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. Conscious Meatbag

    "Look where all this talking got us baby."
    Live – White Discussion

    September 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm |

    Yeah and in the list up there they forgot George Carlin.

    September 4, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  3. sam stone

    did hhari's post disappear? wow, i am sure that will come out in that big, big lawsuit

    September 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  4. creedin

    How about the laughing kind.


    September 4, 2013 at 12:54 am |
  5. Hey, Mr. Atheist---

    did you watch the doc umentary Evolution Vs. God on youtube???

    September 3, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • Observer

      Did it explain where unicorns, talking serpents, and dragons were in the evolutionary process?

      September 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  6. Edward

    cult [kuhlt]

    1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.

    2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.

    3. the object of such devotion.

    4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.

    5. Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

    I would hazard to guess that everyone that has posted here belongs to one or another cult, since the deists have their belief in god and the atheists tend to fit into one category or another as well.

    The true holy trinity in our universe is the neutron, electron and positron, which makes up the hydrogen atom, from which all other things come from. Do we know how this happened?

    Certainly not, but one cannot deny that all things come from this starting point so maybe hydrogen is god?

    Personally, I would call myself a beerest because I have spent two days reading these posts now and the only thing I can truly relate to is: "I believe I will go have another beer."

    Also, see my post on page 74 as to why I don't fear going to hell.

    September 3, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Edward

      Note: positron should be proton....and I still believe I am a beeriest!

      September 3, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  7. hharri

    There.s the lying type. The criminal type. The stupid ones. The idiots. The child melostrs, Sam stone. The white, elderly, single, uneducated, poor, child abusing women. There's the type who think they are funny. Do nothing all day. Wear hundreds of names. Hate everyone

    September 3, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Hamsa

      Please brush up on spelling/grammar.

      January 29, 2014 at 4:25 pm |
  8. laurenfrichards

    Reblogged this on The World of Animus.

    September 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  9. Catherine Mccloskey

    Just pray for these people because hell is not a nice place

    September 2, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • photografr7

      Why don't you go there and tell us what it's REALLY like.

      September 2, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • Jens Gessner

      You got it exactly backwards, Catherine Mccloskey: Precisely because 'this is all there is' do humans look around and think it is all beautiful. If the sky was olive-green in the morning, and all flowers came in various shades of brown, we would love it, too. In addition, IF you credit a deity with all that is beautiful in the world, then you also have to blame that deity for all the ugliness. – And there is plenty of it, just look around.

      And by the way: The God that you believe in requires you to pray in private. Here is the relevant verse:

      "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." (KJB, Matthew 6:5)

      Strangely, it takes an Atheist to remind you of that.

      September 2, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
      • Hary

        We percieve everything as beautiful because it's "all there is" is a comment from evolution and evolution is a theory- unproovable and unprobable (atleast macroevolution or abiogenesis: http://www.godandscience.org/evolution/chemlife.html). If you base your argument on the psychological factors of growing up, God planned that too; it's His creation and His plan. You don't have to blame God for all the bad things in the world because: 1. The ground is cursed because of Adam (Genesis 3:17). 2. We are continualy doing evil to each other: polution, murder, wars and famines are our fault. 3. Evil is from the devil who temps people through the evil desires of their hearts and the people yield to it and sin (James 1:13-15, James 4:7-10); have you ever been tempted(!) to give money to the poor?
        As for praying; she wasn't praying, she just suggested that we should pray for you.

        September 3, 2013 at 3:03 am |
        • In Santa we trust

          Evolution unprovable and improbable!!! There is plenty of evidence for evolution and no evidence for a god.

          September 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • sam stone

      how exactly do you know this, catherine?

      and, if god has a plan, how is prayer NOT blasphemous?

      do you purport to know more than god,
      or do you just like spending lots of time on your knees?

      September 4, 2013 at 5:27 am |
  10. Catherine Mccloskey

    I could not imagining thinking this is all their is Just look around see the the beauty now tell me where did that come from god pray for all of you that don't believe

    September 2, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • photografr7

      You make a very strong and powerful point. Now learn to spell.

      September 2, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • tallulah13

      A lot of people are afraid of dying and wish that they could live forever. It's very human. It's one of the reasons why christianity is so popular. It promises you magical things like eternal life in a paradise with streets of gold. Of course, there is no proof to substantiate these claims. There is no proof that the christian god, or that any god actually exists, or any devil or that any heaven, hell or afterlife exist. Nothing at all to indicate that there is anything more than this.

