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. PetTocqueuse

    Being free from religion and the pressure to figure out and appease celestial overlords is a freedom I hope that every theist on the planet will soon one day enjoy.
    The damage that religion causes has such a lasting effect, that even new deconverts are left with some of their old fears, plus new anger at the system/their own families which had lied to them for years, offering only a fraudulent, unverifiable claim in exchange.
    Such a shame when self-hating humans don't trust their own nature, and think that they are incapable of doing good or overcoming their own challenges without supernatural help.
    I wish for all believers the critical thinking and courage necessary to recover from religion.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • fred

      Since recorded history mankind has only experienced 257 days without war somewhere. Atheists and believers have proven they need forgiveness and salvation.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
      • G to the T

        What an oddly specific number (considering there's no way I can think of to prove it). Where did you get that from?

        July 16, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  2. conoclast

    From an increasingly disgusted anti-theist a fave bumper sticker:
    If You Don't Pray In My School
    I Won't Think In Your Church.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • Prayer vs thought

      Prayer is a type of thought. You can argue perhaps an irrational one but none the less. You can daydream in either place, correct?

      July 15, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  3. kev

    This does it for me:

    “In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” – Sam Harris

    July 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
  4. Derek

    I would consider myself a "I don't know, I don't care, but it would be nice if we were created by a creator." Something created this universe is my only evidence of it being created. I think Atheist or religious Zealots are just as egotistical, self-righteous, pseudo intellectuals. BUT think about this... most teenagers young adults consider themselves Atheist..... which is fine... some consider themselves religious which is fine. But how limited we are to be discussing something that would be so far above our own understanding it would be literally impossible to understand... I don't see a reason to argue and debate over something that even if discovered would be something we can never understand.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • kev

      what is "pseudo-intellectual" about doubting that an omniscient, invisible mind-reader and miracle maker authored a book and handed it to illiterate farmers in the middle of the desert in the 1st century Roman Empire?

      July 15, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
    • crackwalker

      Understand this: Religion is often used for evil.

      There's lots of bad people in the world, and they will do evil with or without religion.

      But religion pressures ordinary people, who want to be good into doing bad things. Like covering up for a child-molesting priest, or kicking your gay child out of your house, or telling stranger that they are evil and will burn in hell for eternity, simply because they don't join the same church.

      The second anyone tells you to reject your own reason in favor of some code, you should probably start looking for the exit sign

      July 15, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
  5. devin

    And let's not forget the 7th type of atheist, the one that eventually comes to the realization that believing this all came to be by time plus chance is simply idiotic.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • Observer


      Speaking of idiotic, atheists don't usually believe in idiotic things like unicorns, talking nonhuman animals, the earth stopping still, and beating children and slaves.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • sybaris

      that then would be the religitard

      July 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
      • devin

        You must be referring to the 98% of the worlds population that disagrees with youi

        July 15, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
        • Michael

          If 98% of the world's population believed gnomes came out of your backside at night it still would not make it true.

          July 15, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
        • devin


          Which is 100% irrelevant to the issue at hand.

          July 15, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
        • Jack

          Appeal to populace fallacy. 98% of people thought the earth was the center of the universe at one point too.

          July 17, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • conoclast

      Not 'time plus chance' my friend: time plus gravity. BIG difference.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • saroban

      The fact that you so clearly can't even begin to wrap your mind around the complexity of an idea like "infinite time + probability" tells me everything I need to know. Go back to worshiping your sky wizard.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
      • devin

        The fact that you think you CAN wrap your mind around this complexity speaks for itself.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
        • Johnny

          Given enough time anything that can happen will happen.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
      • fred

        Math does not appear to be your strong suit.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  6. Jake

    Religion is a way for man to create a god to control other people with fear and terror or love and hope. Nobody wants to die and vanish from the planet. . Nice Fairy Tale for some, a source of annoyance for others. Fantasy.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
  7. Sean L.

