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. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Are there any others out there who fall into the group that thinks religious belief is simply a side effect of our early ability for abstract thought? Something we come up with to answer what we don't yet understand? That it's not a mind control conspiracy (although churches are) but simply a lingering side effect that has yet to drift away?

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

      I'd agree with you sir... I think when humans started thinking about their own mortality, things they don't yet understand, and their place in the grand scheme of the universe religion came into play. It was way to account for all these things...

      July 16, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  2. Sam Yaza

    do i feel sorry for atheist, any one who is in the same group with Ayn Rand should be embarrassed, Katharine Hepburn is a plus (makes a cat like sound)

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

      And by that logic you are in the same camp as the KKK and the WBC.
      Enjoy your hate.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
  3. Jesus

    No sir. No sir I don't like it.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  4. STLBroker

    A fool says in his heart that there is no God.


    July 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • bostontola

      It's not as bad as you might think being that kind of fool, it works for me.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
      • STLBroker

        It may work at the moment but eternity is a very long time.

        July 16, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
        • sam stone

          STL.....your god is impotent, and you are a snivelling toady. If you have the guts, go meet jeebus

          July 16, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
        • My Dog is a jealous Dog

          There is no such thing as eternity. Stop being a jerk and enjoy the time you have left.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • Athy

      A fool says in his heart that there is a god.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Ooohh... i'm scared now. Circular logic is circular...

      July 16, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      A truly foolish person says MINE is the correct God(s) regardless of how many billions of people believe / believed in other Gods & Goddesses over the course of human history.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • sam stone

      Wow, a quote from an iron age comic book. Very impressive, indeed

      the fools are the pompous fvcks who feel they speak for god

      July 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Keith

    Honestly, I try to respect all beliefs, but have a little trouble with some of the anti-theists. I'm talking the ones who ridicule you, while telling you religion wrongly tells us to judge each other. They're the ones who tell you how ignorant you are, but turn a blind eye to any argument that doesn't agree with theirs. They're the ones who take all their data from hate-promoting anti-religious blogs and pretend their stances on issues are any less biased than Fox news. I don't take this to represent the majority of Atheists out there. I have enjoyed intellectual debates with several, who disagree but don't judge. I also believe there are Christians out there who misrepresent us in the same manner, but have recently had to cut all ties with a long-time friend, because I felt like I was constantly and wrongly being attacked.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Sam Yaza

    do i feel sorry for atheist, any one who is in the same group with Ayn Rand should be embarrassed, Katharine Hepburn is a plus (makes a cat like sound)

    July 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Saraswati

      While Ay n Rand is an idiot, that's like saying Christians should be embarrassed to be in the same group as the Westboro Baptist church. Every group has its fools.

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

      Sam Yaza,

      How does that compare to the embarassment of supporting a book that talks about unicorns and talking nonhumans?

      July 16, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
  7. Neil

    I do not believe in a personal God who listens to prayers or causes a rain storm to occur when a forest fire is getting out of hand . I study cosmology . However, there does appear to be some kind of over-arching intelligence responsible for designing and controlling the universe . Folks need to study general relativity [gravity] , nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium and other things like star birth in order to appreciate this type of genius .It could be that this intelligence wanted a very big garden full of diversified life forms to exist now and for a very long time to come as new stars and their planets are constantly forming . This may be the only reason for the existence of our universe or other possible universes .

    July 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Dippy

      Anyone who studies cosmology should be smart enough to not put a space before every punctuation mark.

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

        There is an appropriate reason why you are called dippy .

        July 16, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • { ! }

      Sir James Hopwood Jeans "The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. " In other words, the 19th century, Victorian science, mechanistic view held onto by todays atheists is dying.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      then who or what created the designers?

      July 16, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • fintastic

      blah blah blah... there is ZERO evidence to support creationism..

      July 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • G to the T

      Or it could be a natural outcome based on time, gravity and the initial conditions. Which position contains more assumptions?

      July 18, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  8. Dyslexic doG

    Bible Contradictions:

    Jesus' last words

    MAT 27:46,50: "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?" that is to say, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" ...Jesus, when he cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost."

    LUK 23:46: "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, "Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit:" and having said thus, he gave up the ghost."

    JOH 19:30: "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, "It is finished:" and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost."

    July 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Randy M

      Have you ever had different people tell a story and some of the facts were slightly different. Either some left out or a slightly different interpretation? These were all written by 3 different writers and at different times. Luke was not even there, he was a convert who was a close associate of Paul the Apostle. He basically, interviewed all the Apostles and witnesses of the events to write down what actually happened. At the time of Luke, the gospels had not yet been written. John was the last Apostle to die and he wrote the book of John when he was in his 90's so that the Christian Church of that day would have some of his knowledge to review after he was gone. So the fact that there are slight difference actually give evidence that different people saw the events and the fact that they were written at different times shows that there was not a conspiracy to lie about the events. I don't know if this helps, it depends if you have honest questions or are just trolling.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
      • cedar rapids

        i thought the bible was the unerring word of god, guided by him etc etc etc?
        You cant claim different people telling different versions if that is the case.

