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. William Demuth

    Top five categories of religious people REPOSTED

    1. Those who don’t actually believe, but pretend to because it’s expected of them
    2. Those who recognize belief as a means to an end in the pursuit of power, and use it as such
    3. Those who fear death so much that suspending reality is easier than confronting their own mortality
    4. Those whose belief is skin deep who publicly maintain the rituals and organizations yet still do as they please.
    5. Those who’s mental illness manifests itself as religious fervor

    July 17, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  2. Invisible Sky Daddy

    Can a christian please attempt to justify all of the sick and twisted actions of god in the OT, and why you continue to worship it?

    July 17, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The best part of being a Christian is the freedom to pick and choose which bits of the OT to use.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • William Demuth

      For the same reason they seem to prefer professional wrestling and Honey Boo Boo.

      They are inbred, indoctrinated and dangerously ignorant

      July 17, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • What a bunch of nonsense

      Really people from all walks of life can choose whatever imaginary friend they want to have and imagine whatever they want to about him or her.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • What a bunch of nonsense

      If I want to imagine I am on a play date with Odin, does that mean I'm capable of justifying the Viking raids?

      July 17, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • Richard

      Those stories are not to be taken literally, in my opinion.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I think He said "blessed are the cheesemakers"

      July 17, 2013 at 9:12 am |
      • Richard

        Who said that, Doc?

        July 17, 2013 at 9:14 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          It's a bit from Monty Python's "Life in Brian" in which a few people way at the back of teh crowd during the Sermon on the Mount are having a hard time hearing.
          "Man: I think it was, "Blessed are the cheesemakers"!
          Gregory's wife: What's so special about the cheesemakers?
          Gregory: Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.

          July 17, 2013 at 9:25 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          EDIT: Life OF Brian

          July 17, 2013 at 9:27 am |
        • Richard

          Thanks for the info. I was never a fan of Monty Python. I prefer the kids in the hall.

          July 17, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • faith

        with onions

        July 17, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • What a bunch of nonsense

      Exactly Richard. It's an opinion. I can like spaghetti without having to justify the fat content or the problem with all the carbs.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:13 am |
      • What a bunch of nonsense

        In my opinion it's something for someone to ponder.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:15 am |
      • Richard

        There’s no need to insult me, What a bunch of nonsense.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:15 am |

      The deity of the OT is not the same deity of the NT. In the OT, the deity of the Hebrew people was one of many deities. There are multiple scriptures that point this out. In one, the Hebrew deity says it is going to punish the Egyptian deities. This can be found in Exodus 12. This is one reference of multiplle references of polytheism in the OT. In those days, the popular belief amongst multiple regions was that there were gods that controlled various things. This is prevelant in Greek mythology, which made its way into the NT.

      In the NT, the both Hades and Tartarus are mentioned. Both of these names represent Greek gods and their domains. Whoever wrote the NT believed in the Greek gods.

      It should also be noted that the fictional character "jesus" did not fulfill the OT prophecies, which is why Jews do not recognize him as a messiah. Furthermore, the prophecy was not for a full-blwon messiah. The prophecies called for a man (not a demi-god) who would be a prophet and a king. He would be skilled in the art of war and a great military leader. Please read the Torah for reference. Christianity and its followers have twisted the prophecies to claim that jesus was this man, but he is in FACT not that man. There are more prophecies that were not fulfilled. And all of them needed to be completed in the lifetime of the man the Jews expected in their prophecies. By the time the character of jesus died, only a small number of people had heard of him, and he did not become a king. Nor did his message reach the entire world. It wasn't until the last few hundred years that it made its way across the entire globe, and even still tribes exist that have no knowledge of this fairy tale. Trivia question: If jesus was the Hebrew "chosen one," why isn't animal sacrifice the popular theme of christians? According to the prophecy, the man was supposed to bring back animal sacrifice and I quote, "FOREVER." This is all information you can find in your Torah.

      During the transition into the christianity myth, polytheism was still popular. This led to the father/son/holy spirit myth. They are multiple gods, but the same god. It unified polytheism for the lazy religious. Those that authored the NT were aware that people were getting bored with having to worship Zeus, Poseiden and all of the others. It would be easier to control the sheep if they only had one deity to deal with.

