July 15th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Behold, the six types of atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='DanMericaCNN']

(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. Tom

    Well, I guess because Daniel Radcliffe is an atheist, I should renounce my faith in Christ and become a sorcerer. O shoot, I forgot, he's just an actor.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:22 am |
    • Don M

      Yes, CNN's arbiter's of TRUTH: actors! If they're famous (and, better yet, if they're good-looking and famous), they must know the TRUTH, and their opinion on questions of metaphysics is important!

      July 17, 2013 at 12:33 am |
    • Sue Anne

      No free-thinking person would ever become anything just because some actor was it.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Rory

      If anyone became a Christian just because of Kirk Cameron, would they start saying stupid things about bananas too?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:38 am |
  2. Jake

    forgot Ricky Gervais

    July 17, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  3. Jake

    forgot Ricky Gervais...

    July 17, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  4. Nikolas

    This is ridiculous! Why does CNN have to constantly make everything that is "different" sound evil. Completely biased.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • Angela Birch

      Doesn't sound evil to me. Different people believe different things. Me I am a 3.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:24 am |
    • GodFreeNow

      As an atheist, I personally didn't feel like they were making us sound evil. I found it to be a pretty fair article, if not entirely accurate. However, I think your question is still valid. Difference sells. Plus, it's something people can point at to avoid pointing at their own differences or flaws. I don't however blame CNN for this. It's just human nature.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  5. rob

    i would have to say non-theists would actually be the biggest of the six. There are so many more people out there who don't believe and dont practice any religion then all other 5 combined.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • Ken78

      They certainly make the most sense by far of these six groups. The rest of them are so clearly mentally confused it is almost painful to watch them.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:36 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Impressive condescension.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:42 am |
        • Ken78

          Well, it is not quite as good as addressing a specific individual who posted here and telling them that they are incapable of logical thought. But I am glad that you appreciated it!

          {Rolls Eyes}

          July 17, 2013 at 1:05 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Attractive ocular jocularity.

          July 17, 2013 at 1:13 am |
  6. Austin

    the apostle paul killed Christians. he became a leader for the truth. your unbelief falls short of the deeds of the murdering that Paul was involved in.

    this means that you are a perfect candidate for salvation. Nothing can seperate you from the love that is in Christ.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Ken

      He killed Christians, and then he almost single-handedly turned Christianity from a Jewish sect about the coming Kingdom, to a new religion about Jesus. So, you could say that Paul went from killing Christians to ruining Christianity from what Jesus intended.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:22 am |
      • G to the T

        That's always been my theory as well though I word it a bit different. I think Paul turned the religion OF Jesus (apocalyptic jew) into a religion ABOUT Jesus (redemptive messiah) and then worked VERY hard to eliminate all the "non-orthodox" churches that existed at that time.

        July 18, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Sue Anne

      See, I just can't see the justice in a murderer getting into heaven over someone else who just happens to be a non-believer. It's ridiculous to think that any serial killer or monster like Hitler could be in heaven right now just because he got afraid near his death and started believing in Christ.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:30 am |
    • OTOH

      And Paul possibly saw this as a way to boost a declining Judaism with some new excitement.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Ken

      Paul was a Pharisee and killed Christians because he was offended by their impure Judaism. Maybe it was just easier, in his mind, to make it a non-Jewish religion that wouldn't directly offend Pharisees?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:42 am |
    • sam stone

      austin has gone from being a drunk to being a True Believer (TM). this is proof of reverse evolution. get back on your knees, austin.

      July 17, 2013 at 5:21 am |
  7. Frank

    Anti-theist here.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  8. im-gagging

    They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites.



    July 17, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  9. Steve Chernick

    I call non-theists 'Eh' theists.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • NL

      How about "Nay-theists"?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  10. MR. JAMES

    get rid of all religion it is mans greatest fabrication and will be his downfall.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:06 am |
    • Tim


      July 17, 2013 at 12:08 am |
    • Athy

      I'm with you, James. But how do we do it? I think we'll just have to be patient and let religion die by its own stupidity.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:13 am |
  11. MR. JAMES

    i am anti -religious.

    July 17, 2013 at 12:04 am |
  12. James George

    I'm a little bit of each. It really depends on the situation:

    (1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic: I DO argue when some specific point arises – but I don't go trolling for believers.

    (2) Activist: I'm activistic about SOME things I feel are of central importance, like the environment. At the same time, many believers share this passion, so it's hardly exclusive to atheism.

    (3) Seeker-agnostic: Yes, our knowledge is limited – but that's no reason to accept things on insufficient evidence.

