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. Shane Preston

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    July 25, 2013 at 2:16 am |
  2. Dacia Trisler

    An additional issue is that video games are normally serious as the name indicated with the most important focus on studying rather than fun. Although, it comes with an entertainment element to keep your sons or daughters engaged, every game is normally designed to develop a specific group of skills or program, such as mathmatical or scientific disciplines. Thanks for your write-up.

    July 25, 2013 at 2:16 am |
  3. danny


    July 24, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  4. danny

    this group is the most ignorant human alien,,,, dont believe in god but everday of her life he use the body of the god,,,USELESS TO CHANGE ITS TOO LATE,,, THE FUNISHMENT ARE ALL READY ,,,DEATH IS YOUR REWARD,,

    July 24, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  5. Fr33d0mhawk

    I put myself in the camp of seeker atheist. Sometimes I wonder if the universe is a being unto itself, and existence of life as an attempt to answer he same existential questions that we have. The universe does seem to have the yearning to process information, like its ingrained in the fabric of our universe's existence, even if that information is somewhat paradoxical and relative. To me scientific discoveries have a spiritual aspect, and provide a deep emotional satisfaction. That is enough for me.

    July 24, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  6. Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

    Behold! The one true God!!!!!

    July 24, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  7. Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

    I love religious people; they're a constant source of unintentional comedy.

    July 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • religious person

      You'd be surprised at just how often it is intentional.

      July 25, 2013 at 4:18 am |
    • Maani

      VOT: I assure you, the feeling is mutual. LOL.

      July 25, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  8. Question for atheists

    Do atheists support the "power of positive thinking" and "the secret" and other nonsense or can they see through it? Personally I believe it is what it is.

    July 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  9. Dyslexic doG

    This morning there was a knock at my door. A pleasant and enthusiastic young couple were there.

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    Mary: "Well, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."

    Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"

    John: "In this town, Hank is the same as good luck. All good things are attributed to Hank'"

    Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."

    From the Desk of Karl
    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it plausible that it might be made of cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists don’t know everything, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind.

    from Jhuger.com

    July 24, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • niknak

      To long, to boring.....

      July 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • I_get_it


        It's really pretty funny and apt TOO, but it might be TOO much if one is unskilled in language.

        July 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • flying spaghetti monster

      I have faith in Hank's a$$, because I have experienced his bountiful love. I was lost in a sea of darkness, but then Hank's a$$ came to me and revealed himself. If you open yourself to his cheekiness with your whole heart, you can feel his downy softness and love too. I HAVE FAITH!!! So I know it to be true.

      July 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Question for atheists

      I'm not even atheist but that's always funny. I've read it before and it's still funny.

      July 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Voice of Truth-Censored by CNN

      Sweet mother of God, that was FAR too long for use on the internet.

      July 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • Dumb

      dumb dumb doggy.

      July 26, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Dumb

      dumb dumb dog.gy.

      July 26, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  10. trog69

    I agree with Prof. Dawkins' definition of atheism, as I too am 99% sure that there is no Supreme being, and I'm 100% sure that the gods that I've been introduced to so far do not exist, so I call myself atheist.

    I am a former anti-theist, until I learned about the myriad of Christian orgs. that fight to keep the Wall of Separation intact, and to defeat attempts to instill creationist bilge into science classrooms. There are far too few nonbelievers to fight these battles alone, and we should recognize and support those groups fighting for our rights, as well as for secular gov't at large.

    July 24, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • Maani

      Just out of curiosity, does it matter to you that most scientists (including atheist scientists) do NOT agree with Dawkins' definition of atheism?

      July 30, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  11. A tree in my yard

    Do I have a tree in my yard? If you believe I do what kind is it? Are you sure? If you don't believe I do did you make it go away?

    July 24, 2013 at 7:09 am |
    • Saraswati

      I would be a fool to have an opinion regarding the existence either of the tree or of your backyard without having investigated the situation....preferable with some aerial or satellite imagery.