    It's not that I don't want to believe, it's that I can no longer believe–and I was very religious in my younger days. I guess I could lie about it and go to church - and a lot of people do - but it would just be lip service. It used to cause me great pain, my doubt, and it was liberating when I finally accepted the fact that I'm here on my own for this brief lifespan and I just have to be as good as I can to lead a decent life. If there is a God, then he made me this way, incapable of belief, so how is that fair? On one hand, it would be very comforting to have someone in charge of everything and to believe you're part of a grand design. But then again, with some of the irrational things in the various religious texts, things that modern humans use to rationalize their inhuman treatment of others, it would terrify me if there was some greater intelligence that permitted or sanctioned such terrible deeds.

    I'd rather spend time with an atheist who is a good and caring person than a religious person who is a mean-spirited but is in good standing with their church.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • Brad W

      Amen! Another big reason I can't stand some religions is the idea that I can such a generous and good person to others, but if I don't believe, I'll go to hell. What lesson does that teach? Blind following the leader?

      July 15, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  8. Keith124C41+

    George Orwell Atheist: "All religions are false, but some are more false than others."

    July 15, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • snowboarder


      July 15, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  9. Brad W

    I'm probably a mix of some. I see the difference for the most part, but I believe it would make more sense if there were 3 or so.

    I take part in some "rituals" as they have certain effects on the psyche, and I'll follow them in certain cases if it really means something to someone else but doesn't really say I'm religious for doing them. I want to know the truth of all things, but I know we have limits in our current knowledge. Also, I'm fine with not knowing and I can wait for the truth.

    Instead of being aggressive in saying there is no religion, and preaching it to people, I instead urge them to think critically. I believe the best first step is to teach people to think for themselves. Once they form that habit, they'll realize that religion is unnecessary and doesn't really make much sense.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Yup

      I feel the same way as you do, Brad W, and I consider myself the same. I don't preach atheism, but I preach such things as gay rights and environmentalism. If people come back at me with bible verses and such, I let them know that A. the bible usually doesn't even mention a lot of the things they speak of, and B. it's just an old book!

      July 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
  10. An5hony

    I think this study is stupid. I'm an atheist. This is like asking what kind of mood am I'm in that day. At any given point i could be anyone of those except Agnostic...... That shoulden't even be in there. Atheist to Agnostic is like a human to a dog. They are completely different and should not be assoiated.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      I think An5hony is a dog, but I'm agnosticly atheist about it.
      Just sayin...

      July 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
      • An5hony

        If you believe in any form of a god than you not an atheist. Being an agnostic atheist is a contradiction.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        Not at all a contradiction. All Agnostic Atheist says is that one does not believe in a god(s) but can't know with certainty that none exist exist. Agnostic and gnostic only define knowledge, they do not define belief and thus we use the terms Atheist, Theist, etc.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • Lisa

      T and 5 are next to one another on the keyboard, coincidence?

      July 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
      • An5hony

        T and 5 are the same key on an ipad.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • B%ill

      My cousin's name is Anfivehony, it's a perfectly valid name like Pi.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • dsobrinski

      Who says an agnostic believes in anything? That is where you go wrong my friend. An agnostic can comprehend the simple mind of the faithful theists and atheists. Why these groups of people believe things is strange to them. Stop believing and start assessing probabilities. That is their quest. They take no faith because it seems embarrassing intellectually to do so when one obviously does not know. Both are simple and predictable depending on ones value system. Seems you should look into what an agnostic is. An agnostic sits over top both groups as the puppet master.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  11. MagicPanties

    Intelligent, anti-theist activist.
    I like the sound of that.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
  12. ashleyw11888

    I can't fit myself into just one "type" of atheist. I can see myself being a 1, 2, sometimes 4, and 6. My husband, on the other hand, is a definite 5 and does not get why I'm so strong minded about some issues. He couldn't give two s**ts about them even if he wanted to.

    I also think there are more than just these 6 types.

    July 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  13. hee hee

    yes that's why scandinavian countries have it so bad – high crime, low standard of living, and the women have it so bad. In fact their societies are falling apart. Actually, most of the scandinavian women I've met think of the US bible belt as a paradise for women. Teen pregnancies are lower among religious conservatives too.

