July 15th, 2013
02:50 PM ET

Behold, the six types of atheists

By Dan Merica, CNN
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(CNN) - How many ways are there to disbelieve in God?

At least six, according to a new study.

Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.

“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.

“These categories are a first stab at this," Silver told the website Raw Story. "In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types.”

Silver and Coleman derived their six types of nonbelievers from 59 interviews. We're pretty sure we've spotted all six in our comments section.

1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic

This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism.

They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites.


They're also well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently.

2) Activist

These kinds of atheists and agnostics are not content with just disbelieving in God; they want to tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise.

They tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals.

3) Seeker-agnostic

This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.

Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”

That doesn't mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

4) Anti-theist

This group regularly speaks out against religion and religious beliefs, usually by positioning themselves as “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” Silver and Coleman wrote.

“Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”

Anti-theists are outspoken, devoted and – at times – confrontational about their disbelief. They believe that "obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another.”

5) Non-theist

The smallest group among the six are the non-theists, people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion.

In many cases, this comes across as apathy or disinterest.

“A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “Religion plays no role or issue in one’s consciousness or worldview; nor does a Non- Theist have concern for the atheist or agnostic movement.”

They continue: “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religion in any form from their mental space.”

6) Ritual atheist

They don't believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.

“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”

For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the "profound symbolism" inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.


The authors of this study have graciously agreed to field questions from our commenters. If you're interested, please post your question below or tweet it to us at @CNNBelief. 

We'll take the best questions to the authors and the Q&A will be posted in a follow-up article. 

Please try to keep your questions related to the study itself.

Daniel Burke

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Holidays • Lost faith • Nones • Spirituality • Trends • United States

soundoff (9,518 Responses)
  1. alienmindtrick


    July 20, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  2. .


    July 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  3. Religion is not healthy for children

    Education changes things.

    July 20, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • mzh

      One can not exist without other... both are connected to each other... without knowledge you can't be religious and without religion you can't live ur life.... now how you want to live ur life, it varies person to person... some ppl come up with their own listings to follow and some ppl follow others.... now the important thing here is how to identify the truth and follow it...

      July 20, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
      • Benny

        It's education vs indoctrination, my friend.

        July 20, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
        • mzh

          The real education has no place of being brainwashed concept... education should elevate ones status in order to be good to others human or creatures....

          July 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • Observer


          "The real education has no place of being brainwashed concept... education should elevate ones status in order to be good to others human or creatures...."

          Religion is supposed to do that, too. Instead we find people using it to deny equal rights to gays and using it as an excuse to shoot doctors and call people "murderers".

          July 20, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    July 20, 2013 at 6:39 am |
  5. raul

    Atheism and religion should not necessarily be regarded against each other. Buddhism doesnt believe in God. Someone asked Gautam Buddha "Does God Exist?" He answered "I dont know. But what I am about to tell you is far greater than the answer to that question"

    July 20, 2013 at 1:10 am |
    • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

      In fact, Buddhism should not properly be considered a "religion", if by that word we essentially mean "theism", which I submit is how religion is normally understood - or ought to be. Otherwise, any philosophy or other mode of thought could be labeled as "religion", and the word loses meaning. For example, some people are fond of asserting that Science or Atheism are also "religions". They are not, for there is no deity in them! In the same sense, neither is Buddhism, though it's a common, erroneous misconception to lump it into that category. That's only a result of the fact that some "populist" caricatures of Buddhism have supernatural overtones, unlike actual Buddhism, which is much more like rational observation of reality.

      So, I'm just cautioning against muddying the waters by referring to Buddhism as a "religion". In the proper use of the word "religion" to mean "theism", yes, religion and atheism are definitely opposed. Rationality will win because it has actual explanatory and predictive power - it works, while religion does not.

      July 20, 2013 at 3:14 am |
  6. aallen333

    Consider for a moment the possibility that our time on earth is only scraping the surface of our existence – that their is so much more that our earthly minds are simply incapable of comprehending. Like being a goldfish in a fish bowl thinking that this is all there is, and not realizing that a vast ocean existed outside your window. This is how I liken the atheist mindset. It is simple minded thinking that keeps them imprisoned in their small world because its the only thing their eyes can see. It is nothing less than a tragedy because their small mindedness is preventing them from experiencing the ocean while those who venture to explore beyond themselves are rewarded for their willingness to broaden their minds beyond their limited experiences.

