Who are you, anyway?
There’s a word that seems to be being gradually redefined in our collective vocabulary, I was considering recently. That word is “nontheist”. It’s a relatively new word as it is, but in its earliest uses it seems to have been an umbrella term covering a variety of different (and broadly-compatible) theological outlooks.
Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:
“It is not possible to know whether God exists.”
Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether or not there are any gods. They vary in the strength of their definition of the word “know”, as well as their definition of the word “god”. Like most of these terms, they’re not mutually-exclusive: there exist agnostic atheists, for example (and, of course, there exist agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and gnostic theists).
“Believing in gods is a bad thing.”
Antitheists are opposed to the belief in gods in general, or to the practice of religion. Often, they will believe that the world would be better in the absence of religious faith, to some degree or another. In rarer contexts, the word can also mean an opposition to a specific deity (e.g. “I believe that in God, but I hate Him.”).
“If the existence of God could be proven/disproven to me, it would not affect my behaviour.”
An apatheist belives that the existence or non-existence of gods is irrelevant. It is perfectly possible to define oneself as a theist, an atheist, or neither, and still be apathetic about the subject. Most of them are atheists, but not all: there are theists – even theists with a belief in a personal god – who claim that their behaviour would be no different even if you could (hypothetically) disprove the existence of that god, to them.
“There are no gods.”
As traditionally-defined, atheists deny the existence of either a specific deity, or – more-commonly – any deities at all. Within the last few hundred years, it has also come to mean somebody who rejects that there is any valid evidence for the existence of a god, a subtle difference which tends to separate absolutists from relativists. If you can’t see the difference between this and agnosticism, this blog post might help. Note also that atheism does not always imply materialism or naturalism: there exist atheists for example who believe in ghosts or in the idea of an immortal soul.
“God does not interfere with the Universe.”
Deism is characterised by a belief in a ‘creator’ or ‘architect’ deity which put the universe into motion, but which does has not had any direct impact on it thereafter. Deists may or may not believe that this creator has an interest in humanity (or life at all), and may or may not feel that worship is relevant. Note that deism is nontheistic (and, by some definitions, atheistic) in that it denies the existence of a specific God – a personal God with a concern for human affairs – and so appears on this list even though it’s incompatible with many people’s idea of nontheism.
“Science and reason are a stronger basis for decision-making than tradition and authority.”
To be precise, freethought is a philosophical rather than a theological position, but its roots lie in the religious: in the West, the term appeared in the 17th century to describe those who rejected a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It historically had a broad crossover with early pantheism, as science began to find answers (especially in the fields of astronomy and biology) which contradicted the religious orthodoxy. Nowadays, most definitions are functionally synonymous with naturalism and/or rationalism.
“Human development is furthered by reason and ethics, and rejection of superstition.”
In the secular sense (as opposed to the word’s many other meanings in other fields), humanism posits that ethical and moral behaviour, for the benefit of individual humans and for society in general, can be attained without religion or a deity. It requires that individuals assess viewpoints for themselves and not simply accept them on faith. Note that like much of this list, secular humanism is not incompatible with other viewpoints – even theism: it’s certainly possible to believe in a god but still to feel that society is always best-served by a human-centric (rather than a faith-based) model.
“There exists no definition of God for which one can make a claim of theism or atheism.”
One of my favourite nontheistic terms, igtheism (also called ignosticism) holds that words like “god” are not cognitively meaningful and can not be argued for or against. The igtheist holds that the question of whether or not any deities exist is meaningless not because any such deities are uninterested in human affairs (like the deist) or because such a revelation would have no impact upon their life (like the apatheist) but because the terms themselves have no value. The word “god” is either ill-defined, undefinable, or represents an idea that is unfalsifiable.
“The only reality is matter and energy. All else is an illusion caused by these.”
The materialist perspective holds that the physical universe is as it appears to be: an effectively-infinite quantity of matter and energy, traveling through time. It’s incompatible with many forms of theism and spiritual beliefs, but not necessarily with some deistic and pantheistic outlooks: in many ways, it’s more of a philosophical stance than a nontheistic position. It grew out of the philosophy of physicalism, and sharply contrasts the idealist or solipsist thinking.
“Everything can be potentially explained in terms of naturally-occurring phenomena.”
A closely-related position to that of materialism is that of naturalism. The naturalist, like the materialist, claims that there can be, by definition, no supernatural occurrences in our natural universe, and as such is similarly incompatible with many forms of theism. Its difference, depending on who you ask, tends to be described as being that naturalism does not seek to assume that there is not possibly more to the universe than we could even theoretically be capable of observing, but that does not make such things “unnatural”, much less “divine”. However, in practice, the terms naturalism and materialism are (in the area of nontheism) used interchangeably. The two are also similar to some definitions of the related term, “rationalism”.
