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. CP in Tampa, FL

    There is absolutely no evidence of a god or any other supernatural beings. Religion was created as a means to divide and control the masses. More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason. If children were not brainwashed at an early age no one would believe this nonsense. We tell young children about Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and God. None of these are real.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • Does my name for this have significance?

      Although I agree that religion has frequently been used to 'divide and control the masses', I would argue that it was a manipulation of belief and not the creation of belief. I am not arguing theism. However, both sides require a measure of faith. There are a vast array of questions as yet unanswered, but atheists have faith that they can. It is the lack of answers which leads to questions of a higher power. The problem is that to turn to a church is to demonstrate your fear and invite manipulation of your ignorance.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
      • snowboarder

        no faith. just experience. you see, nearly all things once attributed to supernatural cause have been explained as natural phenomenon. the realm of the supernatural has always been nothing more than a placeholder for that which we do not yet know.

        July 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
      • janet

        If we cannot answer a question, we cannot answer a question. Sane people don't MAKE UP "higher power" to pretend to answer questions they cannot answer. Atheists don't claim all the answers, but are honest enough to not make up things just to "tie loose ends". There is no sensible way a "higher power" comes in as a natural answer to an as yet unanswered question. It's ridiculous and should not be dignified with tolerance. I don't tolerate people who claim leprechauns are a valid response to unanswered questions, why should I tolerate those who claim god(s) as solutions? Any "solution" that you pull out of your behind is equally ludicrous.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
        • lionlylamb2013

          Good evening Janet,

          Ever since humanisms became known of the "Big Bang THEORY" our social cultures began to let loose of their shackles freeing them of their devoted civilities and moralizing declarations long held perceptions. Is it a good thing to allow freedoms of civil disparagements branching away from long held moral beliefs just to satisfy minor brooders? Of so then, how any branches of moralized civil declinations will humanities allow to unfold?

          July 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
    • Sarah Divine

      God is real, a bunch of smart-butts came together and said
      "you can't see him so he must not exist"
      Please don't push that crud on others
      It will most definately result in the worst.

      September 11, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  2. Honey Boo Boo

    IF religion did not exist, our current technological capabilities would have been at least a millennium-years-worth more advanced and most diseases would be a mere disturbance with the help of advanced nanotechnology. Transportation would have teleporters and fully-automated vechicles. But because of religion, christianity in particular, we have been mentally and technologically retarded. Lets escape the religious trenches of retardation and focus on scientific research!

    July 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      YES!!! Couldn't agree more =)

      September 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Copenhagun

    I'm a proud agnostic/atheist. I'm not sure where I'd fit in here, but atheist "lite" might be what I am. I do know this however, there are more than just six types of atheists.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • snowboarder

      similarly, there are as many interpretations of scripture as their are readers.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
      • lionlylamb2013

        The fields of socialisms reach from many weeded variations to the mighty oaks of the religious and well maintained fig leaves of organized aristocrats whose roots are all found under the many guises of ground up histories' watery shoals...

        July 15, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
        • Dave


          July 15, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  4. Gravitist

    I am a gravitist. I truly believe in gravity! I see it's works with every step and every breath I take.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • Dippy

      Its, not it's.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
      • August Heim

        Your punctuation is wrong.

        July 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
      • EnjaySea

        A more ironic way to put that, would have been:

        It's not it's.

        July 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
        • Athy

          Or "it's not it's, it's its". Isn't it?

          July 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
      • Gravitist

        Thank you! I will take that with me to the grave. But likely I will be cremated!

        July 15, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
        • Gravitist

          Please! Feel free to correct my punctuation in the last statement I made where ever you like if you think it makes the message more clear.

          July 16, 2013 at 12:16 am |
  5. gardengirl

    There are more types than 6! What kind of article is this? It's such limited thinking about this topic.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • August Heim

      Just for fun.


      July 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • The Brady Bunch Chainsaw Massacre

      It's pretty safe to say that CNN's most talented reporters do not get assigned to the Belief Blog. At least they didn't take this one from twitter, as they have been doing lately.

