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. Old theist

    The atheists I know personally, and that's quite a few, are the most ethical, morally good people I have ever met. They are tolerant, honest, kind, and stand up for their principles, not because they "have to be", or out of fear of some hellfire, but because they know that is the right way to be as an ethical human being. They do not condemn others for their beliefs, but respect freedom of religion, except when religion is used to oppress, enslave, or otherwise harm people and society. So much harm has been, and continues to be, inflicted in the name of religion. Live and let live!

    September 9, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
    • scott ingledue


      September 10, 2013 at 8:12 am |
      • nolajayy

        Pope Urban II (Crusades), Pope Gregory IX (Papal Inquisition), Ferrand Martinez (Jewish Massacre of 1391)), Tomas de Torquemada(Spanish Inquisition), Hernan Cortez(destroyed entire Aztec civilization in name of Christianity) John Calvin (persecuted thousands for entertainment), Joseph Kony(Lord's Liberation Army). Just to name a small few

        September 10, 2013 at 10:43 am |
      • DL

        Hitler was not an atheist. Also even if he was he didn't commit his atrocities because of any religious sentiment, positive or negative.
        Millions of people have been killed BECAUSE of religion. the people doing the murdering thought god WANTED them to kill people.
        No one has ever been killed because an atheist said "Since I don't believe in god I will kill these people"
        That's the difference.

        September 10, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • don lingl

      very well said

      September 10, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  2. SMART1

    Behold, the six tribes of the most ignorant, spiritually blind & devoid, robot minded, evil people on the planet.

    September 9, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • sam stone

      more theist drivel

      September 9, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Smarter1

      *cough* ahem *cough* ^ The pot calling the kettle black...
      The person that made this list clearly has no clue about atheism in particular and humanity in general.
      You can't put a belief or lack thereof in six neat categories either.

      September 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • Uset

      I wonder what your God thinks of you, after that little rant?

      That's exactly the problem with theistic religion – they all have prejudice as a basis.

      This third world war we are entering now is a war of theistic religions, not states, not politics, not feudalism nor expansionism, it is a contest for the resource of the feeble minded by the religious demagogues, seeking to fatten their coffers with offerings.

      September 10, 2013 at 1:06 am |
    • MB

      Oh really? Tell us again how the earth is only six thousand years old and Satan put dinosaur bones in the ground just to confuse us.

      September 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  3. Choir Loft

    Good article with well defined positions. Unfortunately any discussion about atheist philosophy is self-defeating and foolish in the extreme.

    September 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  4. S. C. Jamason

    1. Fool
    2. Fool
    3. Fool
    4. Fool
    5. Fool
    6. Fool
    "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'."

    September 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      The atheist argument is that there is no God. BUT in order to be true, the statement would have to reflect knowledge of the entire universe. No man possesses such universal knowledge (omniscience). This is what the Bible means when it states that such a claim is foolishness.
      In his conceit the atheist is convinced that he alone possesses knolwedge of the entire universe – that there is no God. He does not know where it comes from, yet he embraces it as gospel truth – which of course it isn't.
      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      September 9, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
      • sam stone

        the same thing could be said of theists, choir loft.

        you know why choirs are used? because it soothes people and gets them to turn off their critical thinking

        September 9, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
      • Baal

        So using your warped logic, you dont know the universe either, so you cannot prove a myyhical god exists anymore then we can prove he/she/it doesnt exist.

        So, based on LOGIC, you prove a POSITIVE, NEVER a Negative, . You make the assertion he/she/it exists..

        PROVE IT!!

        September 9, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
        • scott ingledue


          September 10, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • sam stone

      S.C. Jamason: Quoting your iron age comic book only rings true to those who accept the authority of your iron age comic book. That being said, stuff your bible up your backside

      September 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
      • S. C. Jamason


        September 10, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  5. JonnyDarcko

    A christian telling an Atheist that they are going to hell is as scary as a 5 year old telling an adult they wont get presents from Santa Clause this year.

    September 9, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • charity99

      What planet did you come from JD? You know nothing of what you say. An atheist has no expectations and no problem with dying. Is that what your problem is... according to your faith... you know not where you will go. I can tell you. You will either be cremated and your ashes scattered wherever or you will enclosed in a coffin and will be under the earth. I hope that helps you in your despair.

      September 9, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      A Christian warning an atheist, or anybody else, of the dangers of hell is the same as warning a man against diving off the top of a tall building. It's very unwise and death results.
      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      September 9, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Edward

      Indeed. Read my post on page 74 about hell.

      September 10, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  6. hharri

    Bart Ehrman is one of the most liberal biblical scholars on the planet. Here's the introduction to his book "Did Jesus Exist?" In short, even the most liberal scholars believe there is ample evidence Jesus existed.

    September 8, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      But was he a supernatural god, did he actually perform the alleged miracles and was he really resurrected? If not, he's just another goat herder with a promiscuous mother.

