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. MN

    I'm a type 5. If you are talking about the truth or lies of religion, you are missing the whole point. Try looking at it from the other direction. It's your actions, not your beliefs that really count. Does your motivation really matter as long as you are making the world a better place? Stop worrying about what the guy next to you believes, and concentrate on what you are doing right now. I can't possibly know if God or an afterlife exists, so I don't worry about it. I"m just trying to be the best person I can be and the rest will just happen. Why argue over a question you'll never know the answer to? Why fret over something you have no control over?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • Ryaan

      I completely agree with you. I am a number 5 as well... I don't judge others on what they believe simply because it has 0 effect on my life. If it makes them happy then why should I care. A persons actions ultimately is the mark they leave on this world not whether or not they have a religion or don't. Well said.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  2. The activist Atheist and gay rights

    It's very funny they considered atheists as gay right friendly people.
    Based on Richard Dawkins (The king of Atheists), the only purpose of the human race is to transfer our genes to the next generation. Since gay people will not transfer their genes, they go against the very purpose of the atheist life. Furthermore, considering being gay is not programmed in our genetic, it is only about social influence; on an atheistic point of view, the logical answer to that statement would be to stop promoting gay rights to be able to transfer more genes. so It just does not make sense about being atheist and gay supporter.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      Funny, Gay Athiests present themselves and Gay Christians hide themselves LOL Guess its because the bible says if a man lays with a man, he loses his ticket to heaven LOL, that means he is pushed off the side of the earth and falls into hell !!

      July 16, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  3. cliftonbanner

    Whatev, who cares? Non-theistic.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  4. dutch

    non-theist/with a dash of ritual athiest for my family's sake/

    July 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  5. Bill

    Most atheists I've ever heard go off about religion or faith are so fervent in their dis-belief of God, that they might as well call Atheism a religion, and get the tax break from it! So many of them seem insulted, that no one else can see what's so easily figured out by them.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • illusive

      Atheism is not a religion, its a stance on a single question "Do you believe god exists?"

      Some atheists are religious, Look at Buddhists, no gods, lots of religion.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
      • Ready Freddy

        The definition of religion is "the service and worship of god or the supernatural." While Buddhism does not have a creator god per se, most if not all forms of it have supernatural elements that qualify it as a religion.

        July 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      That's because you have only heard the ones who want to go off about it.

      The whole point of this study is to demonstrate that not all atheists are like that.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  6. patrick

    i'm definitely type 6

    July 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  7. I fear the reaper

    Maybe now that nobody is taking religion seriously we can take dying a little more seriously and start thinking a lot more on things like brain transplants and robotic replacement for broken human parts. Maybe we can think of things like severing the nerve connections that are responsible for pain. Immortality isn't yet but could it be one day?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  8. 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?

    Today's verbalized conjurors dare to séance in verbal augments derisions of multi-functionally written gestures. To label someone and for that someone to lay claim to other's labeling, séance written innuendoes shows much as to how written séances dare conjures up another's wanton desires to be led astray from things being imaginatively delegated with serene promises of nothing in particular by perspectives of ill rationed commonly placed writing abilities.

    Be as an atheist and label them all while being as a theist becomes also a labeling issue. The crux of the many as séance traditionalized humane cloisters in which the few will never rightfully ascertain and find being complimentary to one's life-sequential variances. Be then one of goodness sakes and find good cheer among one's friends and leave the rest to never find chances for changing of your values ever forsaking the menial figurations of the most celibate kinds.

    God hates those who have much and will not divvy it up with the poorest of masses and while God loves those most poor He does have issues with those poor who do harm to their families by drinking alcoholic beverages and doing all manner of illicit drugs. Mother Theresa gave her time to help the most poor but even she could not stop the poor's plights. A major war might stop all our communal indecencies but such will come at a high cost...The leftovers from such a causality will be upon said war's soon to be headless nations/countries that still have people to bare witness to mankind's laments.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • niknak

      As always Cowardly lion,
      Too long, too boring.....

