July 15th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Behold, the six types of atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN
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(CNN) - How many ways are there to disbelieve in God?

At least six, according to a new study.

Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.

“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.

“These categories are a first stab at this," Silver told the website Raw Story. "In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types.”

Silver and Coleman derived their six types of nonbelievers from 59 interviews. We're pretty sure we've spotted all six in our comments section.

1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic

This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism.

They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites.


They're also well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently.

2) Activist

These kinds of atheists and agnostics are not content with just disbelieving in God; they want to tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise.

They tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals.

3) Seeker-agnostic

This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.

Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”

That doesn't mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

4) Anti-theist

This group regularly speaks out against religion and religious beliefs, usually by positioning themselves as “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” Silver and Coleman wrote.

“Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”

Anti-theists are outspoken, devoted and – at times – confrontational about their disbelief. They believe that "obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another.”

5) Non-theist

The smallest group among the six are the non-theists, people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion.

In many cases, this comes across as apathy or disinterest.

“A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “Religion plays no role or issue in one’s consciousness or worldview; nor does a Non- Theist have concern for the atheist or agnostic movement.”

They continue: “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religion in any form from their mental space.”

6) Ritual atheist

They don't believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the "profound symbolism" inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.


The authors of this study have graciously agreed to field questions from our commenters. If you're interested, please post your question below or tweet it to us at @CNNBelief. 

We'll take the best questions to the authors and the Q&A will be posted in a follow-up article. 

Please try to keep your questions related to the study itself.

Daniel Burke

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Holidays • Lost faith • Nones • Spirituality • Trends • United States

soundoff (9,518 Responses)
  1. Michael

    I am an atheist and don't neatly fit into any of the six categories. At different times on different days, I could fall into any one of the outlined categories.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  2. SATAN

    Looks like Victory WILL be mine.....Why is is so hot in here?

    July 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • snowboarder

      satan in an imaginary monster with which to frighten the children and weak minded.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
      • SATAN

        Would you like some candy?

        July 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
        • J the Agnostic

          I like candy

          July 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Johnny Noir

      Satan is perfect proof that the Bible is untrue. As the Bible foretells what will happen and Satan must know all that is in the Bible, he would have to be the dumbest being ever to continue to do it. He would change tactics or change behaviors, which would invalidate any prophecy. Or, he cannot change, in which case he is not in control of his actions, and thus he is also not responsible for his actions. So he cannot be punished: he is not responsible.

      That means if Satan exists, he is totally controlled by God, and God is the only one responsible for evil and everyone's behavior. I wonder what hell he will put himself in as punishment, for he clearly says it will be punished, and he is the only one responsible.

      Omniscience and omnipotence creates impossible paradoxes. The Christian god is impossible.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
      • snowboarder

        if there is a satan, he as obviously been the victim of a campaign to malign him in the bible. considering the genocide and slaughter attributed to the christian god, satan is likely the freedom fighter against an unimaginable tyrant.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • first response

        If you were Satan and you rebelled against God, doomed for all eternity, wouldn't you be so resolved to fight against him even if you knew you couldn't win? Maybe you continue to fight because you think you think you can change the outcome? Or just take as many people with you as you can to break God's heart as much as possible? There are a lot of reasons he continues to fight.

        Everyone one of us is responsible for our own actions (even Satan). He made his choice long ago to turn from God.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
      • ME II

        To be fair you are assuming that "Satan" is rational.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  3. Kneel Before Me

    Tell me you believe in a purple elephant that pukes bees, and I'll have you committed.

    Tell me you believe there's a man in the sky who will grant you eternal life in exchange for your obedience and condemnation of all who oppose you, and the rest of us will just play along and pretend you're sane.

    But you're not sane. In fact, you're no less delusional than "he who sees the purple elephant." Your numbers don't matter. Collective delusion is still delusion. What matters is your track record. Consider yours, then consider mine. I am science and logic, creativity and morality. You are judgment, fear and hatred masquerading as love and righteousness.

    Scarier still, your hand is much closer to that big red button – the one that sends you to "heaven" and me to oblivion – than my hand will ever be. Scary, because the devout have less to lose in their minds than those who recognize the finality of this life.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • thomas

      Sorry, but I have personal proof in my life of a living and real God. But I haven't seen one shred of evidence to support the notion of your bee/elephant nonsense. Not one shred. Not even an inkling. So try to come up with something more plausible if you expect others to buy into it.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
      • ME II

        What exactly is "personal proof"? Do you mean really strong feelings?

        How can you ask for evidence of the purple elephant if you have no evidence of your God?

        July 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
      • Stephen Jones

        If you don't mind, what are some of those proofs?