      Anything that lives will die, decompose and be forgotten. This is natural. All your ceremonies, praying and bargaining can't change that. No point fearing what can't be changed. Why not live your life as best you can instead of wasting time wishing for more?

      September 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
      • sanjosemike

        I am an atheist. Or maybe I should say I am an agnostic. There are some really weird physics behind quantum theory that could posit a position that the "Universe" itself is alive. Then there is also NDE's or near-death experiences. It is easy to dismiss them, and I have been known to in the past. However, some are really strange and suggest a possible scientific basis for a conscious existence after death.

        Please don't make a crackpot of me over this. It is certainly possible that NDE's are just a product of the dying brain. But sometimes that BRAIN is able to collect confirmed data that cannot be otherwise confirmed, except by the existence of a "universal consciousness."

        No bible quotes from me. Just a sterling sense of curiosity, for I had one myself when I was a child. Ironically, if there is an afterlife, according to the experiences of people with NDE's, religion has absolutely nothing to do with it.


        September 2, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • Joe

      So, you're telling me that God gave me a brain and then punishes me for using it. That makes him an a$$ho!e in my books.

      September 2, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  11. this is for spambots, do not use this

    I reckon that one way of looking at this is to say that the sheer number of religions in the world is just a way for the Almighty to reduce the number of the saved ones at the End.... (you wouldn't want Heaven to be overcrowded would you...?.)

    September 2, 2013 at 8:21 am |
    • photografr7

      Come on! Have you seen how many angels can fit on the end of pin, lately?

      September 2, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  12. Sami

    At some point in my life, I needed support financially, I was in despair. I cleaned myself and prayed two prayers as a Muslim out of no where. Then I raised my hands and asked for help. The chances of anything happening were remotely impossible, impossible, I was in my house alone. What can possibly happen? I swear, I swear, I swear as soon as I finished my prayer $4000 dollars were sent to my online account in my E-commerce business. I couldn't breathe for a sec, was a bit scared for a while, then I cried a bit. Not for the money, but for realizing that God answered me. I never for the last 3 years before this event or after 4 years of that event did I get anything even remotely equal to that sum. It might be a coincidence for you, it was a miracle to me that I shall take to my grave...God does exist no matter what people say...

    September 2, 2013 at 6:15 am |
    • Tom

      Yes – God sent you $4,000 while 250,000 people lost their lives in a tsunami. Well, I guess God has her priorities.

      September 2, 2013 at 7:19 am |
      • photografr7

        You guys are so funny. So, allow me my chance: With all the anger between atheists and believers on this message board, I thought I would hunt for something we can all agree on. After a minute or two, it hit me: We can all agree that atheists are NOT going to Heaven.

        September 2, 2013 at 7:40 am |
        • Marion

          That does not seem to be what the Pope believes.

          September 2, 2013 at 10:41 am |
        • photografr7

          Yeah, but what does he know?

          September 2, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • this is for spambots, do not use this

      So, what's jehovah's email address, then?

      September 2, 2013 at 7:43 am |
  13. MIng Tang

    HEY!!!! you forgot tall athiests, thin athiests, asian athiests, african athiests, alien athiests, construction worker athiests, feline atheists, Spanish speaking athiests, bald athiests, hollywood athiests, scubadiving athiests, illiterate athiests, breakdancing athiests, HIV positive athiests, and let's not forget the fastest growing group of athiests in the countless amounts of infant athiests in the world today.

    September 2, 2013 at 1:54 am |
    • Allen Smith

      Hilarious. That's how they will make up 36 categories in future.

      September 2, 2013 at 4:51 am |
  14. jocelynsophia

    God exists and we must love God. For sue God exists. Look at the sun. God created it. Look at yourself. God created you. We did not create ourselves. Love God, and tell God that you love God.

    September 1, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • photografr7

      Go back to the church you crawled out from.

      September 1, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • keith

      If u don't understand SCIENCE try RELIGION. U need help... GOD didn't create me or anyone else.... LOOK AT THE PROOF, dinosaurs, man, the world was around before your supposed FAKE being created a world that already existed.

