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. Greg Nold

    I am closest to #3 but it's not an exact fit. I call myself 'agnostic' although the dictionary's definition of the same is also not an exact fit.... but it at least gives a nod to the uncertainty I have. When I say I'm uncertain, it does not mean that I am 'confused'. It means I am not so presumptive to claim we know the ultimate reality of the universe. I look at the religions of the world and I am confident we have it all wrong. (How can anyone admit that our galaxy is made of billions of stars, each of which could be the life-giving sun to worlds full of beings, and then know the universe has billions upon billions of other galaxies like our own... and THEN assert our religious books are the ultimate truth?) I get within a hair's breadth of full-blown atheism when I ask myself, 'Do I believe in a creator?' What keeps me in the 'agnostic' column is that the truth for me is... 'I don't know'. The questions 'Who or what created the creator' is just as unanswerable as 'who or what created the original energy / mass of the universe'. One thing however. I am most definitely a man of science. I have an open mind, but over my lifetime I've installed a gate in front of it which needs a key. The only key which fits is The Scientific Method.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:25 am |
    • Henry Padilla

      Check out Hawking's "The Grand Design" he does a good job of explaining the quantum physics and theories involved in spontaneous generation. On a quantum level "something from nothing" is not that big of a deal.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:15 am |
      • Greg Nold

        But on a common-sense level, it IS a big deal. I do understand that quantum physics has very little to do with 'common' sense, and I know my argument is on shaky ground when considering QP. When I read Stephen Hawking, I understand where he is coming from and where he is going. When I close his books however, I'm back to the point from which I started. I admire Hawking. He's light-years in front of me of course, but I'd still bet my last coin he's no closer to knowing the ultimate truth than any of us on this speck of dust in the infinite cosmos.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  2. Golsa

    2, I think every woman should be, not only for themselves but also for those who suffers through religion in the world

    July 17, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  3. Gnomeless

    The six types of people who don't believe in gnomes...

    1.) People who only like to read about them for the value of historical folk lore.

    2.) People who believe lawn ornaments are an ugly rip off.

    3.) People who wonder if maybe in a parallel universe there are gnome like creatures.

    4.)People who really hate seeing them on your lawn.

    5.) People who never think of them at all

    6.) People who have garden gnomes on their lawn but don't think that gnomes are real.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:19 am |
    • Saraswati

      If you read the description by the authors


      This was a study not of people who don't believe in gods, but of the "atheist community". If you find an agnomic community, this would apply.

      July 17, 2013 at 7:34 am |
    • Gnomeless

      I wish I could find an agnomic community.

      July 17, 2013 at 7:40 am |
      • Saraswati

        I love #3, btw. Idon't no where I would fit on the non-god-belief spectrum, but on gnomes I'd like to consider myself a 3. And a 1. Hmmm... maybe I'm gnomic (gnomist?).

        July 17, 2013 at 7:45 am |
      • Gnomeless

        I'm a one on that list. I don't think they are there but I'm always up for little gnome facts.

        July 17, 2013 at 7:53 am |
      • faith

        i'd get out quickly if i were u. them reborners been out drinkin blood from what i herd

        July 17, 2013 at 8:14 am |
  4. theophile

    OF course it's SIX....duh!

    July 17, 2013 at 7:14 am |
  5. Marilyn Copeland

    5, then 2 now that I've found a facebook family and heard so many atheist voices emerge.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  6. Marilyn Copeland

    I was a non-theist for the most part until Facebook came along and I found a sort of atheist family and voice. So now I'm more of a 2. I'm very grateful to find so many others of like mind!

    July 17, 2013 at 7:01 am |
  7. Saraswati

    I think the new short page comments will mean that casual visitors spend less time on these pages and are therefore looking at more CNN pages...probably a good business decision. However, due to the inconvenience in holding extended conversation I suspect it will also drive off many regular posters, something which I suspect will not cause them much of a loss.

    July 17, 2013 at 6:55 am |
    • Regular reader

      I actually love all the new comments and the new posters. I like to see posters telling me their opinion on the article, or their opinion and not just coming in there to insult one another.

      July 17, 2013 at 7:00 am |
      • Saraswati

        I like having the new posters and I don't have any issues with reasonable moderation. I do feel, though, that reducing the ease to have long conversations is a loss to the discussions themselves, though probably not to CNN. I think a search feature or a longer list of recent posts could help bridge that problem and maybe give us the best of both worlds.