    (4) Anti-theist: Some elements of religion ARE dangerous and SHOULD be countered. The very idea that we should accept claims without evidence is scary. God (sic) help us if we start relying on "faith" and "revelation" over a scientific method...

    (5) Non-theist: This is me most of the time. Too many things I KNOW are REAL to think about, like my beautiful wife of 23 years and wonderful family...and my little doggie (pekingese), Isolde.

    (6) Ritual atheist: To any non-believer, ALL rituals are of human origin and of vitally HUMAN importance. We need to mark significant events in our lives, but we don't need to accept anything on insufficient evidence...

    This article is clearly a "conversation starter"...but the so-called "types" are too broadly subjective to be meaningful.

    I'm not opposed to religion per-se, but I DO see

    This is a poor "first-stab" at classifying atheists. De we classify believers along these lines?

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

      I agree that at times we may fit into different categories or even multiple categories at once. These divisions are not well thought out.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:00 am |
      • speeddymon

        I agree as well. However, the article does note that the researchers put this down as a first stab at categories, and that in a few years we may be looking at "32".

        July 17, 2013 at 12:15 am |
  13. thevalueofsparrows

    I am a person who does not believe in the existence of atheists.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
    • Tim


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

      Do you post on hard dawn.com?


      July 17, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  14. Jeff

    Seriously, CNN you don't know the definition of atheism. Just give it a rest and go back to your TMZ gossips.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  15. alfredo

    What's interesting to me is that conservative talk show hosts praise logical thinking over feelings when it comes to matters of the economy, but not with religion. example: thinking about the harmful effects of welfare creating a dependency society vs. feeling for the poor and wanting to give other people's money to them. However when it comes to matters of religion, conservatives don't want people to think about the existence of god and prefer that we have "faith" and feel with our hearts. Liberals want us to think about the silliness of the supernatural and feel when it comes to the economy. This is a clear dichotomy that both groups don't like to address. I think that's why the libertarian views seem to be growing - especially in younger people. Since atheism seem to be growing in younger people, maybe conservatives will die off and we'll have majority atheists with one group believing in large government and one in small government. Unfortunately, this will take a very long time 🙂

    July 16, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • Lisa

      Social programs actually make economic sense, however.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  16. owlelyes11

    I'm a combination of 3, 5 and 6. My belief is pretty close to that of Richard Branson.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  17. Austin

    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.

    Stephen, no one has a brand on Jesus. there is no religion, including Christianity, that delivers the reputation of Jesus. No man can do this. but you could understand what Jesus is about. His will, was to die for your sins. He has take responsibility for you, and justified you before God.

    that is the highest honor ever imaginable.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
    • What IF


      Even if your story were to be true (and there is no verified evidence that it is), Jesus didn't really die. He was up and around in a couple of days. He knew he wouldn't be dead. His "Father" knew he wouldn't be dead. And anyway, what kind of hideous blood-thirsty monster is appeased by torture and death?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
      • Austin

        he was a scapegoat for the overwhelming sin that leads to death. this He was willing to do , as the final intervention in your life.

        this was a permanent victory over death. this is the Glory that you are given through being justified as an heir to the throne of God. you are the seed, the life of the spirit that is given by God.

        there is no greater experience than this sonship. you are a child of God.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:03 am |
      • OTOH


        Scapegoating was an ancient superst'ition - put all the evils, 'sins' and demons from a town into the goat and cast it out of the town and voila, happy town! It was pure fantasy then, and it's pure fantasy now.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Stephen Jones

      Religions come and go. Christianity will go the way of its pagan forbearers.

      Christianity constantly evolves to try to stay current. Just take a look at the whole McDonald/Darby rapture thing so many evangelicals believe today. Or the prosperity doctrine. Both 19th and 29th century manifestations of American Christianity. These are just two many new doctrines that lots of Christians hold to be true.

      The Jesus myth shifts jus as much as the doctrine shifts. In no way do modern Christians believe in Jesus the same way the early church did. Either it's all bunk or Jesus is real wishy-washy.

      Believers of other religions you can insert your religion/deity into the Christianity/Jesus spots and the above paragraph still works.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  18. Achilles

    I am an Intellectual atheist. Candidate for PhD in International Politics and follower of Professor Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • Austin

      I am a successor by faith to the Apostle Paul, of the Lord Jesus Christ.

      this faith has been delivered through the Holy Spirit, a supernatural spirit that bears the truth of God's word on a persons heart.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Apostle Paul? Saul of Tarsus? The guy who never actually met the man he claimed to speak for? The guy who created a religion in his own image?

