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. Bi

    Seems like man created God in their own image!

    July 16, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • mzh

      Because man is created with free will to do or say whatever they want to... not like any other animal who has not free wills... otherwise you will not have a dog leashed and they will ask for freedom...

      July 16, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
      • cedar rapids

        that is still a silly argument, you know that right?

        July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • Rob Sellers

        Man created God, and the concept of free will. The bible dates dates the Earth to 6000 years old. No, it does not specifically give the date, but if you add up all the genealogy, the answer is there. Just the fact that we have discovered human remains IN AFRICA, from 122,000 years ago, flies in the face of the Bible, and destroys the story of Adam and Eve. Without said story, the rest of the Bible falls flat, and the need of a savior becomes moot.

        Ignoring this evidence, based on your own ignorance, will not change the facts. Learn about dating methods, they are accurate, and though Radio Carbon Dating is the most well known, there is more than one method.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
        • Randy M

          You are incorrect. The genealogy true are about 6,000 years but the first few verses have no concept of time. Even if you believe that everything happens in a literal day. The genealogy does not start until Adam is created and that is several verses in. We do not know the time that occurred before then.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
        • Oregon Jeff

          "We do not know the time that occurred before then."

          Nor do we need to as it's fable and not fact.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
        • G to the T

          @ Randy "You are incorrect. The genealogy true are about 6,000 years but the first few verses have no concept of time."

          Funny I'm prettys sure it says "on the first day..." and "on the second day..." etc. You can certainly try to do some mental gymnastics like Paul did when asked why the second coming hadn't occurred yet, but it clearly give a "day" as the unit of time each event took to complete. That plus geneologies would put you firmly in the 6-10K range for the approx. age of the earth.

          July 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  2. Michael Brian Mayo

    I was a "seeker-agnostic" for many years, but, as time went by, I became an "intellectual atheist." I still feel that I'm an "intellectual atheist;" however, I believe I have also picked up the traits of the "activist" and "anti-theist."

    July 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  3. Reasonably Distraught

    These researchers are morons...Agnostics look down on atheists...why would they lump the 2 in the same category....? I hate to burst their bubble again. But there are only 2 categorical atheist. Of course you can describe a thousand different individuals who claim to be atheist, and perceive them to be in different categories...but that defeats to purpose of having a category.

    Here are the 2 kinds:
    Those who don't believe in a god through deductive reasoning
    Those who don't believe in a god because their belief system doesn't require it (ex: Buddhism - and no, Buddha isn't a type of god)

    July 16, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • scentofreason

      Incorrect sir:

      Atheists don't believe in God because there is no evidence.

      Agnostics won't believe in God, even if the skys opened up and he walked down in person.

      Agnostic myself, I bow to no one.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      What believers in a different god, say Amaterasu, they are atheists with regard to the christian god (et al).

      July 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  4. Sam

    It's all an invalid arguement.

    An Australian guy has decoded the Bible and is going to release the true interpretation of it soon. That disproves Judaism, Christianity/Catholicism, and Islam.

    This is why the current pope is Prophecised as the last. Cause the world is about to find out the truth.


    July 16, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • Your dog is an atheist

      Tie me kangaroo down!! Australian?? Why not someone from the Upper (or Normal) Hemisphere?

      July 16, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
      • kerfluffle

        apparently, reading it upside down and backwards was the trick

        who knew?

        July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      "1. It all began; when there came into being the spiritual world and the physical world. 2. The material world was chaotic, from shadows cast by the fear of the unknown and its FAITHS (Idolatry), were the word." Gen 1:1,2

      LOL. This guy claims to be re-translating but he really is re-interpreting the bible. When will they get a clue, no matter how many times you re-write the bible it will never make it true.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • ME II

      " And the Elohim; declared the enlightened, were the day; and those with their eyes closed, were the night. And it came from the Western Star, the dawning of our conscious awakening to MASCULINE of ENLIGHTENMENT "
      Gen 1:5 of this new translation

      Sounds like the ramblings of LionlyLamb.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  5. Josh

    What is the difference between #2 and #4?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  6. lionlylamb2013

    Systemic beliefs of an atheist are drawn and quartered via their idolizing of mentored philosophies which by the waysides are bigoted with many negative connotations central to any atheist's main perspectives. Deny such if one wills but the truth bites doesn't it?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  7. John

    I am all six kinds as described, it depends on the day of the week. More exactly, it depends on the context in which you ask me which I am. Probably most questions are in a context that involves some absurdity, and are worth ignoring or humor. For example, any religion, as opposed to any philosophy. But some questions do deserve serious attention.

