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. Bobby leon

    Hate to think my eternal soul rested on what pseudo-intellectuals like Jillette and McFarlanne believed. "Yes God, Penn Jillettee and Seth McFarlene didn't believe in you and said you weren't real and a fairy tale so that's why I didn't". The devil replies, "Yes, I set them up real nice with influence, worldly talent, and riches so they could convert more followers away from God..looks like my plan worked". These celebrities and wealthy people are just pawns in the Devil's game.

    September 1, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • Observer

      The Bible says that those who seem smart are not. In other words, the best supporters are those who don't appear smart. That's not much of an intelligent argument in support of the Bible.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:06 am |
      • Bobby leon

        There is a difference in wisdom and knowledge. If God exists ( and I believe He does) and He is promoting faith instead of just blind obedience, then why would He have to do something like speak in a loud booming voice, "I'm up here...believe in me!" That would erase all doubt for everyone, but would put faith aside also, so the point of relying on faith is moot.To be scientifically proven just doesn't seems to me the way God works. That's man's way of thinking ...not God's.

        September 1, 2013 at 11:17 am |
        • photografr7

          OR, God doesn't exist and your logic is total BS.

          September 1, 2013 at 11:24 am |
        • Bobby leon

          Are you brave enough to take that risk(of non-belief) for your eternal soul?

          September 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
        • jp0

          If I am wrong I will surprised when I die. If you are wrong you will be...nothing.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
        • sanjosemike

          If you take the research done in the case of NDEs, religious belief doesn't seem to have anything to do with whether a person goes to "heaven" or not. This is a cross-cultural, cross-religious experience with both believers and non-believers "going" to the light.

          I do however, know my first question to an "alleged" supreme being: "What about the Holocaust?" I can (forgive) evil against me. However, I don't have the authority to forgive evil against others.


          September 1, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
      • seanshamblin

        Its a real good excuse for being stupid.

        September 1, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  2. carey

    This arbitrary categories of non-believers seems pointless. What does need to be pointed out is the relentless persecution of non-believers by all those who believe in "the one true God" (whichever one that happens to be.)

    September 1, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  3. Bobby leon


    September 1, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  4. Brian Macker

    This article is stupid. Some one should write an article for the CNN religion blog about how there are only two types of articles on the religion blog, stupid ones and moronic ones. Of course the article would be stupid but that would only serve as yet another example.

    September 1, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  5. Matt

    Behold the six types of atheists: dumb, dumber, foolish, delusional, rebellious and angry. Behold the six types. lol

    August 31, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • photografr7

      So true. But there is only one kind of believer, an "AH" (you work out the abbreviation yourself, if you are so smart).

      August 31, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • Shaun

      Matt, you're a complete bigot. To we atheists, believing in something that there is no scientific evidence for is about as real as believing in Santa Claus. This planet is 4.5 billion-years-old and our species is completely insignificant to this planet and the gods that have been invented by man. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution and zero evidence to support creationism.

      September 1, 2013 at 8:36 am |
      • photografr7

        I'll go even further... Since creationism is the backbone of Genesis, and there's no scientific evidence to support creationism, I believe the Old Testament becomes nothing more than a set of age-old fairy tales. And the New Testament (which is based on the Old Testament) can also be thrown in the garbage, or on the top shelf of some old library at the Vatican where believers in such myths can debate them until the cows come home.

        September 1, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • kahnkeller

      you are a total...fool... but a good example of....a real believer...oh wait.... which religion ?

      September 1, 2013 at 8:45 am |
  6. ttyjytyty

















    August 31, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • photografr7

      We should ignore all posts by "people" with no vowels in their name.

      August 31, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  7. Lionly Lamb


    August 31, 2013 at 7:05 am |
  8. Dan12

    The thing that is ridiculous about these articles isn't the subject of them. It is the incessant need of atheistic and religious people that have to have a battle royale on a comment board. If atheists want to believe that there is no god, go ahead. My personal beliefs in God do not need to make me sound arrogant, which is what most believes tend to look like. Just believe what you believe and don't force beliefs on others. It is a heart issue.

    August 30, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Brian Macker

      How's it not arrogant to believe there is an infallible being that created everyone else who just happens to share your opions?

      September 1, 2013 at 10:27 am |
      • photografr7

        And he plopped his only son on a nothing-special planet, in a nothing-special solar system, around a nothing-special star, in a nothing-special galaxy in the universe? Oh, aren't we special. Keep thinking it when the sun implodes in a few hundred thousand years (or sooner) and it's all gone, and the universe will go on as if it never happened. And God's special creation will go bye-bye... I'm so sad I'm ready to cry.

