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. Dyslexic doG

    Yesterday morning there was a knock at my door. A pleasant and enthusiastic young couple were there.

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    Mary: "Well, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."

    Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"

    John: "In this town, Hank is the same as good luck. All good things are attributed to Hank'"

    Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."

    From the Desk of Karl
    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it plausible that it might be made of cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists don’t know everything, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind.

    from Jhuger.com

    July 16, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • Snow

      Lol.. hilarious..

      July 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • sly


      July 16, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Stephen Jones

      Funny and true!

      July 16, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • Randy M

      If you think that is an approximation of Christianity, then you are a willing fool. You have no understanding and you really don't want to understand. You have made up your mind and are acting just like the knucklehead religious folks you disagree with. Your form of Atheism is certainly not the answer.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  2. naturechaplain

    I'm glad the researchers keep open the increasing field of view. I suppose I see elements of each "type" in myself, but would offer one other: The Collaborative Freethinker. After serving in ministry as an Interfaith Chaplain for many years, I let go of my ordination in the Presbyterian Church about the time I let go of my faith in anything super-natural. Now, I continue to work alongside people of faith and no faith to help other people. . .something I once felt "called" to, but now see as quite natural and common sense, especially in a world divided by "types" and beliefs.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  3. Jeff

    Ritual Atheist I am. I believe its OK for others to believe in a God. However, just because they believe it, it should not make me a heathen. And by believing a God, others should not force their beliefs/opinions on me. By doing so, they contradict my belief or lack of, of any God.

    Live life, do good, and enjoy others along with their differences, and life will treat you well.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  4. Val

    Ritual Athiest

    July 16, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  5. pat

    I can't figure what category Atheist/agnostic I am. I can relate to all six of these to a degree but not completely in any one case. Also, I am not sure why atheist and agnostic are treated as the same, as long as they fall into one of six categories.
    This is how I describe atheism( I have been one for half a century and both my parents were atheists.)
    1. Everything you have been told is just made-up. Doesn't make it wrong but it doesn't make it right. 2. Religion should be kept as far away from government policy-making as can be. 3. There is no such thing as "good and evil," it's just that some opinions are held by people more strongly than others. That's my rant – so what kind of atheist am I?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • Rick

      In response to number 3, are you saying that the only difference between Hitler and Mother Theresa is a difference of opinion? Believing there is no such thing as good and evil may soothe your conscience if you want to do something you know is wrong but can you seriously look at something like the holocaust and say that there is no evil?

      July 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  6. Christian

    I'm 1, 2 and 4.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • James

      Ironic that you are 1, 2 and 4 and yet your name is Christian.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  7. Diogenes

    These shortened pages are at cross-purposes, unless the purpose it to discourage conversation.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  8. Dave

    It would be a simple task to flip this list around and say the equivalent categories apply to the majority of christians, muslims, jewish people, ... Here is the short list using christians as the reference group:

    1) Intellectual christian

    2) Activist

    3) Seeker-christian

    4) Anti-atheist

    5) Non-atheist

    6) Ritual christian

    July 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • ME II

      Good point.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • kenaviba

      The God I don't believe in is a kind, forgiving God, not the severe vengeful God that the atheists don't believe in.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • Richard

      I’m #1 as I believe in the big bang and evolution.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  9. chaz

    look at all the heathens. I guess Heaven wont be filled with some of these funny/smart people.

    ah well...I will be funny myself. Jesus loves a good joke....a la the state of the world right now

    July 16, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Answer

      The religious cretins love their heaven. Morons.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  10. Travis McAfee

    What a stupid article. Agnostics and atheists are not nearly the same thing. I can't wait to read your next article about the 6 type of Christians so that I can learn something about Jews.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • G to the T

      I'm an agnostic atheist. So how do you account for me?

      July 18, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  11. EvinAR

    Um, CNN? There are many more ways than just six of being NOT CRAZY. It's pretty ridiculous that we have this minority over here, on the sidelines of society, that "don't still believe a fairytale they were taught as children".

    I don't believe ANYTHING outside of the natural order has been revealed to ANYONE. Every human purported to be of the divine has DIED. Every Pharaoh. Every Prophet. Every 'son of God'. Every Greek Hero. Every single one. There is NOTHING DIVINE ABOUT THEM. Let's stop pretending Jesus is divine, please – he's not, and we should all know that, if a human being is born to this world, they are OF this world and follow the same rules.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    Whom did they see at the tomb?

    MAT 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
    MAT 28:3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:
    MAT 28:4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.
    MAT 28:5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.

    MAR 16:5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.

    LUK 24:4 And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

    JOH 20:12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • EvinAR

      EvinAR 28:2 And lo, there was a great tsunami, and it washed upon the shores all of the dead bodies of the crabs, that had been slain by the poisoning of industry, and when Joe had seen this, he cried out, "O Lord God! Ye hath made mankind so wicked as to kill thy crabs in thy sea! I shall sacrifice myself, give unto my body an offering, of these crabs, and shall have a huge feast as well, so that all who have poisoned thy creation shall be themselves poisoned!"

