Monday, June 12, 2006

The term nontheist

The usage of various terminology in religious and theological debates can be confusing. I have recently clarified my usage of the terms humanist and secular, and the Buddhist glossary I wrote clarifies my usage of terms like religion, faith, and prayer. This Q-and-essay helps clarify my usage of an additional term. Who knows, maybe other people will find it helpful in their own thinking or dialogues...

"Is this just another way to escape the negative baggage that has come to be associated with the words 'atheist' and 'atheism' like that whole 'bright' idea a couple years ago?"

No. I never really got behind the term Bright for a variety of reasons. Nor is the conjugation of 'non-' and 'theist' new. It is the taxonomy of related terms that is at issue here. For example, I originally considered two meanings for my use of the term nontheist.

”What were those meanings?”

One was to denote anyone who happens to not believe in a Sentient Creator Being, and that would include atheists (weak, strong and otherwise), agnostics, and those whose concept of Ultimate Reality or the divine does not involve an SCB. In this case we would have two main categories, theist and nontheist, as opposed to theist and atheist. Within 'theist' we would have deists, interventionist theists (i.e. believes in a God that intervenes in supernatural/miraculous ways contra to the regular rules and processes of the natural world), and panentheists. In the 'nontheist' camp we would have atheists, agnostics, and those whose sense of Ultimate Reality or the divine was sufficiently unlike the concept of an SBC put forward by the theology of groups such as contemporary mainstream Abrahamic religions (for example naturalistic pantheism, Buddha nature, etc).

The other usage was to suggest that the existence of a God in the classical sense isn't relevant to one's everyday beliefs. That is, one's views on morality, ethics, social or political policy, science, etc., is independent from one's beliefs regarding the existence or non-existence of a God. In this sense one could actually be a theist but claim, for example, that their views on whether or not a particular play was good or bad is nontheist. In other words, the differences in the usage for the term nontheist fall between being employed as a noun and as an adjective. Ironically, then, a nontheist's argument for why she or he did not believe in a God could not be properly described as being nontheistic.

Then a Christian acquaintance of mine began referring to himself as a nontheist. This surprised me, until I realized that his particular usage implied that a theist was someone with a view of God as a 'Big Guy in the Sky', sitting on a throne on some other world/in some other dimension, basically acting like a really powerful superhuman and dishing out plagues of toads, boils, and famine to the heathen. In his view, panentheists and certain varieties of deist would be separated from contemporary mainstream notions of God, and therefore they could be considered 'nontheists'.

It occurred to me that with some many subtle gradations of what 'God' may or may not mean to someone, that it makes more sense to talk about a scale to clarify the binary 'is/is not' taxonomy. Obviously the difference between some very extreme views of pantheism/panentheism/process theology come within spitting distance of those with a non-personified view of Ultimate Reality or the divine.

”Has your usage of the term changed?”

Slightly. While the graded theist/nontheist dichotomy may still be accurate for some descriptive purposes, as is the adjective referring to those views or activities not dependent on belief in (a) God, there are some problems with those definitions. For one thing, many atheists like clear black and white lines and prefer to define any form of 'lacking belief in a God' as atheism. The subtlety of my use of nontheist may not be that widely appreciated, and I have noted it is often simply seen as another word for atheist. Another issue is that it puts a big dividing line, composed in large part of semantic distinction, between some forms ‘theism’ and ‘nontheism’ that aren’t too far apart. Moreover, atheism is by definition in opposition to theism. It doesn’t matter whether one considers theism or atheism the ‘default’ position and which has the burden of proof. In other words, by adopting the perspective of being a ‘theist’ or ‘atheist’ one is confined to that which is acceptable in such a perspective. For one who says 'I see things more or less the same way as a theist/atheist, but I just don't/do use the word God', we are back to a semantic distinction.

My use of the term nontheist has actually come to take the second meaning I originally offered and expanding it completely-that is, none of my views require or reject a belief in (a) God of any defined nature. Another way to put it is that it is beyond the atheism-theism dichotomy, or fails to recognize that dichotomy. Or for the Buddhists: Not accepting, not rejecting.