      If you keep your expectations low enough, then you won't be disappointed here.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  6. lionlylamb2013

    I see atheisms lacking in faithfulness issues... and yes while I'm devotionally faithful to the godliness ideals of Christian scriptures resonating peaceful declarations, it seems that much of the gospels teachings go way beyond peaceful dedications. To my perspectives, atheists may lack religious faith yet they excel in their faiths of others who deem reflective of distaining their distances from any and most all religiously substantive devotionals. Atheists tend to demoralize and demonize their religious cousins whose only understandings are maintained by issues of their "underlying" faiths...

    July 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • snowboarder

      that's pretty funny considering that most atheists were fearful or persecution by the religious until relatively recently.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
      • lionlylamb2013

        Hi snowy boarder,

        Could it be that closeted atheists likened to other closeted socialisms are nowadays flexing their societal weightiness upon the land's shores of nurturing rationalisms establishing many beachfront proprietary landing zones in fielded somberness? I for one do not mind 'sharing the open fields of perspective nuances'. Our humane freedoms should recognize all patronizations of social recognitions from the most feeble to the most indignant and even to the most apathetic...

        July 15, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
        • snowboarder

          yes, thankfully the minorities are finding their voice and no longer fearful of the tyranny of the majority.

          July 15, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
        • lionlylamb2013

          You are writing about socialistic minorities aren't you snowboarder? I'd hate to see the minorities of pedophiles and rapists and others become vocally endowed with inalienable rights....

          July 15, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
        • G to the T

          Way to group atheists with pedophiles and the like! That makes TOTAL sense.

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

      Where to start....how about a few definitions:
      1.) Atheist: Someone who does not believe a god exists (this technically includes most Buddhists, as well as all non-theistic religions)
      2.)Faith: A Belief in something without or in contrary to evidence

      Now I can truthfully say that I do not have faith in anything or anyone, as I do not believe something without evidence.
      Most of us non-religious atheists would agree with this.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Candiano

      "Atheists tend to demoralize and demonize their religious cousins whose only understandings are maintained by issues of their “underlying” faiths..."

      Untrue. When the religious demonize and demoralize those that do not share in their religion, do you expect people just to take it? Of course atheists will fight back. Especially at such absurd assertions.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  7. mustardseedhead

    For God (In Heaven), so loved the world (sinners) that He gave (charitably) His only begotten (of woman) son (Jesus Christ), that whosoever (anyone) believeth (knows and trusts) in Him (Jesus) shall not perish (die eternally), but have everlasting (forever) life.
    Father in Heaven, I pray that you will reveal yourself to the unbeliever in such a way that it cannot be denied. In Jesus Name, Amen.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • Athy

      That's one prayer that is sure to remain unanswered.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • snowboarder

      that whole god making a blood sacrifice of himself to himself definitely sounds like fiction written by primitive men.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • 404 Error

      "Father in Heaven, I pray that you will reveal yourself to the unbeliever in such a way that it cannot be denied. In Jesus Name, Amen."

      Message undeliverable. Addressee, "Father in Heaven" is unlocatable. Please verify the existence of this addressee.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
      • Does my name for this have significance?


        July 15, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • optomistic2

      You don't need to pray for me. I would appreciate if you would accept and respect the fundamental precept of the U.S. – separation of church and state. There is no "war" on Christianity. Reasonable people are just reacting to the current push by conservatives to create a Theocracy from our Democracy. I respect your religious beliefs. I just don't want them shoved down my throat.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
      • Phil

        The United States is not a democracy, it is a representative republic.