        September 1, 2013 at 10:40 am |
        • jp0

          I don't have the data handy, but the sun is likely to be little changed from the presence on the scale of a few hundred thousand years. More likely, we will become extinct due to our own blindness to the consequences of our actions.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  9. cbpfromtn

    I suppose it's no mystery why those who are so against the idea of God are the ones who are so full of rage and anger. It must truly suck to be them. 🙁

    August 30, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
    • photografr7

      I would be just as angry if you said 2 + 2 = 5 (with a passion!). Stupidity is Stupidity.

      August 30, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
      • Nabel

        In Islam we believe in the one true God

        September 1, 2013 at 8:45 am |
        • photografr7

          Is that why Muslims have fought Christians for centuries? Over the Trinity? (father, son and the holy ghost) Fighting a war over religion is like fighting a war over two interpretations of a lengthy poem.

          September 1, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  10. dug

    Help spread the TRUTH! Share this Link!
    Test your Faith!!! Read!!! You may never pray to god again!!!
    Learn the TRUTH about the God to whom you pray!!!

    August 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
  11. JMT14

    This is very helpful. I think it's also helpful to remember that atheism *is a belief system* — a point made in wonderful British way, by the excellent little essay "The Scandinavian Skeptic (Why Atheism Is A Belief System) at http://bit.ly/is_atheism_a_belief

    August 30, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • photografr7

      Atheism is a lack of a belief... no, it's even more specific than that. Atheism is a lack in the belief in ANY deity. No religion or belief system can be based on that one simple principle.

      August 30, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • The Rev Dr Sherwood Forrester

      Atheism is a belief system in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      August 30, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
      • Sarah

        Except that people who spend all their time on stamp collecting sites telling everyone about how they don't collect stamps, and complaining about stamp collecting by other people, and how stupid stamp collectors are, and why the world would be better off without stamp collecting DO have a hobby. It's called FUNDAMENTALISM.

        August 31, 2013 at 6:05 am |
        • truthprevails1

          Kinda like the christians who come here and quote scripture and tell us we're going to burn in hell or the christians who knock on your door or stand on the street corner or protest at funerals. Atheists find community on the internet and on this blog....community that christians have attempted to deny them. It is the furthest thing from fundamentalism due to the fact that there is no doctrine and you are confusing definitions. The word shouldn't be used in regards to Atheism when it means the following:
          "Fundamentalism is the demand for a strict adherence to orthodox theological doctrines usually understood as a reaction against Modernist theology, primarily to promote continuity and accuracy."

          Atheism only defines my disbelief in any god imagined, it does not define what I stand for otherwise. All christians are theists, just like muslims are theists but you wouldn't want us categorizing you in the same sense you might categorize muslim or someone who has a different god than you.

          August 31, 2013 at 6:33 am |
        • photografr7

          When did CNN become a stamp collecting site, or a Bible meeting site for that matter? I never got the memo. And CNN officials would be very concerned if it was true.

          August 31, 2013 at 6:53 am |
        • The Rev Dr Sherwood Forrester

          Oh, you mean the Christians who invade online atheist communities to tell us that we're evil and going to hell because we don't believe their big book of campfire stories and fairy tales is literally true?

          We're back to where the atheist has to teach the Christian the lessons in their own book. Your lesson for today is Matthew 7:3-5.

          September 2, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
      • bbcards

        Wrong. Atheism is not a belief system. It is not a worldview. It is a rejection on the claim that there is a god.

        August 31, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • hairypotter

      The miracle of Christianity is the fact that twelve fishermen who hardly had any schooling go on to describe a very comprehensive moral system that endured the persecution of the Romans and atheists. There are now 1.2B Christians in the world. Atheists really hate this because no matter the education they had, they can’t seem to come up with a comprehensive moral system. Nothing. Not them. Not their mother. Not their grandmother. Not their great grandmother. All they do is hurl insults. But they can’t really point to a comprehensive moral system. Atheism does not even condemn murder or lying. That’s why I tend to believe more in Christian teaching than I do atheist teaching (which, as atheists prove time & again, does not exist). Yes, Christians are not perfect. We can say that because they have rules to which they can be held accountable. In contrast, atheism has no rules. No teachings.

