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. greg

    I am a seeker-agnostic. I believe to be anything else requires more arrogance than I have. I know nothing and will most likely know nothing til the day I day as I know all others will be the same.

    July 29, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Bob

      Greg. Well spoken.

      July 29, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • chrisnfolsom

      Greg – I agree to a point. Although you have to fight fire with fire and when dealing with people you have to work with how people look at beliefs or how they look at facts. People listen to those who have absolute certainty about their beliefs and give them more merit – even if they are wrong – which has been proven over and over as every religion is "correct" to it's believers although of course they cannot all be correct.

      I would love to say that I am an Atheist "unless being proven wrong", but that will not work as people give positive assertions more merit then negative. I don't believe someone should get more credit just because they are not willing to admit they might be wrong as almost all theists do. I believe I am just as correct as any religious person in my views so I have quit being "nice" and just state my position flatly as "Atheist" and leave it at that.

      July 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  2. marquel

    Can you elaborate more on what the difference between an activist atheist is and what an anti-theist atheist is? They seem very similar to me.

    July 29, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  3. Ariel

    Was this study published in a scientific journal?
    I'm a scientist and I would really like to read the article if that is the case. This topic is rather fascinating for me. I'm an atheist, and a Ritual Atheist from the looks of it. However, this new typology seems to hit some marks quite well and I would love to see how it progresses.

    July 29, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  4. Canadian 2

    If you don't believe in God then you are susceptible to every crack potted theory that comes down the pipe.

    July 29, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • chrisnfolsom

      >If you don't believe in God then you are susceptible to every crack potted theory that comes down the pipe.
      -IF you are an idiot, you are an idiot and what you "think" does not matter. If you believe in the wrong god – you know, all the others – aren't those "crack potted" other religions? If you don't allow for some light, facts, thought you won't find the right "facts", or the right religion.

      July 29, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • tallulah13

      I think you have that backwards. I don't believe in god because there is no evidence that a god exists. When you wait for evidence you are not easily fooled by empty claims and promises of non-existent rewards. When you wait for facts, you are not susceptible to "crack-pot" ideas like religion. See how it works?

      July 29, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • MP206

      I think NOT believing in an imaginary person means we are LESS likely to believe in equally dumb things.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  5. bobbie

    As Whites began to see the truth of the Black existence in the land of Israel, you will see more and more of them embracing atheism. For this type, lost in mind, will not worshp a Black Diety, such as Jesus Christ.

    July 29, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Evangeline

      Your racism is showing....why see everything in terms of "black or white".... when God doesn't view us that way? There are black Jews coming back to Jerusalem from Africa in droves. Try to think in terms of "God's people" rather than being consumed by varying shades. Maybe that's why God remains invisible...so He can be God of ALL of us.

      July 29, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • chrisnfolsom

        >Your racism is showing….
        – Now that is amusing – you are flipping racism back on him as if Christians are any less racist than anyone else? Tell me where a black person would be safer walking – a suburb in "radical" California, or a white suburb in the bible belt? Just like the marriage myth where "Christians" have better marriages (not – Christians have a higher divorce rate btw). God may see whatever he see's, but his followers see what they want to and invariably they don't like people who aren't like them. They judge and they act on those judgments. It's great to say What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) and wear bracelets, but it's another to actually follow that tactic.

        July 29, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
        • Maani

          With respect, simply parroting the statistics provided on the very first link that you find on Google is not exactly "research." In fact, the stats you cite re divorce by the Barna Group are considered wildly inaccurate not just by faith groups but by many secular groups as well. In addition, the Barna Group's methods have come under scrutiny.

          If you bothered to do a little more "deep" research, you would find that the actual stats show that, among Christians who attend church at least once per week, the divorce rate is SIGNIFICANTLY lower than other groups, including atheists. In fact, even in Utah – in which 75% of the residents are believers (and a majority of those are Mormon) – the divorce rate, while third highest in the U.S. by state, is only .01 percent higher than the national average.

          July 29, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
        • chrisnfolsom

          Thanks for the reference – I was not quoting Barna specifically, but it was good reading. Please don't assume, or accuse my methods of research as being inadequate – unfortunately most comments on the internet (and Fox News) are opinions....

