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Nontheism or non-theism is a range of both religious [1] and nonreligious [2] attitudes characterized by the absence of espoused belief in a God or gods. Nontheism has generally been used to describe apathy or silence towards the subject of God and differs from an antithetical, explicit atheism. Nontheism does not necessarily describe atheism or disbelief in God; it has been used as an umbrella term for summarizing various distinct and even mutually exclusive positions, such as agnosticism, ignosticism, ietsism, skepticism, pantheism, atheism, strong or positive atheism, implicit atheism, and apatheism. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology.

A personal god is a deity who can be related to as a person instead of as an impersonal force, such as the Absolute, "the All", or the "Ground of Being".

Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable. Another definition provided is the view that "human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist."

Ignosticism or igtheism is the idea that the question of the existence of God is meaningless because the word god has no coherent and unambiguous definition. It may also be described as the theological position that other theological positions assume too much about the concept of god.


Within the scope of nontheistic agnosticism, 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. [4]

Sir Anthony John Patrick Kenny is an English philosopher whose interests lie in the philosophy of mind, ancient and scholastic philosophy, the philosophy of Wittgenstein and the philosophy of religion. With Peter Geach, he has made a significant contribution to Analytical Thomism, a movement whose aim is to present the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in the style of analytic philosophy. He is one of the executors of Wittgenstein's literary estate. He is a former President of the British Academy and the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

Theological noncognitivism is the position that religious language – specifically, words such as "God" – are not cognitively meaningful. It is sometimes considered synonymous with ignosticism.

Agnostic theism, agnostotheism or agnostitheism is the philosophical view that encompasses both theism and agnosticism. An agnostic theist believes in the existence of a god or gods, but regards the basis of this proposition as unknown or inherently unknowable. The agnostic theist may also or alternatively be agnostic regarding the properties of the god or gods that they believe in.

Other related philosophical opinions about the existence of deities are ignosticism and skepticism. Because of the various definitions of the term God , a person could be an atheist in terms of certain conceptions of gods, while remaining agnostic in terms of others.

In monotheistic thought, God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith. God is usually conceived as being omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present) and as having an eternal and necessary existence. These attributes are used either in way of analogy or are taken literally. God is most often held to be incorporeal (immaterial). Incorporeality and corporeality of God are related to conceptions of transcendence and immanence of God, with positions of synthesis such as the "immanent transcendence".

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.[ citation needed ]

<i>Oxford English Dictionary</i> Premier historical dictionary of the English language

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the principal historical dictionary of the English language, published by Oxford University Press (OUP). It traces the historical development of the English language, providing a comprehensive resource to scholars and academic researchers, as well as describing usage in its many variations throughout the world. The second edition, comprising 21,728 pages in 20 volumes, was published in 1989.

An early usage of the hyphenated non-theism is by George Holyoake in 1852, [5] who introduces it because:

George Holyoake British secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor

George Jacob Holyoake was an English secularist, co-operator, and newspaper editor. He coined the term "secularism" in 1851 and "jingoism" in 1878. He edited a secularist paper, the Reasoner, from 1846 to June 1861, and a co-operative paper, The English Leader, from 1864 to 1867.

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:

James Buchanan (minister) British theologian

Prof Rev James Buchanan DD LLD (1804–1870) was a Church of Scotland minister and theologian.

"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. [6]

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." [7] Usage increased in the 1990s in contexts where association with the terms atheism or antitheism was unwanted. The 1998 Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics states, "In the strict sense, all forms of nontheisms are naturalistic, including atheism, pantheism, deism, and agnosticism." [8]

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. [9]

Nontheistic religions

Nontheistic traditions of thought have played roles [1] in Buddhism, [10] Christianity, [11] [12] Hinduism, [13] Jainism, Taoism, Creativity, Dudeism, Raëlism [14] [15] Humanistic Judaism, [16] Laveyan Satanism, The Satanic Temple, [17] Unitarian Universalism, [18] [19] and Ethical Culture. [20]

See also

Related Research Articles

Theism belief in the existence of at least one deity

Theism is broadly defined as the belief in the existence of the Supreme Being or deities. In common parlance, or when contrasted with deism, the term often describes the classical conception of God that is found in monotheism – or gods found in polytheistic religions—a belief in God or in gods without the rejection of revelation as is characteristic of deism.