      July 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • lionlylamb2013


      July 16, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
      • G to the T

        AHHHH! The burning! Not surprised we're diametrically opposed in our musical taste as well...

        July 18, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  9. lol??

    Atheists, the line forms over there for the free volcano visits, lunch included.

    What?? Oh, don't worry. The group before you will be back late tonite.

    Wink, wink.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  10. Robert

    I'd say I fit into 1, 2, and 4. I think it's hard to believe an atheist can really fit into one description.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  11. Mora

    GOD DO EXIST,,,, and for the people who dont believe in him, how was the Earth, no the whole world was created, who created it?? the sun or the cow! when jesus came he proved he is god

    July 16, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • niknak

      God Do Exist?!?
      So does proper English.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • Ready Teddy

      "GOD DO EXIST,,,,"

      There is nothing like an all-caps grammar-mangle to make me laugh.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • Aubrey

      If god created earth, did he also create the other billions of planets and solar systems we are now discovering on a daily basis? If so, why no mention in the almighty Bible or other books of faith around the world? What about something simple like dinosaur bones we've been finding for centuries...that date back to hundreds of millions of years ago on this same planet? Why is there no (significant if at all) mention of dinosaurs in the Bible? The Bible has us believe that our planet is only around 5,000 years old? Hmmm kind of odd that the age of our planet, which has always been the center of the universe of course, coincides with mans invention of writing and storytelling. It would make sense that before this, the earth and nothing on it ever existed...

      July 16, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  12. Padmanabham

    It is interesting that all 'atheists' are actually believers. What they believe in keeps differing based on what they learnt and what they will learn. From my perspective , the world has no atheists. Everyone believes in something.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • niknak

      What's learnt?
      Is that something they teach you in home school?

      July 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • Dionysius

      You quite clearly didn't understand the article... a theism, is about the disbelief in a deity; a God, a Supreme Being. It is not about disbelieving in 'anything.' For instance I believe that you are, quite clearly, an id10t.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      You might want to look up the word Athiest... It is a word that basically says you do not believe in a god or gods,, It does NOT mean you don't believe in anything..

      July 16, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
  13. Isabel

    I'm a mix of seeker-agnostic and ritual athiest...because I was reaised Roman Catholic, but now that I am older, do not believe many of the things in the Catholic Church, however celebrate its holidays (ritual athiest). Also, I do believe in some kind of higher power/Heaven, although I do not believe in its absolute power (Like God creating humans). I believe in evolution, so that plays a part in it. I'm still learning new things though...after all, I'm only 19!

    July 16, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • mzh

      Peace be upon you Isabel:

      There are lots of folks out there and they were born in a mix culture and most of them are confused... for example a Catholic guy married a hindu girl and they have children and when I talked with the son, the son says there is no difference between Hinduism and Catholicism... meaning that son has no ability to differentiate the what is true or what is not... same happened a lots of ppl in India that cross marriage between Hindu and Muslims and now the children do not what is idol worship and what is The Monotheistic... this is so unfortunate...

      My humble request to you is to keep learning new stuff and do not stop yourself from learning anything and you never know where you will discover something that you have been looking for.. I am telling u from my experiences... that I met ppl who were lost and eventually they got what they were seeking... some of them took more than decade...

      There is a small chapter in the quran revealed to the mankind and thought to share with you:

      103:1 – By time,
      103:2 – Indeed, mankind is in loss,
      103:3 – Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • Cat

      Sigh. You're a Deist, just like me. I really wish that Deism were taught in schools (well, it is, but it's hidden inside of the Enlightenment and not publicised as being an actual frame of religious thought). I think it's sad that many people classify themselves as atheists when in reality they're Deists.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  14. Chris

    What about the dyslexic Athiests.....those who don't see evidence for the existance of dog.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      You mean dgo?

      July 16, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
      • illusive

        dgo exists!!!

