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. ma

    I guess I'm a Non-theist, but who cares.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  2. sunnylovetts

    God is real, His love is here. Trust Him, He will raise you out of the darkness. Don't let the voices of this world push you into the confusion of doubt.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • Ummmm

      "God is real, His love is here"

      There is no proof this statement is true. Prove your god is real.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:43 am |
      • JimK57

        he/she does not need to prove it.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:45 am |
        • Ummmm

          That poster has made the claim their god is real, they need to prove that statement. The only reason you made your lame comment is because deep down you know they have no proof.

          July 17, 2013 at 9:57 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        Jim: Just like in a court of law, the burden of proof lies on the one making the claim.

        July 17, 2013 at 10:14 am |
        • JimK57

          This is not a court of law. No one HAS to prove anything.

          July 17, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Benny

      Thor is real, His love is here. Trust Him, He will raise you out of the darkness. Don't let the voices of this world push you into the confusion of doubt.

      Vishnu is real, His love is here. Trust Him, He will raise you out of the darkness. Don't let the voices of this world push you into the confusion of doubt.

      Aphrodite is real, Her love is here. Trust Her, She will raise you out of the darkness. Don't let the voices of this world push you into the confusion of doubt.

      and on, and on, and on for thousands of other gods and goddesses who were all believed in just as strongly at one time, or now.
      Why think that God is anything special?

      July 17, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Susan

      And how do you know that god is a male? C'mon, god is an invisible friend/sky daddy for people too scared to be intellectual.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  3. Erik

    Ritual Atheist

    July 17, 2013 at 9:39 am |
  4. Bryant Lister

    The study consisted of more than just the 59 interviews mentioned in this article. There were over 1100 participants answering surveys that contributed to the data.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  5. lolCAT2000

    all of this is so logical

    July 17, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  6. rtkwebman

    This article is too funny. The same categories or "types" listed above can be used to describe any special interest group. Replace the word atheist with non-atheist, or nonbeliever with believer , or against with for, you get the picture. Breaking news, there is yet another new study on the six types of hunters, or fans of professional wrestling etc. Come on, are we really this stupid? Given a sequence of numbers; 8,16,32,64 what is the next number? You can try all you like to convince me it could be any number, it is not. All I have to do is believe it could be any number, right? You can tell me as a child it is some other number and I will believe you at first, but as I grow and become exposed to true knowledge and logic I will realize you were wrong. I will learn to mistrust and question everything you say. I will eventually learn of the "Five Monkeys" experiment and begin to feel sorry for you and all those who think like you. Until of course you kill and destroy in the name of your some other number.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • How interesting

      "Given a sequence of numbers; 8,16,32,64 what is the next number? You can try all you like to convince me it could be any number"

      This type of question has always annoyed me on those standardized tests. Saying the next number is 128 presumes that the sequence didn't change for any reason. But it doesn't give you any background for why the sequence exists in the first place. It doesn't set any rules that the sequence can't change every fourth number. I've always hated those.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:35 am |
      • Good for you

        Benny, assuming that the sequence remains sequential IS taking it on faith

        July 17, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Benny

      How interesting
      Why would you assume that it wouldn't just keep following the pattern? It would be an unfair question if the intended answer did skip the sequence, right?

      Religious people might argue that the next number is 13, and ask us to take that on faith, but I say "Why?"

      July 17, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  7. Angry atheist

    Many people claim that "we cannot know that there is no god." This is of course complete and utter BS. I know with an absolute certainty that one of the following 3 statements is true.

    1. There is no god.
    2. If there is a god, it is not the being most widely believed as described in Judeo-Christian or Muslim texts.
    3. If that god exists, then it is a positively evil being, and is not worthy of my worship.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • Benny

      How about
      4. If a god exists, it's statistically very likely not to be the Christian one.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:29 am |
      • Angry atheist

        That's covered by statement 2.

        Statement 1 is by far the most likely though.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:31 am |
    • xsmokedoutx

      You know what you believe. My beliefs don't mean it's truth. You can't say what lies beyond the grave unless you have died and seen/been there first hand.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:35 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        Yet christians claim to know what does lie beyond the grave. I am agnostic is the sense that I do not know with certainty but I am Atheist in the sense that due to the complete lack of evidence for any god, I see no justification to believe in one.

        July 17, 2013 at 10:12 am |
      • Angry atheist

        I don't think you realize that with those three statements I have eliminated all possibilities.

        1. There is no god.
        I think this is by far the most likely of the three statements to be true.
        2. If there is a god, it is not the Abrahamic god most believed in by people.
        I provide for the posibility for the existence of a higher power here, but absolutely reject the idea of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim interpretations of that higher power. I do not believe this is true, but it is more likely than 3.
        3. If that god does exist, he is not worthy of my worship.
        The god described in the Bible and Koran is a wholely unpleasant person. Someone who once threw a fit and destroyed the world because he didn't like the way his creations were acting. Someone who commanded the Jews to destroy a city and kill every man woman and child. This being is inherently evil, and even if it did exist, I would NEVER worship it.