        Hm. Not a guy I'd want to be associated with, unless I was a con man.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
        • Austin

          there is a precise reason that God used Paul. and that is the fact that Paul truly oversaw the killing of christians. he didn't convert because he felt guilty. he was a stubborn non conformist. and he was given faith supernaturally.

          Paul could not lie to himself and continue on as a Jew, hating the message and cross of truth and salvation.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:08 am |
      • Jamester


        You need to go and pray so you can convince you that your faith which is based on fantasy is real.

        Guess what kind of atheist I am?

        July 17, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • Tim

      I LOVE Stephen Hawking; one of the most intelligent human beings of our time.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • Josef Stalin

      Richard Dawkins admitting to intelligent design. @Achilles: I think you should just categorize yourself as a "pseudo-intellectual atheist." It's more fitting.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:07 am |
      • redzoa

        If you listen closely, Dawkins says "possibility" which is quite distinct from "probable." It's "possible" the Universe was created by a giant leprechaun riding an invisible pink unicorn on the back of the flying spaghetti monster. But like ID, there is no positive supporting evidence for the proposition. On the other hand, phylogenetic relationships, the presence of vestigial molecular and anatomical structures, the fossil record, observations of speciation in the lab and in the wild, etc, etc, all indicate common ancestry and evolution as the only scientific explanation for extinct and extant biodiversity.

        July 17, 2013 at 12:19 am |
  19. dm lane

    It would seem to me that you would first have to define the definition of God in order to have an intelligent conversation on the individual perceptions of belief...

    July 16, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
  20. amos

    the atheists cannot be faulted
    or anyone for that matter
    as there is just no evidence
    Of THE CREATOR Manifesting

    but i would rather believe
    in THE DIVINITY because if i am proven wrong
    i lose nothing. however, if you do not believe
    and then there Is A SUPERNATURAL DEITY
    then you stand to lose eternity and etc

    July 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • What IF


      This is another tired repeti.tion of Pascal's Wager - thoroughly refuted since the 17th century.

      - What if the real "God" is Allah, or Vishnu, or Zeus, or Quetzalcoatl, or any of the other of thousands which have been dreamed up over the centuries? Some of them are very jealous and vengeful and will relegate you to nasty places for not worshiping them. You'd better cover your butt by believing in ALL of them and fulfill their wishes and demands.

      - What if the real "God" prefers those who use logic and reason and punishes you as a silly sycophant?

      - What if the real "God" detests those who believe something just to cover their butts in eternity?

      July 16, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • Stinky Pinky

      Which god will you believe in? There are thousands. I won't even bother you with Pascal's Wager.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      God, should it exist, may forgive you if you don't believe but would if you knew the truth. You cannot know the truth. God, should it exist, may punish you eternally if you choose to believe in false gods. Any god you are told about may be false. It is best not to believe in any god you are told about.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • Austin

      yes there is evidence. as the bible reveals the works of the Holy Spirit, i am the recipient of such supernatural gifts of faith.

      I have these encounters doc.umented and data on file.

      my testimony is true. God reveals Himself to unworthy individuals based not on merit, but on grace and mercy. This is real.

      I have evidence. and I will continue to gather it because I know that God will give more.

      July 16, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Your special feelings are not proof of god, Austin. They are just proof that you have special feelings.

        No one even knows who actually wrote the bible and there aren't any corroborating accounts of any of the miracles claimed. There are no corroborating non-biblical accounts of christ, and that cornerstone of christianity (and judaism), the Exodus from Egypt, didn't actually happen. You believe because you want to believe and you have convinced yourself that you are some sort of prophet. This is not proof of god.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
        • Austin

          tallulah, you are right , my feellings are meaningless, and i have taken them out of the equation, although there is nothting detrimental to the truth concerning my feelings.

          my expernence and testimony is not fabricated. I had the dreams first, and wroth them down at the time I woke , middle of the night. the next day or whatever, they came to reality. the dreams were supernatural bits of knowledge, and my dreams and experiences are proof of what God can do. The Holy Spirit knows all,and God can speak to you supernaturally too.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:12 am |
        • redzoa

          Revelatory dreams can also come from tequila, a chili dog with jalapenos, or a deep subconscious need to believe you will continue to exist after you die. But, if you lived in Saudi Arabia, your dreams would have confirmed your belief in Allah and the Prophet; Israel, your belief in the OT Yhwh and Moses; India, your belief in Brahma; pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, your belief in Quetzalcoatal; Ancient Greece, your belief in Zeus; etc, etc. But clearly, you couldn't possibly be mistaken in your interpretations because you are special and your interpretations are infallible.

          July 17, 2013 at 12:32 am |
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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.