No Religion? 7 Types of Non-Believers
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Catholic, Born-Again, Reformed, Jew, Muslim, Shiite, Sunni, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist . . . . Religions give people labels. The downside can be tribalism, an assumption that insiders are better than outsiders, that they merit more compassion, integrity and generosity or even that violence toward “infidels” is acceptable. But the upside is that religious or spiritual labels offer a way of defining who we are. They remind adherents that our moral sense and quest for meaning are core parts of what it means to be human. They make it easier to convey a subset of our deepest values to other people, and even to ourselves.
For those who have lost their religion or never had one, finding a label can feel important. It can be part of a healing process or, alternately, a way of declaring resistance to a dominant and oppressive paradigm. Finding the right combination of words can be a challenge though. For a label to fit it needs to resonate personally and also communicate what you want to say to the world. Words have definitions, connotations and history, and how people respond to your label will be affected by all three. What does it mean? What emotions does it evoke? Who are you identifying as your intellectual and spiritual forebears and your community? The differences may be subtle but they are important.
If, one way or another, you’ve left religion behind, and if you’ve been unsure what to call yourself, you might try on one of these:
1. Atheist. The term atheist can be defined literally as lacking a humanoid god concept, but historically it means one of two things. Positive atheism asserts that a personal supreme being does not exist. Negative atheism simply asserts a lack of belief in such a deity. It is possible be a positive atheist about the Christian God, for example, while maintaining a stance of negative atheism or even uncertainty on the question of a more abstract deity like a “prime mover.” In the United States, it is important to know that atheist may be the most reviled label for a godless person. Devout believers use it as a slur and many assume an atheist has no moral core. Until recently calling oneself an atheist was an act of defiance. That appears to be changing. With the rise of the “New Atheists” and the recent atheist visibility movement, the term is losing its edge.
2. Anti-theist. When atheist consistently evoked images of Madeline Murray O’Hare, hostility toward religion was assumed. Now that it may evoke a white-haired grandmother at the Unitarian church or the gay kid on Glee, some people want a term that more clearly conveys their opposition to the whole religious enterprise. The term anti-theist says, “I think religion is harmful.” It also implies some form of activism that goes beyond merely advocating church-state separation or science education. Anti-theism challenges the legitimacy of faith as a moral authority or way of knowing. Anti-theists often work to expose harms caused in the name of God like stonings, gay bating, religious child maltreatment, genital mutilation, unwanted childbearing or black-collar crime. The New Atheist writers including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins might better be described as anti-theists.
3. Agnostic. Some atheists think of agnostic as a weenie term, because it gets used by people who lack a god-concept but don’t want to offend family members or colleagues. Agnostic doesn’t convey the same sense of confrontation or defiance that atheist can, and so it gets used as a bridge. But in reality, the term agnostic represents a range of intellectual positions that have important substance in their own right and can be independent of atheism. Strong agnosticism views God’s existence as unknowable, permanently and to all people. Weak agnosticism can mean simply “I don’t know if there is a God,” or “We collectively don’t know if there is a God but we might find out in the future.” Alternately, the term agnosticism can be used to describe an approach to knowledge, somewhat like skepticism (which comes next in this list). Philosopher Thomas Huxley illustrates this position: