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. Jobin

    Testimnot Cont God's Intervention
    I started my pre-degree course choosing the second group which was a necessary prelude for my medical career. But God had other plans for me. The polio virus by this time had taken sway over my vertebral column and my backbone became weaker day by day. The medical treatment gave little relief. There was slight improvement when I performed the spinal extension exercises. It was an agony for me to sit through practical work. So at last I decided to change over to psychology course. However my health deteriorated further and so I decided to remain at home and enrol myself as a private candidate for the University examination. I was able to complete the examinations only part by part. Added to these problems, the syllabus too changed in between and this accentuated my misery. Whatever work I had done was futile and this gave me great pain both physically and mentally.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:28 am |
  2. Beth

    I'm a combination of three and six.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:28 am |
  3. Jobin

    Testimony cntd My Vocation -Let me share my experiences with you. As a young girl, I had a lot of expectations about my future. I was stricken with polio at an early age, but that didn't deter me from doing well in studies.
    I was a voracious reader and stories of great men like Booker T. Washington, Helen Keller and Beethoven etc. fascinated me. They were people who were handicapped in one way or other and reached great heights of glory. As a handicapped person myself, I had great admiration for them.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:25 am |
  4. Who Cares?

    Why does CNN care so much about people who are Atheists? Does it really matter that much, and what point are they trying to prove?

    July 17, 2013 at 2:23 am |
    • Lurpy

      Oh dear, a couple stories about the fastest growing demographic in the choices regarding religion realm, and you get in a huff. The range covered in this story accounts for about 20% of the U.S. population, so gosh, a couple stories, what an atrocity!

      July 17, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • Justme

      Yes, we need more stories about Justin Beiber, the royal baby, and other "important" topics....

      July 17, 2013 at 3:06 am |
  5. Herbie

    This pair of nitwits talk to 59 people and think thy can draw a conclusion ? First graders could have done better

    July 17, 2013 at 2:23 am |
  6. Ryan

    I'm definitely an atheist but don't readily identify with any of the proposed categories. I do think about religion and question my own moral beliefs on a regular basis, but I've never believed in God and don't think I could even if I tried – having said that, I recognize that faith is important to billions of people across the globe, and that the beliefs held by so many won't simply disappear because I've fault with them. I'll defend my beliefs to the best of my abilities when challenged and will, in whatever small way I can, speak out against injustice perpetrated in the name of "God" (suicide bombings, denials of gay rights, strict blasphemy laws). But I don't actively seek out arguments any more and am no loner a part of a large, local atheist community. I was on the governing board for the governing board of a secular student group in college, and although I enjoyed doing debates and discussion panels, found that many of the members were elitist and condescending towards any expressions of religious belief. Maybe I find religion to be inherently disagreeable, but I think a more balanced and sometimes tactful approach should be taken in tackling its more objectionable aspects, of which I believe there are many.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  7. R Christopher

    What I find lacking here, is that atheism and religion seem so tired. Meaning, you hear people saying that are a atheist, because all religion is BS, but yet are missing that is is MUCH MORE then that. People are burned out on the idea of religion, and religion is so tied in with the name God. Most of these people do not know better to ask the really hard questions, and they take the 2nd simplest way out, and say they are a atheist. (the simplest way is to believe in all the religion BS)

    July 17, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  8. Jobin

    rEAD THE FOLLWING TESTIMONY I have Discovered-Mini Thattil-Mini's Vocation is unique and one might wonder whether God's call can come even this way ! As we read her story, it will give us an insight into what God has called us for.
    As we hear of the word 'Vocation', we are often led to think that it is a call for a life of celibacy either as a priest or a nun. But God, who has given us a life, has a definite plan for our future. "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). So each of us have a mission to fulfil in this life. "Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?" (Genesis 16/8) God asks each one of us the same question he asked Hagar: "Where did you come from and where are you going?" A suitable answer to these questions would determine the course, your life is going to take.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  9. John Arevalo

    i'm sort of a ritual atheist. I love Christmas because of the beauty of the whole love and gift giving ritual. I like how everyone lights up their dwellings. I love Halloween although I'm not sure if it's a religious holiday. Some religious music is also quite beautiful. I also have to convince some family members that I do believe for their peace of mind. I used to be religious but after seeing the whole thing objectively I found myself simply doubting the whole thing. I believe that it served its purpose back when mankind was predominantly lawless and cruel. Some people seem to need it... I don't.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  10. David

    Seventh Category: Babies

    All babies are born without any knowledge of religion.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  11. R Christopher

    Darn, six kinds and I STILL could not find me fitting perfectly in any of them!! LOL. I hate when studies, etc. put people in groups!

    July 17, 2013 at 2:17 am |
  12. Jim Morrison

    I am the lizard king. I can do anything.

    July 17, 2013 at 2:09 am |
  13. Iggy

    I am a theological non-cognivitist.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:57 am |
    • Jay Floyd

      May I suggest Metamucil? 🙂

      July 17, 2013 at 2:28 am |
  14. proud atheist

    Am I an atheist? Yes. What kind? The kind that does not believe in dieties. What a stupid question.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:52 am |
  15. vinrohm

    I guess I would have to classify myself as an intellectual atheist. But I call it "Naturalism" – a science-based belief that only the natural world exists.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:50 am |
  16. Angela S

    I'd say I tend to vacillate between being an anti-theist and a non-theist. I disagree that one has to constantly be spouting their non-belief and stand up to believers else one can't be an Atheist. I'd say that probably close to 90% of the time in my life, I'm not thinking about god, the lack of a god, what religious people are thinking or doing or anything of the sort. The other 10% of the time, I'm shaking my head in disbelief at how foolish believers sound when they quote scripture. And I only really become vocal and irritated when people hold up a religion (like Christianity, for instance) as some sort of Golden Seal on how one ought to conduct their life, when their book, The Bible is filled with story after story involving all sorts of atrocities like slavery, incest, domestic abuse, pedophilia and murder. Personally, I think Dr. Seuss has a better track record with writing books of a positive, spread-worthy nature.