        July 17, 2013 at 7:24 am |
  8. Reality

    Summarizing once again for the six-classes of rational thinkers mentioned in the topic:

    The Apostles' / Agnostics’/Atheists' Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (References used are available upon request.)

    July 17, 2013 at 6:47 am |
    • Ernie

      Hey, Reality, what you say about followers of Jesus and writers of the gospels as being 'semi-fiction writers' cannot explain a simple fact: they all, starting with the Twelve, went to their violent deaths for believing in the resurrection. Pray tell who would do that for a lie? Also they made converts by their example only, as they did not have any political power for almost 300 years. What do you say to that?

      July 17, 2013 at 7:20 am |
      • WASP

        @ernie: ". Pray tell who would do that for a lie?"

        so by your logic DAVID KORESH was the "second coming" of jesus because all those people in his cult died a horrible death believing he was "JESUS"

        missing the forest for the trees, are we? XD

        July 17, 2013 at 7:26 am |
      • WASP

        @ernie: ". Pray tell who would do that for a lie?"

        so by your logic DAVID KORESH was the "second coming" of jesus because all those people in his cult died believing he was "JESUS"

        missing the forest for the trees, are we? XD

        July 17, 2013 at 7:27 am |
    • richunix

      Since with both study and share the same soure(s), no further references are need...good morning Reality

      July 17, 2013 at 7:22 am |
    • Reality

      The "martyrdoms" of the apostles are mostly single attestations and therefore historically unreliable. Dying for bad theology and flawed history also is not unique as witnessed by today's crazy, Muslim, koranic-driven, suicide bombers.

      July 17, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  9. biosnap

    Yes I consider myself apatheist is a combination of number 1 and 5 🙂 I have friends that are very religious, I work in a religious place with people that are religious preists even, but is like: I left them be if they left me be, if there is mutual respect I can live in harmony among the believers without problems. If somebody tries to convince me I pull out my reasons but I don't try to convince them, however I consider many problems the humanity has right now are product of religion and religious intolerance. I think the world would be better place if people could keep their religion away of political matters and of course I am totally against Theocracies in the world.

    July 17, 2013 at 6:37 am |
  10. Robb

    Nice summary, but there is a difference between rejecting organized religion vs. rejecting the existance of God. The list as is it's presented here, blurs that distinction.

    July 17, 2013 at 6:33 am |
    • Saraswati

      Those included in the survey (1153 respondents) were self described atheists. This is a description of those people who by definition were non god believers.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:39 am |
  11. To believe or not to believe

    It all looks like opinion to me.

    July 17, 2013 at 6:27 am |
  12. hamid kakar

    I know a lot of group of people of ANTI-THEIST type......

    July 17, 2013 at 6:10 am |
  13. hamid kakar

    I know lot of ANTI-THEIST type people they always say that religion is the main cause of our backwardness here in pakistan and Afghanistan.

    July 17, 2013 at 6:09 am |
    • Saraswati

      I don't think you can generalize to say that all religion will hold an economy back, but certainly outdated versions will. In many countries the economy has been severely damaged by high fertility rates that lead to bottom heavy population pyramids. A main culprit there was cultural systems, religions in particular, that discourage women from joining the workforce and encourage early marriage. Another religious barrier in many countries came from the Catholic church and other conservative groups in wealthier countries, which lobbied against family planning contributions that went against their religious beliefs.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:18 am |
    • Saraswati

      Another trick here is to determine the anti-theists from the activists. An anti-theist is going to be focussed on the idea that religion is inherently bad and will often describe it (inaccurately in most contexts) as developed to control the masses. They tend to have a fairly shallow grasp on more comples social and cultural issues and often have a personal very negative history with religion. An important aspect is that they normally hate all religion and see not only got ideas but a number of unrelated concepts as tied together in this evil "irrational" mass which they need to fight.

      Activists, on the other hand, tend to be more focussed on very specific aspects of what is affected be religion and are usually more motivated by an external social cause than a fight against religion itself. They want to change things and often promote atheism, but they are more likely to recognize differences between different religious views.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:37 am |
    • jamshed khan

      these are idiots baasterddds..n pakistaniis all r idiots n baasssteerrddss

      July 17, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • Lorem Ipsum

      If not religion, what is holding Pakistan and Afghanistan back? Do not the Taliban and Mullahs run the show? If they run the show, and do so under religious doctrines, has you doctrine failed? Or just the people?