          >The Barna Group are considered wildly inaccurate not just by faith groups but by many secular groups as well. In addition, the Barna Group’s methods have come under scrutiny.
          -Perhaps, although they were done by and Evangelical priest, and though he found divorce rates more (marginally) for religious than agnostics he DID NOT blame religion for the divorce, but simply stated:
          "Born again adults who have been married are just as likely as non-born-again adults who have been married to eventually become divorced. Because the vast majority of born again marriages occurred after the partners had accepted Christ as their savior, it appears that their connection to Christ makes less difference in the durability of people's marriages than many people might expect."

          YOUR reference I found was written by Brent A. Barlow of Orem is the chairman of the Governor's Commission on Marriage a Mormon with a vested interest in debunking the Barna study. If there are others please let me know.

          Now, as this seems to be important to you is it your contention that those who attend church once a week are less apt to get divorces? I just wanted to make sure. I personally don't believe that religion is the best "risk factor" for divorce, but income, age of marriage and education make the largest difference (the same as out of wedlock births).

          July 29, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  6. Peter C

    I love this article. It seems everytime someone finds out im atheist they try to put me in the activist category.

    July 29, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  7. Number 6.

    "A bus returning pilgrims from a weekend visit to a Catholic shrine went off a bridge in southern Italy on Sunday, leaving at least 38 dead - including some children..."..CNN. If He can do that to his own I don't see Him having a problem with dropping a piano on my head. But he doesn't. Remember Sandy Hook and decide if there really is a God do I want to be associated with Him?

    July 29, 2013 at 3:17 am |
    • chrisnfolsom

      "God works in mysterious ways".... Besides it's the born-again evangelicals that pray for things on earth – Catholics are more about health and salvation – they have had thousands of years to try and sell earthly things – and it doesn't work, so now they concentrate on the more heavenly things and now now getting killed by the pray for stuff people in south america – it's always nice to be promised "stuff" from your God – I wish it worked... 🙁

      July 29, 2013 at 3:50 am |
    • Paul in San Fran

      oh my God...you truly made me laugh..but you're right! And totally true!

      July 29, 2013 at 6:55 am |
    • Andy

      God allows us to run our sinful world. People die and get hurt all the time because of sin not God picking and chosing who to kill. Things like Sandy Hook happen because the first man and woman on this earth decided they could run the world better. So God granted us the privelage and for the most part we've run things into the ground

      July 29, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • MaryNC

      God is all good, He can NOT do something bad. Sad/bad things happen, Jesus told there would be good and bad in this world because the "evil one" is present too. The 3 women in Ohio: the good is they got free from an evil man and the little girl seems to have brought them much joy in and now out of their hell. God is good and answers prayers.

      July 29, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • Ruf

      Great humor. Most religious would say God called in the dead and they are with him. If there were injured, God spared their lives or they would be dead.

      July 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Maani

      #6: Your logic is wildly faulty. If there is a God, then He literally created you: gave you life. Would He not then have the right to TAKE that life whenever, wherever and however He sees fit? Why is that so surprising?

      July 29, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
      • Evangeline

        Excellent point!!

        July 29, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
      • Number 6.

        "If..." That is the question. And lets suppose he did. I like many here have children, and I'm sure mine are not unique in being able to disobey and ultimately annoy me, but that doesn't mean I will turn my back on them and eventually throw them into the pit of hell to be tortured for eternity unless their completely kneel down before me and beg for forgiveness. I will make the statement that I am a better father than God has every shown himself to be. If he really was our father, child services would have removed us from his house a long time ago.

        July 29, 2013 at 8:40 pm |
        • Maani

          #6: Your logic continues to be faulty. You are comparing your "human" fatherhood with God's "absolute" fatherhood. Yes, you "created" your children. But, if we continue to follow the logic I expressed, even THAT creation was of God; i.e., you could not have fathered children without God having "fathered" you. (As an aside, this means that God is also the "ultimate" father of YOUR children.) So what you would or would not do vis-à-vis your children is entirely irrelevant to what God has a RIGHT to do. As for God's "fatherhood" bona fides – again, following the logic I expressed in response to your post – you are still alive, and have children of your own. Thus, God has allowed you to remain alive, to procreate, and to do whatever good (and, yes, bad) things you do, and have whatever things you have (both material and otherwise). The fact that He has the power – and RIGHT – to take that life whenever, wherever and however He sees fit simply "is."

          July 30, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  8. Mark

    You might say the activist and anti-theist atheists are very evangelical about what they believe, and have a very dogmatic religion (in terms of having a set of beliefs about truth for life and human flourishing)

    July 29, 2013 at 2:59 am |
  9. Steve Raven

    To be an atheist, you have to pretty much have a screw loose. Either that, or too much pot smoking in California....