      September 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
    • Baal

      If Jebus existed @ all, WHY didnt he cure any Gay people?

      September 9, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  7. Siam

    I grow up as an atheist. There're plenty of anti-religion (especially anti-christian) studies at mainland China where being an atheist believes in science is right and normal; schools and medias will speak of the corruption and ignorance of religions (especially Christianity), also about the "greedy missionaries and evil colonists" in 1900s; it's officially said we don't "against/discriminate" religions but we neither encourage them; and it's encouraged to preach "science and reason" to them so they can be converted to good "scientific and reasonable" person; around grade 10 I wrote about Christianity and its origin from primary religions because I was so into mythology back then. Before I came to North America I converted to Christian for many reasons, now I found the answer to the understanding of deity in Catholic theology. People believe for different reasons, sometimes I wonder that will some of them leave their faith if they have (or they think they have) "known" ? Western world has never actually experienced to live in a society widely worship moral being(s) or without God's presence, but if God wills that way then let it be done, in the meantime we still have to absurdly against this since it's a duty.

    September 8, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • tallulah13

      So basically, because you couldn't have it before, religion is exotic and new. Meanwhile, those of us who grew up surrounded by religion are weary of the bigotry and hatred created by superstitious religious beliefs that have no basis in fact.

      September 8, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
  8. charity99

    There is that possibility that underneath all the dogma everyone is an atheist and grabbing for the closest olive branch to hang on to.

    September 7, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  9. Linda

    Is it possible that there is a 7th tribe of atheists? I ask this because of having observed some first hand who, are non-believers who have developed or, develop their own rituals. While other family members are praying or, doing traditional Christian rituals, they begin some rather unusual practices to try to comfort themselves and make sense of the life event that is taking place. They can either be unobtrusive or insist that traditional rituals cease. Nonetheless, they seem to have profound need to do something and it may seem bizarre to others.

    September 7, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  10. charity99

    I believe that a lot of young people are finding their God through religions like evangelical, assemblies of God, etc., which are all more charismatic and also the fanatical religious sects which are seeking youth. I believe the old way of organized Christian churches may be more conducive to the younger generations if they change their old ways and be more accepting to these people. They know they are losing members but, be damned, they don't know how to be more inclusive of the changing times. I am Protestant and the sermons in my church, I am reluctant to say, but of course will, are bloody boring and I don't feel any different coming and going. You bring this up to the minister and the assembly and they get really upset and are in total denial. There is so much in-fighting in the church (always has been). So where else do the youth turn? We need to let them play their guitars and sing their own songs and worship in a more open and free manner.
    Oh, anyway.

    September 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Edward

      A little more wiggle room inside the denominations would indeed let the younger people relate more to what they believe in, faith or not.
      It is apparent that this upcoming generation is indeed a "give it me now" based experience faction. Religious belief is a multi-year experience that demands concentration, continual re-affirmation and plenty of time.
      It would seem to me, that in itself would be reason enough for many to find this type of experience lacking in today's world.

      September 6, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • charity99

        Yes, good point, thank you.

        September 6, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Bons

      I was a Baptist and felt the same as you until I discovered the Messianic Jewish church. Now I am so indescribably happy and I am free to worship the Lord however I please! As a Baptist, I could not dance, there were very few instruments that we could play worship songs on, but in my new church, there is dancing, singing, clapping, tambourines, and shouting praises! I have to believe that God is much happier watching His creation enjoying worshipping Him this way! I feel His spirit each time I am in that church, in His presence!

      September 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
      • charity99

        Great to hear. I'm very happy for you.

        September 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • fred

      My personal belief is that Jesus said he was the way the truth and the life. I have found that to be true based on my personal experiences as the result of faith which was the most wonderful gift anyone could ever receive. That is a touch of the goodness and love of God.
      I try and live out that "way" so attending church (various churches) is just one part of any walk with God. God is not the building or contained in the temple, church etc but lives in our being. So, when we play guitars or jam on anything and a God filled vibe fills the air that experience happens in many places at various times

      September 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
      • charity99

        I know ONE true believer in Jesus Christ... she loves to sing all kinds of hymns and rejoices loudly and with lots of spirit... and in church she prays the loudest, sings the loudest and is the ONLY one to express pure enjoyment and peace. This lovely lady is my 60 year old Downs Syndrome sister. I believe truly there is a heaven meant specially for her, she is an Angel on earth. It seems when I am with her, ever since her birth, I have always been in the presence of Jesus Christ and/or a perfect Angel, and especially now because her belief shines so bright. When I am with her I too feel the spirit, and it gets in the way of my many attempts of proving what is real and what is not, question I will never have answered until I pass.