    I doubt you can find anyone who is purely 1 or even 2 types, our contexts are generally not consistent enough to be wholly consistent in our responses.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm |

    Who the fuk cares who believes in what. I don't give a dam what someone else believes in. Atheist, Christian, Muslim, jew, what ever. Just let people be.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  9. joe

    what an absolutely retarded piece.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  10. Richard

    Didn’t you atheists ever hear the Bruno Mars song, Locked out of Heaven? If there was no heaven, then how could he feel like he’s been locked out of it? Therefore heaven exists. And since there is a heaven then God must exist.

    And just like that I have proved the existence of God. So, my question is which faith will you all now convert to?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • kk

      beating straw men to death today are we?

      July 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
      • Richard

        It might be a straw man argument but it is also irrefutable.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
        • cedar rapids

          I don't think that word means what you think it means.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
        • Richard

          I believe it means, “Impossible to deny or disprove.” Which is my logic in a nut shell.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
        • cedar rapids

          yeah but you are trolling by talking about a song that talks about going too long without good s ex so irrefutable doesnt fit in this context.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
        • Richard

          Is THAT what the song means? I cant help but to tune it out when I hear it at the gym.

          Well, my logic still works with the song “Stairway to Heaven.”

          July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          One cannot disprove a god although your post could be easily dismissed. Surely those making the extraordinary claims need to provide extraordinary evidence which they have yet to do.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • Richard

          Do you mean extraordinary in the sense that my argument is unusual or in the sense that it is remarkable.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Bruno Mars is your go to guy for Christian philosophy?

      July 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
      • Richard

        Well, he's in my top five.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • David from Nor Cal

      .....really......Ok Captain Herp Derp

      I won't even begin to point out everything wrong with this line of thinking. It would be, to invoke a statement normally associated with debating evolution with creationists, like attempting to play chess with a pigeon.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
      • Richard

        Captain Herp Derp?

        That’s not very nice. Well, at least I have the ranking of captain.

        You wont debate me or CANT???

        Dun Dun Dunnnn

        July 16, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Rob Sellers

      You are seriously using a song as evidence? That just as bad, or worse than using the bible as evidence. No different than saying the Batman theme song is evidence of Batman.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
      • Richard

        Batman’s theme song is evidence of Batman. Can’t you see him fighting the bad guys in the opening credits?

        July 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • John

      Yes, but I, myself, just wrote a poem. And in that poem, you, Richard, are a moron doomed to 1,000 deaths. Now, my poem exists, therefore it is real; and therefore it is true. Good luck, Sir, since mine has about exactly the same logic you use. Unless Bruno Mars is actually god (?) such that his writing has more weight-is more real-than mine?

      If you were using irony or something and I missed it, sorry. But you carry it too long (even following up) to be funny.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
      • Richard

        Yes, but I, myself, just wrote a poem.

        Congratulations. That can be hard work.

        “And in that poem, you, Richard, are a moron doomed to 1,000 deaths. Now, my poem exists, therefore it is real; and therefore it is true.”

        You’re right. For the love of all that is holy, PLEASE change that poem.

        “Good luck, Sir, since mine has about exactly the same logic you use. Unless Bruno Mars is actually god (?) such that his writing has more weight-is more real-than mine?”

        Mars isn’t God. God is still God. Mars getting locked out of heaven is proof of a Deity.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • fds3

      Richard... that logic is anything but. So you did not convince me, still atheist and still do not believe in the God origin story of the jJews or any other origin story made up by ancient societies.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • Richard

        Oh come on!

        July 16, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  11. Snow

    What really irks me the most is the ideology that,

    – You can be an altruist all your life, help others with your money, time and effort, but will end up in hell simply because you do not acknowledge the presence of god.. but,

    – You can be the biggest heathen and sinner of all times live every single second doing bad things to others, but in the last moments, if you just say, "I believe in you god, please forgive me", your slate is wiped clean..

