What is a Nontheist?

Both within and outside the informal association of Friends who call themselves nontheists, there is little common understanding of what the word nontheist means. There is also little common understanding of related words such as atheist, agnostic, humanist, and materialist, but believers and unbelievers alike have at least a sense of what they mean by those words.

Some of those who write about the subject on Quaker blogs seem to read nontheist as a synonym for atheist, which is unfortunate. A great many of those associated with nontheist Friends would not go so far as to describe themselves as atheists. I would personally go that far, but that’s a subject for another day.

I will put out my own understanding of the word nontheist here, and welcome others to either embrace that definition, or offer their own understandings. I would be delighted to see responses from those of all perspectives, including theistic perspectives.

Nontheist seems to be a fairly new word. Some of its earliest uses have been by those who feel a deep and genuine attachment to something they choose to call God, but who feel a need to reject traditional understandings of what God is. Most prominent perhaps is Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is quite clear about rejecting theistic understandings of God as “a personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities, which has shaped every religious idea of the Western world.” Yet he holds to some yet-unformed understanding of God not as a personal being, which does not intrude in the natural world as a supernatural agent, and which in fact may not be presumed to have a separate, objective existence. He uses Paul Tillich’s phrase “ground of being,” though to be honest I have always had a hard time comprehending what is meant by this. In any case, it seems to me not far from the understanding of a great many Quakers who would not dream of describing themselves as nontheists.

So, I would put forth that a nontheist is someone who does not accept a theistic understanding of God, as described in the preceding paragraph. Such a person may reject all understandings of God, may embrace certain non-theistic understandings of God, may find God language useful and rich in trying to describe their experience of the world but not true in a literal sense, may believe in certain non-material, transcendent realities that have little in common with the common understanding of the word “God.” An atheist falls within this understanding of nontheist, as does an agnostic, a humanist, a Buddhist, and many Quakers who find the whole practice of labeling our belief systems an unfortunate distraction from genuine religious living.

What are your thoughts?

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35 Responses to What is a Nontheist?

  1. Anita Bower September 20, 2006 at 9:04 pm #

    I have no trouble with your definition of nontheist. Nontheist, however, excludes only one type of God. As an atheist, I am a nontheist, but my nonbelief covers more than just a theist God. I wish there were a term with fewer negative connotations than atheist.

  2. Jim Harris September 21, 2006 at 12:13 am #

    Like many born Jewish, I’m an atheist. I became a formal and very regular attender in more or less thirty years ago, and joined twenty years ago. For the past few years, I’ve stopped going to Meeting because the discussion of searching for God just doesn’t speak to me.

    Ministry speaking to the human condition appeals to me, but figuring out where God is, seems as distant to me as discussing how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. I just don’t care.

  3. Pam September 22, 2006 at 3:07 pm #

    Jim, Yes! exactly! I DON’T CARE!!! It’s not so much that I’ve figured it out and God doesn’t exist, it’s just that there is so much richness and plenty to worry about simply among the visible living things on earth, I have no need to look for something else. For me it’s more like that jumble of aliveness IS God, rather than that I embrace it and turn my back on God, but whether it makes sense to call it God or not isn’t even much of a concern for me.

    Ah, well

  4. James Riemermann September 22, 2006 at 3:26 pm #

    Hmm. This atheist Jewish Quaker does care about others’ ministry about God, mainly because a lot of Friends couch some genuine and extraordinary messages relating to the human condition in God language. I can easily separate my notions of what is good and real and important from God language, but for many others it seems the two are inseparable. And so, I have no wish for them to separate the two, as that would do violence to the ministry.

    Of course, there are some God-related messages that don’t touch me at all, often because the language sounds like parrot-talk rather than the speaker’s genuine struggle to express experience that is hard to find words for.