"Doesn’t atheist really mean anti-religious? Does 'nontheist' mean anti-religious?"

One misconception about atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists is that they are all anti-religious. Part of this stems from critics of religion who really do have a bone to pick with one or more religions, especially those who feel they were mislead, controlled, or otherwise adversely affected by their own experiences with a sacred tradition. Others may simply be bitter or anti-social individuals who see atheism a way to get under people's skin. There are the same kinds of people in all groups, reasonable and unreasonable, easygoing and high-strung, friendly and unfriendly, etc. However, not all atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists, let alone nontheists, are completely unsympathetic to such traditions.

So what did religion do that was so bad? Well, many faiths prescribe outdated social conventions such as the subservience of women, hostility toward science, suppression of expression or investigation of new ideas, condemnation of ethnic harmony, etc. Wars, executions, corruption, and torture are also black marks. Now, you don't need religion to have these things. They are the result of ideological battles, the struggle to acquire and control resources, temptations of power, etc. This in itself says something--religious people are people, and therefore tend to act like people.

One does not have to dislike religion to be an atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist, or nontheist. One does not have to deny there could be a God other than the ones humans have fashioned for themselves, either. Or wish for the end of all religion. Why an atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist embraces such a perspective is as varied as the reasons why theists believe in a God. Many atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists do see religion as generally harmful, especially the more fanatical traditions of Abrahamic theism, because such beliefs can be twisted with political rhetoric into allowing for the suspension of ordinary moral and ethical codes in the service of a God. These particular forms of theism also frequently teach that humans are unworthy, hopeless creatures.

Other atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, or nontheists see religion as a valuable tool for personal transformation but do not accept any kind of personified Higher Power. Some reject any kind of transcendence while others prefer not to dress it up and give it a name. Some may see the issue of arguing over the existence of such personifications, both for and against, as a waste of time. Contrary to what you may have heard, well-adjusted and open-minded people with no beef against the sacred can still find good reasons to not hold a belief in (a) God.

"If it isn't 'anti-religious', what is the nontheist perspective on religion"

There is no one answer--opinions are as varied as the people who happen to be nontheistic.

Some see religion is a human quirk, and has all of our worst habits built-in. Sympathy for religion is sympathy for our own humanity. That suggests that they also have some of our better features as well. Let's start at the top, so to speak. Gods are jealous, angry, happy, loving, kind, rude, wrathful, merciful. They comfort, they rebuke, they judge, and they forgive. In short, they have the full range of human emotions and temperaments.

Others embrace novel theories suggesting that belief in the supernatural (which is often conflated with religion) may be explained by the stimulation certain ideas have on particular areas of the brain, similar to the way certain sounds, shapes, colors, and textures are perceived as music and art. This would place religion in the same category as the arts, a seemingly distinctly human reinterpretation of the world around us. Yet others can argue that while superstition and supernaturalism can be explained in such a fashion, spirituality is more than just believing in souls or ghosts or gods and should not be readily dismissed.

Still others believe that sacred traditions point to the questions that plague the human mind--what is consciousness and what happens to my consciousness when my body expires? Is there a greater purpose for existence and my place in it? From this point of view many sacred texts reflect a common wisdom about the human condition, including our strengths and weakness. The texts also reflect cultural and historical differences between the societies producing them. So, while picking through arcane rituals, dietary observations, and punishments for a wide range of varying improper behaviors, you can see themes of human failure and triumph as reflected through the values of a particular people, from the nomads of the ancient Middle East to the philosophers of the Orient. Layered on top of all this, of course, are years of reinterpretation and revision as the traditions have passed through different cultures and as the societies themselves changed.


  1. This is a good and fair post -- but did you notice that you use the upper-case word "God" when you should use the lower-case "god" when referring to gods aside from the Christian "God?"

  2. did you notice that you use the upper-case word "God" when you should use the lower-case "god" when referring to gods aside from the Christian "God?"

    I don't employ that usage. I use the capital term 'God' to refer to center of any monotheistic system (whether it be Deistic/Pantheistic/etc or whether it be Islamic-based/Christian-based/ etc), whereas 'gods' is used to refer to the deities inhabiting a polytheistic system.


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