet they aren't the same one's bothered by the list.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:36 am |
    • Saraswati

      I don't imagine there's an inherent reason for anti-theists to dislike categorization so much as that most don't want to accept the label of "anti-theist".

      July 16, 2013 at 7:37 am |
    • Saraswati

      I don't imagine there's an inherent reason for anti-theists to dislike categories so much as that most don't want to accept the label of "anti-theist". A category system isn't so pleasant when you come off with a new lesser self-image. Then again, several of these folks revel in that identi.ty...but I bet they aren't the same one's bothered by the list.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:38 am |
    • Saraswati

      I suspect the issue is more that the anti-theists don't like where the list places them than that they oppose the idea of a list.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:39 am |
    • Saraswati

      Sorry, the page isn't working correctly for me when I submit.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:41 am |
  18. LakeRat1

    3 with some 1, and perhaps some others thrown in.
    Kind of a "Why do adults believe in fairy tales?" with "I feel like there's something out there that helps or guides me sometimes". But then I can't leave out: "I absolutley despise the way some people use religion to judge and control the behavior of others".

    July 16, 2013 at 6:24 am |
    • LakeRat1

      OOPS! Left out one: "The more certain people are about their religious beliefs, the less they realy know (or care)."

      July 16, 2013 at 6:28 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.