      September 1, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Catherine Mccloskey

      You are so right pray for these sick people keep up the good work

      September 2, 2013 at 10:15 am |
      • photografr7

        Yes, keep praying (which does absolutely nothing) instead of helping out and offering your support in a meaningful and worthwhile way, such as contacting your Congressman or volunteering for the Red Cross. I can hear the screams of children now, "Thank God you are praying for me... Oh, you're praying to Jesus Christ? Nevermind!"

        September 2, 2013 at 10:21 am |
      • sam stone

        Atheists are sick?

        Nothing pompous about that, is there, gash?

        September 4, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Jens Gessner

      Fine, Jocelyn. I evolved, you didn't.

      September 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  15. Jav

    They forgot the fanatical atheists.The group in wich Pol Pot and Kim il Sung belong.

    September 1, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  16. 7

    Hello folks. Everyone is invited to receive a newly released "free" downloadable song at... thetreasureofzion.com

    September 1, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  17. Will

    These categories seem to overlap and don't therefore seem distinct as categories. It does, however, point out some characteristics of some individuals. Some actual data as to these would be interesting.

    September 1, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • CNN-POST.ertwsd67867


      September 1, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • CNN-POST.ertwsd67867



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      September 1, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply








      September 1, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • KC

      "These categories seem to overlap and don't therefore seem distinct as categories." Just like religion.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  18. pbernasc

    I think you forgot one category: the idea itself of God makes no sense. It is absurd and clearly fictional.

    Vulcan Atheist: anyone who knows God's idea makes no logic sense and therefore simply does not take it for granted.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  19. sanjosemike

    The study (as far as I can see) and the article did not reference the Holocaust. This is the most important driver of atheism in history, and yet it was ignored? Why is that?

    September 1, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • Jens Gessner

      Nonsense. The Holocaust and Atheism had nothing to do with each other. Hitler was Christian – for the first part of his 12 year reign a devout Catholic, and he really believed that he was fulfilling a Christian duty by eradicating Jewish people, which were at the time – collectively – accused of 'deicide'. That charge was only repudiated during the Second Vatican Council in the 60s.

      Hitler was hostile toward Atheism. Here is a quote from 1933:

      "And now Staatspräsident Bolz says that Christianity and the Catholic faith are threatened by us. And to that charge I can answer: In the first place it is Christians and not international atheists who now stand at the head of Germany. I do not merely talk of Christianity, no, I also profess that I will never ally myself with the parties which destroy Christianity. If many wish today to take threatened Christianity under their protection, where, I would ask, was Christianity for them in these fourteen years when they went arm in arm with atheism? No, never and at no time was greater internal damage done to Christianity than in these fourteen years when a party, theoretically Christian, sat with those who denied God in one and the same Government."

      September 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
      • photografr7

        Jens, he's quoting the Pope. What do you expect?

        September 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  20. sanjosemike

    The study (from what I can see) did not reference the Holocaust as being a driving reason for atheism. There should be a separate classification for "Holocaust Atheists." Why is there none? Did your reviewers miss the most important reason for atheism in history?


    September 1, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • photografr7

      Are you insane? If you can't say anything constructive, I suggest keeping your stupid trap shut.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • photografr7

      You piece of cra$.... That story comes from the Pope who should have been hung for saying it. READ THIS: http://inversesquare.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/pope-blames-atheism-for-holocaust/

      September 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
      • sanjosemike

        I don't see any point or value to your extreme anger against me. Also, I think you are reading more into my post than is actually intended. The Pope is really irrelevant to the Holocaust, except that during it, the Pope who served at that time did little if anything to prevent it or help.

        Lots of people have blamed "atheism" for bad things as well as religion. All I'm pointing out is that the article and study did not seem to reference the Holocaust, which it SHOULD have.

        Ease off on your anger. Try meditation and relaxation exercises. Your blood pressure will benefit from it. As far as my own personal beliefs, I am an atheist and a rather relaxed one. But I don't like to pay extra taxes because religions don't pay their share.


        September 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
        • photografr7

          If you read the post, you'd know they were referring to Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, who reined between 2005 and 2013, not the Pope during the Holocaust.

          September 1, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
      • Jens Gessner

        Holy Hanna. Thanks for the link. IT is outrageous.

        September 2, 2013 at 6:14 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.