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. Austin

    The Holy Spirit is a supernatural spirit that gives faith in supernatural ways. This is what I have experienced. I have evidence and data. This is a prophetic God. He has , and He will.

    Right now in my daily life, I am struggling with sin. It seems that even though I have experienced the supernatural, I still reject God and choose sin. this is severely depressing and sick. that man would reject the spirit that God has given him.

    John 15:26-27
    New International Version (NIV)
    The Work of the Holy Spirit

    26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Paul faced the same thing, Austin, so brace up: " I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." It also helps to realize that there is no sin.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Austin

      so do you understand the prophecy in Daniel and you cant see it coming to fruition?

      I am sorry that you cant take my word that these experiences are spiritual revelations of a supernatural God.

      They are. Be patient, God is willing and able. He can get your attention there Tom Tom, old pal.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
    • Really Now

      "Right now in my daily life, I am struggling with sin. It seems that even though I have experienced the supernatural, I still reject God and choose sin. this is severely depressing and sick."

      So zealot extremists still can't get their behavior together despite a supposed actual series of vision from god? THat's not too impressive!

      July 16, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
      • Austin

        I hear ya. why didn't moses and his generation see the promised land?

        July 16, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
    • G to the T

      No Austin – I've told you a hundred times now. You DID have a supernatural experience – but it was your own psychic ability, not god.

      Now prove wrong...

      July 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  2. Lemon

    "God" is real even if its just an idea, because that idea has assumed influence over billions of people. "God" doesnt need to exist outside our minds to be real to people. Harry Potter only exists in works of fiction and our minds (like god) but he has influenced millions of people as well in the same way. And since my thoughts are the only definitive way to prove I exist (I think therefore I am) I would say the same goes for "God" Doesnt matter though, you dont need a reason to be a kind person.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • G to the T

      And that's fine... until someone starts trying to pass legistlation based on those stories when it would restrict the rights of others.

      July 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Sten

    I'm a 6, we celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays because of tradition. Actually there is a lot more evidence (from the eyes of children) that Santa Claus exists than Jesus does.... I really wish there was an afterlife, that would be really cool, but I could never understand who would be there. My grandparents?, my parents?, my favorite pet? (how could it be heaven without my dog?), And if dogs, then cats, and horses, and elephants, and wooly mammoths then, and of course 160 million years of dinosaurs, and on and on. The short story then is that there's no place large enough, so forget that idea. I have found that most religious people haven't been interested in researching what they believe. They just assume it must be so if some person who claims to know says it is so. (Call me, I've got a deed to the Golden Gate Bridge I'll let go for cheap!) But I've been told by friends that they really "need" to believe. I can understand that and that's fine, believe what you want, but don't try to pass your beliefs on to others.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
  4. richhard miller


    July 16, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  5. richhard miller

    Regardless of your beliefs,If you would harm one of my daughters you would know I was your god

    July 16, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  6. Randy

    Non-theist (scientist).

    July 16, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
  7. Whole Truth

    To believe there is no God is to believe we came from nothing. If we were created by nothingness, then, we will die to become the same; empty full of darkness. How sad it is to believe that I exist because nothingness created me. Life has no meaning to me. I came from nothing therefore I will return to nothing. There is nothing to work for except temporary pleasure. Why should I care if life means nothing. I'm an atheist and I lie to myself when I say that I'm good for the sake of humanity. The truth is: I believe I am nothing.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • Santa: the Dyslexic Satan

      Bearing false witness is a violation of the Ninth Commandment, Mr. Hypocrite.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
      • Whole Truth

        Proclaiming the truth is not considered bearing false witness, MR misinterpretation of the Commandments

        July 16, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
        • G to the T

          For someone calling themeselves "Whole Truth", you sure have missed the point...

          July 18, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Santa: the Dyslexic Satan

      In secular terms, you committed the Straw Man fallacy.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
      • Whole Truth

        All atheists believe there is no God
        In terms of creation, believing in no God means to believe we were created by nothing.
        Therefore, atheists who believe there is no God also believe they were created by nothing.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
        • Tim

          Listen to this, if you can:


          July 16, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
        • Whole Truth

          @ Tim,

          Who do you think created the Universe, space, time, energy, gravity, and everything in between? Again you attribute creation of all these elements to nothing. The concept of existence belongs to God because God created the Universe. Do you also believe that nothing created the universe? If so, we are back to square one: you believe that nothing created you.
          Answer this: Why does man exist? What is your purpose and where are you going after you die?

          July 16, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
        • Tim

          THERE WAS NO CREATION!!! DUH!!! Don't you get it?! The Universe always has and always will exist! There was no beginning and there will be no end!

          Listen to this, IF you can: http://youtu.be/d9fC3flXY5g

          July 16, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
        • Day2Knight

          False. Atheist lack belief in the existence of any gods. This is very different that believing in "no God."

          July 16, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Jeff

      It doesn't matter if it is sad, it is the truth.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
    • st3jr

      Saying you came from nothing because God doesn't exist doesn't ring true for atheists. We are made of all of the stuff that galaxies are made of. Isn't it the least bit exciting to think that the reason you exist is because there is a collaboration of molecules set the correct distance from a star, in a galaxy that sustains life, while being tossed through the emptiness of space at millions of miles per hour? If that doesn't interest you, you might need to see a doctor. Cuz son, you might be dead.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
      • Whole Truth

        I believe in science too.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
    • NothingButTheTruth

      Whole Truth, your assertion "To believe there is no God is to believe we came from nothing" is the classic Christian straw-man argument that creates a false dichotomy. There are many possibilities for how the universe and life might have come about – not just god did it or it appeared out of nothing – both of which are ridiculous and unfounded postulates. The fact that you believe that your life would have no meaning if you didn't believe in God is just sad, and should be a sign that your religion has indoctrinated you in such a manner as to prohibit you from thinking freely and having a certain degree of justified self-respect/self-esteem. There are plenty of great reasons to live, and goals and aspirations to be accomplished. Many people can do and have done many great things, and so can you, and none of it requires, or even inspires, a belief in a god.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Here's what most atheists believe: It's better to admit that "we don't know" how the universe came into existence than to say, "Big invisible sky wizard chanted magic spells to make a universe so fragile that one woman caused it to go into nuclear meltdown so the big invisible sky wizard had to sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself so that he doesn't have to send you to an eternal torture chamber he made himself."