  5. Tad September 24, 2006 at 4:57 pm #

    I just “discovered” this site. Thanks, all, for previous comments. I was fully aware myself being rather “nontheistic” even before I sought membership in the Society of Friends back in early 90’s. I was quite relieved when a weighty Friend (ah, she was “Jewish” Quaker too!) in my membership clearness meeting told us that the reason she became Quaker was nothing to do with God, but rather to do with Quaker testimonies and social action. I was studying the Hebrew scripture in grad school at the time, and I became increasingly aware that God in the Hebrew Bible (or Christians call it “Old Testament”) is more or less like humanity’s collective disire for peace and justice; thus just because historical people (Jesus of Nazareth or George Fox) used the word “God” doesn’t mean we have to follow the practice. They just used the word God because that was the word universally understood at the time. Early Quakers were called “Seekers of Truth” not “Seekers of God”. Quakers often use the phrase “That of God in everyone”: it’s not “God in everyone”. The “That” in the phrase, as I understand, is the characteristics of God, which to me is “pease and justice”. As Pam says, “I don’t care” if someone believes in God or not; what I care is to work towards peace and justice, and I see there’s no connection between the belief in God and actions for peace and justice in real world.

  6. Zach September 26, 2006 at 7:41 pm #

    For the record, this post-Christian Quaker nontheist is an atheist too, though I’ve decided to use that word less often. Not because I’m afraid of the negative connotations (any more than those attached to “anarchy”), but because I find that some people find it emotionally disturbing. I’m more than willing to disturb people intellectually, but not emotionally without good reason, and I find “nontheism” still does the one without doing the other as much.

    Responding to the end of your post James, I think this is a provocative way to frame the issue — nontheism as a “big tent” that includes “theists” who have “nontheistic” (perhaps “nontraditional” is clearer) conceptions of God, along with people who don’t believe in or talk about God. Part of me thinks this is a more fruitful way of continuing the dialogue, yet it also seems inherently unstable: the phrase “nontheistic theism” sounds either like confused thinking, or a mere stopping-point on the road to “nontheistic atheism.”

    Zach.

  7. James Riemermann September 26, 2006 at 8:09 pm #

    These are fuzzy words and tricky targets to hit. But I didn’t mean to frame things in such a way that there is such a thing as a “nontheist theist.” Spong, I think, claims a faith in God but would not describe himself as a theist — not in the way that he uses the word.

    What I think I’m edging toward, is that there seem to be some for whom God is an experiential reality but perhaps not an objective reality. More imminent, less transcendent. Definitely not a being with a distinct consciousness.

    This is not my own view; in fact I’m not sure it is an entirely coherent position. In some ways it seems to betray a conflict between intellectual integrity and an emotionally based nostalgia for images and conceptions that no longer function. For me the word God only serves as a metaphor, and a rather flawed metaphor at that. But it does seem to me that these folks are doing important work in moving religion away from superstition and magical thinking.

  8. John Ferric September 26, 2006 at 10:20 pm #

    For a discussion of the term nontheist see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nontheist
    I do not want to be called an atheist because of the “fundamentism” of many atheists. I reject their dogmatic position in the same manner as I reject organized religion. It seems to me that what is called god or gods is a projection of our own being. Carl Jung provides, for me, the best understanding of the nature of god:
    “Experiences of the self possess a numinosity characteristic of religious revelations. Hence Jung believed there was no essential difference between the self as an experiential, psychological reality and the traditional concept of a supreme deity.

    It might equally be called the “God within us.”[The Mana-Personality,” CW 7, par. 399.”

    This is from the definition of the “Self” found in the Jung Lexicon: http://www.psychceu.com/Jung/sharplexicon.html

  9. James Riemermann September 27, 2006 at 6:47 am #

    One trouble about language is that people sometimes believe what you say, and you were only trying it out.

    –William Stafford

    John,

    I didn’t mean to call you an atheist. People have the right to describe themselves with the words they choose, or to choose to not describe themselves. When many of us use these words in different ways, this causes some confusion, but that’s OK. It’s mostly honest confusion about questions that are hard to get a grip on.

    However, some God-believers describe themselves as not believing in a theistic God (for me the essential meaning of “nontheist”). Bishop Spong is one of these. I also know some folks associated with nontheist Friends who stop a little short of saying “I believe there is no God.” I am making a case for a definition of nontheist which is broader than atheist, and can accommodate these positions as well as my own. I think there is some precedent for this, and some communicative value.

    The word atheist is another story. I reserve this for people who, like me, hold NO belief in God, and do not find it fruitful to redefine the word God until they can be included in the circle of people who “believe in God,” who believe that “God exists.” I might actually have more of a problem embracing the words “believe” or “exists” here, than I have with the word “God.”