        September 6, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
        • fred

          What is real is much like the question Pilate asked Jesus "what is truth". On the one hand he was looking at the high Priests demanding Jesus execution and willing to free Barabas a murderer and other Jesus an innocent man that preached love your enemy whose Kingdom was not of this world. The Bible likes to paint contrasts which makes the truth stand out to anyone willing to see it. The truth was that Jesus was very different from the religions and High Priests of Pilates day. One was of the light that sets one free while the others hate innocence and love.

          September 7, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  11. earth99

    I am seeing more young people (20's-30's) questioning their religion and leaving the church setting. The church I attend is not crowded at all like it used to be 20 years ago. I don't believe their are atheists, however, they may be questioning and organized religion? Your thoughts please.

    September 6, 2013 at 6:28 am |
    • Felix

      More and more information available to them via internet, other sources. Knowledge dispels superst.ition. Simple.

      September 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
      • earth99

        You are right.

        September 6, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
        • fred

          He may be right regarding various man made gods but Felix is has no knowledge concerning God. Certainly those that believe out of superstition or other false reasons will leave the faith. Those who have had a true experience with God do not leave.

          September 6, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
        • earth99

          You have a good point Fred, but I believe Felix has a good point also. These are all personal opinions of course and I respect each person's input. Whether I agree or not, of course, that is up to me. But both of your views are of value. Thank you.

          September 6, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
        • sam stone

          And, of course, folks like Fred are the ones to determine who has had a TRUE experience.

          Another No True Scotsman fallacy from freddie

          September 6, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
        • fred

          Why would that be Sam?
          Do you not think God capable of revealing truth regardless of where I am or what I personally believe? We cannot even agree upon what is truth how would we ever agree upon the source of truth.

          September 6, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
        • Jen

          fred, according to your holy book the main thing your god does is reveal himself to be a jerk.

          September 6, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
        • fred

          Exactly what about Jesus is a "jerk"
          As to the Old Testament that was written by Gods chosen ones the Hebrew. Now exactly how does it possibly make sense that they would love, honor and worship a "jerk"? Better yet if they made the whole thing up who would construct a "jerk" as their God? They gave their lives for this "jerk", they believed this "jerk" protected them / loved them / created this whole existence for them and made heaven a perfect eternal place of joy just for them.

          September 6, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
        • Felix

          Fred – How is it that only a lucky few (such as yourself) have had the "true experience with God" of which you speak?

          September 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
        • Observer

          I doubt that Abraham had the same experience that Saul of Tarsus did or Moses the same experience as I had. I trust that God is competent and we most likely are not based on our history of getting it wrong. I was given the experience that transformed me and opened my life to wonders I never knew were possible. Certainly that experience was shaped by a Bible that was given to me and at a time of great loss. The wonders of God have not stopped so it is hard for me to think God would play tricks so something very real has happened and continues.
          It is my belief that God does search for souls that are inclined towards the characteristics modeled by Jesus. I have not found anything wrong with attempting to follow Christ. Have you?

          September 9, 2013 at 12:20 am |
        • Felix

          Observer –

          The point of my question to fred is that so many religious folk claim to "know" their god is real because of some personal experience. Well, if that's what it took for you, surely you can understand how those who have not had that experience can still not believe, right? And surely God can understand that as well. So why doesn't he just give everyone that "personal experience" and be done with it?

          September 10, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  12. Bodunrin Kehinde

    Where does deism come in?

    September 6, 2013 at 4:21 am |

    Here is THE TRUTH.


    September 6, 2013 at 3:37 am |
    • Jen


      September 6, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
  14. AndyB

    I think I'm all of those, depending on my mood. Apart from the agnostic one. Mostly non-theist, but switching to anti-theist when some knob jockey warns me about God's wrath or other such nonsense.

    September 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  15. JEF

    Ok, so the only true atheist is the "Non-theist". They are the only ones who act completely as if the whole existence/ non-existence argument is wholly only the problem of those who choose to concern themselves with swaying others. I would think that if a person is enthusiastically opposed to religion, they feel a need to sway others, and therefore may not fully believe what they are saying.

    September 5, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • AndyB

      Not really. Once you question the supernatural, everything falls into place and makes much more sense. There are very few atheists I suspect, who could consider accepting religious views again, once they've seen the rational perspective. Having said that, it's not much fun.

      September 5, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
      • AndyB

        Actually, a good analogy would be Santa. Once you find out he's not real, you suddenly make connections. You remember your parents unusual behaviour, or being secretive, or various discrepancies etc that suddenly make sense. It's better to believe in Santa, but there's no way.

        September 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  16. hharri

    hide and watch baby girl.

    every time u do that, it is recorded and will be used in discovery, u morons

    September 5, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • hharri

      kelly, o kelly

      September 5, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  17. shecky

    Its me Optimus, don't you..
    recognize me??

    September 5, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  18. Edward


    Great quote!

    September 5, 2013 at 5:51 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.