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. Reasonable Believer

    Here is a point from someone who has faith but is not a Bible-thumper and also has friends and aquaintences that consider themselves atheists...

    I have respect and understanding for all these descriptions.....except for #4......Any of the Anti theists I have meet were vicious & aggressive. They attack all people of faith. I can see the defending their opinion when attacked, but attacking everyone is just as wrong.

    BTW does anyone notice that, for the most part "famous" atheists only comment about Christianity? When they talk about god they are referring to the Christian god.....the make sure not to attack Judaism or Islam.

    On another note...

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for Penn Jilllete... His "No God" band song, "Eff you, your an Atheist" is great and also funny.... it makes you think and has a point that some might see as valid. I have listened to several of his Penns Sunday School podcasts and have tried to gather an deeper understanding of his stance.He eloquently describes his point of view and I have never heard him "attack" people of faith. He seems to just states his point and defend it.

    Whereas someone like Gervais or Eddie Izzard viciously insult "believers".

    To people who have "beliefs" like I do...quit quoting the Bible....you make us look like idiots.....

    July 16, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Probably because christianity is pervasive in the First World and most media reflects the society.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
      • Reasonable Believer

        Good point In Santa we Trust....that might be part of it. However, I think there is a deeper intent to avoid 'dissing' other religions because of the possible "repercussions", real or imagined.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  2. kailoabeachcomber

    I'm the kind of atheist who puts no stock in attempts to classify atheists.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Richard

      That one isnt on the list.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  3. prunkard

    I'm an atheist. I don't see the need to further classify or break it down.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  4. Soraya

    Based on this list I would be primarily a seeker agnostic with ritual atheist tendencies. Its an interesting concept trying to categorize non-belief but as someone else said there are as many flavors of religious people as there are non-believers.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      There are way more flavors of religious perons than non-believers. Christianity alone has over 41,000 denominations. When you introduce fantasy your variations are limitless.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Richard

    I don’t have a problem with the atheists.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  6. kid

    What if I believe that there is an infinite number of universes and possibilities in each universe. What if I also believe that we are able to jump to these other universes when we dream as we are asleep? We cannot jump to a universe that allows humans to live forever in a single jump, that is too far, but one could slowly jump universes over many, many years of concentrated thought before bedtime. Eventually, that extremely focused person may find themselves in a place where no one dies, ever! Good or not, I don't know but its possible. Now what kind of athiest does that make me?

    July 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  7. Jesus

    There is only ONE god I have ever acknowledged, and I am willing to bet many others have to, The Almighty Porcelain God. Thank you, thank you, thank you. See you again soon.

    PS: stock up on TP.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Jack

      This is quite probably the funniest post I've ever read – I laughed so hard I almost had to pray to this diety –

      July 16, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  8. tom

    Don't respond to this article. You will spend hours writing and reviewing and never quite get to the point where you are ready to post. IT'S A TRAP! GO SEE THE VIDEO WITH THE KITTENS CLIMBING UP THE GIRLS LEG NOW AND DON'T

    July 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • ME II

      Might be the best advice ever!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  9. Colin

    There are actually 613 commandemnts sprinkled throughout the Bible. They include rules for tending crops indigenous to the Greco-Roman Middle East; raising domesticated animals common in the Greco-Roman Middle East; sacrificing these animals; preparing and eating food that was consumed in the Greco-Roman Middle East; (not) having $ex with virgins, slaves, non-Jews, animals and relatives; cross-dressing and prohibitions against eating maggots, non Kosher insects and worms that have fully left the fruit.

    Interestingly, while these 613 laws laid down by the creator of the Universe go into painstaking detail on how Greco-Roman Jewish farm life should be lived, none of them address how the Apache or Sioux of North America should hunt bison, how the ancient Russians or Chinese should treat any Mongol slaves they take or how the Australian Aboriginals should hunt and prepare kangaroo. The rules from God also say nothing of how any aspect of life that developed after the Old Testament was written should be conducted, such as modern communications, computing, medicine and transportation.

    It is SO clear, beyond any sane doubt, that the Jews created God and not vise-versa.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Lycidas

      You mean 613 sprinkled in the Torah. If you are going to reference the Mitzvot of the Jewish people for the Jewish people, at least be a little bit precise.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Some might also point out to you what is known as the Noahide Laws that are suppose to apply to all people. It is found in the first book of the Torah.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Vic

      Those rules were specific to the Jews, the chosen people, under the Dispensation of the Law to carry out the Mission of God until the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem. The Mosaic Law, the shadow of Christ, was to keep the chosen people from losing their faith God before the arrival of the Messiah. That's why some people call it a "crutch." Once the Savior came, who affirmed Faith and provided Salvation (Dispensation of Grace,) the crutch is no longer needed.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
      • Observer


        So God apparently saved his most ridiculous laws for the Jewish people. Those are the ones he told to go around killing each other using his long list of reasons. Of course, God also gave them the Ten Commandments, but let's ignore that.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
        • Vic

          Right, the Ten Commandments were inscribed on the Tablets directly by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The rest of the rules, as far as I know (not an authority,) were written down by Moses himself with the help of his father in law. They used to go out into the markets, sit among the people, and write down those rules.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
        • Vic

          Just to clarify, I said "Right" regarding the Ten Commandments only. I don't know about the other stuff you're talking about!