    It has been a decade or more since I last read Jung, but in my memory he made more of a distinction than you are acknowledging here. Indeed, he spoke of his own personal “knowledge” of God in the manner you describe, but he also took some care to distinguish between this direct, personal reality of God which cannot be legitimately denied, and the assertion that there is an objective God outside the self, who created the universe. While he held a tentative belief in the second, objective conception of God, he explicitly stated that his inner experience could not be accepted as legitimate evidence for the existence of an external, objective God. He was a scientist as well as a poet.

    One more point: having had many conversations with unbelievers and believers on the progressive edges of religion, I can say that there is often a hair’s breadth between what one cals belief and the other calls unbelief. And yet they feel reluctant to let go of the conceptions of themselves as believers or unbelievers. This is certainly true of me.

  10. John Ferric September 27, 2006 at 10:53 pm #

    James,
    To the best of my knowledge you never called me an atheist. The point that I want to make is, that many people who lose their faith, or never had it in the first place feel they must, by default, be atheist or agnostic. I wish merely to point out that there is a lesser known alternative. And your definition of nontheist does indeed need to be, as you acknowledge later, considered in light of the term “believe.” That is the troubling term. My somewhat simple analogy is unicorns. Do unicorns exist(that other troubling term)? In one sense they do. I can Google the term unicorn and find 17,700,000 links. I can find books about unicorns, I find pictures of unicorns. The issue for me is not whether I “beieve” in unicorns, but, rather, can I find a correlation in the physical world. And, the same is true for god.

    Jung considered that humans are endowed with a natural “religous function” that has nothing to do with god. Do you Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God?”
    Kind regards,
    JF

  11. James Riemermann October 2, 2006 at 11:29 am #

    John, I think you make good points, and one can find legitimate meaning in something one calls God, without going so far as to affirm belief or existence, with the sometimes troubling implications of those words.

    And yet, it feels important for me to make those distinctions, to clarify that I do not hold any *belief* in God, though the word God does sometimes help me to talk about some subtle and meaningful aspects of the reality of being alive. “There but for the grace of God, go I.” “That of God in every one.” And some more personal understandings of my own, along the lines of “take care of each other, and leave God to take care of herself.” Yet it feels dishonest to me to talk about God, without pointing out my extreme skepticism about any of the traditional understandings of the word.

    Yes, I’ve read Armstrong’s History of God, and liked most of it a great deal. I actually preferred her more personal works, Through the Narrow Gate and more recently, The Spiral Staircase.

    The one significant problem I have with Armstrong’s theological ideas, and those of a number of progressive theological writers, is their notion that literalist perspectives are late developments in religion, emerging from the scientific perspective. On the contrary, I see massive evidence that literalist, superstitious understandings of religion have been dominant throughout the ages, and are only now starting to fall apart in the modern, scientific age. Of course, there have always been those in religious traditions trying to undermine the silly, superstitious, literalist, magical thinking of the religious masses. But they have rarely if ever represented the mainstream.

  12. Fabrice Descamps October 31, 2006 at 5:27 pm #

    Hi American Friends,

    The word “nontheist” doesn’t exist in my native language, French. Though it perfectly describes what I feel. A pity! Because, on one hand, I can’t use the word “God” anymore, intellectually speaking, and, on the other hand, I will miss it whenever I won’t, emotionally speaking.
    So I try and look for the church that could understand and accept the way I feel.
    I’ve been theoretically Presbyterian for the last twenty years. Practically too, because there’re so few Protestants in France that attending a Presbyterian service is the best available way to live according to the kind of “faith” I’ve described.
    I’ve been meeting French Unitarians too, from time to time. You’ve got the Christian ones and the non-Christian ones. The first ones don’t understand me because I don’t want to be considered a Christian anymore, neither do the latter because I’m not fond of neo-paganism (to put it euphemistically!). I don’t like walking around naked by equinoctial night in a deep forest with a flaming torch in my hand!
    So, in the last time, I’ve been contemplating getting to the Friends’ Meeting in Paris, France. I’ve gotten in contact with them. I just wonder whether they will accept me as I am. But I’m glad to hear about American Quakers who are in the same mood as me.
    “Faith-fully” yours.
    Fabrice

  13. Crystal November 4, 2006 at 4:34 pm #

    Hi Fabrice,

    I’ve been an attender of unprogrammed meetings in New York, Delaware and Maryland over the last 8 years and I’ve found everyone to be really open and friendly as I’ve been trying to figure out quite exactly what I am. Nontheist seems to be the word that fits best.