    Moral and Just results, eh!?

    July 16, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The reason is that all your good works are like filthy rags to the Lord. If you think about the eternally perfect being, you and I and Adolph Hitler and Mother Theresa are relatively a far from that as the next galaxy but as close to each other as the fingers on your hand.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • A Conversation

      Snow...who is more loving...a god that employs a subjective test (I'm good enough) that is, at best, ill defined, to determine eternal placement, or a god that employs an objective test (all I have to do is "x") that is fully defined to determine eternal placement. If you want a full answer, read the story of the prodigal son–(hint, its about the prodigal son's brother too–and that's you).

      July 16, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
      • cedar rapids

        'A Conversation
        Snow...who is more loving...a god that employs a subjective test (I'm good enough) that is, at best, ill defined, to determine eternal placement, or a god that employs an objective test (all I have to do is "x") that is fully defined to determine eternal placement.'

        I would expect a god to be able to handle the various variables required to make a determination of a subjective test. If he cant handle that then hes not much of a god.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
      • A Conversation

        Cedar–you completely missed the point. I know God can handle it–the issue is whether you can handle it. So let me rephrase the question. Who is more loving, a God who employs a subject test so YOU have to guess, or a God who employs an objective test so YOU have the peace of mind associated with assurance of salvation?

        July 16, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
        • A Conversation


          July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • cedar rapids

          The one that wouldnt have a believe in me or burn in the fiery pits of hell for eternity would be the most loving, because that stand forces an absolute that is not always possible, through no fault of the person involved.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
        • A Conversation

          Cedar–your injecting facts that don't exist. God never said that those that have never heard of him (or Jesus, to be specific) would be treated to that standard. What will be your excuse?

          July 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
        • cedar rapids

          'A Conversation
          Cedar–your injecting facts that don't exist. God never said that those that have never heard of him (or Jesus, to be specific) would be treated to that standard. What will be your excuse?'

          And I never said 'never heard of him', I said 'believe in me'

          July 16, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
        • Snow

          The only hole (size of the universe) is, you are saying as long as one believes in that one god, he can go ape shti with sin and still be gaurenteed entry into the loving arms of your god and his heaven.

          Do you agree? if not, then you are bringing in that subjective tests (that you argued against) back into the game.. Think about it..

          July 16, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
        • A Conversation

          Snow...I don't agree–accepting Christ isn't simply a mouthing of the words–the Bible says even the demons believe, and shudder. Accepting Christ is a decision of the heart that leads to a desire to a changed life (although the actual change may not be as "good" as we want it to be). It's still an objective test–did I accept Christ as my savior? If yes, I'm free. And that decision means I want to follow him and follow his lead. Good works are still demanded by God-but they are not the litmus test for salvation. This isn't a novel topic–Paul addresses this in his letters extensively.

          July 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
        • Snow

          Do you mean to say that doing good for others and not hurting them is not "a decision of the heart that leads to a desire to a changed life"?

          If you make "Did I accept god as my savior" as an objective test by virtue of that, then "Did I do good for others" and "Did I hurt others" are also objective and NOT subjective on the same lines.

          I can logically deduce the subjective-ness of all three above questions as well.. what good is accepting the god and sitting in a monastery while ignoring your family dependent on you struggle else where?

          July 16, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
        • A Conversation

          Whether an act can be classified as "good" or "hurtful," can be, without a doubt, a fairly objective analysis. How many good deeds do you need to get into Heaven? How many bad deeds keep you out? That's where its subjective. And that's where a loving God (Jesus) says, I'm not making this a balancing test–just do ONE thing.

          July 17, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Vic

      God is so just that He only wants us to believe in Him, and then He grants Salvation. That's how big Belief/Faith is in the eyes of God and how insignificant all our works combined (can not make a dent in God's Kingdom) are.

