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. Jonathan

    This study was a waste of time and money. How many ways can you not be something? Infinite I imagine.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:32 am |
  2. Sarah

    I think this is an interesting "first stab" as the author says. I would classify myself as a seeker-agnostic according to this typology. I do think there is a lot of variation in the agnostic and atheistic spectrum, just as there is in the religious spectrum in terms of how fundamental or orthodox a person is.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:31 am |
    • Saraswati

      I agree, an interesting first stab, albeit with flaws. I'll be interested to see future work.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  3. mentalsandbox

    Depending on the day I could hit all six but I'm usually a one or a three. I think Intellectual atheist/agnostic seeker is a good compromise for me. Because while I don't believe in anything supernatural I do embrace uncertainty.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  4. Michael

    I suspect the reason the author thinks that Non-theists are the smallest group is because they are the quietest group. I find it hard to believe they are not the largest group amongst the atheists, and should include those who are culturally relgious but not spiritually religious.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • Saraswati

      They really only surveyed people in the "atheist community" (their words) using a survey advertised in atheist forums. They got back what appear to have been the young southern activists who were recovering from oppressive fundamentalism.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:32 am |
  5. Mike Church

    I'm a combination of Intellectual and Ritual agnostic. Philosophically, one can't prove or disprove God's existence, and I don't believe in the divinity of Jesus. But I consider myself a "follower" of Jesus in that I always ask myself "What would Jesus do?" for guidance in what to think, say, and do. You'll find that the answer to that question is usually immediately obvious, righteous and defensible. For example, what Jesus do about abortion with no threat to the mother's well-being, war, capital punishment, students and teachers carrying guns to schools, and any other hot topic of the day?

    July 16, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • Saraswati

      I knew a guy who based his life on The Tao of Pooh. There are a lot of models that work for different people.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      It is a known fact that jesus was a liar. I wouldn't model my life after it.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:36 am |
      • lionlylamb2013

        Oh the lies we weave when one practices to willingly deceive.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:43 am |
        • The Reverend

          The lies in your cosmic comic book are ones that truly stretch into the unbelievable.

          What does that make you? Chump or imbecile?

          July 16, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • JimK57

      I think jesus even believed one can't prove or disprove God's existence. To me this was confirmed when pilate asked him "what is truth" and jesus was silent.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:42 am |
      • lionlylamb2013

        Hello there Jim...

        What truths made can ever outlast one's conditional trade? If "I am" and "you are" then "who is" and for what?

        July 16, 2013 at 9:48 am |
        • JimK57

          Hi lamb,
          I am sorry but I do not understand the question.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:05 am |
      • The Reverend

        First off, your mythical comic book is not real, so stating things that were said from it provide nothing more than anecdotal evidence. If you were sentient, you would understand that.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  6. AGeek

    Your religion is irrelevant to me. How you treat your fellow humans tells me the kind of person you are.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  7. faith

    no one is fooled about who deletes posts and who controls what is permitted and encouraged at this cesspool. not for a second. they are responsible for crimes and torts. they are the focus of the largest lawsuit in history

    July 16, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      In order to prevent your posts from being reported and deleted, please refrain from posting offensive commentary. If your posts are pro-religion, they are offensive. Thank you, and have a wonderful Tuesday!

      July 16, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • kate

      I've been around for 50-something years, have never believed and was raised in an atheistic family. We went to churches or synagogues for celebrations when invited, had a christmas tree and easter baskets, but this was done for fun, not some kind of search for the ultimate answers to the universe.

      If we had any religion it was that the ways of the universe are far beyond human comprehension and that the best we can do was make wise choices that helped more than ourselves. I hope I've passed that on to my own kids.

      I get the impression there were and are a lot of families like mine. Yet this this the first time I remember seeing this much cache and woopdedoo in the media about atheism. I guess it's a good thing because all those pretty and famous people not believing makes it safer for the rest of us slobs who don't bother mentioning our lack of faith to the rest of the world. But still, the idea of talking on and on about something that doesn't exist in our brains is like talking about all the cars we'll never own, jobs we have no interest in, all the places we have no interest in visiting.

      A lack of something you never knew and so don't miss isn't a big topic of conversation.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:52 am |
      • Saraswati

        It's a much bigger deal for those raised in oppressively Christian areas. If you look at who responded to the survey, they are disproportionately from the south.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  8. Eric

    None of these categories accurately reflect my belief system. If anything, my belief system is a little bit of each one. It's like saying there are "x" types of Christians, I think there are too many to name really.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:23 am |
    • JimK57

      I agree. I believe in a creator and that jesus was an enlightened man, but am I a christan? Maybe someone will post the true definition. Please only serious replies.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:28 am |
      • Jefe El Guapo

        No. That is not a christian belief. Anything the bible states is to be taken as fiction, however. The character of jesus was a fraud if you pay close attention to his statements. If you don't believe in any specific creator, you are more along the lines of a deist. But, please keep in mind that unless there is evidence of such a being there is no point in believing in one to begin with.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:34 am |
      • ed dugan

        I feel the same way as you. The universe didn't happen by accident when you consider the human brain. Evolution? Doesn't matter how we got here, we got here! Discounting the wisdom of Jesus is just plain stupid. Discounting his divinity makes sense. The bible, written by men with a whole lot of personal agendas is simply a little history enveloped by a lot of myths and fables. Take the wisom from it and discard the BS. However, having been raised in a strict "christian" enviroment, I would not like that tag on my dog, let alone myself.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:38 am |
        • Jefe El Guapo

          Wisdom? No. He was a liar. Please don't put the fraud on a pedestal. It's offensive.