    July 19, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
    • John

      I would actually liken your comments to the theistic mindset. The idea that a book or story is the only possible explanation is very closed and simple minded. Atheists tend to accept that there are multiple answers to any given question and choose the answer that best fits. This is the reason that science changes and grows as we progress and learn more. Atheism is standing on the shoulders of our ancestors with every generation constantly exploring and learning more about the world around us. Theism is sitting in a circle with a book just looking through it for the answers to their questions. It is because of this that science and religion have so much friction because the book is supposedly the word of a deity and cannot be wrong. Therefore atheism starts with a question and searches for an answer while theism starts with an answer and makes questions fit into their model.

      July 20, 2013 at 12:05 am |
    • Benny

      As a theist, would you entertain the argument that there must be existences beyond your heaven and hell? How about the idea that God himself will die some day and be judged by his creator? If you insist that we are being closed-minded, then you cannot deny these possibilities, yes?

      July 20, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  7. UncleSlam

    I appreciate the authors shedding light on our rational alternative. I respectfully suggest, however, you haven't met all types of Atheist. Therefore, I feel it necessary to chime in. I am an Atheist who is very deeply connected with the the Majesty of this very Earth. Our Earth has all the resources necessary to provide an absolute Utopia for all of man and beast. Only Man and his greed and beliefs stands in the way. I've been told that an existence without a belief in an afterlife is "bleak". I respectfully suggest that living a life so arrogant as to suggest that you, a privileged soul, get to somehow live in glory for eternity while others don't. Do mosquitos go to Hell? Does your cat go to hell? I don't have all day so I leave you with just one of countless questions the Bible raises; where were the Chinese while all this creation was happening? In China, that's where. Be Kind, Be Worthy, End of Story.

    July 19, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    July 19, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      Name one instance where prayer has ever changed anything, Something that would be impossible without prayer, Such as, Pray for all the starving kids on earth to receive plenty of food, Will that happen ? I don't thinks so..

      If prayer works, why has a limb (arm/leg/finger/foot) ever grown back by using prayer or anything other means ? Even the bible says that if you pray in Jesus name, whatever the prayer is will be brought about..

      So again, I ask, Has prayer ever brought back a missing limb from the human body? Has a prayer ever been answered in a positive way? Something that could not possible happen without prayer!

      July 19, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
    • justice for all

      Prayer is not the issue with starving kids on earth. Jesus told you to feed the hungry, you're doing a lousy job of it. Prayer was the foundation that changed slavery, founded the USA, granted women the vote and propelled civil rights. As to the regrowth of limbs that is a work in progress. Prayer is divine communication not McDonalds.(instant gratification)

      July 20, 2013 at 6:36 am |
  9. God

    Hi it's God. I exist. And by the way I let bad stuff happens to you because it builds character. I don't want any wimps down there. Complacency kills. The best thing you can do is start trying to enjoy your life, every day. Have some type of fun. That should be a goal. Try and learn something new, every day is a new adventure.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • mzh

      If there need of fed laws to control citizens then why don't you think that there could be divine laws for the mankind and not whatever a human comes up with? because based on the background every human would like to do things... and in most cases ppl do not want to be abiding by laws...

      So, i would like to request to you is know the Creator from Quran as it is the only book in the face of earth is unchanged since it was revealed... and see what it tells you... just an advice as friend or well wisher... but its all up to you as there is no compulsion in religion...


      July 20, 2013 at 6:25 am |
  10. K MO

    First off, I too am an atheist. I was raised to think critically, be open minded, and see the world for what it is. My roommate in college was a catholic born and raised, but had his doubts about God. We talked one day (stoned out of our minds) and saw that there are basically 4 fundamental outcomes to life for everyone that lives. The first – you believe in a god, and it doesn't exist. Second – you believe in a god and it does exist. Third – you don't believe in a god, and it does exist, and lastly, you don't believe in a god, and lo and behold, it does exist. you do the math and see what you think about your possible outcomes... I see why believing gives a comfort to someone, but religions are redundant. We don't need them! Believing or not we should all be living the same types of lives and giving the same respect to everything around us. Base your life on facts! Religions teach us that god will save us, help us in times of need. We dig ourselves into holes thinking we'll find light if we keep moving dirt. We need to look around us, take the world for what it is, stop worrying about what comes after this, and work to better the situation of this planet we call home!