      Also, think about it this way, when you believe in God, you have acknowledged the BIGGEST thing ever no matter how bad you do. When you disbelieve in God, you have dismissed the BIGGEST thing ever no matter how much good you do.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
      • AverageJoe76

        A for him to be the BIGGEST thing, it'd be nice to actually see 'em.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
        • Vic

          It sure would but that's the test AverageJoe76. God tests man by Faith/Belief; if He were to show Himself or anyone to have direct evidence to Him, there would be no test and no true faith anymore. Nothing pleases God like Faith/Belief.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
      • cedar rapids

        'God is so just that He only wants us to believe in Him, and then He grants Salvation'

        Thats not 'just', thats ego.

        July 16, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
        • A Conversation

          Well, er, m, he is God after all.

          July 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
        • Stephen Jones

          I think he's suffering from a god complex.

          July 16, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  12. Philip Garnett

    I seem to be a combination of all. Mostly anti and seeker but a little of them all.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  13. Mark P

    CNN is a joke.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  14. mzh

    Dear Saraswati:

    I know that none of the books except The Quran talks about the concept of ‘Free Will’ and most of the mankind do not know about that they have a free will to decide what they want to do… like a drug dealer sales drug even though he knows that it is not good and he will not let his child to use it but he does it… and there could be more examples…

    There are plenty of places in the Quran talks about ‘Free Will’ and here are few for you information (88:22-23, 78:39):

    Then do they not look at the camels – how they are created? – 88:18
    And at the sky – how it is raised? – 88:19
    And at the mountains – how they are erected? – 88:20
    And at the earth – how it is spread out? – 88:21
    So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. – 88:22
    You are not over them a controller. – 88:23
    However, he who turns away and disbelieves – 88:24
    Then Allah will punish him with the greatest punishment. – 88:25
    Indeed, to Us is their return. – 88:26
    Then indeed, upon Us is their account. – 88:26

    78:38 – The Day that Ar-Ruh [Jibrael (Gabriel) or another angel] and the angels will stand forth in rows, none shall speak except him whom the Most Beneficent (Allah) allows, and he will speak what is right.
    78:39 – That is the Day the Truth; so whoever wills may take to his Lord a [way of] return.
    78:40 – Indeed, We have warned you of a near punishment on the Day when a man will observe what his hands have put forth and the disbeliever will say, "Oh, I wish that I were dust!"

    There is no compulsion in religion – 2:256

    Peace be upon you all!!!

    July 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • Stephen Jones

      There is no compulsion in religion...– 2:256. Unless you convert from Islam and the we will kill you. It's not in the Quran but is in the Hadith.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Randy M

      You obviously have not read the Genesis account of the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Choice is free will and Adam were given a choice to eat or not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
      • G to the T

        But not being allowed to make an informed decision invalidates the effectiveness of free will. And since they didn't know the difference between good and evil at that point...

        "Free Will" was invented by theologions to solve a problem (how can one have agency in a universe with an ominpotent, ominscient creator). And yet the Bible is full of events that violate free will (hint – hardening someone's heart).

        Even worse – if there's no sin in heaven, but you still have free will – then why can't an all powerful god make there be no sin on earth and still not violate our free will (he is all powerful afterall)? But even that begs the question – if the "fall" was a bad thing and not what god intended, why not just destroy the 2 people and start over rather than waiting a couple of thousand years and killing thousands to MILLIONS in a flood and STILL not fixing the problem?

        July 18, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  15. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    "How many ways are there to disbelieve in God?"
    There are only two answers .. 1 there is only one way NOT to believe in something -or- 2 there are infinite ways to NOT believe something since there are infinite things not to believe in.
    These articles always proceed from the standpoint that A-theism is a group when it's simply a non belief in one of infinite things.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • pat

      It's like, if I make up something right now and ask you why you won't believe it, you really shouldn't have to respond with a reason for not accepting it.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Ledvader

      Yes, and thank you. It's the basic model and how everyone is born. The ideas you gain and whatnot are just belief systems which tend to have similarities, but naturally you would never add a disbelief. "Atheist" groups are philosophy club misnomers.

      July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  16. R.M. Goodswell

    Love how Im ignorant and stubborn when its your scierntific ignorance that is the prolem.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • R.M. Goodswell

      blown reply ..and *problem*

      July 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  17. Lisa

    Seeker-agnostic ! But I celebrate holidays with the family!

    July 16, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  18. Ann Terhune

    I seem to be 3 of these.

    July 16, 2013 at 4:05 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.