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. Janter

    OH I'm Christian AND a Black Sabbath fan!!! Black Sabbath as in with Bill Ward as the drummer, but I digress.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • William Demuth

      Black and Blue tour dude! With BOC.

      Back when metal was HEAVY!

      July 16, 2013 at 8:28 am |
  2. nemo0037

    Yeah, I'm an atheist. Of course, I think that just as with religion, non-religion is different for everyone. Gandhi believed that there are billions of religions in the world, one for each unique person. Probably the same for each non-believer. For instance, I consider myself both atheist and agnostic, I study many religions... and I go to church with my wife every week. One of my best friends is the pastor at church, and we have regular discussions about philosophy and religion, just for fun.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • lol??

      Oh, oooooohhh.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:13 am |
  3. Janter

    I'm a Christian and really I don't give a rat's ASS who believes or doesn't.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:04 am |
    • Brother Maynard

      This would dispute your claim of being a Christian:
      Matt 28:19

      July 16, 2013 at 8:08 am |
    • Jerry

      Interesting how you would post that you don't care about something. The fact that you post at all suggests that you do give a "rat's ass".

      July 16, 2013 at 8:13 am |
      • Janter

        Jerry, it's like having street cred these days to proclaim I don't believe, it's a new fad, it's the new "in" crowd. So no I don't care, I dusted my boots off and walked out of town. People don't want to believe fine.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:23 am |
  4. NickZadick

    There are actually only two types of people on the entire earth!

    1) People who believe that god chatted with humans thousands of years ago and told them what to do and to put out a book (s)

    2) People who think that #1 is a completely ridiculous concept!

    July 16, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • Janter

      Only two? So much for diversity...

      July 16, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • lol??

      The 2's like to sacrifice virgins to the sun god. Hey, empirical evidence showed it worked an ol' sol keeps coming up every day since!

      July 16, 2013 at 8:07 am |
      • NickZadick

        They believed that the sun and nature were sending them signals and messages...goes in category 1 dude!

        July 16, 2013 at 8:16 am |
    • Tom

      When Nick Zadick goes to hell, no one will care

      July 16, 2013 at 8:08 am |
      • Ernest T Bass

        No such place as "hell"

        July 16, 2013 at 8:11 am |
      • NickZadick

        are you serious?? hell?? because it's written in your big book of fairy tales?? your childish fear of death makes you gullible as....hell!

        July 16, 2013 at 8:12 am |
      • 1984

        "...but he LOVES you!"

        July 16, 2013 at 8:21 am |
      • lol??

        Hell is only temporary.

        "Rev 20:14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death."

        And no, I'm not lookin' to buy any lake front lots. You've heard what happened to Lot's wife??

        July 16, 2013 at 8:25 am |
        • NickZadick

          How is quoting ancient myths and parables relevant in the discussion?

          i can do it to!!

          “Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
          that we devise their misery. But they
          themselves- in their depravity- design
          grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”
          ― Homer, The Odyssey

          July 16, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • nemo0037

      There are two types of people in the world: those that like to say there are only 2 types of people, and those that don't.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:12 am |
    • JC

      Black/white, good/bad. Your world is very simple.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:16 am |
  5. Sherry Austin

    Words like atheist and agnostic aren't useful because we almost always have to backtrack and explain what we mean, especially since many people take the word atheist as a synonym for an evil or wrecklessly immoral person, most people believe an atheist is someone who is sure there is no God, whatever God means, or has no belief in anything at all supernatural or transcendent (many atheists/humanists have such beliefs but just don't believe in a paternalistic, judgmental god). Many people, when they find out you are an atheist, start bragging about their devil-may-care behavior, assuming you think that's just great, even though many of us are far more "moral" even in the narrow prudish sense of the word, than the most religious. Agnostic is taken to mean someone who just isn't sure or someone who is an atheist and just doesn't want to 'fess up. Then we always have the people who hedge by saying, "I believe in some kind of supreme being" which actually does get them off the hook in many situations, but is looked upon as cowardly hedging by those willing to out themselves as atheists. Then you have those who believe in an Einsteinian type of "god" or intelligence and think it's important to say so. Then you have the legitimate question: Which God? Also, we have to always define just what we mean by God. Therefore, when asked what I believe, I avoid the single-word definitions altogether and say exactly what I mean, rather than having to go back and define what I mean or allow others to tell me what I mean: I DO NOT BELIEVE IN A GOD WHO ANSWERS MY PRAYERS OR HAS A PLAN FOR MY LIFE. When warranted, I go further: I DO NOT BELIEVE IN A GOD WHO HAS REVEALED HIMSELF IN A BOOK, A GOD WHO DEMANDS WE KISS HIS ASS CONSTANTLY OR THAT WE BELIEVE CERTAIN THINGS OR ELSE WE'RE DOOMED. I am always ready to elaborate further, but what I've just written in caps doesn't take much longer than saying "atheist" or "agnostic" or "sort of Deist," etc. especially considering that I almost always have to explain what I mean to be accurate.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:59 am |
    • lol??

      You have to know what time it is. Churches are fully leavened now.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • Janter

      Sherry Baby no need to explain just be silent, isn't there a floor to mop or dishes for you to wash?