        July 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  9. bostontola

    Somebody spent resources to study atheists. We've gone from insignificant to almost on the radar screen in our society. Moving up in the world.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • kerfluffle

      Anonymity suited me just fine.

      but i will cast aside that comfort with reckless abandon and fight legislation from any and every pulpit

      July 16, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • G to the T

      Firstly – there's no reliable evidence for who actually wrote each of the books. Secondly – they were NEVER written to be combined into one book later. As such, it's important to read each one for what it is – a specific interpretation of what they thought were Jesus' teachings, life, death, etc. Those words are different because each author was trying to portray a different type of Jesus. That's why in one book Jesus does miracles all the time and in another he refuses to do any.

      These are legitimate differences in the narratives and trying to conflate them goes against what the original author was trying to say...

      July 18, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  10. Sam Yaza

    man do i feel sorry for atheist, any one who is in the same group with Ayn Rand should be embarrassed,

    July 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Silly

      Yeah! King Kong was also an atheist! Egg on faces all around, amirite?

      July 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • snowboarder

      but your ok with being in the same group as the westboro baptist church?

      July 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      I think you will find more 'followers' of Rand in the ranks of the religious right than the atheist left.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • Observer

      Sam Yaza,

      Anyone claiming they believe all of a book that talks about unicorns and talking nonhumans should be embarassed.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
  11. bostontola

    Some scientists spent resources to study atheists. We've gone from insignificant to almost on the radar screen in our society. Moving up in the world.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • a


      July 16, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
  12. Silly

    There are over 30 kinds of people who don't collect stamps too!

    July 16, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  13. HAKLI

    "Indeed, those who disbelieve – it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them – they will not believe.
    Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment." The Wise Qur'an (Sign#2:6 & 2:7)

    July 16, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • snowboarder

      we don't believe that jibberish any more than we believe the nutcases quoting the bible.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  14. Sam Yaza

    man do i feel sorry for atheist, any one who is in the same group with Ayn Rand should be ashamed , Katharine Hepburn is a plus (makes a cat like sound)

    July 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  15. Sam Yaza

    man do i feel sorry for atheist any one who is in the same group with Ayn Rand should be embarrassed, on that note Katharine Hepburn is a plus (makes a cat like sound)

    July 16, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  16. Sam Yaza

    man do i feel sorry for atheist any one who is in the same group with Ayn Rand should be embarrassed, on that note Katharine Hepburn is a plus (makes a cat like sound)

    July 16, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Athy

      Sam, you're running it into the ground.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  17. Near-Miss

    A plane headed to Provo Utah for a national atheist and agnostic convention suffered a mechanical and structural failure. On board were 172 or so atheist and agnostic “souls”.
    Just before the plane crashed into the ground an assumption of the passenger majority was heard to be screaming or pleading to God and or Jesus as record of such prevailed from cell phone calls to loved ones on the ground. The Flight recorder also captured the overwhelming invitations asking God to spare life.
    The same “phenomenon” has been witnessed and recorded from atheists and agnostics on the battlefields.
    When your time comes; in that near moment, turn your phone recorder on so that we can hear who or what you cry for, please.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Mear-Niss

      Which flight was this?

      July 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • snowboarder

      sounds like fiction to me.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      sorry near-miss but i think you are bearing false witness there with that 'story'

      July 16, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • jew Zeus

      Religion is so sad, and when you die, you're life will have been wasted.
      Its the most affective form of slavery ever. and hella cheep for the return of the investment.
      Asking for a god or a lord to save you doesn't mean you will exists after you die, and converting to religion only saves the church.
      #7-Social Contract Atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • buttttt

      Cool story, bro. Weird that i can't find anything about it anywhere else online. Care to provide a link? Where were all these atheists coming from in the first place? Seems weird that there would be so many in one city all taking the same plane to Provo. What year was this? I've been following organized atheism since 1999 and this would have been huge news in the community. Oh yeah, maybe you made it up.

      As for atheists in foxholes, I know more than a few atheist veterans and active duty military.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • fintastic

      @Near-Miss......... that story stinks because you pulled out of your a$$

      July 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  18. Brenna

    I am a non-theist – I've never heard that term used before, but it describes my ambivalence perfectly. I wasn't raised in a faith and have no interest in joining a faith, but I'm not anti-religious... there's just not a place for it in my life. cool!

    July 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • CHG

      The fact that you read this article makes you part of the first group – 1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic: This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism. A Non-theist would not have bothered nor been interested.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  19. Soup-Du-Jour

    Zimmerman walked, what more proof do you need?

    July 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Soup-Du-Jour

      Ding-Dong, Tray is dead!

      July 16, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  20. John

    We need a seventh category of atheist, someone who finds the whole idea of all-powerful, invisible sky beings as so ridiculous that they don't even think of themselves as atheist, since that implies that there is something real in which they don't believe. This would be the category for me. If believing in that whole fantasy gets you through the day, fine. Just don't presume that others should respect your delusions to the point of basing laws around them.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:23 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.