    Oh wait... reality is the OPPOSITE of that! My mistake.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • hee hee

      Whoops – that was supposed to be a reply to someone and I didn't notice that my page refreshed. It's a major non-sequitur when positioned up here.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Lisa

      The politics of countries does nothing to tell me what does or does not exist.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
      • G to the T

        No – but it does help to disprove the causal relationship most believers ascribe to the amount of believers in a country vs. the standard of living in that country.

        July 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Lisa

      Sorry, I was over eager.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  14. Sigerson

    I'm number one, but wish I was more of an activist. Historically, the only three good things to come out of religion have been architecture, art and music. Ave Maria is beautiful, too bad it's a fairy tale.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • A Conversation

      "only three good things to come out of religion"??

      Are you so committed to your position that you can't see any other good. You would deny the "good" out of the thousands of charities initiated, to some extent or another, as an expression of putting faith in action? Do you kick the Salvation Army folks each Christmas? Do you curse Mother Teresa under your breath?

      July 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
      • Melissa

        Have you ever noticed how the people in charities always feel the need to point out what religion they are? There's a reason for that, because they feel they deserve some special credit and are hoping to buy their way into their imaginary heaven for it. You see... Atheists do good to do good, religious people do good so they can get praise for it.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
        • A Conversation

          Melissa...that may be true for some, but not all (do I really have to explain that?). I'll give you one instance...my church participates in takeactioninc.org. Check it out. The web site does identify the church, but the kids who benefit don't know that. Since we work in conjunction with the schools, there is no religious (overt or otherwise) references made. We just feed them. And I can assure you, no one at our church does it for the kudos.

          July 15, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
        • Melissa

          Uh huh. And I'll believe that when pigs grow wings. YOU may not, but I'm quite willing to bet that at least one of your members has brought up religion with the kids. And I'm willing to bet that at least some of them quite often mention something praising your god and the like. You religious can't help it. You really think its ok to be like that. Atheists don't run around saying they do things because they're atheist but religious people sure run around alot mentioning their religion like they want everyone around them to jump up and down and praise their religiousness.

          July 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
        • A Conversation

          You can take your foot out of your mouth at any time...the back packs are distributed by the schools during school hours (presumably late Friday afternoon)–we just take care of the resources to have them filled–we're not on campus at the time or for any time I can remember. But, hold on to your bitterness. It suits you.

          July 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
      • Diaz

        Why? Is that what you do to Atheists?

        If you need a book to figure-out your spirit and soul, you are simply a sheep. Period, end-of-story.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  15. Melissa

    lol. These stars are all awesome. God and satan are imaginary.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      Yes, can we get one photo instead of an artists representation of God and/or Satan? They don't have to pose together or anything, but any photos would be nice...

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

      Imaginary or not your post reflects that in the absence of dieties we've nothing left to fixate our admiration on but humans. I'm not sure why the idea repells me so but it does.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • Melissa

      That's right. And you only fixate on humans because you want to. There are plenty of other things in this universe to concern yourself with. Lack of a deity doesn't mean nothing matters at all.

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

        yes, I often hear the fallacy that life without god is meaningless, but the purpose of life is the life itself.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
        • Melissa

          Exactly. I've never felt the need for something else to give meaning to my life, I'm quite capable of finding meaning for myself.

          July 15, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
  16. zbegniew

    To me, religion is like the mumps. It's a disease of childhood. If you get it while you're young and get over it, it's no big deal. But if you get it as an adult, it can really be serious and cause a lot of problems.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      If you had Chickenpox-faith when you were a child, then the Shingles religious virus is already inside you...

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

      But either way it is curable. A healthy dose of reality usually does it.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  17. shakib

    i'm more of a mixture of all 6 types, although i's born 'n raised in a somewhat religious society.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  18. EuphoriCrest

    An N of 59 means nothing. Enlarge your sample group and go back and do some solid research.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      n = 1,153 for phase 2, the quant!tative phase

      Go read the study before you make such pronouncements.


