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. Jason Thibeault

    Definitely #5. Sure there is a lot of room to be intellectual about the whole problem (I love Dawkin's book The God Delusion) but when it comes down to it, I'm just not that interested in any of the sides. All dogma, when tied to belief, is detrimental to society. That doesn't mean we should care, but when we start believing in something so strongly that we need other people to believe in it, well, that's when wars start. I have enough to worry about trying to figure out this whole thing we call humanity.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  2. Birdyboyz

    I thank God for making me an atheist

    July 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  3. Age of Reason

    ..."To believe in the divinity of this jesus christ, is to believe in absurdity!" President John Adams
    ...."jesus christ" was a mythical, political construct who NEVER existed, and DO NOT beleive in him!

    July 16, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  4. Samantha

    I'd say I'm 6.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I remember being 6. That was back when the Who were first becoming big. No Gods back then except maybe John Entwistle. I thought Pete probably could fly.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        Famously (in grafitti on the tube)

        Eric Clapton is God.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  5. GeoDiva

    Looks like I am a cross between 5 & 6. I grew up with a Catholic Father and a Presbyterian Mother. I attend Church and Sunday school till I finished high school. However, this was the mid 1980's and the AIDS crisis was coming to a head and there was one member of our church revealed that he was gay and had AIDS. I was shocked how so many "Christians" at church turned against him. It was heartbreaking. Even when he died, there was debate as to whether he could even have his funeral at church. So that is when my beliefs changed. Organized religion has become very dangerous.
    However, I want my own children to make their own choices I did have my children baptized when they were infants, more for the ritual than the religious part and both of my children attended or current attend an all-girl Episcopal school, but that is more for the education than the faith. My parents said I could always choose what I wanted to believe when I was older and I am doing the same with mine. My oldest goes to church with her grandparents, but the younger one decided it wasn't for her. It's their choice.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  6. darknesscrown

    Atheism has no denominations because, unlike Christians and Muslims and Jews...we all agree that there is no such thing as God. There are no variances to this fact. Agnostics do not count. IMHO, agnosticism is intellectually lazy–it's choosing not to take a position. If I am somehow proven to be wrong about Gods existing, I have no choice but to change my viewpoint, but until there is evidence, I will not say I don't know because, based on evidence, I DO. If that makes sense.

    That being said, we atheists are in some very good company! 😀

    July 16, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • darknesscrown

      based on LACK of evidence, I should say.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      If you were given the recipe for the evidence would you follow it or ignore?

      July 16, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
      • darknesscrown

        Robert, does this "evidence" involve reading scripture at all? Because I have. Christian, Hindu, Muslim...I own them all. Good stories. None of it FACTUAL, of course..but there are good GENERAL lessons to be taken away from it all. That doesn't meet the requirement of being sufficient to convince a person of moderate intelligence to believe something without evidence though. Doing THAT is foolish and irresponsible.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          See my reply to Tom below. Reading is helpful, but the preached word is the most effective.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
      • Athy

        Where's that recipe, Robert?

        July 16, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
      • Oregon Jeff

        "If you were given the recipe for the evidence would you follow it or ignore?"

        Stop right there, Robert. The Bible isn't the recipe or the evidence. The Bible is the claim.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Hold forth, Robert. Let's have that evidence.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      Hey Tom, I hope you are doing well. I don't have any evidence that I can give, just the recipe. Hear the word of God preached in the power of his Holy Spirit. A good source would be a revival.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
      • Athy

        How in hell would that convince anyone?

        July 16, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Athy, that is the recipe. Have you ever tried it.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Replace the . with a ?

          July 16, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
      • Peter

        I've been to a revival it was the craziest bunch of people I have ever witnessed in my entire life.

        July 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  7. Luisa

    I'd say I'm a mix of several of these. But I think it should be recognized that there are some us that, while being passionate about our (non)beliefs are capable of respecting and understanding those who are religious. Not all of us are deadly cynical.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • legadema37

      Some body's gonna say I don't belong here since I'm a very open minded Christian, but I do share some of the ideas listed here ":... finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions." in that I respect all religions & find value in different beliefs. I was raised to believe there are many paths to God & no one should be fighting about what's right or wrong. ".....keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience." I embrace science & to me there's no conflict between science & religion because we humans just don't know everything & it's good that we don't. We haven't learned to get along with each other. Always looking to start wars or find someone to put down. I just LOVE "Through the Wormhole" on the Science Channel.The human species has a tremendous amount of hubris at times, thinking that they know everything & "my way is the right & only way". We REALLY don't know how the universe came to be. Atheists say there's no God & belief in a "sky daddy" is crazy.Stephen Hawking sits in his chair & says the universe created itself & there's no need for a God.I think there is one but we may have to revamp our ideas of what it is. Maybe not that man on a throne idea but something we can't understand that runs the universe & keeps things going. Anything is possible.OK,here we go about Stephen Hawking's idea. In order to do something, you have to exist to do it. Therefore if the universe created itself it must have already existed. What was here before the universe existed? Nothing, they say ! Ever try to imagine NOTHING?? You can't ! I remember having that conversation with some childhood pals, back when kids played outside all day & had time to sit & ponder things adults told us . We decided it' was impossible.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  8. peter