        July 16, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
  8. YogaMama

    I was raised as a ritual athiest – my family is into yoga and meditation and holidays. The people I know who are more adamant about their atheism were raised religious and therefore have a stronger negative impression of the religions they feel they "broke free of". There are good things to learn from all religions and it'd be great if people focused more on the core messages of being good and helpful then just throwing around labels.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
    • Rolph Eczema

      I see your point, but perhaps you might consider that the more secular a region or country, the less crime and more prosperity. In practice, it's the atheists who are actually practicing being good.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  9. Stan

    And pretty much everyone commenting here is a Type 4, to state the obvious.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • WASP

      @stan: i've always thought of myself intellectual, the atheist part is simply because science ruled out the universe requiring a "god(s)" to create it.

      so i would fall under catagory 1; catagory 4 when extremely bored at work and needing to pass time. XD

      July 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
      • snowboarder

        it certainly isn't that I think science has ruled out the possibility or necessity for a god, but the absolute absurdity of the doctrines of the abrahamic religions.

        July 15, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • Candiano

      Hey, look! It's Sweeping Generalizations Man!

      July 15, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      If you bothered to read the definition, most atheists commenting here would be type 1.

      It's hard to go past: "They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites."

      And yes, some would fall into type 4.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        But this is a behavior – not a measure of disbelief.

        July 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
  10. Bob

    note how there is no US politician listed as an atheist.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • jim

      nice catch !

      July 15, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • Athy

      Even if there was an atheist politician he can't admit it. It would be political suicide. Still just too many religious folks around. But things are changing.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
      • Bob

        religion should be irrelevant during elections...think about it...an atheist with AMAZING views vs a christian with okay views...which one would the people of the US choose?

        we all know the answer to that one...

        July 15, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
        • CommonSensePrevails

          The religious folks would choose the mediocre representative; they would NEVER choose an Atheist even if it's indisputable the representative is the smartest and best for the country.

          September 23, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
      • Athy

        I think atheists are just too smart to become politicians.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
        • Geoffrey

          Barney Frank

          July 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Rolph Eczema

      We just aren't scummy enough to be politicians

      July 15, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • ...

      Rep. Juan Mendez, D- Tempe, AZ

      July 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  11. Ricky

    I guess a bit of each one, depending on the situation.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Bearded Bow Tie Guy

    I'm an atheist. But I can identify with each category to a certain degree. Depends on how I'm feeling that day. Also, the current Dr Who, Matt Smith, is an atheist, and he looks smashing in a bow tie.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Candiano

      Okay, just went to your site, and your story about mustaches and perception cracked me up. Thanks.

      PS: I disregarded the flowered curtain.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
      • Bearded Bow Tie Guy

        No, you didn't. If you mentioned the flowery curtains, you certainly regarded them 😉

        July 15, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Stephen Jones

      I like your blog. I have to say though that I find cultivated facial hair pretentious. Now mind you I have a beard now and again but it's 'cause I choose not to shave. 😉

      July 16, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  13. writemejenb

    Reblogged this on Inside Jen's Head and commented:
    Manuscript coming soon!

    July 15, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
  14. Eric

    " However, I think number 4 is the most dangerous." Dangerous, how exactly? By making people think about their beliefs? By trying to get people to act more rationally?

    Religion is not the only cause of human conflict in the world, and without it people would figure out other reasons to kill each other, but it sure is effective. If you look at the source of so many problems in the world, especially in regions like the Middle East, religious belief is a primary cause of these problems.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  15. Mirza

    Interesting categories... I agree with those who say its actually a difference in vocalism.... True Athiests are vocal... The passives are more who chose not to align with any side.... There should be a category for those who do not believe in religion... but still believe in a "god" or some kind of morality... I think most people probably fall into that.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • snowboarder

      of course we believe in morality. we have seen it evolve over the course of history.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • Elemeno Qwerty

      Are those Scotsmen True Atheists?

      July 15, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
    • kenny

      do you need to have a sky daddy watching you in order to behave? would you committ evil unto others if you found out he wasn't real? i would think the golden rule is about as simple as you can get and its been around since the beginning of man which was a few million years ago...