      Strangely, people continue to believe in all of it, even though it has been proven to be fiction time and again. If you aren't spineless, do some research into this. You'll find that everything I've stated is 100% accurate.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  3. Doc Vestibule

    Atheists, agnostics and religionists alike all kneel at the altar of the true religion of the last 400 years – Rationalism.
    Modern, technocratic Rationalism is as far removed from Voltaire's populist ideology as Stalinism was from Marxism.
    Never before has there been such a dearth of information available to the population at large, and yet so much of it ignored or at best, consumed in a trivial fashion.
    Instead of liberating the people to seek and apply knowledge, we have become a society of specialists.
    We conflate specialization and narrow expertise with wisdom – and the more narrow one's field of knowledge, the more we defer to the Expert's opinion in matter not pertaining to their speciality.
    This pervasive mentality has made Western culture even more sectarian than it was at the height of Religion's reign with each tribe carefully guarding their informational fiefdoms, wielding obfuscatory language as a club to keep outsiders at bay and as a badge of allegiance to their own tribe.
    The Curse of Babel manifests itself today as specialist jargon.
    Through centuries of refinement, Rationalism has managed to debase instinct, intuition and emotion and to elevate mathematics and statiscal data gathering and interpretation as the only legimate means to approach understanding the Universe in which we find ourselves.
    That isn't to say that Markov's process is without merit or that the scientific method is a useless undertaking – far from it! But these means of data gathering and prediction impart only knowledge – not wisdom.

    Wisdom requires a synthesis of rational analysis and irrational (but inescapable) emotion.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:46 am |
  4. Egzon


    July 17, 2013 at 8:42 am |
  5. Michael

    I'd say I'm a 1, 2, or 4 depending on the day and who I'm speaking to!

    July 17, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  6. Dayton

    I don't see God as a particular person. I see God as an infinite source of spiritual, positive, energy that surrounds us. Negative energy is also around us which would be considered Satanic.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • skytag

      Sounds even more like meaningless mumbo jumbo that most religious babbling.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  7. Jack

    Also these captions show that whoever wrote them doesn't know the difference between or definition of atheism and agnosticism.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:19 am |
  8. Karen smith

    This is a ridiculous article. 59 was the sample??? Seriously stupid. Cnn has no credibility whatsoever.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • skytag

      59 seems like a reasonable number to start looking for patterns.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:35 am |
  9. Jack

    I fit into 5 of these 6 "types." And I'd imagine a lot of atheists would fit into multiple ones. So then, what good are they as categories?

    July 17, 2013 at 8:15 am |
  10. Dan

    Oh look. A christian blog is categorizing and smugly judging others. How unusual of them. It must be Wednesday....or Tuesday or Monday or any other day that ends with Y...

    July 17, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • faith

      i started a new church

      it is called, "yo, sup wit dat, you know? ain't no thang!"

      we meet tuesday mornings. if u have wealthy friends, bring em. we believe in laying out sound, man. u save france, we'll wash up. take it easy. don't run for a bus. stay away from fried foods

      u can hook right up and start right away. we got hats and everything

      July 17, 2013 at 8:21 am |
      • Austin

        are there fried tortillas?

        July 17, 2013 at 8:26 am |
        • faith

          fried B A N AN A S

          we ain't no hollow back church

          July 17, 2013 at 8:29 am |
        • faith

          by gewn's bigfanny

          ain't no hollow back girl

          only room for #1

          ain't no hollow back girl

          July 17, 2013 at 8:37 am |
  11. Debbie Peterson

    Seeker-agnostic, but leaning toward Pantheism. I am a member of a Unitarian-Universalist Church.

    July 17, 2013 at 8:12 am |
  12. MTP

    I'm a seeker-agnostic. I'm confused but ok with it. I think there may be a god but I'm not sure really in what role god plays in everything. Are all the religions praying to the same god? Different ones? If the same, why the different rules for various religions? Er, if it's the same one, why are there multiple religions? If different, well then which god should i subscribe to? Maybe I'm not supposed to understand. Maybe I'm just supposed to believe in... well, something I guess. But when i look around to try and figure out which one I should believe in, none of the religions seem that appealing. Maybe I'm supposed to find god in my own way. Well that hasn't happened. And I'm fine with that too,

    July 17, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Saraswati

      I've always said I don't inherently oppose religion, but have just never come accross one that made enough sense. I actually feel pretty confident I could invent one that met with modern scientific knowledge, what theoretically consistent and had enough scientific and moral flexibility to go with the times...but then it would be a bit hard for me either to plunge into my own creation or to market it.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:06 am |
      • skytag

        I oppose religions because they teach people to reject facts, evidence and reason when those things contradict what you believe.