      July 24, 2013 at 7:27 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "I have a tree in my yard" is a falsifiable statement.
      A tree is tangible and therefore is objective evidence.
      I suggest you read up on Bertrand Russell's teapot.

      July 24, 2013 at 8:22 am |
      • Clamboring for the pope

        It's unlikely but I for one can not say for sure it isn't there.

        July 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  12. Not an atheist

    Suspecting that a giant invisible being does not exist isn't surprising. It's totally understandable. The game of philosophy for me started when I pondered what if it did?

    July 24, 2013 at 4:31 am |
  13. Craig

    Agnostics are, by definition, not atheists.

    July 24, 2013 at 3:32 am |
    • A tree in my yard

      Agnostic atheism makes more sense. It means you don't know but you are pretty sure there are no gods. A gnostic atheist doesn't make sense because you can't prove a negative. It would be like saying I know there isn't a teapot on Saturn. Well odds are there isn't but you really don't know unless you looked.

      July 24, 2013 at 7:14 am |
      • nclaw441

        A tree– I agree with all you said except the idea that odds are there are no gods. How does one come up with odds on that question?

        July 25, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Then you are using an inadequate definition.

      July 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
  14. mike

    I believe in God but if I had doubts on his existence I wouldnt broadcast it and teach it the reason being what if he does exist and I end up being punished for it.

    July 23, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      Are you still being punished for things you do ?? Does your Mommy or Daddy make you stand in the corner or what ?

      July 23, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      perhaps god would appreciate someone using their minds rather than acting like snivelling sycophants

      July 26, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  15. mike

    I believe in God but even if I had doubts about his existence I wouldnt broadcast it the reason being what if he did exist and here I am denying his very existence. I would worry if a punishment would await me.

    July 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
    • Michael

      That's called Pascal's Wager. It's bull, look it up.

      July 24, 2013 at 2:17 am |
      • Oh come now

        I don't think it's exactly Pascal's wager. If he is expressing fear of retribution then he has some degree of belief.

        July 24, 2013 at 7:01 am |
  16. Peaceful

    Everyone has the right to believe what they want to. As for me, I don't believe in the religious arguments that divide us. I don't believe that we need to have wars over beliefs. I believe in the goodness of the Bible. I believe there was a divine hand in the writings of many books of what is written. Unfortunately , I don't believe that the compiled books that were chosen for the cannon were decided by God. There were chosen by men who had an agenda. Very sad. All in all though, God is here with us and gives us strength and wisdom if we seek it through him.

    July 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  17. Dyslexic doG

    HARRY POTTER is absolutely Real.

    Back in that time there was a boy who was named Harry and he performed many amazing miracles like flying high in the sky and catching the sacred winged ball of gold and becoming invisible and banishing the evil one from his world.

    He would sit every day and speak words of wisdom to his friends and enemies alike. He would eat food that appeared as if by magic so that all who were hungry would eat and be hungry no more.

    At the end of one year, he went to his room but when his friends looked for him he was gone so they knew he must have ascended to another world. All of his friends missed him but knew that he would return one day soon and all would be glorious and good again.

    Oh, it must be true. I read it in a book. Ink on paper. There is no way it could have been made up!

    July 23, 2013 at 8:47 pm |

    GOD is absolutely Real.

    HE will create the new Heavens wherein there will be no pain and suffering,

    or there will be all pain and suffering!

    So we should/can choose the Life, not the Death!


    July 23, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
    • Athy

      Pure Bullshit. (Note the capital B.)

      July 23, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      more hokey, greeting card sayings.
      like safety blankets for Christians.
      they can spit them out on demand.
      and somehow think that they proved a point.

      July 23, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • Tom Wilson

      Why is God creating a new heaven? Did he screw up pretty bad in the previous one? Maybe he jumped the gun! And by the way, Which God are you referring to?

      July 23, 2013 at 11:36 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.