    July 29, 2013 at 12:05 am |
    • Rico

      Judge not. Remember that? You are a Christian in name only.

      July 29, 2013 at 12:54 am |
      • CM

        I wouldn't call that judging someone based upon God's law. It's more a simple observation, and there's something to be said for that observation, moreover.

        July 29, 2013 at 1:00 am |
      • The Great Gazoo

        Atheists shouldn't be imposing Christianity on anyone.

        July 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Shaun

      Sure, Steven. Believing in fairy tales, such as the bible, makes much more sense than scientifically proven hard evidence. I'll keep believing in science and you keep believing in santa claus.

      July 29, 2013 at 4:21 am |
      • Cheeeeesssseee

        Isn't science's foundation on "hypothesis" and "theory". I love hearing people dog christians saying that they "believe in fairy tails" while the non-believers believe in the "facts" of science. The majority of scientific conclusions are based on an inidividuals own obersvations or account for anothers observation.

        July 29, 2013 at 9:18 am |
        • chrisnfolsom

          >Isn't science's foundation on "hypothesis" and "theory".
          -The Scientific method starts with a Formulation and hypotheses... You then have a prediction and testing to verify observations in the real world. From there you have analysis as even if you have valid answers you still need to make sure the testing was valid.

          You can have tests that are too simple like "air is important for breathing", and while we all know it is, it really is air containing oxygen which is important...

          >I love hearing people dog christians saying that they "believe in fairy tails" while the non-believers believe in the "facts" of science.
          -Yes, much better to believe in something that cannot be tested at all, changes from year to year and has so many different versions which all claim to be "the one" solution. I personally have no problem with theists unless they try to rewrite history or influence politics – and then I have to defend myself and the future of the nation.

          >The majority of scientific conclusions are based on an inidividuals own obersvations or account for anothers observation.
          -Yes, I guess a fact is not a fact unless it is in the bible, or developed from someones interpretation of the bible. All of science is a mystery if you don't study it. So you are saying the earth is 6000 years old, Satan made all that weird stuff in the dirt to trick us – along with continental flow and the fact that when we measure light which travels like a clock at a certain speed – light that appears to us to be 12billion years old was only started 6000 years ago. And recently an elaboration of the Genesis story says all animals were vegetarians (even though predators teeth can't chew plants, and their bodies can't digest them) and lived in peace until a woman ate an apple because a talking snake tricked her? Please, the lessons and stories of the Bible ARE incredible and much can be learned, don't cheapen it by divining claims it cannot defend...

          July 29, 2013 at 10:03 am |
        • Cheeeeesssseee

          Science changes everyday. I believe christian views do also. See, man is the problem with religion. People use it to control others (slaves were huge christians), make themselves feel better, find comfort in death...ect. Man uses christianity, or any other form of religion, to his benefit. Same with science. People used to use scientific theory to control others also (. i.e. the world is flat don't leave this great land so we can tax you).

          Jesus came to get rid of religion. To get rid of the manipulation. Problem is man can't do that. We are pretty jacked up evil creatures.

          So, my conclusion, I am a man. I can't phathom eternity or define God. No one on this earth has the brain power to comprehend it all. Maybe that's why God tried to dummy it down for us in the bible. Could you explain an iPhone to anyone 2,000 years ago? They couldn't comprehend the phone part.

          Just my theory. I don't think anyone should push their beleif on any other person. Christian or athiest (or muslim, jew, buddhist, Hindu...)

          July 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Alan

      Steve, comments like this do nothing but degrade any intellectual value or validity your argument may have and draws a resounding face-palm from both sides of the argument.

      July 29, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  10. Tommy

    There are plenty of other typologies if you insist on keeping the "door" open. Try Christian existentialist; humanist or religious humanist; secular Christian; post-modern, non-theological Christian...and their numbers are legion, to borrow a phrase. Christ himself was not a Christian. If so then what kind of Jew was the man? Tired of working in a carpenter's shop and seeking a career change? Maybe the idea of a movement was secondary to what he had to say? From our advanced perspective we see into the distant past darkly, as through tainted glass. The current age does not propose a Natural world which induces fear – we understand the mechanics of weather patterns, earthquakes, cosmic radiation, and how to generate energy from the earth’s resources. Maybe atheism is the end point of religious sentiment or maybe it is a window to the next dimension of human aspiration or maybe it a pre-condition for the elimination of cultural diversity. If the latter then it could signal a darker age ahead for humankind.