          July 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • JimK57

      Colin, Can you please clarify who you have a problem with. Is it organized religion or anyone who believes in an afterlife?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
      • Colin

        I don't have a "problem"with anybody. I have issues with a manner of thinking that promotes ignorance over enquiry, faith over skepticism and absolutism over relativity.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  10. Mark

    I consider faith an act of bigotry, or equivalently prejudice: literally pre-judging, or judging something before looking at evidence. Just as there is no reason to hold white people or black people, or men over women, there is no reason to hold the Bible story over the Hindu story: these are all beliefs held merely by faith/bigotry.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Claiming one has a personal relationship with the creator of Time Space and Dimension who provides insight to ones self whilst claiming a seat in Gods dominion for ones efforts is not bigotry, it is at best megalomania, and at worst sociopathic egocentricisim.

      In a future world it will be criminalized

      July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  11. Brett Champion

    I'd probably classify myself as somewhere between a non-theist and a ritual atheist, leaning more toward non-theism. Even though I was raised in a religious family, I never had any kind of reaction to religion once I came to see that all religions are bunk, at least when it comes to their supernatural aspects. My family never gave me grief about it and just simply let it be. That's probably why I never turned into a militant anti-religion type.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  12. AverageJoe76

    I am a 'Seeker-agnostic'. We know a lot. And are discovering things all the time. But I feel we haven't even scratched the surface on all there is. I hold reservation with those that are overly confident about the unproven. Besides, man's a young species compared to the Earth. Why not hold reservation about these things? It makes the most sense to me.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  13. JAM

    As I approached the pearly gates, I heard, "Behold, JAM, I am God!"

    I said, "I'm not JAM I am Human!" not to be confused with other 'humans.'

    God said, "You are not the only human!"

    I replied, "Exactly! So what's your real name?"

    July 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  14. Trix

    Old books written by biased people that believed in super being overlords. This is the basis for gods?
    Or should I believe Abraham's dreams. A man that would slaughter his own son for his god. A people that would go on to butcher those that dwelled in Jericho and Jerusalem because they were "chosen" to inherit the "promised land". Must be nice to have an excuse to murder anyone you want.
    Or should I believe Mary when she said she was a virgin and yet still gave birth. Only back then when ignorance was normal would people be obtuse enough to believe this lie.
    Or should I believe Mohammed The Pedophile who was about fifty when he married a girl of six then consummated the marriage at nine.

    Is it any wonder some people don't believe with prophets and fairy tales such as these?
    I could go on but it seems all you people want to do is.......


    July 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Ben

      This article is about atheism. Why are you ranting about religionists? Write about ATHEISM.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  15. Ben

    I'm kind of tired of atheists denying responsibility for their own chosen belief system by declaring that it is "not a religion." Atheism may or may not be a religion, depending upon which dictionary you use to define what a "religion" is. But by any measure, atheism is an ETHOS, and in the common dialogue, I see no difference between ethos and religion. Come on, atheist community! Accept responsibility for your belief system and your community, just as you demand iof all theists.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The difference is a lack of a God, self determination and common sense.

      Atheism is to religion what bald is to a hair color.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Hyrum

      If atheism is a religion, then Off is a T.V. channel.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Antigone

      Atheists don't believe in any gods. Is that so difficult to grasp? They take responsibility for their non-belief, but your desire for atheists to admit there is some sort of non-belief "religion" is odd, to say the least.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      Do you believe in Santa? If 'no', does that make your religion "Non-Santa-ism"?

      July 16, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Trix

      I don't believe in Superman, Leprechans, Gods and the Tooth Fairy.
      You can be "tired" all you want Ben but it doesn't change the fact not believing in something doesn't make it a religion.
      A far as me believing in the Big Bang Theory, I am still not sure since that is what is great about science, we are always learnign more and open to new info. Religion is a closed book, a very old closed book no matter which super being overlord you believe in.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Theism.. God, and the Tooth Fairy

      Listen kid, just because people have similar beliefs or goals does not make it a religion. I know this breaks your pious little heart which will never make it to the non existent afterlife. But there are things called organizations, in which people have similar goals and outlooks, can cooperate, and yet not be religious.

      Be tired all you want, religious nutbags. That's just your lack of intellectual argument wearing thin, because you believe in a fairy tale. Something invented thousands of years ago who had little understanding of the world and space around them. You might as well worship the Tooth Fairy or the Easter bunny. It's all make believe for adults.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
      • Ben

        "Kid"? "Pious little heart"? Quite apart from the discussion underway here, "Dude", you are a condescending, arrogant basturd.

        July 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Platypus Rex

      The definition of religion is "The service and worship of a god or the supernatural." That just plain does not fit atheism.

