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. Person of Interest

    I'm agnostic and I don't fit into any of these exactly. Perhaps you should not try to associate people with broad generalizations. I used to be Catholic and I do see the good in some of the teachings but I don't know if there is a God but I do seek knowledge of the world to better understand what limitations we have. I also actively engage both aetheists and theists in their beliefs should they try to push their view points upon others. So I dive into about 4 of your categories.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  2. rob

    As a long time agnostic/atheist I stand more with the independents but lean a bit to the right. I choose to honor religious people their fundamental right to be religious and do not get offended if they say Merry Christmas, then again I strongly support the 1st amendment. I think the anti religious movement is offensive and obstructs freedom of speech if the ultra left is so tolerant then leave the religious people of all religions including the one they reject the most (Christianity) alone. On the other hand the ultra far right leaning Christian factions of this country need to do the same, TV evangelists comes to mind but I have a choose in what I watch and choose to turn them off completely. As for prayer in school; is should remain removed from our school and keep both religious right wingnuts and left leaning extremist as far as way from that decision-making process as possible.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Either way GZ supporters cannot blame liberals. Scott and Corey are the ones behind GZ being charged.
      Rob; The reason the left doesn't leave the religious alone is because of social right issues like abortion and SSM. I don't see where the left has passed laws that restrict religious people expect when it comes to discrimination, but the right uses religion all the time to deny rights. Are you saying people should have the right to discriminate based on religious grounds? e.g. Refuse to rent to gay people?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • snowboarder

      there is no reason to coddle the religious. it is long past time for religion to lose its unearned pedestal in society.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  3. Steve

    I'd like to know the difference between the model's #1 and #4. It's not clear to me, but I am just an atheist.

    I feel somewhat comfortable with those two, but not really. I feel more comfortable with something I haven't seen espoused before... rejecting all so-far published descriptions of religions (such as judaism, christianisty, satanism...), but not necessarily denying that some kind of god exists.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • R.M. Goodswell

      I think the point of this article is to demonize the so-call militant or "fundamentalist" atheists...the ones who threaten to destroy the whole argument on every level with what we know already. With the Agnostic approach you can polish the chrome forever and never be done. They really wish we would go away...

      July 16, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  4. Manfred


    July 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  5. Manfred

    W T H

    July 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  6. Max

    I'd have to say personally I'm closest to being a Ritual Atheist although I can see how people can easily be Anti-theists. I find it disturbing and sad when I constantly read articles about all the religious violence around the world. It's disturbing because people should be better than this and sad because such primitive thinking still exists.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Opus

    All the pervs are coming out from under the rocks to respond to me. Interesting.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • .

      We're mostly hitting 'report abuse' on your stupid trolling ass.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • sly

      Is this the religious guy harping on gay folks?

      God is probably gay – ever see Him with a chick?

      And God knows all your religious leaders are gay, right on up to the pope.

      Come out of the closet Opus.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  8. Matt Anderson

    Apparently I'm a seeker-agnostic. The only thing I know for sure in this life is that I don't know everything. There are things that we just can't know at this time and I'm fine with that; however, I'm open to learning about these things if we ever do find out about them.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Matt; I have views similar to yours but we do need to admit that when we say we are open to learning about these things,, that in many ways we are only kidding ourselves. I.e. we know that the odds something revealing (e.g. god coming out of the sky and speaking to us), are so remote that it is folly to say we are open to things when at the same time we believe the odds are slight something like that will happen in our lifetime.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  9. sly

    Why be an athiest when there are so many virgin chicks waiting for us up in heaven.

    No laws.
    No wives.
    God likes a little hanky/panky (see: Adam/Eve psalm 1q).

    Yes sireee! I'm going to eclipse Wilt the Stilt's famous '10000' record in 6 months, and just with 18-21 year olds (Earth time, of course).

    July 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  10. Paul Costa

    Of course the scared religious fanatics will say: "See? There are 6 types of atheists – Six! They are the devil's people.."

    July 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  11. mike russel

    I was orphaned at an early age (9, to be exact), and my only salvation was to go and be at a Seventh-Day Adventist mission establishment in Malawi, Africa.
    I should emphasise that from day one, I hated their doctrine and the phoniness of the people and what they stood for. I had to be there and was there for survival. To this day, I do get nightmares about my time of my being there.
    I have never and will never believe in the existence of god and I thought and still do, that the Christian beliefs are a waste of time due in part to the unfounded fear of the unknown to many people.
    The best we can do as non-believers, is to not talk about it because it is upsetting to those that do to be told that there's no god.--Amen!