      July 16, 2013 at 8:06 am |
      • Jerry

        Thanks for showing us the limits of your intellect. For someone who doesn't give a rat's ass, you sure post a lot. Sounds like you need to reassure yourself. Don't worry, we're here to counsel you. We'll help you recover from Christianity. Move away from the light...

        July 16, 2013 at 8:17 am |
        • Janter

          You're welcome anything I can do just let me know

          July 16, 2013 at 8:25 am |
  6. cwbeebe

    Let us get back to subject at hand, shall we? I am an intellectual atheist, but I do have the courtesy of not disparaging those with faith – in whatever religion. In point of fact I often envy people of faith: they have a belief system that makes them feel better about the lives they live, and most often offers them a sort relief from the trials of life by putting all of the responsibility of their actions upon the shoulders of "God." Atheists have no such "cover," we must constantly and consistently be able to truly justify not only our own actions and our motives, but also the consequences of those actions. Sometimes I would like to have someone else to blame when things go bad, but that would leave me a hypocrite. I am moral, so please do not attack me with the fallacy that my morals must have come from God, or I could not be moral. "That" is Begging the Question. I am moral because I do have strong beliefs that a persons morality comes from an understanding that whatever they do, from free will, their own choices. Simply because I have no belief in any deity does not mean that I have no morals. My morals come from intelligence and simple logic, and enlightened self interest. I cannot make myself do something that I would not wish to be done to me. Admittedly, that statement is present in every known religion, but for me it is a logical assumption based on my own personal moral code rather than being from a belief in a deity. I realize that being an atheist in a religious world has often left me, angry, bitter and confused; but I always come back to fact that most people are simply misguided and require faith in someone or something more power than themselves to fall back on in the midst of a crisis. This, I think makes my life more difficult for me to deal with sometimes, but I would rather be logical than hypocritical.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:55 am |
    • lol??

      Have you ever rubber-necked on the Expressway of Existence?? You've heard what happened to Lot's wife, pillar of salt and all??

      July 16, 2013 at 8:01 am |
      • cwbeebe

        Of course I have. I have copies of the "holy" works of nearly all major to semi-minor in my library: but reading them does no more to equate them with reality than does shopping at F.A.O. Schwartz create a binding belief in Santa Claus.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:08 am |
  7. Fred Werhan

    I consider myself an a-theistic Christian. I do not believe in a theistic god, but I am a follower of Christ. I see the Christian faith as a way to live one's life, not as a way to some eternal life beyond this present life.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:54 am |
    • Saraswati

      I have met several people with similar beliefs, both unaffiliated or Unitarian. Do you belong to a religious organization (I'm curious as to whether there are other groups in which such a position is common). I belief I know a few COE/Episcopals with the same approach, but I don't think its the official line.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:12 am |
      • Fred Werhan

        I am a retired Baptist minister.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:14 am |
        • Saraswati

          Thank you. Did you have that positionwhenworking, andifso, were you comfortable sharing it?

          July 16, 2013 at 9:43 am |
  8. Judas Priest

    Go thou forth to thy pigeonholes.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:54 am |
  9. richarddean88

    I disapprove of calling Agnostics "Atheists". They believe in spirituality. Even the "spiritual but non-religious could be considered agnostic in some cases.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:52 am |
    • lol??

      The spirit world has creatures in it, but no savior for them. They obey or not. They're all servants, too.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:57 am |
  10. Chuckmeister

    I should write an article about the six types of Christians, or the six types of Jews, or the six types of Muslims, or the six types of Hindus or something.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:52 am |
    • lol??

      HHhhmmm, 6, 6, 6. Really ,sincerely think so??

      July 16, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • Janter

      Chuck I completely agree, CNN is this news?

      July 16, 2013 at 8:02 am |
      • NickZadick

        considering how many idiots still believe in organised religion.... we apparently need these discussions to bring the bronze age nuts into the 21st century!

        July 16, 2013 at 8:08 am |
        • lol??

          I'll take bronze knuckles any day over tinkling brass knuckles.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:21 am |
    • Saraswati

      Lot's of people do. As I posted before...


      As this writer points out, most Catholics aren't aware of the diversity. Same with most atheists. It's good for people to open their eyes and lookaround.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:13 am |
  11. No Dice

    One supposes it was just a matter of time before somebody tried to categorize types of non-belief. Science tends to do these things. I am a hard-core atheist who has little desire to expound upon it. My beliefs are my own and not subject to debate. Living in one of the Bible Belt states I find it easier to leave the subject alone than debate with the evangelicals all the time. That used to be entertaining, now it's just tiresome. However, if accosted by the obnoxious of the opposite set I have no qualms about hitting them hard and fast to turn away bright-eyed believers worried about my soul.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:48 am |
    • Saraswati

      I think this is less of a categorization of the types of non-belief as of the people themselves. It is more sociological than philosophical.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:14 am |
      • No Dice

        Yes, one does see the sociological leaning in this article though philosophy certainly enters into it. Note the writers who call themselves a little piece of each category. Speaking of Sociology, Marx was right about few things but this — religion is an opiate.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:23 am |
        • Saraswati

          Ture, but opiates serve some valid medical purposes.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  12. Right for life

    6 types, same destination for rejecting God's gift of salvation, Jesus.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:48 am |
    • NickZadick

      Why would your ridiculous fairy tales affect us after death? you have been brainwashed!! get a life!! you actually get only one!