      July 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Yakobi

      That "god" has a name, Miraz–Jiminy Cricket.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  16. superj43

    Apathetic Agnostic: Don't know and don't care.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • Rolph Exzema

      That's also known as apatheism.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • saroban

      I'd call that a cowardly atheist.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
      • sly

        Saroban has his panties in a sarobun, calling someone who doesn't believe something is a 'coward'.

        I don't believe George Zimmerman should be allowed to kill a kid walking home, but does that make me a 'coward'?

        I don't believe the Houston Astros will win the World Series this year. "Coward"?

        I believe the proper word is "Fool" for Ms. Bun here.

        July 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
        • saroban

          No, it's cowardly because agnostics are atheists that don't have the balls to take a stance. And as for the rest of your irrelevant, rambling post ... I'd advise taking some time to further develop your reading comprehension skills.

          July 15, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  17. GodFreeNow

    This does more to explain my 6 moods than it does to accurately categorize me. Different ignorances require different approaches. I like to keep my options open.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • GOD

      Haha... This made me chuckle.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
  18. S. Thomas Flynn

    Personally, I think rather than six "different" types, these should be stages (like the five stages of grieving; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance). They used to say you moved though the stages from first to last. However, they have now found that that is not true and that people move through the five stages of grief elastically and can go,from acceptance back to anger back to depression and the to denial and so forth. My point is that as an atheist, I have been at on point in one of the categories above and am now at just indifference (until some religious whack-job or Pat Robertson says something really stupid and offensive and ignorant and I am right back to Activist).

    July 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • Rolph Eczema

      I hadn't thought about it, but that is true for me also. I am usually an apatheist, but when religious people bumble into my consciousness spouting demands and insanity, it definitely puts me into a more determined mindset.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • saroban

      I agree wholeheartedly. I spend most of time in the "intellectual atheists" category from the article and attempt to be understanding of believers, but occasionally the religious nonsense becomes a bit too much to bear and I turn into a raging anti-theist condemning all belief as ignorant and dangerous.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  19. swede

    I'm a ritual atheist. My wife is a church music director and I, as a musician, get hired to play church services regularly. While I enjoy the rituals of Christmas and Easter and other parts of the church year, I don't believe in God, nor do I take much stock in any organized religion.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • snowboarder

      I love singing the songs.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  20. lroy

    Penn Jillette must be number one. However, I think number 4 is the most dangerous..I would put Bill Mahr in that category.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Candiano

      Bill Mahr is a tool. A pompous, arrogant tool.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Rolph Eczema

      At least he can spell Maher.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • Observer

      Bill Maher (not Mahr) is not an atheist, but an agnostic according to Bill Maher.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • Yakobi

      I used to respect Penn Jillette...until he named his kid Moxie CrimeFighter.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
    • saroban

      Christopher Hitchens is probably the best example of the anti-theist. He takes it even further than a guy like Maher. As for dangerous, maybe, but an anti-theist would tell you that their anti-theism is nowhere near as dangerous as religion itself.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • John Las Vegas

      Bill Maher sees the absurdity in religion and is not afraid to point it out. Why in this modern world of science, discovery and medicine do we have to accept that certain people have a right to believe prayer works, gays are immoral, birth control is against some god's plan and creationist theories are plausible. Why are we forced to accept ideas, frozen in time, written in a book thousands of years ago are not obsolete? We all know it is not at all possible, yet we have to pretend it might have happened. We will never correct the wrong that religious believers do if we continue to ignore the obvious. Defending religion when there is no defense is more dangerous than anything Bill Maher could ever say. I wish more people were like him.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
      • snowboarder

        it is long past time for religion to lose its unearned pedestal in society.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
      • CommonSensePrevails

        Well said!
        That's the point many forgets!
        Here're just a few examples: religious family not believing in doctors and medicine – so when their child gets sick, they pray instead of taking the child to the hospital. The child dies.
        Religious leaders continue and continue to se*ually assault young children; the church just hid the pastors by relocating them.
        It's interesting how people like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are attacked for speaking out and not putting up with things like this. WHY don't people get angry with issues like this?

        September 23, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
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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.