      July 17, 2013 at 7:06 am |
      • skytag

        Culture is at least as big a problem as religion in a country like Afghanistan. There are many predominantly Muslim countries that are not like Afghanistan.

        July 17, 2013 at 7:22 am |
        • Saraswati

          They also have different variants of Islam, so I don't think you can separate out religion from culture...it is a part of culture. Islam or Christianity or Hinduism are not monolithic system, there are variants deeply entwined with local culture, but it is still a "religious" belief when locals in a particular area have a particular take or interpretation of a belief.

          July 17, 2013 at 7:29 am |
  14. Christene

    Mixture of seeker-agnostic and ritual atheist.

    July 17, 2013 at 6:06 am |
  15. Mark Sulkowski

    I think that there is a missing category - the "spiritual atheist". By this, I mean an atheist who (unlike the ritual atheist) does NOT turn to specifically _religious_ beliefs or traditions (including such religions as LaVeyan Satanism), but instead seeks to create meaning as an atheist. Some Secular Humanists and Objectivists fit into this category, as well as members of such atheist groups such as the Fellowship of Reason (in Atlanta, Georgia).

    But out of the categories available, I suppose that the "Intellectual Atheist" suits me best. However, that is just a sideline.

    July 17, 2013 at 5:49 am |
    • Saraswati

      I think you were kind of what they were trying to get to with the ritualist/agnostic category better described here:


      But I agree the categories could be better named and that ritualist and spiritual aren't necessarily in the same group. I think one thing is that a lot of the group you describe (who feel, say, reverence for nature) do belong to other organizations, such as unitarian or pantheist groups, and so aren't messing around on the "atheist" platforms from which these folks drew their research.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:30 am |
  16. David Volsky

    You mentioned that the "Non-theist" represented the smallest of the six categories. But you also mentioned that the results were derived from 59 interviews. You described as being representative of this group, one who "simply does not concern him or herself with religion." Is there a possibility that this group is disproportionately represented in the poll because many such persons declined the interview? Just curious.

    July 17, 2013 at 5:24 am |
    • KBrown

      That's quite a brilliant observation.

      July 17, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      The numbers were gathered from 1153 surveys based on the 59 interviews. However, if you look at some of the data, the people who responded were much more heavily from the more religious South:


      And they were almost all going to be part of the "atheist community" (author's term) because that's where the study was advertised. So really this is a study of the "atheist community", a very small subset of all US atheists. In the south more people are going to be pushed into this group out of desparation, but in the northeast and west very few atheists have a motivation either to participate in such communities or even to label themselves atheists.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:44 am |
  17. Nick m

    I am a member of your group 1, the intellectual atheist/agnostic. I view ANY organized religion, as well as non-organized faith as a political structure for yielding control, and that is why I wouldn't even begin wasting time in advocating opposing (or supporting) activism, as this structure is beyond reason, it is part of the human DNA, its instinctual integrity, amigdala driven, and will prove, time and again, futile to fight, or modify. I am, however, hoping to find a cure to this human shortcoming.

    July 17, 2013 at 4:58 am |
    • Saraswati

      I agree that there is an innate and genetically related component, however we have seen radical drops in religiosity in most countries. Do you accept that some change is possible or do you believe that the noted "religiosity" drops are an illusion, replaced by other similar beliefs not foormally identified as religion?

      July 17, 2013 at 6:48 am |
  18. Noel lyle-Stirling

    IIt seems to me that all you need to be an atheist is to not believe in the christian idea of a god. I see it as a fundamental disbelief in all religion.
    Personally,I see humans as animals, pure and simple.We live, we die.thats it.All over.

    July 17, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  19. TheLogicJunkie

    I'm a Logicist, not an atheist per se. Atheism primarily seems to refute organized religion and also offers only negation of a negative, not any actual affirmation of a positive. Logicism, however, is about pointing out a positive to affirmatively follow, rather than merely an absence or void. And that positive is the focus on logic.

    July 17, 2013 at 4:39 am |
    • lol??

      The wurld is stuck on using the dialectic from the forked tongue serpent, and that's not Boolean logic.

      July 17, 2013 at 4:53 am |
  20. Jay

    If one critically examines their religion against the same criteria that they do with any other fantastic claim (leaping tall buildings with a single bound, etc) they would understand what an atheist is, and why we see religion as a ridiculous set of rituals taht have no pertinence or place in modern society.

    July 17, 2013 at 4:31 am |
    • kenster

      well said Jay!

      July 17, 2013 at 6:22 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.