    There is only one type of Atheist. The one that does not beleive in Gods etc. Any other trait is not based on being an Atheist.

    Everyone is an individual and labels such as Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Republican, Democrat etc are at best meaningless sterotypes and just reflect the human herd instict. People like to label themselves so as to be (a)part from other groups.

    Your and my opinions are expressed as labels so that we can be seen to be in various groups. It is pointless to attack other peoples opinions and just as meaningless to agree with them. The herd/tribe/family instinct is strong. The best you can do is find your own part of the pasture and moo quietly to yourself.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  9. isolate

    I dislike categories, but I will say I'm quite comfortable living in a fascinating purposeless universe. Before I accepted atheism as my personal savior I went through the sacred scriptures of all the major religions. None was persuasive enough to convince me to believe in them. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." KJV, Heb 11:1. Once upon a time that was sufficient, but the widespread availability of education and information has made that viewpoint an anachronism.

    The modern world was not built on faith, but on scientific evidence. It's gotten us this far, and it may eventually allow us to understand ourselves and our universe comprehensively, if we don't kill ourselves off first. For a thousand years the western world was indeed run on faith. We correctly describe them, a bit inaccurately, as the Dark Ages. People like Michelle Bachmann and Ann Coulter long for a return to that ignorant, illiterate, demon-haunted, filthy, pestilence-haunted era, but normal people are quite happy to live in modern times.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  10. Paul Collar

    There really is no such thing as an agnostic. Belief in God is just that, belief. Belief is an active, conscious endeavor. So, one who does not actively believe in God is an atheist. The agnostic label is just to provide people a copout since the term atheist is typically a militant word, associated with people who advocate against religion and against belief in God, which really verges on a type of theism itself. Among your rankings, I am mostly closely described by the non-theism class. But I think those that self-identify as agnostics are not being honest with themselves or do not really understand what belief is and what its failure to exercise means.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      theism :: belief in god
      atheism :: no belief in god

      Gnosticism :: confidence that spiritual KNOWLEDGE is available and held by the individual
      Agnosticism :: lack of confidence that spiritual KNOWLEDGE is available and held by the individual

      I am an agnostic because I don't claim to have any spiritual knowledge and I am an atheist because I don't believe in any gods.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
      • darknesscrown

        That's a very roundabout way of approaching it. Is there evidence that indicates the presence of a spiritual being that rules over and governs all things? By evidence, of course, that means criteria/characteristics that can be tested in a controlled environment to draw conclusions based on a variety of variables. Because human beings are can only test what is real, the argument that I have heard presented in the past that certain things can't be tested is meaningless. If it can't be tested and/or be made sense of, then it is worthless from an intellectual standpoint.

        Even so, there are intangible elements of the human experience that can still be tested. The psyche, for example. The id, ego, and super ego are all things that don't technically "exist" in the physical sense, but that, through rigorous observation and experimentation using control groups, have generated sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that what most people consider to be "God" is actually their subconscious. In which case, this means one of two things: there are AT LEAST 7 billion "gods" inhabiting the universe right now, or "God" is a anthropomorphic side effect of the human species to reconcile our own nature with what we think we should be. Either way, the REAL problems come from people claiming their perception is universally valid and true...which is impossible.

        However, I fail to see how you can say you don't know. What threshold of confidence will suffice to tilt the scales to either knowing or not knowing??? Being 51% sure? How about 63%? 100%? If you said you DON'T CARE, that, I think, is more valid than saying you don't know either way.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Classical thinking says that knowledge is justified true belief. Only the belief part is something believers can lay claim to. "True" eludes all sides of the argument on the existence or reality of a God or gods.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • devin

      As a Christian theist I would disagree. At the center of our faith is a being who we have never seen, heard, touched or known (in physical terms). Combine this with the fact that at its foundation, Christianity is irrational. ( And by irrational, I mean what makes "sense" to human reasoning). and I can understand the appeal of agnosticism. On the other hand, the claims of atheism, whether strong or soft, are in my opinion simply naive. Clearly two different animals.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
  11. Steve

    I guess I would be 6 mostly with a little of 4 and 5.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Guy

      Thaaat's nice.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  12. Man of Reason

    ... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ... ... and thank goodness ...
    ... because he emanates from ...
    ... the http://www.EVILbible.com !!!