“The Universe and God are one and the same.”
The pantheist believes that it is impossible to distinguish between God and the University itself. This belief is nontheistic because it typically denies the possibility of a personal deity. There’s an interesting crossover between deists and pantheists: a subset of nontheists, sometimes calling themselves “pandeists”, who believe that the Universe and the divine are one and the same, having come into existence of its own accord and running according to laws of its own design. A related but even-less-common concept is panentheism, the belief that the Universe is only a part of an even-greater god.
“Human activities, and especially corporate activities, should be separated from religious teaching.”
The secularist viewpoint is that religion and spiritual thought, while not necessarily harmful (depending on the secularist), is not to be used as the basis for imposing upon humans the a particular way of life. Secularism, therefore, tends to claim that religion should be separated from politics, education, and justice. The reasons for secularism are diverse: some secularists are antitheistic and would prefer that religion was unacceptable in general; others take a libertarian approach, and feel that it is unfair for one person to impose their beliefs upon another; still others simply feel that religion is something to be “kept in the home” and not to be involved in public life.
“Religious authority does not intrinsically imply correctness.”
Religious skeptics, as implied by their name, doubt the legitimacy of religious teaching as a mechanism to determine the truth. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned term, dating back to an era in which religious skepticism – questioning the authority of priests, for example – was in itself heretical: something which in the West is far rarer than it once was.
“I neither accept nor reject the notion of a deity, but find a greater truth beyond both possibilities.”
The notion of transtheism, a form of post-theism, is that there exists a religious philosophy that exists both outside and beyond that of both theism and atheism. Differentiating between this and deism, or apatheism, is not always easy, but it’s a similar concept to Jain “transcendence”: the idea that there may or may not exist things which may be called “godlike”, but the ultimate state of being goes beyond this. It can be nontheistic, because it rejects the idea that a god plays a part in human lives, but is not necessarily atheistic.
However, I’ve observed that the word “nontheist” seems to be finding a new definition, quite apart from the umbrella description above.
In recent years, a number of books have been published on the subject of atheism, some of which – and especially The God Delusion – carry a significant antitheistic undertone. This has helped to inspire the idea that atheism and antitheism are the same thing (which for many atheists, and a tiny minority of antitheists, simply isn’t true), and has lead some people who might otherwise have described themselves as one or several of the terms above to instead use the word “nontheist” as a category of its own.
This “new nontheist” definition is still very much in its infancy, but I’ve heard it described as “areligious, but spiritual”, or “atheistic, but not antitheistic”.
Personally, I don’t like this kind of redefinition. It’s already hard enough to have a reasonable theological debate – having to stop and define your terms every step of the way is quite tiresome! – without people whipping your language out from underneath you right when you were standing on it. I can see how those people who are, for example, “atheistic, but not antitheistic” might want to distance themselves from the (alliterative) antitheistic atheist authors, but can’t they pick a different word?
After all: there’s plenty of terms going spare, above, to define any combination of nontheistic belief, and enough redundancy that you can form a pile of words higher than any Tower of Babel. Then… perhaps… we can talk about religion without stopping to fight over which dictionary is the true word.
I read this Chick Tract comic, recently. I’d seen them before, but for some reason it was this week, and this particular article, that riled me so much. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so agitated by something as harmless as a comic.
In the comic, an arrogant and obnoxious biology professor argues in front of a class with a Christian student on the topic of evolution. By a combination of bad science, straw man arguments, a veiled ad hominem attack (the lecturer really is a model of intolerance) and the ultimate false dichotomy – that the only alternative to the theory of evolution involves the implication that Christ must have died for our sins – the student persuades his teacher that his acceptance of evolution is incorrect.
It’s a weekend for pet hates, for me, and I suspect that the thing that really got my goat with this comic was this particular panel:
In this panel, the student makes the premise that there are “six basic concepts of evolution”, and the professor agrees, listing them. But most of the concepts have nothing to do with evolution at all!
(if anybody thinks it’s strange that the thing that annoyed me about this piece of propaganda wasn’t it’s conclusion but one of it’s premises, they could stand to know me a little better – I have no objection to a belief in whatever you like, so long as it doesn’t tread on my toes… but I’m not keen on people mis-representing one another’s positions)
The first four of the six basic concepts of evolution expressed in the comic are:
- Cosmic Evolution – the Big Bang making hydrogen. The theory of evolution has nothing whatsoever to say about the appearance of the Universe and all of the time, space and matter therein. The author seems to have confused the theory of evolution with, perhaps the big bang theory and and other cosmogenic theories.
