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. JackHandey

    Interestingly, no one of type 5, the non-theist, would post a comment identifying themselves as such as to do so would make them some other type and do you know how silly this all really sounds? I mean, do we really care how many "types" of atheists there are?

    July 16, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
  2. Austin

    lawrence, your statement, is wrong to anyone with a critical mind. There is no way you can validate your comment.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
  3. John Salerno

    “The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.


    And that sounds exactly like something a doctoral student would write. Frankly, I don't see much reason to think atheism (or "nonbelief") is as diverse as they want to make it. Given that any one person could be several (and possibly all) of these six "categories," it seems meaningless to make the distinctions at all.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  4. Stinky Pinky

    It depends on the situation. I can be considered all of the above. Raising 2 teenagers with a believer right now. Not always easy with the wife, but doubts are creeping in my kids minds.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
  5. Caleb Powell

    All of the above?

    July 16, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
  6. JimK57

    As a believer in a creator and an afterlife I can tell you my belief.

    We all have to take personal responsibility for everything that happens to us.
    There is no hell.
    Everyone, and I mean everyone goes to "heaven".

    July 16, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Before I was born there was, as far as I'm concerned, nothing. When I was under deep anesthesia there was nothing. Why should I expect there to be anything about me that continues after death?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
      • JimK57

        It sounds like you do not and I guess you should not.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      Where is heaven? Do you know the grid square of heaven or even the direction to heaven? How far away is heaven from Dallas, Texas?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
      • JimK57

        That is why I put heaven in quotes.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
      • Athy

        So if we put something in quotes we don't need to explain it further? We get a free pass?

        July 16, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
        • JimK57

          I put it in quotes because I am using it as a frame of reference. Call it nirvana, afterlife, ect... Do I know how large it is? I have no idea.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:41 pm |

    • It's in Jackson County Missouri, or maybe that's the Garden of Eden.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • Peter

      In the end Christians don't have to take personal responsibility for anything. All they have to do is repent and let Jesus take their punishment.

      July 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  7. Turd Ferguson

    So much fighting and I am willing to bet not a single person has changed their mind. CNN just loves to kick the bees nest.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  8. Kyle

    I'd say I'm something of a hybrid between the intellectual atheist and seeker-agnostic... I lean the way of atheism but I can't help but express the fact that IF there is a higher power, it undoubtedly has the power to cloak its existence from us so there is no way of being absolutely certain.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  9. Tom Wilson

    Such kindness from a god fearing man. Praise the Lord!

    July 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  10. J

    The curious phrase in #2 about the Activist "disbelieving in God" has a built in bias toward the existence of a god. It presupposes that the natural state of thinking is to believe there is a god in spite of a total lack of evidence. Would you speak of "disbelieving in the Easter bunny" or "disbelieving in Santa Claus?" No, because you don't believe they actually exist. But perhaps the more curious thing is the underlying fear of death and oblivion that seems to be the foundation of Christianity. The prayers are dominated by pleas for "eternal life," "life everlasting," and a "world without end." There seems to be a delusion that there is some sort of afterlife in which we will somehow be reunited with people who have preceded us in death. But there is absolutely nothing to support that notion. When we die, we die. That's all. Get over it. And yet, while you're here, think good thoughts, do good deeds. Be kind, be merciful. Be productive. Work for justice. If religion helps you do that, fine. Go for it.But don't take it personally when you encounter people who do not believe as you do.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  11. Tom Wilson

    I got drunk one night when I was in my 20's. I had several true supernatural experiences that night. I remember telling the cops that god would not allow them to arrest me and put me in jail. Again I was wrong! 🙁

    July 16, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • Athy

      You mean it didn't work? Wow. I'm surprised. Actually, it never worked for me either.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
      • Austin

        is it common logic that you "know " that God is a lie?

        July 16, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • Austin

      its a belief that stems from the dislike of the righteousness of God. That and the authority that He has over your soul.........in that He is a righteous judge and will not stand in the presence of the sin that dominates our ailing flesh.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
      • Tom Wilson

        Why did god allow us to be sinners then? You would think that a perfect creator would create perfect things and a imperfect creator would create imperfect things.