    I hope that the folks in France are accepting of and helpful to you too.

  14. Crystal November 4, 2006 at 5:01 pm #

    In the last 7 years, I’ve come to a point where if someone asks me whether I believe in God, I don’t just ask “What’s your definition of God?” Now I feel that I must say “No” in order to be completely honest.

    Yet, I find a lot of resonance with concepts such as “There, but for the grace of God, go I” and with ideas that there is more going on than I can presently measure scientifically. For example, when my Mom gives me reiki, it feels good even when her hands are too far from me to register temperature or magnetic fields. As another example, I heard the gunshot that killed my Uncle, yet he was hundreds of miles away.

    I can’t explain these, many other events, and why I care about the people dying in Iraq. However, I don’t think I need to explain them to myself via belief in God or any organized religion. Also, I don’t mind if other people are believers, as long as it doesn’t drastically impact my life.

    On a silly note, the mention of unicorns reminded me that my brother had a dream recently that I was a unicorn and that I went around purifying water and leaving hoofprints that became sacred ground where a profusion of flowers sprang up. What a lovely vision to try to live up to!

    :)

    Crystal

  15. Josiah Anderson December 7, 2006 at 3:53 am #

    I too consider myself a nontheist, and am moving towards the more narrow category of atheist. I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, and all of my family both intermediate and extended (both sides) are active Christians, so it’s difficult for me to take such a radically different path belief-wise from them, and for the time being its sort of something I keep to myself mostly, until my thoughts have solidified. Radicalism is what first challenged my faith (it first led to a redfinition of my faith, and I find that its now eroding away altogether). I went from being a Republican evangelical Christian, to a Christian anarchist, moved towards Marxism, and now I consider myself a post-Christian nontheist, libertarian socialist. I wanted to comment to you guys searching for a description of “God” in a non-theistic sense, that French sociologist Emile Durkheim said that religion “was an expression of social cohesion…He thought that the function of religion was to make people willing to put the interests of society ahead of their own desires…One of the major functions of religion according to Durkheim was to prepare people for social life…Durkheim thought that the model for relationships between people and the supernatural was the relationship between individuals and the community. He is famous for suggesting that ‘God is society, writ large.'” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89mile_Durkheim )

    Sorry for the long quote. I think Durkheim’s theory on religion is very interesting and definitely seems to hold some validity. He also was the first to develop a theory that effectively explained differing suicide rates in countries and to this day his theory holds solid.

    – Josiah

  16. Peter Schogol December 8, 2006 at 8:22 pm #

    Personally I am delighted with James’ description of a nontheist as “someone who does not accept a theistic understanding of God.” As this statement has occasioned the question of whether there can be a nontheistic understanding of God (nontheistic or non-traditional theism), let me weigh in on that subject.

    I am a nontheist because I can get along quite well without using the word “God.” Here I make common cause with atheists. I can also appreciate God-language when it is used poetically and metaphorically (as it is used by many Friends who consider themselves theists). But saying I can get along without God-language isn’t to say that I have no appreciation of an aesthetic dimension which poetic Friends might consider theistic.

    “I affirm (1)a wider order of being to which humankind is indebted and to and for which it is responsible; and (2)a creative power to that being which is the source and substance of all existence.”

    This has been my credo for some years now. I do not feel that it is theistic, nor do I feel obligated to defend it or speak on it (if at all in theistic terms). So can there be a nontheistic theism? I couldn’t say, but it is possible to be a nontheistic mystic!

  17. Fabrice Descamps February 7, 2007 at 3:31 pm #

    Hi Peter,

    In an essay called “Une philosophie du bonheur” (“Another Philosophy of Happiness”), unfortunately written in French (unless you can read French…), I suggested to equate God with the Universe, so a Quaker meeting for worship for instance could be considered by nontheist Friends simply a time for worshipping life or the Universe itself and feeling deeply rooted in it, in a mystical communion with it and with the other human beings surrounding us. A French thinker, Pierre Hadot, called this feeling “oceanic feeling” and said this was the real descent of every religion beyond poly- or monotheism. This is the real significance of pantheism as well, I guess.
    Oceanically yours
    Fabrice