    July 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  11. student

    Hi, this looks like a great start on a typology. I hope this hasn't been asked already, but I wondered whether you could elaborate on the different between activists and anti-theists? Also, and again sorry if this is redundant, it seems like there might be 2 dimensions here; perception of religion (really simplified, could be positive, neutral, or negative) & behavior (active vs passive, for example).
    I really appreciate that you mention the limits of a typology- sadly, it seems like many commentators didn't catch that. Can't win them all. Like Box said, all models are wrong, but some are useful. Thanks for your work!

    July 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • chrisnfolsom

      Ditto, and if you judge success by comments I am sure you have succeeded – PLEASE get a new comment system!!!

      July 28, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  12. Dylan Rainwalker

    When people ask me "What are you? What do you believe?" I just say "I'm a philosopher."

    July 28, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • chrisnfolsom

      I usually just say I have my own personal God – and if pushed I say that it's personal, but I am working on it even though I am an Athiest there are certain times to butt heads and certain times to just get along as I really don't want to "Change" anyone, but more just keep religion out of politics (which is where my friction is) and live a nice life, propagate more nice life and help make the world a better place through my own example.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
      • maggie

        If you are looking for a religion that is not involved with politics at all there is one.

        July 29, 2013 at 10:40 am |
        • chrisnfolsom

          No matter what religion I may be, or follow personally the attack I see with the Republicans wrapping themselves in the Flag and the Bible and proclaiming themselves as the moral gatekeepers against the evil liberal Democrats, attacking schools, compromise and the very government itself is what I have problems with. The gridlock we have today is a result of people who would rather be purified in the flames of Satans fires then compromise with a democrat. Our country was founded in compromise and at least respect for others – no matter what the disagreement. We have lost that now.

          July 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  13. Gary Rickard

    I think these are helpful distinctions. Atheism in much of Europe tends to be different from that in the US. Many in Europe are in the "non-theist" category - in many cases because they come grew up in non-theist families.

    July 28, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • Keary

      Is it that atheism is different in the US than it is in the UK(did you say?) Or is it that it is looked at differently from theists and so called 'non atheists' in the respective countries, thereby fostering a different type of relationship between thiests and non thiests?

      July 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  14. adfgerfg

    I think it's kind of counterproductive to subset atheism. It's not a religion. Atheists do not have denominations. You're either an atheist or you're not. If you're an atheist just for the sake of arguing on the internet, then you're a jack*** and a troll but still an atheist. By the way, agnosticism is not atheism. They are completely different by both dichotomy of the words and by definition. 3 is also agnosticism, paraphrased.

    Atheism is atheism is atheism. All of these are not types, subsets or denominations in any way. They are mentalities that hold no bearing on beliefs.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  15. BA

    Interesting. But, as with all attempts to categorize such a large and growing group with such a small sample size, there are gaps. As an atheist, it's difficult to place myself firmly in any one of these categories. More research needed.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  16. Paranoia

    And the authors of this paper are from a University that thought it was ok to have christian prayer at football games? Come on everyone this is a very victorian attempt to catagorise what they don't understand. It's no surprise to me that atheists are hard to define, because by their very nature they reject unthinking authority and try to defie categorization

    July 28, 2013 at 8:35 am |
  17. John Q.

    Lol, who cares about Atheism? I thought this was the Religion Belief blog. Why don't CNN call this what it really is, the Atheist Corner?

    July 28, 2013 at 8:24 am |
    • sam stone

      Sorry, JohnQ, but this is a belief blog, not a religion belief blog

      July 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  18. sueu

    u keep changing the font size. duh!

    July 28, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  19. duh

    hitler loved the jews. he never harmed a single one of them. that is why agnostics believe he was a christian

    July 28, 2013 at 6:30 am |
  20. duh

    i have never seen an agnostic prove she loves her children

    July 28, 2013 at 6:14 am |
    • birdie

      good point my friend! me neither. love must not exist

      July 28, 2013 at 6:28 am |
    • Gauderio

      That was the dumbest comment I ever heard. What do you mean with that? that agnostics and/or atheists don't love? loving is brainwashing your unfounded religious beliefs on your children?

      July 28, 2013 at 11:16 am |
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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.