      July 16, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • William Demuth

      Along with all the Jews Muslims Zoroastrians, Shintoists, Mormons, Buddhists the world over.

      Your God wants a war, we will give him one.

      Death To Jesus. Crucify him again!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 16, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      What destination would that be? If we don't believe in your god, we don't believe anything that is associated with it. The only thing you have to back your claims is a 2000 year old book, no verifiable evidence outside of it.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • tallulah13

      Sorry, sparky. Clinging to a bronze age myth won't save your from what reality has in store. Someday your life will end and you will cease to exist. Your body will decompose (or be cremated) and in a few generations, unless you have done something truly noteworthy with your life, you will be forgotten. Just like the rest of us.

      There is absolutely no evidence to support any sort of "afterlife". Best you embrace what you have now instead of wasting this one life you get hoping for an imaginary reward after you die.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:51 am |
  13. Dan Roper

    I find traces of all six versions within me. Maybe more.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:46 am |
  14. faith

    yesterday was a record breaker 7:41 am 7/16

    could he have been exactly who he said he was?

    July 16, 2013 at 7:41 am |
    • William Demuth

      Or perhaps he never existed?

      July 16, 2013 at 7:48 am |
      • Stuart

        I am sure that 2000 years from now people will say the same about you. Will that mean that you never existed?

        July 16, 2013 at 8:24 am |
        • William Demuth

          Stuart please review the Latin "Cogito Ergo Sum" and get back to me.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • faith

      if that is a possibility, what are the implications?

      July 16, 2013 at 8:37 am |
      • faith

        if god actually may have appeared on earth and lived among us for a while as a full-fledged human being, just a slob like one of us, i would want to see for myself what he was all about. i would be intrigued. i might decide he's a jerk. never think twice about him. i might be amazed, but my curiosity would compel me to find out for sure what he was about.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  15. lol??

    Six categories of the lost. Now isn't that special.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:41 am |
  16. Cosmic_joker

    Agnostic, and proud, where is my parade? Lets just have a beer, and call it good.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:40 am |
    • William Demuth

      The only parade we have ever needed is the march of time, through which we have discredited over 3000 obsolete Gods.

      Humanity grows, and in time the few remaining Gods will be efficiently washed from our consciousness as all of our previous silliness has.

      The best Christ can hope for is to have a line of cars named after him like Mercury did.

      Probably some Midwestern SUV that is horrible for the environment!

      July 16, 2013 at 7:46 am |
    • William Demuth

      The only parade we have ever needed is the march of time, through which we have discredited over 3000 obsolete Gods.

      Humanity grows, and in time the few remaining Gods will be efficiently washed from our consciousness as all of our previous silliness has.

      Probably some Midwestern SUV that is horrible for the environment!

      July 16, 2013 at 7:47 am |
  17. Poppa

    Atheism by the numbers. So clinging to bit of tradition make you some sort of religious atheist? The fact that Christmas is fun can't just mean that you're a fun loving atheist? or a traditionalist?

    No, every atheist is unique, just like everybody else.

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

      Christmas is fun

      It was fun before Christ, and will continue to be fun long after he is forgotten

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

        You can tell Jesus that when you see Him...and you will see Him.

        July 16, 2013 at 7:54 am |
        • Ernest T Bass

          @labrat...... and you know this how??

          July 16, 2013 at 8:15 am |
        • William Demuth

          He is about 2800th on the list of Gods who were coming back and never did.

          Let him keep his place in the line, or we will deport him if he ever shoes up.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:23 am |
  18. toto

    “The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community.” Duh. The narrow community is those who are religious (as opposed to believers). The authors of the study must be young and not have realized that radical Islamists have more in common with evangelical Christians than most non-believers have with each other.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:32 am |
  19. faith

    was he a madman?

    I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV
    Dyslexic doG
    another good reason to ignore Christians
    another good reason to ignore Christians
    On the belt buckleof millions of Nazi soldiers
    This long-dead horse apparently needs flogging again
    Christian Motto
    Open the pod bay door
    Rodents for Romney
    Cpt. Obvious
    Open the pod bay door
    Rodents for Romney
    Cpt. Obvious
    Rodents for Romney
    My Dog is a jealous Dog
    Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

    July 16, 2013 at 7:31 am |
    • faith

      could he have simply been deluded?

      July 16, 2013 at 7:39 am |
  20. lol??

    Evil is always divide by 2. The power is in the clash of the two factions. Wake up to the real triune nature of creation.
    "Zec 13:8 And it shall come to pass, [that] in all the land, saith the LORD, two parts therein shall be cut off [and] die; but the third shall be left therein."
    "Zec 13:9 And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It [is] my people: and they shall say, The LORD [is] my God."

    July 16, 2013 at 7:29 am |
    • Cool story bro


      July 16, 2013 at 7:45 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.