  18. Lonnie Wiens February 27, 2007 at 3:00 pm #

    I suppose this is to all whom have replied before this… I feel comfortable with defining the word nontheist as “What makes sense in the absence of a Deity or Deities.” I doubt we will be able to return to pre-Theism, or prior to when the concept of Theism originated in someone’s imagination somewhere, sometime, perhaps an original free thought gone wild. I have met only one Atheist that avoided ever attending a religious institution, and he is one proud Atheist, and proud of that fact. Perhaps the essence/ideal of a True Atheist. And perhaps thats what a nontheist is eventually. So there are those who wonder what makes sense in the beleived presence of a Deity and or Deities and, those whom wonder what makes sense in the absence of a Deity or Deities, and those whom make sense out of it all being unable to prove it one way or another. The characteristic of abrasiveness in regard to Atheistic fundamentalism does turn people off, but the transition from addictive beleif to going non-religiously straight can be an abrasive personal experience. Fundamentalism in any shape and or form is often accompanied with noticable abrasiveness. Fortunaely there are 3rd generation moderates and of course the progressives whom have finally figured it all out. But, mostly I see nontheism as a fourth alternaive. Sort of like when we say there is one thing that Theists, Atheists and Agnostics all agree upon. If we ever enter into a state of ablivion, only a Deity could hopefully entervene on our behalf. The nontheist comes from a fourth alternative… we invision avoiding going there in the first place. Hope this made sense.

  19. Peter March 28, 2007 at 11:35 am #

    You claim to agree with Bishop Spong that “God” as a “a personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities” does not exist. You are actually in agreement with the theologians and informed laypeople of all authentic religions. With your ringing endorsement of ‘nontheism’, you are attempting to make distinctions and create differences where there are none.

    You seem to believe that many people who call themselves theists believe in an individualized God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. With the exception of the crude beliefs of the fundamentalists of all religions, no one else believes in such a concept of God. Fundamentalists of whatever religion have only a crude capacity of spiritual understanding and so must invent concrete notions to characterize that which they aspire to know more intimately.As their fears subside and their capacity for spiritual awareness becomes more subtle and wider ranging, these so-called fundamentalists will embrace other avenues of their chosen religion perhaps even ending up in the more mystical approaches of their religion as they mature in spiritual understanding.

    There is, for example, not one Christian theologian of repute who believes in a individualized “God” floating around on a cloud hurling thunderbolts and dispensing justice. Most have beliefs in God that center around the ‘ground of all being’ concept or the ‘cosmic consciousness’ concept. That you cannot understand what is meant by these terms does not mean that they have no meaning. It only means that you do not yet have the capacity to access their meaning.

    The problems with creating a theist-nontheist dichotomy are that the distinction is based on false premise and that you polarize and politicize a non-existent issue with the effect of preventing communication between theists and non-theists and, even more importantly, placing more obstacles in your own ability to ever know the subtle, cosmic expansiveness and Joy of that which is God.

    Albert Einstein recognized the difference between God and man’s ability to know and manipulate the universe when he said, “I want to know God’s mind. The rest is just detail.”

  20. Ronald G. March 29, 2007 at 3:07 pm #

    I am a Unitarian. I also have a belief that might be described as “non theist.”

    A mathematical description will suffice concerning my “God Belief”: The set of all Gods may be empty. The set of all actions of all Gods effecting our lives appears empty.

    The position of an atheist is illogical. The proof of the non existence of something that doesn’t exist is impossible.

    The position of a theist remains without any proof.

    As physics gains more insight into the basic nature of matter, we may arrive with evidence supporting the deist (the belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation). However, this remains to be seen and, since the God(s) seem to exert no influence on us, this is barren and needs no further consideration.

    The pantheist belief (belief that God(s) and the universe are the same) is also barren since it still leaves us on our own.

    The bottom line? We are on our own and we must define our own purpose for “being.” I accept that I am “my brother’s keeper.” I should, to the best of my ability, take great care to secure the well being and safety of all that I can, alive and inanimate.

  21. James Riemermann March 29, 2007 at 3:44 pm #

    Ronald,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with much of what you say here, but I think you misstate the position of atheism, or at least of many atheists. Certainly of this atheist.

    I have met very few atheists–in fact, only one I can recall–who are willing to assert that the absence of God has been or can be proven. An atheist is simply a person who believes there is no God.

