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. The Six Types of Responses to the New Board Format

    1. This sucks!

    2. "Sucks" is not a strong enough word

    3. What idiot thought this would be an improvement?

    4. A new editor must be justifying his existence through change that isn't improvement

    5. I think I'll go read a book instead

    6. DUH THRS A NEW FOR<MATT,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • lol??

      Always room for a new and improved socie science experiment.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
      • lol??

        I'z a 6

        July 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  2. Agnostic monster

    I'm glad they didn't put the six types of agnostics. I'd be here for years trying to decide.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
  3. Sultani

    I am Muslim and i believe That God is One and Muhammad SAW is the last messenger of God. So those who are not believing let them to be in darkness.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Oregon Jeff

      So then you're an atheist about the other three thousand deities man has devised over the millennia?

      July 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
      • Sultani

        A big NO i am a religious never ever atheist.

        July 16, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
        • Oregon Jeff

          "A big NO i am a religious never ever atheist."

          So then you believe that all three thousand plus gods are all real? That must be truly exhausting.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
        • Sultani

          I believe in One God the lord of universe.

          July 17, 2013 at 6:12 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Allah is interesting. At least Allah doesn't have the limitations implied by the idea that people are made in God's image.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
  4. Dane Moser

    Why didn't they study that an athiest or agnostic likes to have facts?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • The Word of Dog

      The students who did the thesis are members of a humanist club. They already knew that, and I imagine they had to limit the scope of what they were doing.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • lol??

      They weren't lookin' for facts.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  5. Damocles

    In Sweden with 80% atheist population they all seem like happy non-theists, but some indignation and outspokenness is expected in America for those who grew up in families or towns where religion is force-fed from an early age and any info to the contrary regarded as something evil. When you do walk away it's never pleasant, so yeah you do regard the whole culture as a dangerous thing. Depending on where you live or how you're raised you might either have to argue all the time about it or you are in a place where you don't have to dwell on things that aren't and can truly enjoy the things that are.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • DF

      Very similiar to Canada. The majority of people i know here are Atheist and all of which are very content with their lives. Religion and god just cause issues.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  6. bostontola

    There are quite a few people posting that they believe in a higher power but don't subscribe to a religion, lets call them non-conformist deists.

    Question for all:
    Do you consider non-conformist deists closer to Christianity or atheism?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      They are part of the "nones" the religiously unaffiliated.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • lol??

      Close only counts in politics and now, trials.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Agnostic monster

      I'm pretty sure it stands alone.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  7. arc

    By posting a reply, can I no longer claim to be an unconcerned 5? 🙂

    July 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  8. Robert Brown

    I hope you all become Christians. Jesus is real. The proof is available to all who seek it. Peace.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • sam stone

      any delusion is real if you start out seeking it, robert

      look up "confirmation bias"

      July 16, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
  9. Cory Granot

    I'm an avid fan of the works of Joseph Campbell, author of the Power of Myth. I deny the existence of any god or divinity, but I recognize the power of all human mythology on how we operate as humans. To me religions are more about the human psyche than they are about the absolute truth about existence and origins.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  10. mike

    I don't believe in anything unfalsifiable. Not sure what kind of atheist this makes me.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • mason

      Scientific Atheist, like me 🙂

      July 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  11. Josherz18


    July 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  12. theorycraft

    im confused I thought agnostic just meant 'I don't care about religion' 'meh' I don't think my agnostic friends actively read things about their agnosticity... actually most of my agnostic friends don't read period.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • Agnostic monster

      Yes we read. Some of us cook too! But seriously ambivalence does not equal indifference. Just the opposite in some cases.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • Agnostic monster

      You can be an atheist or a theist and still be agnostic, agnostic just means you know you don't know.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Agnosticism is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of God.

      Atheism is about disbelief.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  13. Austin Schyma

    Number 5. Could not have described me better. Love the article.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  14. Jeff

    I'm in category 7. The non-theist who still finds it fascinating to watch. Like watching cat videos even though you don't have pets. I'm not actually convinced there is a category 5, or if there is those people must be pretty dull. Surely you should be interested in anything that is so important to so many people, even if it isn't important to you? I don't have to be a politician to pay attention to politics, or an Olympian to watch the Olympics.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  15. Karwan

    Every body has a copy of himself inside, and always tells you the truth. if you are in doubt in what are around you? do not stop search and search you will get it.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  16. Dan

    I'm just a plain old atheist, through and through. I simply don't happen to believe in a god. Why have they made this complicated with so many bizarre terms?

    July 16, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  17. Ivan

    Def a mix of a few

    July 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  18. Turp Griswald

    I suppose I turn out to be an intellectual non-theist with a little ritual thrown in. No need to blast others for their beliefs (doesn't help anyway). I just don't want theists making up laws – in 'his' (or 'her') name – that unnecessarily limit my life or choices.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  19. Name*Steve


    July 16, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  20. Harry

    I don't understand the authority of the bible. What is its provenance?
    It was written decades after Jesus left the earth. No system can prove its own validity. Using biblical statements to support belief in God is circular.
    And this is not solely a Christian thing. All religions assert their validity. They can't all be right; they can all be wrong. Cultural anthropologist discovered a long time ago that all cultures have either religion or magic (not that much different). It's a characteristic of the human brain, a "bug" in a way, to see causation where there isn't any. Also obvious a remedy to a lot of fear of the unknown.
    Read Joseph Campbell's books on mythology.


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

      well they would argue that to have anything other than the bible to prove the bible would hold that thing to a higher authority than the bible, which is a place reserved only for god himself

      July 16, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • lol??

      Didn't the Big O publish dreams??

      July 16, 2013 at 6:48 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.