          July 16, 2013 at 9:42 am |
        • JimK57

          I prefer the gospel of thomas since most historians date it from 20 AD – 100 AD.

          July 16, 2013 at 10:03 am |
      • L

        Honestly you sound Jewish. Not believing in the divinity of Christ pretty much disqualifies you from being Christian.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Jefe El Guapo

      You're saying you're an activist and pacifist at the same time?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  9. Julia Dunphy

    These categories are just plain stupid. If you don't believe in something there is nothing more to say. If I asked you if you believe in unicorns would you say "I am a ritual anti-unicornist"? In order to have different types of atheists a person has to be unsure. All my friends and most of my family were never indoctrinated as children to believe in this insanity. So stop trying to understand atheists and ask me why I am afraid of tightrope walking the Niagara Falls – religion is just silly childish nonsense forced into the brain of a child before they are old enough to develop critical reasoning. I believe that teaching such idiocy to young children is a kind of child abuse.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:20 am |
    • Saraswati

      This isn't a aet of philosophical categories, but a sociological description of people in the "atheist community" (yes, they used that term here: http://www.atheismresearch.com/). They advertised the survey to the "dedicated atheist media community". It's simple a sociological description of people inthat online community, not any description of atheists in general nor a categorization of beliefs.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:26 am |
  10. RadarTheKat

    Put another checkmark next to type 5 to represent me. However, I think there should be a type called Scientific-minded Atheist. When you create that category, please move my checkmark to it.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  11. Mick

    1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic.
    Religion is a big business con. It is used to oppress people. However I do believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Clause because as far as I know they have never caused a war or extorted money people.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:20 am |
    • Tom M

      Hmmmmm. I have now decided to believe in the Tooth Fairy & Santa Claus. Not only have they never started a way, they brought me cool stuff.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  12. NkNorka

    Anyone who claims they 'Know' whether they be Christian, Hindi, Atheist, etc are only stating their belief. No one 'Knows'. Come back after you die and tell us what you learned. The only true knowledge is what you have personally experienced, all else is opinion.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:13 am |
    • William Demuth


      One creates a standard. Preponderance, reasonable doubt, any standard at all, and then measures the available evidence.

      If we used your approach we would still be squatting in caves.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:15 am |
    • Edd0

      I KNOW that I'm agnostic.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Saraswati

      It depends on how you are using the word knowledge. Most people like to claimthey mean something like "true tracked belief" but that would make the term fairly useless in practice. It is really just an expression of strong belief, and that is, inmost cases, how the term is used.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • Edward

      I will tell you what I have learned after dying twice, and fortunately, coming back twice. There is truly nothing after death.

      September 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  13. Lord Brahma

    You forgot Gays and Lesbians Atheist.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  14. maximusvad

    Agnostic is NOT atheist.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  15. Roy

    Psalm 14:1 – Only fools say in their hearts, "There is no God." They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!

    July 16, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • William Demuth

      Avengers 6, page two, bubble three

      "Hulk Will SMASH!"

      Now do you see how foolish it is to base your life on a comic book?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • lionlylamb2013

      Oh Roy you boytoy,

      Gen 6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also [is] flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

      The Lord God, the originator is long dead and died leaving all of humanisms up to their own vices and aspirations...

      July 16, 2013 at 9:09 am |
      • Puh-lease

        You don't seem to understand that passage at all. It doesn't mean God "died". It means the spirit which God imparted in us (or our mortal life) will not last forever. So it's saying that WE will die, not Him.

        Seriously, if you guys want to try and mock people's faith and the Bible, at least learn reading comprehension first. Sheesh.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • lionlylamb2013

      Oh Roy you boytoy,

      Gen 6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also [is] flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

      The Lord God, the originator long ago died leaving all of humanisms up to their own vices and aspirations...

      July 16, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • lionlylamb2013

      Oh Roy you boy toy,

      Gen 6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also [is] flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

      The Lord God, the originator long ago died leaving all of humanisms up to their own vices and aspirations...

      July 16, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • lionlylamb2013

      Sorry folks for a triple redundancy post,,, I thought CNN was flagging me with wrong word usage,, My bad!

      July 16, 2013 at 9:16 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!'

      Oh dear Roy. That equals hate and bearing false witness in one post. That makes you a false christian who is damned to hell.
      Ah well. Dont blame me, i didnt make the rules.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:20 am |
    • tallulah13

      So basically, the bible says that anyone who doesn't believe what the says bible is a fool. Of course the bible would say that. My question is, why would anyone fall for such obvious circular logic?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:26 am |
  16. Logic

    In order to have civil discourse about this topic, you need to tuck away emotions and preconceptions.