  22. James Riemermann March 31, 2007 at 7:03 pm #

    Peter,

    I think you divide the religious world far too cleanly between “the fundamentalists” and “all authentic religions.” There is a far greater spread of religionists out there than you seem to acknowledge, and the beliefs of most are far more supernaturalistic than the beliefs of myself, or of the most liberal theologians.

    Indeed, there are theologically liberal Christians who see the Christian myth as a metaphor for a god they acknowledge to be unknowable, and the supernatural stories about Jesus/God as poetical, and made up by people. But there are far, far more Christians who do not, who in fact subscribe to the various creeds and catechisms that completely fly in the face of the more sophisticated, metaphorical conceptions of God put forth by Spong, Tillich, and others. Tillich’s notion of God as the ground of being, yet most decidedly not a being, in fact not even existing as we generally use that word, has never been mainstream theology. It has always existed on the edges of Judeo-Christian religion, but never at the center.

    I will also admit that many (not all) mainstream seminaries are wrestling with and teaching religious problems that most of them would not dream of unveiling on Sunday morning before the pews. For instance, a great many seminaries are willing to admit the unavoidable fact that the Gospels are contradictory on factual matters, and therefore all cannot be true accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings. But, again, very few pastors share these insights with their congregations. Many of them would lose their posts if they did.

    So, for all your claims, it is still very much a radical and minority religious claim to say that there is no conscious entity that created the universe, and no conscious entity that can answer prayers, that prayer has no effect on the outside world other than the psychological effect it might have on our actions in that world.

    I also need to call attention to your statement that “There is, for example, not one Christian theologian of repute who believes in a individualized “God” floating around on a cloud hurling thunderbolts and dispensing justice.” If you remove the purely rhetorical part of that statement, “floating around on a cloud hurling thunderbolts,” it is no longer true. Many Christian theologians believe God exists distinct from the world and dispenses justice. Some do not.

  23. Scott August 27, 2007 at 2:06 pm #

    Definition of Nontheist Friends

    I agree with this characterization of nontheist friends in wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nontheist_Friends

    A nontheist Friend or nontheist Quaker is someone who identifies with, engages in and/or affirms Quaker practices and processes, but who does not accept a belief in a theistic understanding of God, a Supreme Being, the divine or the supernatural. Like theistic friends, nontheist friends are actively interested in realizing centered peace, love and happiness in the Society of Friends and beyond.

    Friends have recently begun to examine actively the significance of nontheistic beliefs in the Society of Friends, in the tradition of seeking truth among friends. Explicit nontheism among Quakers probably dates to the 1930s, when some Quakers in California branched off to form the Humanist Society of Friends (today part of the American Humanist Association), and when Henry Cadbury professed agnosticism in a 1936 lecture to Harvard Divinity School students. In 1976, the first workshop on nontheism at Friends General Conference was held.

    The main nontheist friends’ website [1] is one significant site for this conversation, as are nontheist Quaker study groups. Os Cresson began a recent consideration of this issue from behaviorist, natural history, materialist and environmentalist perspectives. See Roots and Flowers of Quaker Nontheism [2] for one history. Friendly nontheism also draws on Quaker humanist and universalist traditions. The book Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism (2006) offers recent, critical contributions by Quakers. Some friends are actively engaging the implications of human evolution, cognitive anthropology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary history, evolutionary biology and biology in terms of Quaker nontheism.

    Nontheist friends are a small group of individuals, many of whom loosely relate to the unprogrammed tradition in Quakerism. Friendly nontheists are attempting sympathetically to generate conversation with others who are more comfortable with the traditional and often reiterated language of Quakerism. Questioning theism, they wish to examine whether the experience of the reality of direct and ongoing inspiration from God (the inner light) – “So wait upon God in that which is pure. …” (George Fox in Royce 1913:54) – which some Quaker traditions see as informing Silent Meeting and Meeting for Business, for example, might be understood and embraced with different language and discourse.

  24. Hi December 3, 2008 at 8:49 pm #

    I like the term nontheist. I have trouble with the word atheist becasue to me asserting no belief is in itself a belief system akin to putting all of the anarchists on one island to be together and share their belief in absence of government.

