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. Kristen

    This doesn't sound right, according to this I'm a combination of all of these

    July 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  2. ArchieDeBunker

    Behold the six kinds of greater fools!

    July 21, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • stardust

      i'm beholding one right now...

      July 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  3. Stuart Lawlor

    It certainly is funny how many people describe themselves as intellectual and yet are interested in debating Atheism Vs Religion.
    Do you argue the benefits of Atheism over Unicorns, Leprechauns, Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny etc?
    Why bother? You will never make the illogical individual see reason. I'm not saying live and let live, just why bother wasting your time.

    July 21, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • EnjaySea

      Because people other than the person you are debating, are also reading the arguments, and may benefit from the points being made. At least for me, that's why I post - to reach the "undecided voter".

      July 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  4. williamgoodwin

    Gosh I guess if all the cool kids are atheists then I ought to be one too! Thanks CNN–you've done another terrible job at trying to make me lose my faith! Jesus is LORD!

    July 21, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • stardust

      dont worry williamgoodwin, we all know who's the coolest kid of them all, jesus!!! :/

      July 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • george

      if your faith is that easily manipulated by an article than you didnt have that much faith in your lord in the first place

      July 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  5. Derek

    There is another type of Atheist, called "forced Atheist". Many people living in Communist countries belong to this group. They may want to believe there is God or at least some sort of Super Power, but they are not expected.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • stardust

      these "forced" atheists, how exactly does that work? "you say you are an atheist, or ELSE!!" if they are not expected to be believe in a god, what is stopping them from wanting to? you make no sense. if anything comes close to "forced", it's the religious indoctrination that is going on with children.

      July 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  6. Kiku

    You probably haven't asked the right questions to answer this, but I wonder if there's a pattern and connection, and evoloution, between the different "types" as different phases of growth.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:03 am |
    • stardust

      or personality types.

      July 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      Absolutely right. There is a pattern for evolving atheist belief, and I quickly touch on it in the above comment.

      July 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  7. Sergey Shelukhin

    1-2-4 are usually the same group, myself included.
    Non-theists actually seem to be the majority among atheists I know, that would also make sense given the usual proportions between more and less dedicated members of any community or cause. They need a bigger sample. How were the people chosen anyway? Looking for atheists explicitly would seem to cause massive under-representation of non-theists.

    July 21, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  8. Graham Epp

    The six main types of atheist is clearly not a scholarly work. There are also atheists who believe we naturally continue, and this group is the fastest growing amongst atheists. I project it to represent the majority of atheists within several decades and then go on to successfully outcompete the largest world religions.

    July 21, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • David I.

      HAHAHA I actually KNOW one of the researchers because he was my teacher. He almost has his doctorate. I don't know you internet shaman. Did you graduate from high school?

      July 21, 2013 at 4:02 am |
      • Graham Epp

        If in your mind knowing someone equates to them being right and not knowing someone equates to them being wrong then it is your intellect that is in question- not my education level. And how do you explain away such a glaring omission and still think it a scholarly work?

        July 21, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  9. L T

    Perhaps a closet atheist group #7 is needed, as well. This person could keep his or her views quiet. Perhaps they do not want the prejudice common against atheists, or feel that others should make this mental journey themselves, but who adamantly feel that religion is a crutch and God/gods are not real. This person might have type #1 views, but would not be a debater or confrontational in any way. #5 is a quiet atheist, but the closet atheist #7 (still not exposing his/her views) wishes everyone were atheist, able to face the world and take the existential and humanistic challenge, but knows that most people are not willing to challenge their strong beliefs and need for religion. (This is a shortened version of a very long idea about the psychological needs for religion in the world and the fact that many people do not examine their lives or opinions.) The closet atheist may also realize that religion cannot be ignored, since the majority of the world is religious, so would look at the historical importance of religions and not ignore religion as in #5. I believe this is another category to add to your other 6.

    July 21, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • Len

      Any of these "types" can be in the closet.

      July 21, 2013 at 12:39 am |

    Here is 1 type of Real and Sincere Invitation to the 6 types of atheists.

    For GOD is absolutely Real.


    July 20, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Harry

      I'd like to say "Nice try!", but that effort wasn't even that.

      July 21, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  11. The Reality 2013

    We are entering the beginning of the end of the domination of theism in society. Call it an "Age of Reason" or "An Intellectual Awakening" but it is happening.......and it is divine......Pun intended

    July 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      I think we should call this new age the age of justice, and for good reason. It will involve finding a state of highest equilibrium between two sentient ideals in reasonability and desirability; this kind of justice.