      With over 1,153 participants nationwide contributing to the current analyzed dataset, it was truly a collaborative effort brought to fruition thanks to the vastly diverse community of non-believers in America.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
      • Just saying

        He was basing this off this article alone and I am assuming he didn't look at the attached. That being said, 59 is still low to come up with 6 types of atheist. Further more, these are not 6 types of atheist, this article just describes 6 types of differing religious beliefs.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Study One was qualitative and involved 59 personal interviews with non-believers from a wide range of religious and class backgrounds. In Study Two, the quant!tative phase, more than 1,000 non-believers from around the U.S. took an internet survey with more than 300 questions, establishing where they fell along a set of metrics including autonomy, positive relationships with others, narcissism and other traits.


      July 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • jesus walks

      research done at UT at chattanooga? keep dreaming for that solid research

      July 15, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
  19. Reluctant Atheist

    Here's another group I think could be added to the list. The reluctant atheist. I don't believe in God but I sure wish I did.

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

      I think a lot of people would like to believe in god, but common sense just won't let them.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • Does my name for this have significance?

      Agreed. Life would be much easier if I could get past that pesky intellectual conscience.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
  20. Nunya

    And Satan welcomes all 6 kinds to his side with open arms.

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

      The atheists polled are all in agreement: God's creation, Satan, doesn't exist either.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • sly

      I've never read those big books, so I must ask, is Satan the little red fella with horns that lives in the middle of the earth, and he carries a pitchfork?

      Anyhow, I did see Linda Blair in the Exorcist, so I must admit, I'm pretty darn scared of that guy. Just last week some chick had my head spinning and it kept going – it went around 124 times.

      Clearly a sign of Satan. I am cursed. Scared. Is there anything I can do to redeem myself? I've decided to start by blogging on the CNN Religion page. I think it's helping. My head didn't turn around once today.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • tara

      That might worry me if Satan actually existed.

      July 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Well now, how refreshing. I like hugs.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Lisa

      Do you have an daemons that will welcome my skeptical self with all six of their open arms? That would be pretty cool.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Sean L.

      The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are wondering why Satan gets first dibs.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Buckeye Nut Schell

      So does Jesus.

      I believe that if you read the bible with hate and judgement in your heart, you will see all of the things that will cause punishment and banishment from the Lord because you are reading it without Him.

      If you have Jesus in your heart when you read the Bible, then you will see all of God's mercy and forgiveness and love. People reading the Bible with hate in their heart is blind to the love. The bible is just a group of words written by man 400 hundred years ago translated from greek and Hebrew before that about events that happened two thousand years ago and before. Without Jesus in your heart, you cannot righteously interpret all that is within. If you have a personal relationship with Him, He will tell you what it means for you. He will not tell you what to tell your neighbor to do or not to do. That is between God and your neighbor and we are not to judge.

      I do my best to follow Jesus' one true commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you." All of the other rules fall into place when I am successful. Come talk to me followers of Allah and Buddha and non-believers alike. I would love to learn what you believe and why. It is not my place to judge whether God has spoken to you differently than He has me and maybe God has taught you from a different book than he has taught me. I would love to know your lessons. I only know two things for sure and that is we are brothers and sisters in this world and God has instructed me to love you as he loved me. That is a tall order but I will do my best.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
      • Candiano

        In other words, if you read the Bible, you have to believe in God first, or the Bible is meaningless? Ah. Strings.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
      • sybaris

        you do realize that christianity does not corner the market on the golden rule. regardless, if you need religion to coerce you into loving your neighbor then you are inherently not a nice person and have larger issues.

        July 15, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • snowboarder

      satan is a product of the imagination of men to frighten children and the weak minded.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      If your god doesn't want there to be atheists, then why can't it control this Satan, comic book character or yours?

      Maybe your god isn't powerful. Or maybe your god and your scary, evil man in the red lizard suit, don't exist.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Observer

      Ooooooohhhh. Boogie, Boogie, Boogie...........

      July 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • sam stone

      nunya..you sure have a fertile imagination. yep, lots of fertilizer there

      July 15, 2013 at 7:43 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.