Irreligion is the absence, indifference to, or rejection of religion. According to the Pew Research Center's 2012 global study of 230 countries and territories, 16% of the world's population is not affiliated with a religion, while 84% are affiliated.

Negative and positive atheism lack of belief in any deities, without belief that there are none

Negative atheism, also called weak atheism and soft atheism, is any type of atheism where a person does not believe in the existence of any deities but does not explicitly assert that there are none. Positive atheism, also called strong atheism and hard atheism, is the form of atheism that additionally asserts that no deities exist.

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion and popular culture.

Apatheism is the attitude of apathy towards the existence or non-existence of god(s). It is more of an attitude rather than a belief, claim, or belief system.

Transtheism refers to a system of thought or religious philosophy which is neither theistic nor atheistic, but is beyond them. The word was coined by either philosopher Paul Tillich or Indologist Heinrich Zimmer.

Implicit and explicit atheism

Implicit atheism and explicit atheism are types of atheism. In George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, "implicit atheism" is defined as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it", while "explicit atheism" is "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it". Explicit atheists have considered the idea of deities and have rejected belief that any exist. Implicit atheists, though they do not themselves maintain a belief in a god or gods, have not rejected the notion or have not considered it further.

Popularized by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, the spectrum of theistic probability is a way of categorizing one's belief regarding the probability of the existence of a deity.

Nontheist Quakers are those who engage in Quaker practices and processes, but who do not necessarily believe in a theistic God or Supreme Being, the divine, the soul or the supernatural. Like traditional Quakers, also known as Friends, nontheist Friends are interested in realizing peace, simplicity, integrity, community, equality, love, joy, and social justice in the Society of Friends and beyond.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to atheism:

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Post-theism is a variant of nontheism that proposes that the division of theism vs. atheism is obsolete, that God belongs to a stage of human development now past. Within nontheism, post-theism can be contrasted with antitheism. The term appears in Christian liberal theology and Postchristianity.

Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to theology:

This is a list of articles in philosophy of religion.

Nontheistic religions are traditions of thought within a religious context—some otherwise aligned with theism, others not—in which nontheism informs religious beliefs or practices. Nontheism has been applied to the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology, and plays significant roles in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. While many approaches to religion exclude nontheism by definition, some inclusive definitions of religion show how religious practice and belief do not depend on the presence of god(s). For example, Paul James and Peter Mandaville distinguish between religion and spirituality, but provide a definition of the term that avoids the usual reduction to "religions of the book":

Religion can be defined as a relatively-bounded system of beliefs, symbols and practices that addresses the nature of existence, and in which communion with others and Otherness is lived as if it both takes in and spiritually transcends socially-grounded ontologies of time, space, embodiment and knowing.


  1. 1 2 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. Archived from the original on 2018-12-15. Retrieved 2008-03-30.
  4. Smith, George H (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. pp. 10–11. Properly considered, agnosticism is not a third alternative to theism and atheism because it is concerned with a different aspect of religious belief. Theism and atheism refer to the presence or absence of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being. The term "agnostic" does not, in itself, indicate whether or not one believes in a god. Agnosticism can be either theistic or atheistic.
  5. "The Reasoner", New Series, No. VIII. 115
  6. Buchanan, James (1857). Modern Atheism under its forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism, Development, and Natural Laws.
  7. Cox, Harvey (1966). Secular City. p. 225.
  8. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Naturalism. 1998. p. 252.
  9. Chodron, Pema (2002). When Things Fall Apart. Shambhala Publications, Inc. pp. 39f. ISBN   1-57062-969-2.
  10. B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007, pages 97-98.
  11. Spong, John Shelby, 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
  12. Tillich, Paul. (1951) Systematic Theology, p.205.
  13. Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 51.
  14. "Raelians and Cloning: Are They for Real? Researcher Massimo Introvigne Talks About an Atheistic Religion (Part 1)". Center for Studies on New Religions. 16 January 2003. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  15. Berryman, Anne (4 January 2003). "Who Are the Raelians?". Time.
  16. "SHJ Philosophy". Society for Humanistic Judaism. Archived from the original on 13 August 2013. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  17. "Satanic Temple: IRS has designated it a tax-exempt church". AP NEWS. 2019-04-25. Retrieved 2019-07-30.
  18. "Humanism: Theological Diversity in Unitarian Universalism". Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  19. "Atheism and Agnosticism: Part of the Theological Diversity Within Unitarian Universalism". Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  20. "American Ethical Union" . Retrieved 18 August 2013.