        July 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • Lucifer's Evil Twin

        "I have personal proof in my life of a living and real God" No you don't. Opinion and wishful thinking are not acceptable forms of evidence/proof. In the 2000 years since your religion was invented, no one has been able to provide "proof".

        July 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • Tom Wilson

        I for one would be very interested in knowing all about your personal proof and knowledge of a god or gods.. I have never heard of anyone having personal proof. Did he call you by name? Tell us more! Thanks!

        July 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  4. Brian Musser

    I break things down into 6 categories as well but somewhat differently
    1 Anti-theists – religion is wrong and should be eradicated
    2 Strong Atheists – think that God's has been dis-proven
    3 Weak Atheists – think that God needs to be proven and has has not been
    4 Strong Agnostics – think that we cannot know if God exists
    5 Weak Agnostics – think that we do not know if God exists
    6 Apa-theists – don't care if God exists

    July 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Thinker...

      Though I agree with your categories, you might want to find less unintentionally judgemental words (weak/strong). Far too many will misinterperet them as value judgements rather than descriptors since strength is praised and weakness is condemned in scociety.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • RGE50

      Busted by the PC police!

      July 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
      • Thinker...

        Eh I don't care about PC. I am more concerned with clarity and properly representing intent.

        Also preventing misunderstandings helps keep conversation open and free of flame wars/trolls. Trolls purposly misunderstand to create conflict where none need be. Thus less chance for misunderstanding means less troll food. Remember! Don't feed the trolls!

        July 16, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Brian Musser

        Sorry but that is the technical terms in philosophy classes for them. The weak and strong connotations are about the where they lie with the burden of proof.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
        • Brian Musser

          A weak position means that something has not yet been decided but needs to be for it to be held as true.
          The burden of proof has not yet been reached. A strong position means that something has been decided. The burden has either been reached or has officially been decided that it will never be reached.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
        • Thinker...

          True enough. My point is how it will be interpereted. It is the same with how the theory of evolution is discredited by people who say it is 'just a theory' without any understanding of the meaning of 'theory' in a scientific setting. In other words, you always have to remember your audience. Technical language can be easily misinterpereted by those that do not know the jargon.

          As an engineer working with tradesmen I have to be careful how I say things to prevent misunderstandings so I tend to point these kinds of things out. For example: I said earlier "I am more concerned with clarity and properly representing intent." 'Properly' was not the correct word for me to use because it can be construed as a value judgement (you tell someone the 'proper' way to do something they have been doing for years and they can take it as you telling them they don't know their jobs rather than as constructive criticism) when it is not intended as such. When conversing, slips like that can put people on the defensive making discussion more difficult.

          July 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  5. Dude Guy

    Many atheists are a blend these qualities: if a religious person is proselytizing to me, I might pull the claws out and express some anti-theist or activist or intellectual strains; most of the time thought II am a blend of non-theist and seeker-agnostic who engages is some ritual activities. It's also the case for many atheists to evolve in their position over time, some beginning softer and progressing to activism, others the other way around. Being an atheist is necessarily dynamic, with the qualities of one's atheism subtly changing over time as one becomes wiser or stupider. What remains the same for all atheists though is the most basic and obvious: a lack of a belief in God.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Diogenes

      If ANYONE starts to proselytize to me, atheist or believer, I walk away. I dislike lectures of any sort.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
      • Thinker...

        Interestingly enough, I had one of the most interesting conversations of my life when a couple of Baptists (I think, might have been some other denom) came by my apartment proselytizing. One of them was quite intelligent and we talked for nearly an hour before his 'friend' went and told me that I was going to burn in heII for following satan (I am an atheist) and he was glad that evil people like me were dealt with 'properly'. The intelligent guy looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole in embarasment. I guess I made the other guy uncomfortable by either making him question his own beliefs or by not fitting his idea of what an athiest should be like.

        I have a feeling that a good conversation isn't the norm though.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  6. Hunter

    I'd say I'm a #5, but I don't really care. Why am I reading this?

    July 16, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  7. ken long

    I love the fact that I live in a country where people are free to be Atheists or free to be religious, deeply or casually. One article of faith that I memorized as a young man states: "We claim the privilege of worshipping the almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscious and afford all men the same privilege. Let them worship how, where, or what they may." Adding my own interpretation, let them NOT worship, preach atheism, tear up Bibles and burn Korans if that is what they choose to do.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  8. RGE50

    I'm wondering why so many of you fee compelled to post here when the question asked was:

    "Are you an atheist? Tell us what kind in the comments below."

