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. faith

    sambo the fat terrorist, still planning on plunging u no who? lol

    that twernt spam nor flamin nor improper, but she's going face da kudge 4 it

    July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  2. Ron

    "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." ...Jesus (Mathew11:28)

    July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  3. Chris

    Lumping agnostics in with atheists is an insult to both. Agnosticism is literally defined as the belief in God but a lack of belief in the dogma associated with organized religion.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Jesse

      Agnosticism is the uncertainty of a higher being. So CNN needs to be less "lets create heated debate" and more "lets publish the facts and not sound like idiots".

      July 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • Oregon Jeff

      "Lumping agnostics in with atheists is an insult to both."


      "Agnosticism is literally defined as the belief in God but a lack of belief in the dogma associated with organized religion."

      More nonsense.

      "An agnostic does not deny the existence of God and heaven but holds that one cannot know for certain whether or not they exist. The term agnostic was fittingly coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge. He made up the word from the prefix a-, meaning "without, not," as in amoral, and the noun Gnostic. Gnostic is related to the Greek word gnsis, "knowledge," which was used by early Christian writers to mean "higher, esoteric knowledge of spiritual things"; hence, Gnostic referred to those with such knowledge. In coining the term agnostic, Huxley was considering as "Gnostics" a group of his fellow intellectuals"ists," as he called them who had eagerly embraced various doctrines or theories that explained the world to their satisfaction. Because he was a "man without a rag of a label to cover himself with," Huxley coined the term agnostic for himself, its first published use being in 1870."

      July 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  4. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Could we actually be wicked? Goodness knows the Wicked's lives are lonely...

    July 16, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  5. Ron

    "The Lord knows the reasonings of the "wise" that they are vain". ...I Corinthians 3:20

    July 16, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Wait up, Ron. You've derided the wise and the foolish. Is there anyone you don't have a problem with? How about French nuns? I dated one once. She was the sweetest person I've ever known.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • Ron

      Tom, tom, that would be the "wise" in their own eyes. The self-proclaimed wise.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
      • OTOH


        And don't you think that you are 'wise' to believe that?

        It's turtles all the way down...

        July 16, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
      • Oregon Jeff

        "Tom, tom, that would be the “wise” in their own eyes. The self-proclaimed wise."

        Where does it say that? Or, are you guilty of adding your own layer of interpretation to quell your own cognitive dissonance?

        July 17, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  6. Nutters party of one

    I had an imaginary friend. A spirit guide I should say. One day I thought to myself, how come I have an imaginary friend and nobody else does I must be bat guano crazy. Then I stumbled upon atheism rather by accident. I never thought about organized religion until then but boy do I think about it a lot now.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • JJ

      Stumbled upon atheism?! So, you went back to the default state of the way you were when you were born and before indoctrination by your parents.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Nutters party of one

      No my parents never knew about my invisible friend problem. I stumbled upon atheism trying to do a Google search of "Imaginary friends".

      July 16, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • JJ

      So how did you become delusional in the first place if your parents didn't indoctrinate you?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • Nutters party of one

      I don't know, my shrink and I will have to get back to you about that one but as soon as we figure it out I'll post.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • a


      Yes, quote the Bible at atheists. That's probably going to work.
      July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply


      Haha, because asking religious people to use logic will work? 😉
      July 16, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply


      sambo the fat terrorist, still planning on plunging u no who? lol

      that twernt spam nor flamin nor improper, but she's going face da kudge 4 it
      July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
      intellectually lazy.
      BTW, I'm waiting for proof of Jesus' existence. Are you having a bit of trouble. What's taking so long ?
      Rodents for Romney
      "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." ...Jesus (Mathew11:28)
      July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      July 16, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  7. Rich

    These CNN Belief Blog posts are solid junior high school quality.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  8. convergenceleather