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

        probably so that you could reason, choose and experience joy. which you can. and you can also feel the pain.

        is there right and wrong, good and bad?

        do you see evil when you look at humanity? did you see the people falling off the buildings, with everyone video taping it?

        do you see the war on t.v? you can still choose to let God confirm HIs presence rather than worhip your own reason which can not produce God.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
        • tallulah13

          Or maybe you're just making excuses for a god that very likely doesn't exist.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
        • Austin

          tallulah, you know i am serious. have a good one i will write to you later this week. I hope you are having a great day , if i can do anything holler.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
        • tallulah13

          Austin, I do not wish you ill. Indeed, I hope you have a lovely life. But you're claims are not supported by reality, no matter how much you personally believe.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:05 am |
      • NothingButTheTruth

        This is another fallacy on the part of Austin, most atheists would gladly believe in a god if there was compelling evidence of his/her/its existence – but sadly there is no evidence. For all the arguing that Austin has done, he has yet to produce one verifiable piece of evidence on behalf of his god, His only appeal is to his personal witness, testimony, and feelings, which are explained much better by psychology than by supernatural experiences.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:18 am |
        • G to the T

          I think Austin is psychic. And since that position fits all the facts he's provided it's just a reasonable to assume that than there is a god... (i.e. NOT AT ALL).

          July 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  12. Tom Wilson

    so, did god create the nethandral man and then let evolution fix him into a modern man or did god make a few mistakes along the way and he corrected them ?

    July 16, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
    • Athy


      July 16, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
      • Tom Wilson

        Well fill us in then, why was their nethandral man in the early days ?? Why not modern day man as today? How many million of years has man walked on earth, 4.5 million? Are we a product of god or of evolution? And if we are a product of man, why did he not just create the way we are now instead of so many different models along the way? Did he makes mistakes in the early models?

        July 16, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  13. feronymous

    I'm both an anti-theist and a ritual atheist. As a friend of Buddhism, I like their teachings, but Buddhism doesn't believe in gods, so it doesn't quite fit your little article's notion of "religion".

    July 16, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  14. Tom Wilson

    Anyone know how truthful the bible is? Is it really true that god likes babies being bashed in the rocks? Should god really kill 45 young boys for teasing an adult? Maybe god is a cruel and out of control god.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Sometimes a book is just a book... I suspect that God, should it exist, didn't reveal any more about itself to people millennia ago than it does now. The Bible is about a God people imagined up and gave all-to-human attributes.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One


      July 16, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • Austin

      how does the U.S ensure your freedom?

      Why do angels carry swords?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  15. Aly

    I'm a non-theist, so apparently I'm the rarest type of atheist but I did try to be agnostic. I was raised as a Catholic and spent my childhood not believing despite years of Sunday school. I wasn't actively trying to denounce religion or faith, I just didn't have any. In later years, I questioned whether Christianity was the issue and explored other religions but came back to the same sticking point. While I believe religion can play an important social role in people's lives, I just don't believe in God or gods. I don't believe in God/gods/whatever in the same way that I don't believe in leprechauns (I'm not trying to belittle the notion of a higher being here, I just needed an example of something people don't generally believe in). Much like I can't make myself believe in leprechauns, I can't make myself believe in a higher power.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Lawrence

      The simple fact that there are so many religions is enough evidence that none of them are correct.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  16. Stephen Jones

    How does all this Christian mumbo jumbo fit into an article about the types of atheism?

    July 16, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • TDM

      It doesn't, but atheists do it on Christian articles all the time. Turn about is fair play.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
      • Stephen Jones


        July 16, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  17. Tom Wilson

    Who is the REAL FOOL here?

    July 16, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  18. Tim

    You're all missing the point: God exists, just not A God. God/Force/Energy/Consciousness/whatever you want to call It is within us all! IT always has been and always will be. It's called, Life! God was just man's way of trying to understand the non-understandable. You cannot understand God. It just is! It's what guides us all!

    July 16, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Do yourself a favor and put "god" in its proper place inside quotes then.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
      • Tim

        I hope you get hurt someday, I really do. Not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, because THAT'S what you're doing to hundreds of other people that you come in contact with every day.God bless.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • Austin

          Tim, are you talking to me or to the "keep God in quote"

          July 16, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
        • Tim

          lol! You're obviously getting offended.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • Austin

      what if God is a person? What if there is sin? we are, after all, all wrong doers. and if God was a person, we would all be in trouble for daily unbelief.

      Look at the earth, and look at the vicious demeanor of mankind. This is basic wickedness,and proof that sin leads to death.