      It’s simple. Just point to a comprehensive moral system that is better than the teachings of Christ. Look at it this way, if Christ does not exist, then atheists can’t even compete with a non-existent person. That’s pretty sad.

      August 31, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • Francisco

        As a self proclaimed atheist let me share with you my own commandments. I will follows my own personal reason and inclusions without the threat of being tortured after I die.
        They are:
        Don't lie steal insult enslave abuse torment injure oppress any creature or living being.

        Funny Christians have enslaved tortured killed abused tormented and oppressed people in the name of God for centuries based on their theology.

        August 31, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • bbcards

        Moral systems existed before Christianity...from which Christianity borrowed.

        August 31, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
  12. nogodomee

    There is no God.

    Man came to be due to an accident of nature. There is no creator. There is no soul. There is no soul mate. There is no meaning of life. Your life has no meaning. There is no fate. Nothing was ever “meant to be”. There is nothing sacred. Your body is not sacred. When you’re dead, your body has no value, no meaning, no significance. It’s just rotting meat. You are no different from the meat in a BigMac. Your mother is no more special than the rodent that I ran over this morning. Your spouse is no more beautiful than the deer rotting after getting hit by a truck. Your dead grandmother is not watching over you. She’s compost. Remember, you are just an accident. A freak accident.

    August 30, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Katie

      Look up the ministry of Heidi Baker. This is a woman who runs an orphanage in Africa. She goes to the remote villages and visits with people, at the end of the day she requests to meet a person from that village who is deaf and/or blind, makes sure that everyone has always known them to be this way (in a small village it's not that difficult.) She and the kids from her orphanage then pray over that person and he or she gets healed instantly. It has been captured on video, and proven by the doctors. Try telling her that God does not exist. He has healed hundreds in front of her eyes.

      If you want the proof of God don't sit at home and browse the internet for answers, go to the nearest healing revival and see for yourself. God is not going to stop performing miracles just because an unbeliever will be there. We, the Christians, tell you the truth because we care about you. The consequences of your unbelief are extremely harsh, but if you believe you can reap the benefits starting today. If only for the simple fact that someone loves you no matter what you've ever done or said. No human can do that.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  13. Dyslexic doG

    Jesus was just David Koresh 2000 years earlier. A sociopathic conman with a good story and lots of charisma. All this foolishness, without a shred of proof, has sprung up from there.

    utter, mind numbing nonsense.

    August 29, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  14. Honey Badger Don't Care

    “You get on a plane and you trust in the pilot to get you there although you do not ask for his credentials,…. yada yada yada ad nauseam.”

    We know that there is a credentialing program that must be followed by which pilots must receive adequate training not just on how to fly but on the specific plane that he is flying.

    We know that the basic aerodynamic principles that keep a plane in the air are sound because of science.

    We know that the amazing technological advances, thanks to science, produce structures and components that are designed to work properly and they do that job very well.

    We know that there are mechanics that inspect these planes thoroughly and regularly so that deficiencies can be identified and repaired.

    We have NO evidence that your god exists or that any of the miracles in the bible ever happened. NONE!

    August 28, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • photografr7

      Great point! The plane, the earth, and man are all products of science. Just because you personally believe that the laws of aerodynamics are true and the laws of astrophysics and genetics are a big lie, doesn't meant that planes are man-made and the earth and man are God-made.

      August 28, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • Graham Epp

      Outa here. Said my piece. Look for me in the news, or maybe the obituaries. Ha!

      August 29, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • mustang54

      The belief in what the Bible states is based on faith not evidence. We believe God used the prophets to write His words. I used to be a non believer and my life was a mess. I started learning about the Bible about 41/2 years ago and I am a changed person for the better. It's understandable some people can only believe in what they can actually see at the time. But, there is a lot of things that are unseen even in science. God does exist. He gave His son Jesus Christ to show us how to live. If more people understood the teachings of Jesus and followed them this world would be a much kinder place.
      God Bless You ( and I really mean it) 🙂

      August 29, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  15. Graham Epp

    Judging by the number of comments unrelated to the topic at hand and ones that are quite simply irrational I'm tempted to propose extending the types of atheist to include Inattentive-embarrassment.

    August 26, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      Though I must admit that I've reacted to a few misguided and wicked entries.

      August 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
      • Graham Epp

        Most notably the sick one about atheists going to hell.

        August 26, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  16. Richard the Lionheart

    All 6 versions of these people will all go to the same hell. 6 versions: One destination.