    July 16, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
  13. rosa, b'ham al

    I guess I am somewhere in between a anti-theist and non-theist. On one hand, I don't really have time to care about all this nonsense but on the other, I really think religion is dangerous and we would be better, overall, without it.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  14. iluvpurple

    Can't say I fit into only one of these. I don't believe in god, however I do believe in logic. And because logic can't prove or disapprove the existence of a god nor prove that one religion is right over the other, the only conclusion one could ever make about religion is that there are no conclusions and no agreements about the truth. Coincidentally, they are either all wrong or one religion is RIGHT. And when viewed that way, why would you want to pick and choose a religion at the chance of believing in something that isn't real?

    I guess I'm really a mix of 1 and 3, and I think if you were to look at the Atheist community in general nobody fits the categories wholeheartedly either. Weird article.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Nicely stated.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  15. nightmaresofjesus

    Reblogged this on Nightmares of Jesus and commented:
    Interesting post in CNN Belief Blog.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  16. lol??

    How 'bout there are no Christians in the foxholes for something new and pwogwessive?? We talked the A&A"s into doin' the fightin' for us??

    July 16, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
    • Elise

      A total myth. One that has been disproven, but cling to your fantasies...Although I find it hard to believe you would be brave enough to serve willingly. You are only brave behind a keyboard, and they tend to 4-F people with noticeable impediments.

      Atheists and agnostics have always been right beside everyone else; you know, those odious gay people and people of color. Shhh. Don't ask, don't tell.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
      • Thor

        Please don't feed the trolls, Elise.

        July 16, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
        • Elise

          My bad.

          July 16, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • faith

      is this all you gots?

      I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV
      Dyslexic doG
      another good reason to ignore Christians
      another good reason to ignore Christians
      On the belt buckleof millions of Nazi soldiers
      This long-dead horse apparently needs flogging again
      Christian Motto
      Open the pod bay door
      Rodents for Romney
      Cpt. Obvious
      Open the pod bay door
      Rodents for Romney
      Cpt. Obvious
      Rodents for Romney
      My Dog is a jealous Dog
      Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      July 16, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  17. George

    A type 5 here, and it took a lot of effort to write this.

    I think all of the empassioned discussion just validates the religious pov. We don't need to waste so much energy refuting what we don't believe in. Just ignore and seek your own space...and freedom from owing anyone an expantion. I don't owe anyone anything, except the people I care about, and they can ask me anything and of course I'll answer.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  18. Bill

    The closest would be 5. God exists, but religion is the biggest scourge that exists for mankind.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      If god exists, he is irrelevant to our experience. If you're invisible, undetectable, and unverifiable, who cares if you exist?

      July 16, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • JacinJax

      How about 5 is someone who just doesn't concern themselves with religion. It doesn't mean they don't believe in something more, they just don't feel the need to put a name to it so use terms like Powers That Be or just the Universe. After all if there isn't anything more (greater being or alien being) then I'm a perfect example of the highest form of life in the universe–and if that's not something to send you screaming into the night, I don't know what is...

      July 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  19. Polly Theist

    What if someone believed in all of them, every deity ever known to mankind? Imagine what that would be like.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • One one

      A recipe for insanity.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • lol??

      Men can't be THAT focused.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
      • Elise

        Leave the thinking for womenfolk. You haven't a clue.

        July 16, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • devin

      At least they'd have all their bases covered.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • lionlylamb2013

      There's way more and far too many of God's children then our civilizations will ever steadfastly be able to comprehend let alone fathom with much clarities. Our brainyards are not built to comprehensibly recognize all the godly theatrics and yet we as being a cast down lot of amassed infidelities we trudge in aimlessness finding a few morsels of thoughtfulness to wager for and against menial offers and lament and repent ever the more. Atheism is damned as is also the loosely religious yet those religions of mankind's favors will tumult and fall come the glorious ending of one Age climaxing with a new beginning of a more ripened Age. The dying are castaways and the deadened vestiges are ever prone to be societies un-clamoring fools for all to impregnate their illusiveness Word.

      July 16, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
      • Oregon Jeff

        Try again, but first, turn off the nonsense filter.

        July 16, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  20. Day2Knight

    I am types 1 through 4 depending on how I feel on any particular day.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:10 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.