    July 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • snowboarder

      it upsets them when anyone expresses differing theological views, whether atheistic or other theological views.

      no sense holding yourself back. the trepidation is all theirs.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  12. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    These shorter boards are terrible

    July 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • sam

      I agree. It's a mess.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Johnny Noir

      They absolutely kill extended conversation.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • OTOH


      Were you around when these blogs began? Then, there were no pages at all (and IIRC, oldest posts were at the top). Everything was on one page... sort of overwhelming sometimes, but at least you could search for your posts easily.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
      • Saraswati

        Searching is the problem. If they would introduce a useful search feature it wouldn't be so bad. I really can't follow a conversation like this.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  13. Rob

    I think atheism is the next step in the evolution of the mind. When we didn't understand lightning, we said Zeus or Thor were responsible. Now, no matter how religious, most people know it is a weather condition and not an act of god. The formation of the earth, the solar system, the universe... As more explanations arrive the placeholder that was "God did it." slowly vanishes. Now almost everything can be explained, and those few things that science has yet to cover will be revealed soon. Understanding an logic have always been the enemies of faith. Faith is belief without proof. Now we have proof and so faith has become "belief in something that has been proven false." Maybe there is a higher power, but it works within the confines of science.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  14. Opus

    Les bos and Ho mos are atheists because they know what they are doing is wrong and denying God is the only way they can allow themselves to continue their lifestyle without the fear of being held accountable in the end..

    July 16, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • sam

      Oh, here's a fresh idiot.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Johnny Noir

      Opus' bigotry is another great reason to be an atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      sorry opus but bearing false witness and being a hater makes you a false christian and damned to hell.
      sorry, but i didnt make the rules.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
      • Randy M

        Christianity is not predicated on works. Only on God's forgiveness. So, even a christian who acts inappropriately it does not disqualify him from heaven.

        July 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
        • cedar rapids

          sorry but Corinthians specifically states that revilers, or haters, will be barred from heaven. Opus is a reviler, and thus barred.
          Again, not my rules.

          July 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  15. Opus

    Les bos and Ho mos are atheists because they know what they are doing is wrong and denying God is the only way they can allow themselves to continue their lifestyle without the fear of being held accountable in the end.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Diogenes

      You are a troll, and quite a crappy one at that. Do shut up.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • Waaaa

        Must have hit an nerve. WAHAHAHAHAHA

        July 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Manfred

      Newsflash Bigot! Your god is not real, and you're a fool for believing that hateful tripe.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Manfred

      Newsflash Bigot! Your god is not real, and you are a fool for believing that idiotic nonsense!

      July 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Paul Costa

      Because your priests said so, right?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • sly

      Nothing more amusing than religious sheep harping on gays, when pretty much every religious leader in the world is gay.

      We've read hundreds of stories of priests and pope's molesting little boys. I'm thinking there may be a few non-gay religious preachers, but likely over 90% are gay.

      Hell, God is likely Gay. Ever see Him with a chick?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Thinker...

        I am an athiest and I would refute that. For one, a pedophiles' orientation is 'children.' They generally are not specifically gay or straight. For another, what makes you think 90% of priests/pastors are gay? To the best of my knowledge there has not been any study that suggests that. If you are using the argument that they protest too much, I would remind you that many pastors accept LGBTQ people just as they do straights. Shoot I know someone who is unhappy with her church because the pastor doesn't preach against gay marriage but instead supports it.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  16. SATAN

    HEY HEY HEY...I am a good Christian. If you don't believe me I will kick your @$$!

    July 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  17. Johnny Noir

    Quick poll: Do you like these shorter pages?

    I vote NO

    July 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Stephen Jones

      NO. Not to happy with the follow-up system either.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Diogenes

      It's a new page almost every time I refresh.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Sussay

      NO!!! Think I'll go back to Huffpost!

      July 16, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  18. Sivick

    I guess i would be a ritual atheist. I still celebrate christmas, as far in there are decorations and gift exchanges around a tree, and I enjoy my halloween and easter chocolates. Also I tend to view religious figures as more philosophers than the gods/prophets they are made out to be. Taken from that perspective they had a lot of good ideas about how to live one's life. Too bad most of their followers seem to forget about that part when it's inconvient. They must be too busy opressing gay people/women/people of other religions.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  19. SATAN

    I believe in God or else I couldn't believe in me.....uh...right?

    July 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Johnny Noir

      Christians are indeed as close to being Satan as I have ever encountered. And you prove it, Satan Christian.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • Waaaa

        You sound gay.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • Richard

        I am a Christian and I have done nothing wrong to be warranted being called Satan.

        July 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Richard

      There you go atheists. Proof God and Satan exist.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  20. FajitaBob

    Fine. Believe or don't. But read the posts to see who is trying to force their beliefs on others.
    Just the facts, people.

    July 16, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Agnostickids

      What are the facts bob?

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

      This is an article that specifically asks what category atheists would describe themselves. How did this fact escape you?

      July 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • sam

      Don't be grouchy, Bob.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:31 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.