        July 16, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • Ready Teddy

      My dog is certainly athy, and I think my dgo is athier, but I accept your claim that you are athiest.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  15. Cody

    Anti-theist and intellectual mix

    July 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • MHayes

      Every atheist likes to think so.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  16. oksunny

    Im a mixture of #5 & #6

    July 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
  17. Ready Teddy

    I really hate the way the new board does not keep you on the same page after you post. And I am not a fan of the multi-level replies – it just kills the flow of conversation. And the shorter pages, yeah, not a good way to keep conversations going and having new people join in.

    This is a big step backwards.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
  18. Richard

    As others have pointed out I feel as though I am a mix of Non-theist & Ritual atheist. Religion plays no role in my consciousness though I have been bound by family traditions to partake in holidays such as Christmas and Easter. I think it is also important to point out that this is my belief and a diagnosis/segmentation of my belief is just as insulting as the comment Mr. Diaz posted.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • Least favorite argument

      I'm just the opposite. I have no family background, no family traditions regarding religion no organized religions around me at all and yet I'm obsessed with discussing religion. Call it fear of death I suppose.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
  19. tonya

    I am a ritual atheist pretty much to the letter. I was once informed in a series of dream that to be guided by my new "alien friends" It would be impossible to live devoted to aliens or to give credit to aliens. They say you pick a religion, and observe it, but it was at the same time informing me that the real power broker is an outside alien. So I chose neo-pagan novaroman and established a pretty complex 14 day calender which was made attached with unmodified julian date time yet the day at noon is at the 4 corners of the US out in the desert. It seems to work pretty well and after about 3 years of living synchronized to this calander I notice a lot of great powers which if I had not been informed prior I might associate to a god. Luckily the aliens informed me so I wouldn't go off like I am a prophet.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  20. Sal

    What about the casual Atheist who turns to a deity of some sort when death is possibly near? The war time phrase "there are no Atheists in a fox hole" comes to mind. Could we call them Atheist-lite? I think Becca is correct in that how you behave is a better reflection of who you are than what your personal beliefs are regarding religion.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "there are no Atheists in a fox hole"

      something often claimed, regularly disproved.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • Xe

      There are no believers of a God in foxholes. Why would they need a foxhole when they could just pray for the divine protection from their deity?

      July 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • niknak

      I have been in two near death situations, once in a small airplane and once at gunpoint in Rio De Janeiro, and neither time did I think about god.
      But then again, I don't think about god when I need stuff or have other difficulties in my life.
      I don't need a crutch like you believers seem to need.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
      • Ready Teddy

        Same. Had a nasty double failure of my parachute (the second sorted out enough before the ground), and thoughts of any god never entered the picture. I also was injured way back in the wilderness where for quite a while, and things weren't looking very survivable, and no, no thoughts of god or conversion. Plenty of time for it on that one, but nothing.

        Maybe it was because I didn't dig a foxhole.

        July 16, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
        • niknak

          Yeah, I was thinking not digging that foxhole was where I went wrong too.......

          July 16, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
        • Ready Freddy

          It is truly sad that people in planes that are going down cannot dig foxholes and find god.

          July 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Fear often makes people behave irrationally. Some people, when they panic, will try to bargain with anything to stay alive. Some people have that fear in day to day life, and choose to embrace a comforting mythology rather than accept reality.

      However, there are indeed atheists in foxholes. Here's their website: http://militaryatheists.org/atheists-in-foxholes/

      I can't imagine that these brave men and women who are defending our country are thrilled when religious types hide behind their computers and lie about them.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Cat

      It's called Deism, more or less. Or at least the way I "practice" Deism. God exists, but plays no active role in our lives. He's (or she's) the "clockmaker" of the universe and might or might not act out to "rewind the clock" at times. This is entirely by their prerogative and prayer is more of a personal reflective task since God doesn't necessarily care about individual people (or he or she might–don't really know).

      July 16, 2013 at 6:21 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.