      July 21, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  12. sjcork

    I guess I'm a #6 atheist but a category doesn't really cover me. I'm a non-dogmatic religious atheist. I come at atheism from a scientific background. Once you understand how unlikely your own birth is, it's hard to believe in any God, let alone a personal God. That particular sperm from a particular male happened to combine with that particular egg from a particular female to make this person who lives on a tiny planet that spins around a small sun in the suburbs of a modest galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies. Being a speck of dust on a speck of dust on a speck of dust doesn't bode well for a God to be involved. But as a scientist, I revel in the incredible odds of my existence within an amazing universe that is so beyond awesome that there are no words to describe, nor any human alive who can fully understand just how awesome the universe is. That is my religion. About 20 years ago they did a survey of Canadians and their religious beliefs and based on their findings, they came up with two categories for atheists. One was called a religious atheist. That's what I am. I grew up in a church and I understand spirituality which I think is important for people. I also observe that churches offer a sense of community and support to people which is incredibly important. That is their most positive aspect. I sometimes wish I could belong to a church so that I could be a part of a community but I just can't get past the religious requirements. I am completely non-dogmatic. Part of being an atheist means thinking for myself. When I was a graduate student, someone tried to start an atheists student organization and I had no interest in signing up. For me, being an atheist was about going against the grain, not belonging to groups who told me how I should believe as an atheist. It's about independent thought. I'm also very compassionate about people and animals and do whatever I can to help others. Which is proof that you don't have to be religious to be a good person. Some of the worst people in history have done their evil deeds under the pretext of religion. And I respect the religious beliefs of others Because ultimately, atheism is another belief system and since the non-existence of God is as impossible to test scientifically as the existence of God, then really, my lack of belief is no more justified or unjustified than the next persons. So call me a religious atheist.

    July 20, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
    • UncleBenny

      Hey, sjcork, I'm with you, bud, another Canadian who has found that he cannot believe in a supernatural being but stands in awe of the wonder of the Universe. Don't know where you are, but you would probably find a welcoming home at West Hill United Church in Toronto, where Rev. Gretta Vosper has created a vibrant community that celebrates creation without involving God.

      July 20, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

      How is atheism a belief system? Please elaborate.

      July 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
      • sjcork

        I guess I should have just said belief since atheism isn't organized like a religion. I don't believe in God. Some do. It comes down to an unprovable belief, either way. To Uncle Benny, I grew up in Toronto but have lived in the U.S. for many years. If you have found a church where it's OK not be believe in God, I think that's very rare. I'm happy to hear that you have found a church that fits you.

        July 20, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
        • Moonlight

          Nearly any Unitarian Universalist church is a place those who don't believe in Jesus or a personal God but do believe in the wonder of the Universe would feel comfortable.

          July 21, 2013 at 10:23 am |
      • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

        I also fail to see how it's a belief, it's a rejection of a specific belief.

        July 20, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
        • sjcork

          A rejection of a specific belief can still be a belief. I don't think there is a God but I'm not so dogmatic to demand that everyone else think so too. We're all trying to find our own way in this world. What we know and believe comes from our own personal experience. Everyone is different. I only hope that whatever one believes, that they came to that belief after a lot of thought and questioning. If it leads you to God, fine. If it leaves you to believe there isn't a God, fine too. What I don't like is anyone who blindly believes in God or doesn't believe in God without any serious thought or questioning. As I said, I'm a non-dogmatic religious atheist. My beliefs are important to me. If you don't share them, fine. Your beliefs are important to you. It is not for me to tell you that you are wrong if you came to your beliefs through your experiences. An ant's reality is very different from a bird's which is very different from an elephant's. It's all a tiny piece of a huge, unknowable puzzle. Some people interpret that as the existence of a divinity. I just revel in my own personal nanoscopic existence.

          July 20, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • chris5446

      sjcork, you are part of what i believe to be a very specific group of "atheists", i will leave it to the experts to give us a name. I too, was raised in a religious family, and of all that could be said, the end result is the same. I see the value of moral, ethics, and law, I see the inefficiency of anarchy, greed, corruption and apathy. I'm not from Canada, but I think Rush, and Neil Peart's literary work in particular, are awesome. Sadly, I'm from Arkansas. I did live most of my life in a trailer. God, guns and cows, lol. Irish, blue collar redneck. I was even nicknamed bubba. I'm not kidding. But I just could not help but to see the hypocrisy, the fallacy, the inconsistency. You know, the one good thing about being "down here"... in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

      July 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
      • sjcork

        I've lived in Maryland for the past 18 years. It's not the heart of the bible-belt but it's much more outwardly religious than growing up in Canada. Canadians tend to be more quiet about their beliefs. Perhaps that's why I consider myself to be non-dogmatic. I would think it must be quite difficult sometimes as an atheist surrounded by people who are very vocal about their belief in God.