  25. RicH March 23, 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    I think it is that we don’t want fundamentalism
    nor fundamentailitic concept like “god”
    some biology goes to wheather one belives or
    dosn’t belive (a study in minnisotta showed this)
    so the opposite genes of reality and no -god are
    also exist.
    One must not get tied up in knotts about the
    religisoty people
    those that are against materialism and facts
    find freedom in albert ellis book
    the case against religiosity and this relates that
    the sane kind of person dosn’t practice religion.
    but there are subtitutes about there
    for closer reality the nature poems
    of japanese hiqu
    then for ethics the 14 teachable virtues
    and for examples such as no slavery and other ethics
    aseops fables.
    and aristotle
    nomoekan ethics.
    you have ayn rand virtue of selfishness.
    and [ kung fucius –anelects…who is into
    harmony of nature no mention of god]
    john locke -essay concerning
    human understanding..
    with this possilbly a virtual reality
    of what an atheist government would be
    in its ethics
    unlike the usa constitution
    but a capitalist -atheist one …
    where persons would be co-operative
    that is openly able to be trusting
    and continueing on in the free market
    unlike the market shut down we seem to be heading to.
    no more domestic disputes
    better psychology
    no chistain polution
    more learning and no-put down indoctrination
    forced into class rooms.
    a lot closer to utopia.
    thanks kindly,
    RicH-w

  26. Your Name April 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm #

    Sign me up. Apparently, I am a non theist.

    That explains a lot, thank you!

    Jeanne

  27. Omar Lozada November 27, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    To my understanding the word also implies us Deists, who may believe in a higher transcendental being but not necessary a being as described by the major theistic religions

  28. James Riemermann November 27, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    Maybe, Omar. The deist image of God is not the same as the theist image of God, though unlike *most* nontheists it seems to posit the literal existence of a distinct being understood as God.

    My understanding of deism comes mostly from what I’ve read about some of the founding fathers, like Jefferson. The essential idea, I think, was a god of some sort who created the universe, but is not involved in history or human affairs on an ongoing basis. It makes few to no assertions about the nature of that god, which I like, but does seem to see an action of will behind the creation of the universe. If I had come of age before the cosmological, geological and evolutionary findings of the last hundred years, finding impersonal explanations for countless things that once seemed unexplainable, I might be a deist myself. But given our current scientific knowledge I don’t see any need to posit a god who created things. I’m still ultimately baffled by the mystery of it all, but the idea of a creator god doesn’t really help to dispel that bafflement.

    But, yes, if you don’t believe in a theistic god, I think you can honestly call yourself a nontheist, if the idea appeals to you.

  29. Pierre May 27, 2011 at 5:48 am #

    To my mind , the issue isn’t on the question of god at all , whether it exists or not, or even on a definition of non theism : there are as much ‘non-theisms’ as there are people on earth. The real quest stands in making others look at things as they are , without any kind of deity or supranatural forces.
    This will be the main problem concerning atheists (materialists, humanists, all non theists generally speaking) and their relation with the rest of humanity in the future centuries.

    If we want to open people’s eyes, there has to be more and more humanist teaching and objective programs in schools and universities, specially regarding religions and beliefs.
    Waldorf schools and such humanistic scholar approach are already acting in some countries (nearly a housand waldorf schools around the world); but the challenge is to convey our reason in state funded school establishments.

  30. chris grant March 3, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    James, I really liked the post.

    I recently came to the same conclusion many in this forum have come to when I watched a documentary about the diversity of world belief systems. As I watched, I felt myself become slightly irritated as each person interviewed revealed their belief in what god was, was not, and whether he existed. I found that atheists and theists are all trying to answer the same question, but the question itself is bulls%@* (pardon the intended language, please). I realized that I did not need to ask myself that question: “What is God?” or “Does God exist?” I called it non-theism, and thought I coined the term (this thread proves me wrong). I am involved in religious based organizations, and do not feel like a hypocrite praying, but I simply refuse to talk about god or beliefs in any way. If some people I associate with in these groups knew my true non-theist beliefs, I would surely be kicked out of the club, so I just keep my mouth shut.

    I would extend your definition of non-theism only to further differentiate it from atheism. Atheism and theism are reactions to the question of Does God Exist, but nontheism does not even acknowledge the question. Life goes on without it. Thanks again for the post. Best. CG

  31. Charles Gee December 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    ‘God’ a creative imagination of a mind looking for a way to purloin some of the economic surplus in the culture. Continues to this day, thousands of years later, as it is one of the best scams going. ‘God’ has the advantage for the Believer in that there is no need to take personal responsibility for decisions made by others.

    I do not like scams, I stand on my own merits and decisions; therefore I am a non-theist.