    This is nonsense. There is one kind of atheist: the kind that does not believe in gods.
    This is simply written by someone who wants to instigate debate and put down atheists. I am all of the "kinds" listed above and more: I am a complete, whole human being. All atheists have wonder, all revel in wonder, all try not to think about religion (it's the last thing we want to think about!) but when we're forced to (because our human rights are attacked) we have to and we speak up. When elections come around, we do get concerned about the issues and we tend to become more vocal.. it's just what a person who doesn't buy into mythology does. Oh, and we all love mythology. Every atheist I've ever known adores Joseph Campbell. In fact my business, Convergence Leather, is based around nodding to all the mythologies and cultures of the world because that is what divides and unites us. If we just took the "belief in god" part out of the equation, we could just enjoy the truths in all those stories.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  9. dmcclelland843

    As a Buddhist, I do not believe in God, but I am still pretty religious.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  10. Ron

    "The wisdom of this world is foolishness before God" ...I Corinthians 3:19

    July 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • OTOH

      I'll bet you think that you are "wise" to believe that, huh?

      It's turtles all the way down...

      July 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  11. utkyaw

    the words,the most i love are that " ,come and see,and then practice it " and Never do any evil activities,speaks,and thought.Do any good activities,speaks, and thought.Purify your mind or heart," declared by The Buddha Gotama.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
  12. Ron

    "Evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived". ....II Timothy 3:13

    July 16, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • JJ

      Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  13. Ron

    "A fool speaks nonsense, and his heart inclines toward wickedness. To practice ungodliness and to speak error against the Lord" ....Isaiah 32:6

    July 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • JJ

      Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • devin

      I imagine the replies to follow will amplify this concept.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • TDM

      "A fool and his money are soon parted"...your Pastor.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  14. Shannon

    I don't believe in a deity, but I believe there is power, even a "transcendent-seeming" power, when groups of people have their minds and emotions pointed in the same direction. Into what category does that put me?

    July 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  15. byrone

    The British side of CNN really reared its head in this piece...gives the impression all Brits are atheists.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  16. TW

    Not relevant. I was able to classify myself with every single one of these "groups" with time and mood as the variable.

    That means there are at least 6 to the 6th exponent of groups. Probably one for each individual. Still pretty sure there is no deity that requires worship from it's followers...

    July 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • a

      i am a jesus freak

      July 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  17. Ron

    "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God". ....Psalm 14:1 All atheists have this in common. There is one type of atheist-foolish!

    July 16, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • G to the T

      Yay circular reasoning!

      July 18, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot


      A quite old and sometimes effective tactic – declaring that those who do not believe your story are 'fools'. Nobody wants to be considered 'dumb' for not seeing the Emperor's new clothes, or a 'bas.tard' for not seeing the Sultan's new turban, or a 'cuckold' for not being able to see the Miller's gold thumb.

      Even Joseph Smith used it when he gathered his 'witnesses' to his golden plates. He told them that only those with 'true faith' would be able to 'see' them.

      The ancient, primitive Hebrews who originated those Bible stories were quite adept at manipulative mind-games.

      July 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  18. Baal

    Gee, can we start a list of the types of Christians as well?

    Im number 7 or 8 or 127. For I am not on that very short list.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • MARK

      3000 different churches and 30000 different gods. This is only christian myths but there are plenty of others. Which god are we trying to prove and how do they know there is more than one and it is not any of the other man made gods.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
      • Harry

        rst of and its the church that Jesus himself started,Its called the First Church of Christ The other churches were all started by man with the first one started around 100 a.d.

        September 4, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  19. Ugh

    Apatheist here

    July 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  20. Anastasia

    #3 is not an Atheist. Agnostics are not Atheists.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • MARK

      Agnostics are atheists. If a god appeared and proved he was one there would not be either. Atheists or agnostics is a null position. Like horse riding we are the non horse riders. You cannot be half horse riders. One or the other. Stamp collectors or non stamp collectors, you cannot half collect stamps. I am also a a fairiest, not believing in fairies. So are you I suppose?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • G to the T

      I'm an agnostic atheist so... yeah... I guess not.

      July 18, 2013 at 3:59 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.