        I have in fact eliminated every single possibility. Since I know that one of the three statements is correct, and I would act the same regardless of which was correct, it is safe for me to operate under the assumption that #1 is correct. Therefore, I can say with moderate certainty that there is in fact no god.

        July 17, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  8. Michelle

    Why can't I just be an atheist? Why do I have to be put into a category?

    July 17, 2013 at 9:23 am |
    • Benny

      They just want to stir up some denominational infighting. The old "divide and conquer."

      July 17, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • grainman

      Ah ha!
      Category- 'doubting atheist.

      July 17, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  9. Edward Broker

    Denying the facts won't change the facts. I am not an atheist. Rather than a "religious/faith" belief in the existence of God, scientists have a "logic/reason" basis for the existence of God, or a "superintellect" as Sir Fred Hoyle calls Him.
The existence of the chemical elements necessary for life cannot be explained by random events or blind forces. Astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle is credited with the discovery of the resonances of carbon and oxygen atoms.  Working with William Fowler, Hoyle discovered that, by all rights, the carbon atom, which seems to have been uniquely designed to make life possible, should either not exist or be exceedingly rare.  In order to form, the carbon atom needed first to have a very precise level of a nuclear property called "resonance"
    When Hoyle then calculated the chances that such resonances exist by chance in these elements, he said that his atheism was greatly shaken.  In explanation, Hoyle wrote the following in the November 1981 issue of Engineering and Science:
     "A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.  The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion beyond question."

    July 17, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • Thoth

      1981? Gee, nothing's really changed since then, right? Your claim about chemical elements not being available through random events is inaccurate based on...you know....slightly more current astro-physics.....

      July 17, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Angry atheist

      Hoyle also believed in Panspermia...

      Citing Hoyle is always funny. If you believe he has any credibility, you don't understand the concept of credibility.

      "The existence of the chemical elements necessary for life cannot be explained by random events or blind forces. " This is best translated to "I don't understand, therefore God."

      That is of course how the concept of gods came into existence in the first place. Primitive men needed to explain phenomena that they didn't understand, so they anthorpomorphized it and gave it a name.

      It's sad that we haven't changed much in the last hundred thousand years or so.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • Benny

      I'd say outdated; Hoyle died of old age 12 years ago. A lot has been discovered since he published doubts about abiogenesis in the 80s.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  10. shem

    I'm an anti-atheist.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:17 am |

    In case you missed it:

    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 9:14 am |
    • Vern

      Jesus, the roving apocalyptic preacher, is totally believable. Why not, there were lots of guys just like that active at that time, and some others were even miracle workers too. It's the vengeful, demigod named Christ who isn't believable, who copies the other heros of myth, and who crosses from Jewish to pagan belief.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:23 am |
      • How interesting

        That's an interesting point Vern. A believer could have a belief that they are talking to the consciousness of someone who lived two thousand years ago just like they could believe they are talking to the consciousness of someone who lived twenty years ago. The question is, what is consciousness. Then you are down to the problem of consciousness debate.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:31 am |
    • How interesting

      I always looked at deities from any religion to be a symbol for a person's inner monologue. The historicity of it doesn't mean so much to me as the neurology of it. For example, a praying person has activity in the frontal lobe and conversational centers, a meditating person has activity in the visual centers.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:24 am |
      • faith

        the NEJM proved most relitgiards got no brain action at all unless they be getting abo r t ions or commitin adultary

        July 17, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • John Coldwell

      You display a remarkable lack of understanding of Christianity unless of course it is willfull on your part

      July 17, 2013 at 9:40 am |

        You think so, John? As a former devout christian of 23 years and someone that has researched the subject for a very long time, I know what I'm talking about. You may want to reconsider your position, as it it painfully obvious you haven't performed any research into this subject on your own.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:54 am |
      • Angry atheist

        Seems to be pretty spot on to me. Would you care to parrot what your pastor has to say on the subject? We already know you haven't done any independent research.

        July 17, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  12. idonov2013

    I'm an anti-theist but I am not outspoken or activist about it.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  13. Truth

    Here are the REAL six types of atheists:
    1. Ignorant
    2. Deluded
    3. Arrogant
    4. Hateful
    5. Arrogant
    6. Lacking Self Esteem

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

      Your name is meant to be ironic, right?

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

      Its arrogance to think a bronze-age, middle-eastern, genocidal deity (yahweh) created the universe just for YOU.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:22 am |
    • Yo!

      "Here are the REAL six types of atheists:
      3. Arrogant
      5. Arrogant"

      At least atheists aren't stupid enough to use the same word twice and count them as part of the six because the reality is you only listed 5. Oh...that's right you don't know what reality means.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • shots

      really that seems to be a good description of religious zealots

      July 17, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  14. arachne bleu

    The older I grow the less I believe in God as defined by the bible. It seems that the "biblical God" is schizophrenic. Old Testament vengeful; New Testament loves everyone and wants us to have salvation based on him allowing his Son to be murdered. To me it is obvious that the bible was written by men, as a kind of sick morality tale. Now it is used by people for their personal agendas. Some use it well to live the best lives they can, treating others well, doing good, etc. Others use it to promote hatred for different groups.