    July 19, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  11. stillwaiting aka Basho1644

    I'm not sure that the "seeker-agnostic" and "non-theist" categories really qualify as atheists. I also rather object to this characterization of the "seeker-agnostic":

    > 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.

    There's a veiled implication here that the "other sorts of atheists" somehow don't "keep an open mind" and don't "recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience". That is not the case. Consider, for example, that I (and, I wager, you) would bet my life against the reality of any of Zeus, Santa Claus, or fairies, but I think I'm pretty darn open-minded (whenever it makes sense!), and I'm quite cognizant of human limits. So it is with any sky-guy to whom people would like to ascribe any particular attributes, without presenting any supporting evidence. All of our hard-earned, valued knowledge and experience points away, in fact, from any such sky-guy!

    My atheistic position is this: Of course we cannot assert with certainty that there isn't something out there beyond the limits of human knowledge, even in principle (note the open-mindedness, BTW). But by that very token we see that, if it exists, there is absolutely NOTHING that we can know or say about it! - no more than bacteria can of humans. Right?! So, in every pragmatic sense, we may as well behave as if it weren't there. This position is made particularly viable as, in every case so far, Rationality (Science, Reason) has proved to be an eminently capable alternative for addressing, in time, every specific question about reality that arises. And, since the "something" quite probably *isn't* actually there, we're not running much of a risk of being wrong in our pragmatic stance!

    Theists, by contrast, cast their lot with an exceedingly low-probability "something" for which there is absolutely ZERO EVIDENCE (just imagine! who does that?!), which actually explains NOTHING (it just pushes back the question onto the reason for existence of that "something"), and all of whose supposed supernatural attributes would by definition violate natural law - which we must then, for consistency, abandon. What a friggin' awesome outcome! : /

    July 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
  12. Reality

    "Death's Debt is Paid in

    Death's debt is then and there
    Paid down by dying men;

    But it is a promise bare
    That they shall rise again. "

    – 1000 CE

    July 19, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

      And this is supposed to mean ... what?

      July 20, 2013 at 3:23 am |
      • Reality

        "The Two Universal Sects

        They all err—Moslems, Jews,
        Christians, and Zoroastrians:

        Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
        One, man intelligent without religion,
        The second, religious without intellect. "

        , born AD 973 /, died AD 1058 / .

        Al-Ma’arri was a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth."

        July 21, 2013 at 8:08 am |
  13. onecanaweek

    Often I am asked if I am a Christian because I created a charity called One Can A Week to feed the hungry here in Tucson. My reply is "No, I am a dyslexic." The reason I say this is I do not want to recognize religion as a fact of life here on earth and then choose an opposite and equal term to describe my thinking. I do not want to recognize religion at all. To me religion should not exist in an intelligent society as a "sky hook" to explain away things that are not clear or to control good and bad behavior. So I am a dyslexic which I know, for a fact, is a part of my being.

    July 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  14. Al

    I refuse to believe in the invisible man in the sky.

    July 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • mzh

      You have the right to do so by using your 'Free Wishes'...

      There are laws for all the creatures but application is not here in this life like the application of Fed Laws or any laws of the land we live in...

      Peace be upon you...

      July 19, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  15. Faith

    Perhaps the atheists who celebrate religious rituals (#6) are actually celebrating the pagan rituals that pre-dated the christian ones we have now. Celebrating the pagan rituals doesn't mean we're pagans because being atheist means not believing in any god. Partaking in these rituals with the pagans in mind is just acknowledgement of a history that goes back further than the Catholic Church. This is a fun article to read being an atheist. I can go through here and identify which numbers I resemble and which ones closely match my friends.

    July 19, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Elf

      I don't fit into any of the six. I had a visceral reaction to believing. It caused a physical reaction akin to revulsion.

      July 19, 2013 at 8:32 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.