- Chemical Evolution – the appearance of higher [heavier] elements. Again, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the fact that there’s more than just hydrogen and helium in the Universe. On the other hand, nuclear fusion it’s reasonably well-understood physics by now: we can do it in a lab, and we have strong, experimentally-backed theories about how it happens in stars and the like.
- Evolution of stars and planets from gas – yet again, the theory of evolution has no statement to make on the formation of heavenly bodies (a term I use with no irony whatsoever). This time the author’s gotten confused, probably, with the nebular hypothesis, the most popular contemporary explanation of the development of solar systems and galaxies. It must be admitted: the hypothesis isn’t without it’s faults (to do with stuff like the conservation of angular momentum in accretion disks, and other stuff you don’t want to have to think about without either a degree in space physics or, at least, a pint in front of you). But it’s still got nothing to do with evolution.
- Organic Evolution – as it’s put so crudely in the comic, “life from rocks”. This still doesn’t have anything to do with the theory of evolution, which only describes mechanisms by which organisms can change (with the potential to form new species as well as to produce adaptation within a species). This time around, the author seems to be getting the theory of evolution mixed up with theories of abiogenesis, of which there several, and of which many are mutually-compatible (i.e. two of them could, perhaps, both be factual).
Only the last two concepts – macro-evolution and micro-evolution (which are only generally described in separate terms for the benefit of those who would argue that one is possible while the other is not: in scientific circles, it’s virtually unheard-of to discuss the two as if they were separate ideas, as they are in fact the same idea based upon the same scientific understanding).
I could spend time picking apart the rest of the comic, but it wouldn’t achieve anything: all I really wanted to do is to point out that there are a number of very different and unrelated theories that seem to be often misunderstood – sometimes by both sides – in debates on the subject of creationism, and in debates on the subject of atheism.
I’ve come across it a lot myself, as an atheist: people have told me that, as an atheist, I must believe in certain things, and then proceeded to attack those things, when these premises may well be flawed (especially if they’re coupled with a misunderstanding of what those premises actually mean, as was the case in this comic).
- Yes, I’m an atheist – which to me means that I have observed no compelling evidence for the existence of any deities (as defined by any non-naturalistic, non-pantheistic explanation, on the subject of which I’m ignostic). I’m also agnostic – which means that I believe that I do not know for certain, which I maintain is a perfectly rational position and is perfectly compatible with atheism. Don’t agree? This is the diagram I’m working from. While I find the concept of the existence of a deity ludicrous and implausible, it’s impossible to disprove, just like Russel’s teapot.
- I also happen to accept the theory of evolution, because it’s a strong model with a lot of compelling evidence for it, and I haven’t yet seen a stronger one, although I’m open to the possibility that one exists – Lamarkism, an alternative theory that could describe some of the evidence we’ve seen so far, is probably due a comeback.
- I accept that abiogenesis has almost certainly occurred (that there was a point at which there was no life, and now – ta-da – there is!). I don’t know enough about molecular biology to make a statement in any direction about which of the competing theories is the strongest; however, all of the scientific explanations I’ve heard have always appeared to be stronger, to me, than any of the superstitious ones. I accept in principle the notion of a biogenetic start to life on Earth (life from elsewhere), but haven’t seen any evidence for it that is not speculative.
- Despite great strides in cosmogenesis in recreating theoretical early-Universe conditions that form functional and consistent models, I – like, I believe, every other human – do not know “what happened before that?” (or even if such a question is valid at all). I’ve always had a personal fondness for the cyclic model, although I appreciate that it’s riddled with faults and, in fact, raises as many questions as it resolves – I just like it for it’s almost-poetic completeness. I gather that it’s hard to accept modern understanding of the cyclic model without also accepting loop quantum gravity, which I don’t even understand, but as a model, it still makes me feel comfortable. Regardless: fundamentally, I don’t know “what happened first,” and I dispute that anybody else does, either.
My point is, though, that all of these things can be taken independently, and I think it’s important that people understand and accept that. I’ve met evolutionist theists, biogenetic anti-evolutionists, and even folks who believe that while a creator deity exists, created the universe, set life in motion, and then ceased to exist – they’re atheist abiogenetic creationists. And that’s fine. I think they’re all wrong, and they probably think I am too, but that’s not a problem: we’ve a right to be wrong.
So next time somebody tells you what they believe about the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, their acceptance or not of the theory of evolution, their idea about the initial appearance of life, of their belief in the quintessential beginnings of the universe, please don’t assume that you can guess the rest: there are some surprising folks out there with whom you might have more in common than you think.
(and look, I managed to avoid mentioning my thoughts on ethics and morality and on determinism entirely!)