        July 17, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • faith

      jesbus is just alright wit u.

      he does a fine job making tortillas

      July 17, 2013 at 8:16 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I think it would be hard to invent something that could bring about a desire to worship. Perhaps a religion built around an awe towards nature would work. Still, the religion itself would have tool marks and blemishes that you would know all-too-well. Established religions usually try to trace their origins to some divine transmission. Anything to avoid being seen as what they are – products of human imagination.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:19 am |
      • faith

        true! true!, man u can get wit us for a starting fee of 50 bucks. u get 2 pencils, vestments from india, and i love Buddha bumper sticker and 3 cookies

        July 17, 2013 at 8:24 am |
    • Austin

      ahaha you goofy

      July 17, 2013 at 8:20 am |
    • skytag

      Not only are there multiple religions, if you were to examine all the religions men have created you'd find there is absolutely nothing they all have in common. They don't even agree on whether there is one God or multiple gods. It's exactly the kind of extreme diversity of belief systems you'd expect if a bunch of people in different parts of the world sat around and made up a bunch of god-based belief systems out of thin air.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • Katie

      Look up the ministry of Heidi Baker. This is a woman who runs an orphanage in Africa. She goes to the remote villages and visits with people, at the end of the day she requests to meet a person from that village who is deaf and/or blind, makes sure that everyone has always known them to be this way (in a small village it's not that difficult.) She and the kids from her orphanage then pray over that person and he or she gets healed instantly. It has been captured on video, and proven by the doctors. Try telling her that God does not exist. He has healed hundreds in front of her eyes.

      If you want the proof of God don't sit at home and browse the internet for answers, go to the nearest healing revival and see for yourself. God is not going to stop performing miracles just because an unbeliever will be there. We, the Christians, tell you the truth because we care about you. The consequences of your unbelief are extremely harsh, but if you believe you can reap the benefits starting today. If only for the simple fact that someone loves you no matter what you've ever done or said. No human can do that.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  13. Doug

    Yahweh, the god of the christian bible, is a mass murder, condones slavery, condones stoning people, and condones beating and murdering children. If you worship this god, then you fall into one of two categories:
    1. Your eyes are closed and your fingers are in your ear. You have most likely not read the bible, or cherry pick only the good stuff. You are completely ignorant of the characteristics of the god you worship. So ask your self, why would you worship something you know nothing about?
    2. You have read the bible, and are aware of how repulsive this god is. This makes you morally bankrupt for justifying his or her actions. I don't murder anybody, so that makes me morally superior to your god and those who worship your god.
    I would rather worship a coffee mug than worship Yahweh, the god of the christian bible.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:57 am |
    • Austin

      does the united states go to war? against who and what? are you an american? are you a proud american?

      why do angels carry swords?

      I have experienced the revelation of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a sanctifying spirit that bears the truth of God's word on a persons heart.

      2 Corinthians 4:6
      New International Version (NIV)
      6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:04 am |
      • Doug

        Yes the U.S. goes war, usually against tyrannical dictators, or those that disrupt the oil supply. Yes I am a proud American. Did the holy spirit introduce him/her/itself to you? What doe he/she/it look like? Does it have a penis?

        July 17, 2013 at 8:11 am |
        • Austin

          Doug, yes the Holy Spirit has confirmed His presence through supernatural productions.

          God is in control.. You are justified, we are redeemed. God's love for you real.

          July 17, 2013 at 8:24 am |
        • skytag

          "God is in control"

          Oh please, Austin. Christians love to say stuff like this, but as soon as you start asking them about any of countless historical events they immediately abandon this claim and explain how God gives men their agency. What was God in control of during WWII while the Nazis were exterminating 6 million Jews and 20 million Russians, the price of theater tickets in Detroit?