    To me, personally, God, if he exists, is like a child who has created a board game with a set of rules that he can play by or not, or change on any whim. It's as though he tosses the dice and moves us around on the board.

    At times I wish I had a religious faith. Many people derive great comfort from it. For me it's just not there. I think we created God in our own image, rather than him creating man.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • Vern

      Have you read Stephen King's "Under the Dome", the actual book not that sorry TV series? If god is real, then we're the ants, my man, and he's holding the magnifying glass.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:14 am |
  15. Bill Deacon

    Approaching 5000 comments. It looks like there's about 2 dozen atheists who haven't chimed in yet. The we can move on from this ridiculous "study"

    July 17, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • What a bunch of nonsense

      I think it's a good study. As a non believer I really want to know the justification other non believers have for studying scripture and other related hobbies.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:07 am |
      • Invisible Sky Daddy

        As a non believer, I understand the bible is an important part of our world's history. It is a great piece of art with fascinating stories that details the culture, ideals, and beliefs of the bronze aged sheep herders. It is no different than studying epic poems or ancient murals. Some atheists study it for what the purpose I just described, others study it to show how irrational it is when believers try to inject it into our society and government.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:14 am |
        • Angry atheist

          Not really. The bible is not a particularly good book. It is certainly not good enough to consider "art."

          The only reason it's relavent to us is that so many people still believe that it is true. If that wasn't true, it would have fallen to the wayside like every other religious text that we don't believe anymore.

          July 17, 2013 at 9:20 am |
        • faith

          i no 6 guys and 3 girls who protested that the bible wasn't made available at public parks. the nerve!

          my favorite part is getting crucified. all bloodie and stuff. beat the tar outta that jew boy!

          July 17, 2013 at 9:24 am |
      • Rational Thinker

        The bible is culturally relevant in today's society. The more you read and study the bible, the better able you will be to refute/debate with people who use it as their justification/weapon in support of their actions. It's not only the study of the bible, but it's history that's important in looking at arguments rationally and knowledgably. There's nothing that refutes a "because my bible says so" argument like a retort quoting that same text.

        July 17, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  16. What a bunch of nonsense

    I wonder if human beings to some extent are just not able to completely separate reality over imagination. Maybe the separation of the two are just a matter of degree.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:06 am |
  17. faith

    hey, i'm a nazi god loving fascist. i am proof we are xtians. we pray b4 we murder people. take wine and blood and flesh and tortillas and get bapticed. i am southern german first baptized church of hitler.

    we ain't fundamentalists nor evangelical. we believe everybody is greater than you, unless you join. we have hats, too and 2 pens during our mid-summer grand-opening. god-haters welcome. nazis, u 2. fascists, i guess

    July 17, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  18. Jeffro B Kirkus

    Religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity

    July 17, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • faith

      i'm getting into aluminum siding if religion don't pay

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

      i'm getting into aluminum siding if religion don't pay

      ain't no hollow back gewn big fanny

      BA N A NA S

      I was reformed baptist, first trinity church of ed's bar and grill. got tired a paying for my own drinks

      u no them cheap xtians never pick up the tab

      July 17, 2013 at 9:07 am |
    • Vern

      Oh, it'll pay. As long as some big Walmart-like mega-church doesn't open up in your neighborhood, and your pastor doesn't literally kill someone by stabbing them with a cross in front of CNN's cameras, how can you not make tons of money?

      July 17, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  19. Joe W.

    Intellectually I am an agnostic. I can not prove there isn't a god or gods, and feel it would be arrogant of me to be hostile towards those that do believe. I do see religion on a whole as a positive force in the world, in spite of it's historical short comings. Religion mostly attempts to teach all of us to be better to each other and give us answers for things we do not have solid answers to. It is only when they become intolerant and righteous towards different faiths they become abusive, but I do not believe that is the norm of most religions or of those who do have faith.

    Emotional I am an atheist. I would love there to be a loving caring God that watches over us, but in my heart I just do not believe there is. I think only God himself can prove his existence to me. The fact is the more I read the bible the more I feel it makes more sense as a book written by men to teach us to behave better than a book inspired by a supreme being.

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

      Intellectually I find the evidence that there is no God very compelling, in the sense that I see far too much in history and in the world today that makes no sense if indeed there were a God. For example, if there were a God I would expect all religions to have at least some elements in common since I would expect all those religions to be inspired by God. There are no such commonalities. Over the course of world history they can't even agree on whether there is one god or many gods. There have been many religions based on multiple gods. If there were a god, why would so many people be so wrong in what they believe about him?

      July 17, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • Thoth

      "I do see religion on a whole as a positive force in the world, in spite of it's historical short comings. Religion mostly attempts to teach all of us to be better to each other and give us answers for things we do not have solid answers to."

      I completely disagree with this. Religion 'on a whole' is a divisive force in the world by it's very nature. You either agree with brand 'x', or you are not 'one of them'. Furthermore, attempting to 'give us answers for things we do not have solid answers to' is an absurd process. That's basically saying 'we don't know so god did it'. It is completely useless to just conjure up answers, especially based on doctrines generated during times of far less understanding of our physical world.

      July 17, 2013 at 9:19 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.