      EvinAR 28:8 And so it was that Joe took the crabs to the places of industry, and offered to them, for their good labour, a feast, such that none of them had seen. And after the feast and upon the floors and the long table of the feast hall laid slain all of their bodies, and thus hath the Lord God made crabs walk sideways, for those crabs that were slain and were not eaten had again come to life by the Lord's hand, and escaped along the length of the long feasting table, avoiding the bodies of those men slain.

      Whoa, did I just make up a Bible story? And I don't have to prove it with anything? Wow, that was easy!!

      July 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Randy M

      There were different people and they saw different things. The women were the first and they saw the angel who told them that Jesus was risen. After that they ran and told Peter and John who then ran to the tomb. They saw the empty tomb. I fail to see what is confusing you. You have to take the time to read them and understand the events that are happening. These are all different authors who had a different perspective of the events as they unfolded. You appear to have made up your mind, then you read quickly without grasping even the basic and draw silly conclusions. Again this is not difficult. You should get a couple of bible commentaries that could really help explain all passages of the bible. You really have to try harder. These translations are not always easy to grasp. You have to remember that they were written to an ancient audience of a ancient culture and we have to work harder to understand because they don't say things the way we would in the US in 2013.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
      • Oregon Jeff

        "There were different people and they saw different things."

        Apparently completely contradictory things.

        "The women were the first and they saw the angel who told them that Jesus was risen. After that they ran and told Peter and John who then ran to the tomb. They saw the empty tomb. I fail to see what is confusing you. You have to take the time to read them and understand the events that are happening."

        You don't know your Bible very well.

        Upon his death:

        1) Were there zombies?
        2) What were his last words?
        3) Who buried him?

        Following his resurrection:

        1) Who did Jesus appear to first and where?
        2) What were the women's reactions to the empty tomb?
        3) What did Jesus do after his resurrection?
        4) What were the disciples reaction to Jesus' resurrection?
        5) What are the details surrounding his ascension to Heaven?

        The answers in the scriptures to these questions are inconsistent and contradictory.

        "These are all different authors who had a different perspective of the events as they unfolded."

        None of them had any perspective to the events as they unfolded. None of the books of the New Testament are written by eye witnesses to Jesus.

        "You should get a couple of bible commentaries that could really help explain all passages of the bible."

        If the book were truly divinely inspired/written, it wouldn't need a special "how to read" manual, would it?

        "These translations are not always easy to grasp."

        But, they could be, if an all-knowing, all-powerful god had inspired/written them.

        They're not easy to grasp because they're contradictory, delusional nonsense written by men.

        "You have to remember that they were written to an ancient audience of a ancient culture and we have to work harder to understand because they don’t say things the way we would in the US in 2013."

        Does your god really need that many excuses? Is he *really* unable to defend his own work?

        July 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  13. sly

    Barry Bonds is God. I am a Believer. There is no other God but Barry.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  14. Bonwell

    I would tell any Christian that I'm an atheist, but as far as ontology is concerned, I would consider myself a post-theist—I consider the debate settled among reasonable people; I am not offended by other people's religious views but am bothered when people use archaic, outdated knowledge as a basis for their current views.

    Among the six above I would fit in the "intellectual atheist" group because I spend a great deal of time considering issues of philosophy and the world around us and am prone to quoting and making pretentious arguments, but I would do so (and do) even when religion isn't involved in the discussion.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      As an intellectual, how do you explain the argument from modernity as a reasonable justification for rejection of other peoples beliefs and values?

      July 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  15. Mike D

    1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic – one day all religion will be stories in history books, as is Greek mythology today. Now people are too informed to start new religions and ALL the old ones have died...so it's just a matter of time!!

    July 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Grampa

      I would agree with you were it not for the financial angle. The fact is there's money in religion, in some cases big money. Where there's demand in a free and capitalistic society, the demand will be met.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Stephen Jones

      Unfortunately, because of the money angle, ignorance and shear inertia it's going to be a long time before the current religions are extinct.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  16. jew Zeus

    I thought TV was my god, now I'm confused.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  17. just_another_atheist

    I tell you the toughest part of all is – what and when do you tell your kids, especially when friends and family (including spouses) are telling them what you believe to be untrue. My advice – answer kids questions based on what you believe and cite scientific evidence, and tell them that Christian beliefs are what Christians believe, and that Christians make up only 1/3 of the worlds religion.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  18. Reality

    Summarizing once again for the six-classes of intellige-ntsia mentioned in the topic:

    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 3:51 pm |
  19. Gerald

    #8 Atheist-Dyslexic: Because I don't believe in Dogs either 😛

    July 16, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG


      July 16, 2013 at 3:55 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.