Nontheism is a term that covers a range of both religious[1] and nonreligious[2] attitudes characterized by the absence of — or the rejection of — theism or any belief in a personal god or gods. Invented originally as a synonym for secularism (see below),[dubious ] it has become an umbrella term for summarizing various distinct and even mutually exclusive positions united by a naturalist approach,[dubious ] such as agnosticism, skepticism, and atheism. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology. Sometimes used synonymously with the term atheism, it can also include positions of belief in a non-personal deity, such as deism and pantheism.

Nontheism can be expressed in a variety of ways. "Strong atheism" is the positive belief that a god does not exist. Someone who does not think about the existence of a deity may be termed a "weak atheist", or more specifically implicitly atheist. Other, more qualified types of nontheism are often known as agnosticism: "strong" or "positive" agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible for humans to know whether or not any deities exist. It is a more precise opinion than weak agnosticism, which is the belief that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is unknown but not necessarily unknowable. Philosopher Anthony Kenny distinguishes between agnostics, who find the claim "God exists" uncertain, and theological noncognitivists, who consider all discussion of God to be meaningless.[3] Some agnostics, however, are not nontheists but rather agnostic theists.

Other related philosophical opinions about the existence of deity are ignosticism and skepticism. Because of the various meanings of the term "god", a person could be an atheist in terms of certain portrayals of gods, while remaining agnostic in terms of others.


Origin and definition

The Oxford English Dictionary (2007) does not have an entry for "nontheism" or "non-theism", but it does have an entry for "non-theist", defined as "A person who is not a theist", and an entry for the adjectival "non-theistic".

An early usage of the hyphenated "non-theism" is by George Holyoake in 1852,[4] who introduces it because

"Mr. [Charles] Southwell has taken an objection to the term Atheism. We are glad he has. We have disused it a long time [...]. We disuse it, because Atheist is a worn-out word. Both the ancients and the moderns have understood by it one without God, and also without morality. Thus the term connotes more than any well-informed and earnest person accepting it ever included in it; that is, the word carries with it associations of immorality, which have been repudiated by the Atheist as seriously as by the Christian. Non-theism is a term less open to the same misunderstanding, as it implies the simple non-acceptance of the Theist's explanation of the origin and government of the world."

This passage is cited by James Buchanan in his 1857 Modern Atheism under its forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism, Development, and Natural Laws, who however goes on to state that

"Non-theism" was afterwards exchanged [by Holyoake] for "Secularism", as a term less liable to misconstruction, and more correctly descriptive of the real import of the theory.

Spelling without hyphen sees scattered use in the later 20th century, following Harvey Cox's 1966 Secular City; "Thus the hidden God or deus absconditus of biblical theology may be mistaken for the no-god-at-all of nontheism." (p.225) Usage increased in the 1990s in contexts where association with the terms "atheism" or "anti-theism" was unwanted. The 1998 Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics has "in the strict sense, all forms of nontheisms are naturalistic, including atheism, pantheism, deism, and agnosticism." (p. 252, s.v. Naturalism)

Pema Chödrön uses the term in the context of Buddhism; "The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God.[...] Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold [...] Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves [...] Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on.".[5]

Nontheistic religions

Nontheistic traditions of thought have played roles[1] in Buddhism,[6] Christianity,[7][8] Hinduism,[9] Jainism, and Raelism.[10][11]

See also


  1. ^ a b Williams, J. Paul; Horace L. Friess (1962). "The Nature of Religion". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Blackwell Publishing) 2 (1): 3–17. doi:10.2307/1384088. JSTOR 1384088. 
  2. ^ Starobin, Paul. "The Godless Rise As A Political Force". The National Journal. Retrieved 29 July 2010. 
  3. ^ Kenny, Anthony (2006). "Worshipping an Unknown God". Ratio 19 (4): 442. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9329.2006.00339.x. 
  4. ^ "The Reasoner", New Series, No. VIII. 115
  5. ^ Chodron, Pema (2002). When Things Fall Apart. Shambhala Publications, Inc.. pp. 39f. ISBN 1-570-62969-2. 
  6. ^ B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007, pages 97-98.
  7. ^ A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, ISBN 0-06-067063-0
  8. ^ Tillich, Paul. (1951) Systematic Theology, p.205.
  9. ^ Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 51.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Berryman, Anne (4 January 2003). "Who Are the Raelians?". Time.,8599,404175,00.html. 

External links

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