    Only Jesus can save you from hell.

    August 26, 2013 at 1:44 am |
    • seanshamblin

      That's a real nice god you believe in. What if you picked the wrong one? Will you be going to hell too?

      August 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Observer

      Richard the Lionheart,

      Skip the hypocrisy. Vitually ZERO chance you believe all of the Bible.

      August 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      I'm so glad your wild claim is inarguable.

      August 26, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Graham Epp

      If God wanted us to believe in it, it would have done a better job of supplying us with proof. It didn't, so theists are left the task of making up excuses for God not doing this. Think about it. There are two kinds of proof: argument and evidence. Deductive argument is better than inductive argument. Physical evidence is better than testimonial evidence. God's way of proving itself is through the worst and unreliable kinds of proof. Even Helen Keller (deaf, dumb and blind) was better at conversing than God. Therefore an imagined God, in having used unreliable forms of proof and perhaps communication isn't interested in whether or not we believe in it. And therefore a good God wouldn't reward or punish us on this basis.

      August 26, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
      • photografr7

        Maybe God wants to remain "mysterious" to maintain the allure. After all, He (the master of the universe and knower of all thing) seems pretty savvy in today's fast-paced world (which he created by the way).

        August 26, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
        • Graham Epp

          I don't think you believe in God any more than I do, unless you're just against organized religions. I've looked at all the concocted excuses for God being so distant and impersonal (except perhaps to a favored few). None of them warrant actual belief in God or the horrible claim that God would eternally torture disbelievers. At least Pope Francis stated that God doesn't automatically punish atheists. He gained some respect from atheist me with that comment, even if it drove Harry Potter (actually Daniel Radcliffe) to atheism.

          August 26, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • sam stone

      fvck you and jeebus, richard

      August 27, 2013 at 4:44 am |
      • hharri

        what a man!

        August 28, 2013 at 2:59 am |
    • Zen Kotori

      Well Richard if you'd really like to know what God is you should read my book Spiritual Graduation: The God Perspective available on Amazon.com. I understand you want loved we all do, but you need to realize that you have always been worthy and nothing can keep you from that love. However, it is your mind that separates you from the "eternal". Peace and Love to you.
      Here's the exact link.

      August 28, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • The Rev Dr Sherwood Forrester

      Your lesson for today is Matthew 7:1. Funny how it takes an atheist to remind you of what your own book says.

      August 30, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
      • photografr7

        Your own book? I thought God wrote it....

        August 30, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
        • Francisco

          Didn't anybody ever ask why Jesus never wrote his own scriptures?
          Let see just so I got the story right. God sent his son to spread the word and be tortured and executed so we could be forgiven for something (that actually we had nothing to do with) so that we could go to heaven. I don't know but for someone who is omni potent powerful he couldn't come up with a better idea?
          I guess my question is not important anyway . Did I get the story right?

          August 31, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
        • photografr7

          That's like cutting your own balls off to forgive rapists everywhere. No thanks, I like my balls attached to my body. You are right, an all knowing and all powerful deity could have come up with a better plan. After all, he had an eternity to come up with that plan.

          August 31, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Shaun

      You telling me that I'm going to hell because I'm an atheist is about as scary to me as a child telling me that I won't get any presents from Santa Claus because I was naughty this year.

      September 1, 2013 at 8:44 am |
      • photografr7

        What do you mean "like"? Santa Claus is the child version of the New Testament. Remember that old song, "You better be good, you better be nice, Santa Claus is coming to town." Also remember that Santa Claus comes around Christmas-time and Santa was a saint, Saint Nick. It all makes sense to me now.

        September 1, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  17. jason

    To all my fellow atheist, neither side will ever convince the other to change. No point in arguing!! Humanity just needs more love!!!

    August 26, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • Francisco

      If you try to convince an avid believer you are wasting your time. You can talk till the cows come home. They will never get it.

      August 31, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  18. jburger86

    go it w God, read n believe, Lord Willin Lord Forgive, PLGB http://www.Bible.cc

    August 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  19. Michael

    Drop "Hi mom, I'm an atheist," in the middle of South Central, L.A. in the middle of the night, and she'll become holier than the Virgin Mary, in about two seconds.

    August 24, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Doubtful. I'd still be a god believer if he ever showed up to help out in tough situations. I would think the person would sooner call the police than an invisible and undetectable deity who has never been proved to exist or do anything else practical

      August 24, 2013 at 6:45 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.