    So why do you theists feel compelled to post your position... not that anyone cares what you think anyway.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Athy

      Well, you did, didn't you?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
      • RGE50

        I asked why you did (post) not what you think, couldn't care less about that.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  9. Andy

    #6 is the closest for me I love their holidays for the family experiences, but I think this article is missing the group of people who have very strong atheist beliefs but don't go preaching it to the world. As a teenager I was very much #2 & #4, but as an adult lost that need/desire to outwardly project those beliefs onto the world, even though my beliefs didn't change.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  10. Richard

    I wouldn’t stereotype an atheist and I believe in God.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  11. Jake

    They missed by far the largest category of atheists – Atheists in denial. This is the only explanation for seemingly intelligent people who claim to believe in a god.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Mordecai

      Please read up on Francis Collins. Not seemingly intelligent. Very intelligent. His work in leading the human genome project moved him away from atheism and to embrace Christianity. I'm really not sure why some atheists feel the need to call believers delusional or idiots, and vice versa. Believe it or not, equally intelligent people can come to different conclusions.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
      • Stephen Jones

        A person can be intelligent and delusional just like they can be intelligent and suffer from schizophrenia.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  12. Lisa

    I am an anti-theist, not a militant one though. I hold the view that organized religion is extremely harmful, but I am not going to preach my belief to friends and family unless they are being harmed or actually harming someone. At the same time, we do as a family celebrate Christmas and Easter in such a way that we do gift, chocolate and turkey, but none of the religious aspect. Our children know both husband and myself are atheists, but we are not forceful of our lack of belief. We came to the conclusion that there is no god and that religion is harmful on their own and they need to find their own path. We will be supportive in what they choose as long as no harm comes from it.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Rich

      What do you and your husband (We will just call him Jer) think of those in countries where Budism or islam is dominant, like in Singapore?

      July 16, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  13. Walt Miletic

    Atheist and Christians are almost identical. As an Atheiest I dismiss one more God than a Christian

    July 16, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Illusive

      Kind of, atheists don't believe in any gods. Christians are technically atheists in regards to all other gods.

      Big difference is atheists are not making a positive claim subject to the burden of proof. Atheists don't usually say "There are no gods" they say "I don't believe in any gods", big difference.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  14. Dean

    It takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe in God. A person who believes in God has things to show him there is a God. An atheist has nothing to show him that there is no God.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • ME II

      What "things" exactly?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Antigone

      How much effort did you put in disbelieving Santa? Being an atheist requires no effort at all. You just wish it did.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
      • Stephen Jones

        Well played Antigone!

        July 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      A truism... If you want to know if a christian belief blogger is an idiot... just wait for them to type something...

      July 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Jake

      Uh, what? Atheism requires no "faith". Faith (the act of believeing something without or despite evidence) is precisely what atheism is against.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  15. Colton

    Im not an atheist, but im not religious either, i believe in god and stuff, and still consider myself christian, jus not a religious person

    July 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Way to have solid convictions...

      July 16, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
      • snowboarder

        i think the majority of people go through life without any need for significant religious convictions. the majority of my christian friends are christian in ritual only. their religion little more than tradition.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      Which god do you believe in? How do you prove a god even exists? The curious want to know!

      July 16, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  16. Andres

    PREACH digitalclips

    July 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  17. Fran

    There is yet another category. As we move into higher levels of awareness, that is, beyond the bio-computer or mind/body vehicle, it is then and only then we experience the reality of Truth. Until then, it's all just mere speculation, opinions and belief. Belief, at best, is an educated guess. If you want to know what water feels like, you gotta jump in the ocean.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • ME II

      What higher levels exactly?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  18. Johnny Noir

    When I am not around religious people, I am an apatheist: don't know, don't care, not gonna waste my time.

    When I am around religious people, I get so disgusted with their behavior that I seem to become an anti-theist.

    But in truth, I think I am actually an anti-moron, because if you remove the morons, I just don't care.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Mordecai

      Regarding your comment about not liking to be around "religious" people, I am Christian, but I don't like being around "religious" people either. If I am thinking of the same type of "religious" people, they tend to be very sanctimonious. Interestingly, Jesus didn't like being around these people either. Also interestingly, I have found some atheists to be just as sanctimonious in their atheism. I, too, am anti-moron . . . but I fear the morons may inherit the earth . . . 😉

      July 16, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  19. brucefp

    1-4 of varying degrees. I'm very comfortable with the label atheist, but the six categories listed are overly specific and seem like they would be better used as ingredients to the recipe of a non-believer.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  20. Paul Costa

    We could start our own gimmick, I mean religion. We could have the best climber out of us ascend a mountain and claim he/she had a conversation with god. Then we could write some stuff about it; rent a pulpit and ask for a bunch of money.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Athy

      Sounds like fun. Count me in.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Manfred

      Can I be the pope?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
      • Paul Costa

        Sure, you called it first. Find a cool hat & slippers.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
        • Stephen Jones

          Don't forget the underwear.

          July 16, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
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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.