    The above sentence is the #1 reason why talking about this intelligently is so difficult to achieve. When one side attempts to make a point, the other takes it either personally or as an attack against their belief system.

    When you look at this argument logically, you arrive at a few conclusions:

    A.) People who are religious rely on FAITH, not fact. Many regard their deep faith as fact, or the scriptures as fact and this is where things go awry.

    B.) Atheists, men and women of science, people who require proof to substantiate belief see this adherence to faith as a crutch and therefore invalidate anything they cannot prove.

    See the issue? One side relies of proof, the other on faith. Neither side seems to understand that there is a large rift between those two.

    I've struggled with this issue myself. The result has been an adoption of the "live and let live" mentality. You don't force your beliefs unto me and I will be sure to return the favor.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • JimK57

      We must also remember science cannot prove everything. Somethings are just opinions. Even athiests agree with this.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:05 am |
      • William Demuth


        You don't understand science at all do you?

        Any science that holds a belief despite evidence to the contrary is not science, it is religion.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:07 am |
        • JimK57

          Let me give you an example of what I mean.

          Nazis are evil.

          You cannot use science to prove that this statement is true.

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

          I could use statistical regression algorithms to classify which Nazi acts were considered evil and which were not, thereby using science to determine if Nazis were evil. This is a moot point.

          September 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
      • Logic

        Science cannot prove morality. That is something that we as a society agree on. It isn't something you can "test" in a lab per se.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:27 am |
      • William Demuth

        Evil is relataive.

        Science can prove they existed

        July 16, 2013 at 9:42 am |
        • Logic

          Exactly right.

          July 16, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • G

      If you attempt to take away feelings and emotions from this discussion, you have lost all essence of God. The Lords greatest commandment is to Love, a feeling/emotion. Thus to use your 'logic' to PROOVE God is a futile effort. Try to prove or disprove faith itself is quite foolish. Logically faith is unfathomable. Logically, taking emotions out of a human argument appears quite foolish to me. In the real world there is no rational man, no matter how hard anyone may try.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:11 am |
      • Cory

        This kind of idea is socially destructive.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • William Demuth

      Because evil is a social construct.

      I can use science to prove they exist.

      Science does not make relativistic arguments about perceived cultural norms.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:13 am |
      • JimK57

        Exactly. Sometimes athiest try to make people believe they run their lives by cold hard logic, which is not true.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:18 am |
      • William Demuth

        None that I am aware of.

        We TRY to but we are human.

        We know we shouldn't laugh at believers when we expose their foolishness, but it REALLY hard.

        Virgin Births Zombies, some of Christianity is inherently laughable.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:23 am |
    • Sylvain Zambito

      I agree with you that wether you believe in god or not there must be a rational, intelligent reasoning that supports it. And I think that religion and God should not be confused and mistaken as the same. With that said I have read many books and articles about evolution and I also have studied carefully the Bible and everything that surrounds me from the macro to the microscopic. And my conclusion is that you need a lot more faith to believe that such a complex universe came from scratch with no intelligent guidance. Evolution is still just a theory and Religion has made god look bad.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  17. ko

    you forgot the angry atheist...those are the ones I run into most often

    July 16, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • tallulah13

      You probably have friends and acquaintances, people you like very much, who are atheists. They probably just haven't told you, because they just don't want to deal with your preconceived notions about them.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • Guy

      You'd be angry too if you were the most distrusted minority in the country, and told by others that you deserve to suffer for an eternity because you don't accept things without evidence.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  18. FRANK

    I don't think believing in God and believing in religion are the same thing. Religion is the business of spirituality. It is founded on money. Religion could not exist without money. I believe in all Gods – past – present – and future but this has nothing to do with belief in religion. Believing in God makes us spiritual. Believing in religion makes us fight.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  19. Saraswati

    Belief Blog Editors:

    Once again, posts are disappearing so quickly that when you click submit the post has moved to another page. This wouldn't be a huge problem is there were some way of knowing whether or not a post had "made it" in these cases. However, unless you are onthe same page, the result is identical to what happens with a failed comment.

    Please either modify the code so that either 1) even if the page changes, you are redirected to the correct page after a submit or 2) when a post fails (due to filter), you get a message. A combination of both would be ideal.

    Also, consider creating a lookup of acceptable words which are not subject to the banned word filter.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Saraswati

      Btw, this occurred with this very post. It makes using this site quite difficult.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • William Demuth

      The PC Police can't keep their dogma straight

      July 16, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  20. el flaco

    Many of us became atheists after having had horrible experiences with religion. In my case, raised in the Southern Baptist Church, Jesus was the monster who haunted my childhood nightmares. I ran and hid from Jesus night after night, but he always caught me and then threw me down into hell. I would wake up crying, terrified because Jesus had caught me.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:48 am |
    • Saraswati

      If you look at the study data, southern atheists are very over-represented, almost certainly for this reason. In other parts of the country your god-belief status isn't really an issue that comes up so much or a core part of one's identi ty.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:54 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111
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.