      You can try to commit the Fallacy of Equivocation and use a secondary colloquial definition, but that's like saying bananas are Asian cowards because they are yellow.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • Ben

        Using big words does not intimidate everyone, Platypus. I understood all of them, by the way. Personally, I prefer to write so that others get my meaning, rather than so that they think I have some superior knowledge because of an inflated vocabulary (and ego).

        July 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
        • Johnny

          If you think anything in that post is a "big word" then I feel sorry for you.

          July 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  16. boredofceleb

    Why the hell couldn't they just have left this article about the different types of atheism? I couldn't give a rat's @ss what any celebrity believes–as if that would sway one's beliefs to change because any of these people believe a certain way?? It's a sad commentary how so many in our country "worship" celebrities!

    July 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Antigone

      When I see a celibrity endorsing anythingn I wonder how much they are being paid to do so. I don't care a jot what they say.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  17. Reality

    Summarizing the last 2000 plus comments on behalf of all agnostics and atheists in any of the six classes:

    The Apostles' / Agnostics’/Atheists' Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

    July 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Antigone

      You do not sdpeak for all atheists; you speak only for yourself. And do not take this as a request for anything other than my desire for you to posit your own beliefs.

      You are clearly #4, and an arrogant one, with some #1 thrown in.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  18. Colin

    A quick 10 question test might help explain why we atheists are deeply skeptical of religion.

    Q.1 The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings on the planet are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:

    (a) Astronomy;

    (b) Cosmology;

    (c) Psychology; or

    (d) Religion

    Q. 2 You are likely to believe the ridiculous notion that the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are influenced by:

    (a) your education;

    (b) your diet;

    (c) your family history; or

    (d) your religion

    Q. 3 I believe that an all-knowing being, powerful enough to create the entire cosmos and its billions of galaxies, watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty" like protect myself from disease with a condom. I am

    (a) A victim of child molestation

    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover

    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions; or

    (d) A Christian, Jew or Muslim

    Q.4 I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am being influenced by:

    (a) My hetero$exuality

    (b) My genetics

    (c) My prejudice; or

    (d) My religion.

    Q5. I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Christian, Muslim or Jew who believes prayers are answered

    Q6. Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    Q.7 The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:

    (a) Architecture;

    (b) Philosophy;

    (c) Archeology; or

    (d) Religion

    Q.8 What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:

    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they MUST believe under threat of “burning in hell” or other of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;

    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “God is comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;

    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas all religion is regional and a person’s religion, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than a matter of upbringing; or

    (d) All of the above.

    Q.9 If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:

    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;

    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;

    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or

    (d) my religious belief.

    Q.10 Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am

    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker

    (b) the mafia

    (c) A drug pusher; or

    (d) any given religious organization

    July 16, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • urmomlol

      This comment is fresh and original!

      July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  19. Rev. Rick

    Well, I've always believed in something. I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian so I know the Bible pretty well. However, at the moment I'd classify myself an a panentheist (as opposed to a pantheist). In my opinion, Christians, especially the current crop of conservatives, don't do a very good job of representing the teachings of Christ and that's a big reason I left the Christian faith. The God of the Abrahamic religions is simply an ill-tempered curmudgeon – at least that's the way he is represented.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  20. Susan

    Totally one-sided. You have at least as many different types of believers in a God too. What type of believer or non-believer of a religion are you? That takes in the whole human race. Once again you are making a mountain out of a molehill.

    July 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • William Demuth

      3000 dead Gods makes it tough to dissect the madness of religion.

      Based on todays standards and simple math, the majority of us who exist, or have ever existed are worshiping the wrong God. We have no plurality of belief, and never have.

      We non believers have waged this battle since before Christ, and shall discredit him just as readily as we discredited those who came before him.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
      • Lycidas

        Good for you Willy....it's nice to see that religion has given some reason to live.

        July 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
        • William Demuth

          Disproving your God and forcing Christians to absorb their own mortality is QUITE pleasing!

          And it is also a public service

          I accept your thanks and shall steer another away from old Jeebus in your honor.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • Lycidas

          @William Demuth- your delusions must keep you quite comfortable in your life.
          You have not really disproven anything. In fact you show a typical chink in your debate armor by trying and failing to make the discussion fall partly on my own personal beliefs. Could you tell me who my "God" is since I have not made an issue with it. Or were you just guessing...again?

          "I accept your thanks and shall steer another away from old Jeebus in your honor."

          Do what you wish. It is quite pleasing to point out your many flaws.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
        • Lycidas

          @William Demuth- your delusions must keep you quite comfortable in your life.
          You have not really disproven anything. In fact you show a typical chink in your debate armor by trying and failing to make the discu ssion fall partly on my own personal beliefs. Could you tell me who my "God" is since I have not made an issue with it. Or were you just guessing...again?

          "I accept your thanks and shall steer another away from old Jeebus in your honor."

          Do what you wish. It is quite pleasing to point out your many flaws.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Re you arguing that to do a sociological analysis on one group you have to do it on all other groups at the same time? Want to study aborgines in Australia? Better publish on every other known world culture at the same time.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
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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.