      July 17, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  8. NJreader

    The categories are ridiculous. I can't believe that somebody is going to get a doctorate out of such nonsense.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • Doobs

      I'm waiting for the follow up article about all the different types of Christians.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  9. WiseIgnorant

    Honestly , one thing we have to be pretty sure of : The fact that all these personalities related to atheism , with exception
    of the scientists , don't possess a accurate level of intelligence to analyze and extract a best conclusion, that the most memorable minds of human history achieve : there's something bigger than you (connotative language) , doesn't matter if it's a quantum source or a subjetive term.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Satan: the Dyslexic Santa

      Well, aside from the bad punctuation and the use of "accurate" when you meant "adequate" and, well, aside from the entire Gumpian mess of your "writing," you really impress me with your unsubstantiated claims and naked bigotry.

      Well done!

      July 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
    • TDM

      You named yourself well. It's a wise man who knows he's completely ignorant.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
  10. Quang

    I am Buddhist, and I believe in God. Gnostic.

    July 16, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • JJ

      So. Describe what you mean by "god".

      July 16, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
      • Quang

        God is a universal force governing all human causes and effects. You just have faith in the absolute and go with the flow.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
        • Luke Skywalker

          So you are a Jedi Buddhist, are you?

          July 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
        • Tim

          Exactly! Thank you 🙂

          July 16, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  11. Mike Y

    Which of the 6 categories of atheists is likely to be persuaded by quotes from the book they don't believe in? So silly...

    July 16, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  12. Robert Brown

    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 9:01 pm |
    • Athy

      I went to a revival meeting once. It was a big factor in making me an atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • JJ

      I went to a Pentecostal revival forced upon me by my mother and I still have nightmares.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Anon

      Yep, christards everywhere.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • Anon

      Yep, christárds everywhere.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Perhaps I could be persuaded to believe in God by being surrounded by earnest people having an intensely emotional experience they attribute entirely to God. But if God exists, I'd rather believe in God because God exists. If God does not exist, I'd rather not believe in God.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
    • Your own words for you to think about, Robert

      "I don't have any evidence"

      July 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  13. Jan-M

    My answer: I don't do God. That's it.,

    July 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  14. faith

    just confining my posts 4 now, the best u can? makes it easier 2 remove em? lol

    that nogod faith a yours is mighty tough

    July 16, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
  15. Budd

    An agnostic is NOT an atheist, therefore numbers 1, 2 & 3 are out. Being against religion really doesn't have anything to do with belief in God, so #4 is out too. The same is true regarding a lack of concern for religion, so #5 is out too. An atheist is one who does not believe there is a God (that's a 'period').

    July 16, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Knowledge and belief are related, but different principles apply: belief is simply feeling that something is true. In classical epistemology knowledge is justified true belief. That is, if you know something, it must be true, you must believe it and your belief must be justified. Most people will acknowledge that knowledge of the reality of God will probably always be out of reach – agnostic. Many also don't believe in a God or gods – atheist.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
    • Lydia


      July 16, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The difference is one of semantics.

      You believe in some form of God or higher power, or you don't. It's that simple.

      Unless you really just can't form an opinion one way or another, all the "I can't know for sure" stuff is but semantics. There is nothing wrong with being an agnostic atheist – one who doesn't believe in God but can't prove non-existence. This is a logical position to take.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
    • JJ

      Actually, an agnostic is an atheist since, by definition, an agnostic lacks a belief in a deity.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  16. Ron

    "We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God." ....II Corinthians 10:5

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

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

      July 16, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • TDM

      "Pass the plate" – your Pastor.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
      • Observer


        Corinthians (11:6) also includes nonsense like “For if a woman does not cover her head (while praying), let her also have her hair cut off”.

        So what is your point?

        July 16, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
        • Banned from church!

          "No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed" Lev 21:18

          July 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • Father Chester "Moe" Lester

      Want some candy, little choir boy?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  17. Ron

    "Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." ....II Timothy 3:7

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

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

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

      JJ, context? Have you read this Psalm, or are you just passing on a twitter verse. Don't be a twittiot.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • JJ

      Lol...seriously? You blast out one-liners and then tell anyone else sending out verses from your bronze age text you have issues with to put in context?!! I guess to put in context would be to preface said brutal verse with "this is all bullshit but here we go".

      July 16, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • Ron

      JJ, please tell me the context about which the Psalmist writes? Or are you just a one verse wonder?

      July 16, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
      • Santa: the Dyslexic Satan

        One verse wonder? Pot, meet kettle.

        Hypocrisy, thy name is Christian!

        July 16, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  18. Tim

    Listen to this, with an open heart and mind: http://youtu.be/d9fC3flXY5g

    July 16, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
    • Hmmm

      I like it, it's cheerful. I don't know enough about physics to say how accurate it is.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  19. Ron

    "I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." ....Jesus (John 18:37)

    July 16, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
    • JJ

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

      July 16, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • You're Not A Thinker

      – from a book written by man.

      July 16, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
  20. motorfirebox

    Yes, quote the Bible at atheists. That's probably going to work.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Ashley

      Haha, because asking religious people to use logic will work? 😉

      July 16, 2013 at 9:01 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.