          July 17, 2013 at 8:49 am |
      • skytag

        Typical Christian mumbo jumbo. There's no evidence anything you've claimed is true.

        July 17, 2013 at 8:36 am |
        • faith

          out on the shelves tomorrow
          "christian mumbo jumbo" 8% less calories
          half the salt
          new and improved

          July 17, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  14. Brian

    I am not an atheist, but I support the idea. This is because I make my religious beliefs dependent upon my moral values, not the other way around. It is true that religious beliefs have caused unnecessary pain, poverty, and bloodshed. However, It is also true that from the Catholic Church emerged the first great thinkers, scientists, healers, and public works in Europe in a thousand years during the early Renaissance. The problem with religion and religion-like beliefs (such as the fourth type on this list) is the view that adherents to one system of beliefs are better than those of another. When a rich man realizes that he is not a better person than the beggar he just splashed with the tires of his limo, his wealth will seem less important to him than improving his effect on the world. And so, when Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, and all the other denominations too numerous to name can look at one another and think, 'that person is doing pretty well with his life,' or, 'that person must be down on his luck,' instead of believing that the person is being rewarded or punished (or will be rewarded or punished) for his deeds and beliefs, we will begin to see how pointless it is to fight each other, and just work together toward a good community.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:49 am |
    • skytag

      Well, at least you admit you just make up your religious beliefs instead of pretending they're based on facts about a nonexistent god.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:31 am |
  15. faith

    vasusvious is ghnf's conflated gawwwwwwwwwwwwwwd

    2.3 million bucks is nothin

    July 17, 2013 at 7:46 am |
  16. faith

    vasusvious is ghnf's conflated gawwwwwwwwwwwwwwd

    July 17, 2013 at 7:45 am |
  17. skytag

    Part of my hostility toward believers is an expression of my anger with myself for allowing myself to be duped into being one of them for almost four decades.

    In my defense I understand that when you're raised as a Christian in America you tend to be surrounded by other Christians, both those with whom you associate at church as well as many others since Christians are so common in our society. Being surrounded by people who share such fundamental beliefs with you makes it harder to question those beliefs. It's hard to question the judgment of people you respect, and there is fear of losing their respect. Basically it's a cult, and it's hard to leave cults.

    Once you manage to escape, though, you look back and wonder how you could ever believe such irrational nonsense.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:41 am |
    • faith

      me too. i hated myself cause i prayed onst. got punched in the face like george bailey.

      July 17, 2013 at 8:26 am |
  18. Vanilija

    I'm anti-theist, meaning I just don't care about anything religious, god, jesus, churches, whatever.. I'll take a picture of a cute cathedral if I'm a tourist in a foreign country and I will be silent if I take a look inside of it, but I won't pray there and so on. I consider religion a very stupid ritual and laugh out loud, when I read ppl preach about god on the internet and so on. I pity those who cling to their god so much and who actually think there's a man in the clouds who just put them on the face of the Earth like a magician. If anyone will confront my beliefs and try to "convert" me, I will defend and gladly try to argue some sense into them, but for the most part, I just never talk about it. They can waste their lives praying in a church all they want.

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

      I've thought something similar at times. If the earth was created by a god and he is responsible for the life on it he moved on to something else eons ago because there is absolutely no evidence he's been around for a very long time.

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


        July 17, 2013 at 8:11 am |
      • faith

        he left on a train for the east coast
        took with him the holy ghost

        the day the music died

        July 17, 2013 at 8:31 am |
      • faith

        is to!

        i got an autographed umbrella!

        July 17, 2013 at 8:34 am |
  19. wealthcoaches

    I guess I'm a little bit of 3, and a little bit of 6? I've embraced the teachings of Buddhism as a philosophy. I'm not sure if God ever existed; it doesn't bother me if he did – but I'm CERTAIN that he doesn't exist as Christians believe in him. I can't imagine that if he exists, he cares at all what we are doing.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:36 am |
    • Saraswati

      Only if there are multiple gods...playing chess with us or something. A few good bets might make them care.

      July 17, 2013 at 7:48 am |
  20. PevanB

    BEHOLD! me not giving a SH !T wait for it ...... and hear it is " * "...ta da!

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

      XD (que music) ewwwww that smell, can't you smell that smell? XD

      July 17, 2013 at 7:28 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111
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.