    And....then there are moments like these when I've read a few posts by Religious folk telling us what "god" wants us to think about "him" (in their typical self-righteous way) that make me sort with derision. The end.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:43 am |
  17. Steve

    Don't know what to call myself. I hope God exists but can't seem to prove it to myself. As a result of my own uncertainty, I find myself distrustful of people on either side of the question who are so certain that there is/isn't a God.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:29 am |
    • The Word of Dog

      You know, I went through a phase when I too wanted to believe, and I read all the major scriptures of Christianity, Islam, Buddhist, some Hindu, and while I expected something to stand out and make a difference, I just didn't find anything to justify the claims of how wonderous the various gods were. I just could not bring myself to believe the supernatural claims, though I wanted to.

      And over time, the grandiose pronouncements of religious people just got hollower and hollower. They just did not fit the real world. And it became clearer and clearer that religious people were saying things that they were making up, that didn't even fit their scriptures that I had read, that they would pronounce as fact things that just plain were not true.

      And that pretty much ended it for me. They weren't lies, because they actually believed what they were saying, but it certainly wasn't the truth. And they disagreed about so much. And they were often condescending jerks.

      And so I am an atheist. I just cannot make myself believe the claims. And I am and anti-theist, because it became obvious religious people are, in one form or another, nuts.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:59 am |
  18. law

    n 2010, Quantcast paid $2.4m to settle a class action lawsuit alleging it

    July 17, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  19. Cleb B. Calimutan

    The Seventh Atheist is the "Practical Atheist" he believes in God, but live like there is no God in his life.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:27 am |
    • Observer

      You have that confused with a "Christian".

      July 17, 2013 at 1:29 am |
    • Natalea

      You seem to misunderstand what an atheist is. They do not believe in a religion. I think the term you are actually looking for is a Deist. Even then Deists don't believe in god they simply believe in a higher being. George Washington was actually a Deists as well as a couple of other founder fathers.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:42 am |
      • Tiff

        You seem to misunderstand that atheism and religion are not exclusive. If you are Buddhist, then you're both atheist and religious! AND you don't fit in any of these categories.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:49 am |
        • Lurpy

          Buddhism is not atheist as is sometimes claimed. Religion is the service and worship of god or the supernatural, and while most forms of Buddhism have no creator god, some have gods and demons, and all have supernatural elements. So Buddhism is a religion.

          I would say most atheists reject the supernatural as well as gods, so that pretty much prevents Buddhists from being atheists. Parinirvana, where Buddha claimed to go after death, is just not compatible with atheism.

          Now, if you are an atheist who follows the philosophical elements of Buddhism but rejects the supernatural parts, you really aren't a Buddhist but a fellow traveler.

          July 17, 2013 at 2:26 am |
        • Tiff

          Buddhism is BOTH atheist and religious. The definition of atheism is belief that there are no god(s). In Buddhism there is no one creator, there is no god(s) to be prayed to, there is no one to worship, there is no god(s) to do rituals for. therefore it is atheist. The supernatural creatures in Buddhism that you mentioned are completely unimportant to the religion and you don't need to believe in them to be Buddhist.

          Please look at the Wikipedia article on Atheism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism.

          Buddhism is mentioned as a religion that teaches atheism. Thanks.

          July 17, 2013 at 6:46 am |
  20. oneSTARman

    I go to Church every Sunday and i am only an Atheist Sometimes. It is HARD to see the Reality of God in a world where the people HE created often seem, inexplicably to manifest so LITTLE of HIM. But that is part of the Paradox. We were created with FREE WILL because God so Desperately LONGS for US to CHOSE to Love HIM. That is why – Even though it breaks HIS Heart Even MORE than it does MINE – HE allows Tsunamis and Earthquakes and Asteroid impacts (Which wiped out HIS beloved Dinosaurs) because HE does not want to be our PUPPETEER but our Beloved.

    July 17, 2013 at 1:20 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I wonder if you might be a believer all the time? You don't sound like you're an atheist, even intermittently. Everyone doubts; If there weren't doubts, there'd be no faith. Faith is dependent upon doubt for survival and existence. You are simply feeling the limits of your faith and either extending it or retracting it from certain issues and viewpoints.

      Don't stop believin' / Hold onto that fee-ee-lin!

      July 17, 2013 at 1:24 am |
    • OTOH


      A perfect being, as your "God" is purported to be, would not lack anything... would not LONG for anything... would not suffer having its "Heart" broken.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:24 am |
    • Greg

      Still, he will occasionally preform miracles to individuals, aiding just them to believe in him, right? What kind of free will is it when he's stacking the deck in certain people's favor? It's like putting two children in a room with instructions not to take any cookies, but only showing one of them where the cookies are hidden.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • The Word of Dog

      Why would you even bother to lie and say you are an atheist "sometimes." You're not even close.

      July 17, 2013 at 1:47 am |
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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.