        July 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 20, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • Observer

      The Bible is full of God killing children.

      Read one someday.

      July 20, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Harry

      But, the Hebrews prayed for those babies to be killed, right?

      July 21, 2013 at 12:44 am |
      • Observer

        (Psalm 137:9) “May the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks!”

        July 21, 2013 at 12:48 am |
        • edmundburkeson

          How do you get from a man's prayer for the Lord to bless something to a God who kills children?

          July 21, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
        • edmundburkeson

          Why, by the way, as an atheist do you have something against killing children? Dawkins after all would say that the universe doesn't owe you happiness, comfort, etc. and I would add to that justice or kindness. What is, simply is! You can't even say What is, is right – because right suggests that there is a standard for measuring the progress of human history. You have no reason to say it is wrong if there is no God. For all of these things atheist are dependent on the fact that people have been influenced by God's law, the golden rule – given by Jesus Christ, etc, in order to experience any kind of moral outrage over your suggestion about "killing children."

          July 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      I don't believe in God, but nonetheless feel this is an accurate statement. Typical atheism is unhealthy in that it fails to state anything desirable or joyful. What we want is a hopeful reality. Having said that- theism is not the answer, for joy if partaken of non-truth is equally unhealthy for children (and adults).

      July 21, 2013 at 1:20 am |
      • stardust

        be a humanist then

        July 21, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
        • Graham Epp

          I don't see anything really promising in Humanist doctrine, apart from some good ideas on morality. These groups tend to be overrun by hardline skeptics with no concept of or intent to infuse joy. Thanks, though.

          July 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
      • edmundburkeson

        Your statement that atheism is unhealthy is way understated. It is much, much more than just unhealthy. Forgive me for quoting the Bible but is says that the fool said in his heart there is no God. Atheists are indeed fools because they do not see the implications, the logical conclusions of what they are saying. Atheists do not give a definition for God for good reason. They would then have something to negate. This is too much for them. A little help! God is love. God is righteousness. Where there is no God there is none of these. Love and righteousness is God manifesting himself into the world. There is always some degree of these present even in the worst conditions due to preventive grace – God sends rain to the just and the unjust. If God withdrew his presence – the world would be a very, very dark place indeed. So Dawkin's suggestion that the supernatural (by that I think he means God, however weak that description may be) adds nothing to the universe, is wrong.

        July 21, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      July 22, 2013 at 11:10 am |
      • Evangeline

        I don't think you understand prayer. God is not a genie who is at our command....to make all our wishes come true. God tells us His purpose for prayer is to help us remember just Who is in charge. We forget over & over again if we are not reminded from time to time. Self-centeredness seems to be our default. God doesn't say not to seek medical care....in fact there are many surgeons & nurse's who invite God into the operating rooms....through prayer. Religion is supposed to "represent" God, not "replace" Him. Sometimes it doesn't do a very good job I'm afraid.

        July 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Really?

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      That's why the data, has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie!!

      July 22, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  14. Oli

    6, 5, 2 and I'm an ESTJ. So there's that.

    July 20, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
  15. J Cline

    I struggle with my faith - I suppose I am a "seeker-agnostic" since I cannot sustain the level of genuine conviction that makes one a genuinely religious person.

    However, I strongly oppose those atheists who aggressively seek to deny others the consolation of their beliefs.

    I confront these types of atheists on internet forums often, and remind them that they are as much "believers" (in their unprovablely-negative faith that there IS NO higher power) as are any other people of faith.

    This always sets them off. However, it's really the only logical position. We can be certain of nothing until death finally takes us.

    July 20, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Benny

      Shouldn't you just as strongly oppose those believers who aggressively seek to deny others the consolation of their non-belief? Many people are relatively happy until some religious person convinces them that they're actually miserable without their Savior, or other beliefs. Why not also target those church signs viewable to the entire public that condemns non-Christains, and judges them unworthy of something like heaven? If atheists who voice their opinions publicly offend you, then a lot of Christian behavior must really upset you a lot more.

      July 20, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

      Are you agnostic about Skeletor?

      July 20, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • Len

      Yup, think of how many millions of people were perfectly happy with their lives and beliefs before missionaries ever reached them.

      July 20, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  16. mzh

    Dear authors:

    You must be having huge knowledge about faiths and other stuffs which may have made you what you are today.

    How do you define the truth? because 2 or more can not be true but just 1... out of these thousands or millions of understanding about faith how would you chose the truth? I am for sure that you are intellect enough to find the truth...

    Peace be upon all of you!!!

    July 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
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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.