      July 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
      • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

        What if you realized that good and evil are not absolutes but are merely subjective? Did you know that murder is not always wrong? For instance, in self-defense.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
      • NothingButTheTruth

        Those are really thoughtful and penetrating questions Austin, maybe I should become a Hindu. Or a Muslim? Or a Christian? No, no, clearly I should believe in Zeus. I'll just live the rest of my life in fear of the unknown, namely in fear of Zeus if I don't worship him correctly.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
        • Austin

          it is clear that there is one race of mankind, there is one truth, and there is one solution. there is one God and one savior.

          and there are many competing lies that the devil offers. why choose a dark path that does nothing to atone for sin?

          There really is nothing that can stand with the name and blood of Jesus.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
        • Stephen Jones

          It's not clear at all or everyone would be your brand of Christian. To me it Christianity is convoluted, contradictory and mean spirited. The only time it seems good is when some humanity is injected into it.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
        • NothingButTheTruth

          Austin, your "It is clear..." statement sums up the entire fallacy of your argument. If you (or anyone) assumes (without evidence) that god exists, and that this god happens to be the one true god that you already believe in, then, of course, the rest of your arguments start to sound much more plausible. To be truly objective, you also have to weigh the plausibility from the perspective that there is no god. I've seriously looked into both sides, and the "no god" side wins just about every argument in terms of explanatory power, supporting evidence, and plausibility. Simply stating that something is clearly true, doesn't make it so – where is your evidence?

          July 16, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • devin

      And how was it you came upon this higher level of understanding?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
      • Austin

        because the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call to faith that was series of supernatural experiences. The Holy Spirit revealed the truth of His presence.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
        • devin

          It was actually directed to Tim.

          July 16, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
      • Tim

        ...through pain and life experience.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
    • Rodents for Romney

      There is no "consciousness" except what is mediated by brains. You have no proof. Just as much woo woo as any of the ancient gods. It's called Pantheism. BTW, if all it's good for is to help you as a crutch when you need help, that is no god worth the name. It's called Utilitarianism. There are also no demonstrable "forces", or energy or any other woo woo. Your fairy tale is as bad as the Bible. Get over it.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
      • Tim

        Wow... someone's underpants are in a bunch! lol

        July 16, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
      • Tim

        By the way, um, Romney lost? So, maybe think about changing your name. Oh, and you sound like a train, "Woo woo!!!". lol

        July 16, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
  19. nazareno32


    July 16, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  20. Austin

    You and I are EXACTLY the same. We're both spiritual beings. You can quote your fallacious text to me all day long, but you can NEVER defeat the Love and Compassion I have... even for you. You're a sad, mis-directed individual who is going the wrong way. I hope someday you wake up and realize the truth of who you really are: you're a powerful, conscious human being who's capable of Love beyond measure. But you've been deluded with hate and anger that you have chosen to disregard the Truth!

    I know that when I die, Life, as it always has and always will, will go on. There is no beginning and there is no end to Life. I'm quite happy and content knowing this, because someday I will come back again in another form, and so will you. That's the glorious nature of Life. Live it and love it! God bless.

    July 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Austin

      tim , concerning your above comment, I have experienced supernatural revelation through my struggle with who Jesus is.

      if you read straght through the NT, it is clear that Jesus was the human form of God, and that He intended to die for our sins.

      for you to say that He was not God, is going against what the bible clearly prophecies, and concludes.

      Jesus was the fulfilment of the passover, unleavened bread and feast of weeks festivals from leviticus, because God was foreshadowing the Lamb of God through all of this.

      I am not hating on you. the Holy Spirit is a supernatural Spirit. take my word for it. I know this. I have experienced it..

      July 16, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
      • TDM

        First of all, use quotes when referencing another person. Secondly, Austin, your beliefs are not any more valid than Tim's. That you insist that you are right shows that not only are you intolerant of other people who don't think *exactly *like *you, which is supremely arrogant, you argue when people essentially AGREE with you.

        You are the epitome of the Militant Christian; the one who will turn more away than bring into the fold.

        Good luck with your proselytizing. You need it.

        July 16, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
        • Athy

          Actually, Austin is a great promoter of atheism. Don't discourage him. We need more of his kind. What religious person could read his comments and not have doubts about their beliefs?

          July 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
      • Austin

        everyone has the doubts . and some people are ready for the seed fo the spirit. others are being prepared, and others never will accept or want the truth. they will continue to dispise it.

        There is no hatred or ill will in realizing that some people have their hearts darkened by the deceit of this world.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:07 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.