  32. James Riemermann February 23, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Hey, Charles, welcome to the site. I’m sorry I didn’t see and approved your comment when you made it.

    I can’t agree with what you say here, though. You are certainly right that God and religious ideas, and more to the point religious institutions, have been used countless times by countless people to exploit people. However, this is true of any powerful institution or ideology. Patriotism, love of country, has been at least as effective as religion.

    In my view, however, the vast majority of believers are quite sincere in their beliefs, scamming no one, and are not particularly more pliant to the scams of others than unbelievers. In Quakerism in particular, ideas about God are far too diverse and unfocused to work as a coherent scam. And there are millions of thoughtful, educated Catholics who are quite clear in their minds about rejecting some of the more absurd elements of Catholic dogma and doctrine: they pick and choose. I would still say they believe some things that are probably not true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been scammed. All we can say with confidence is, they see things differently from you and me.

  33. Lyn February 24, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    Thanks for the article. :)

    The way I found out that I was a “nontheist” was by coming to a general conclusion on my spiritual, religious, and supernatural beliefs. You see, for me, believing in God, is, sort of, like believing the sky is not blue. I just can’t accept it. It’s not that I came to that conclusion through “rational thinking,” as an anitheist-atheist might say, but it’s just, sort of, my default belief, you could say, that I’ve had. And, I’ve had faith in this opinion ever since I was a child.

    When I look at the Eucharist, I don’t see Jesus Christ. I recognize the strong symbolism, and how important it is for the human condition..etc….but the existence of the deity of Abraham just isn’t there for me. It’s just a very symbolic piece of bread, to me. And, since I don’t believe in “the real presence of JC in the Eucharist,” I don’t take it, out of respect to the religion; since I am baptized a Roman Catholic.

    That being said, I do have to say, though, that I do believe in a lot of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, according to its catechism. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the beautiful teachings of the social gospel, I don’t think I’d still actually consider myself someone who likens/tries-to-follow the Catholic canon. I just dig Catholic social teaching. But, I will honestly say that I’m not a true Catholic, or would identify as a “Catholic.”

    If one was to ask me what are my spiritual beliefs and/or religious affiliations, I would tell them that I’m an “Agnostic Nontheist Cafeteria-Roman Catholic,” then place emphasis in explaining that “I am NOT a true Catholic,” and why that is true…

    That being said, I am considering becoming an Agnostic Nontheist Cafeteria-Anglican; rather than an Agn…..teria-RC because of bad image I’ve been acquiring of the Roman Catholic Church, lately. :p

    Anyway…now you might be wondering, or not, would you also consider yourself an atheist? No, at least not in the modern sense, I would not; and, for several reasons, really. Even though this word does have its exact definition, it has rather turned to have a differently unique definition, according to mainline public opinion. When people generally think of an atheist these days, their mind conjures up images of radical antitheists who believe in no supernatural what so ever; strict materialists, with sometimes strong secular dogmas themselves. And, I don’t want to be associated with that, what so ever. I am not an antitheist. I do have my own personal beliefs, though not many, in the supernatural/spiritualness-of-humanity. In addition to many other things that do not quite fit it in with the common stereotype of the “modern atheist.”

    I mean, I guess I could consider myself an atheist, just in the classical sense, that I don’t believe in the existence of a deity; whether it exists materialistically and/or spiritually; and that this description of me would ONLY describe my belief of a deity, and not entail anything else; like my religious affiliations or my other spiritual beliefs. But, unfortunately, we live in a world where atheism is no longer looked upon as such. :p

    So, that’s the tip of the iceberg as to why I consider myself a “Nontheist” rather than an “atheist.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Welcome! « NontheistX.com - January 10, 2009

    […] be. If you’re interested in learning about Christian non-theism, I recommend taking a look at this site…although as a disclaimer I should mention that this blog is specifically about nontheist […]

  2. A Non Theist Quaker | "Theology" of Love, peace and well-being: Escaping from Fundamentalism - October 1, 2012

    […] James Riemermann defines non theist … as someone who does not accept a theistic understanding of God. … Such a person may reject all understandings of God, may embrace certain non-theistic understandings of God, may find God language useful and rich in trying to describe their experience in the world but not true in a literal sense, may believe in certain non-material, transcendent realities that have little in common with the common understanding of the word “God”. An atheist falls within this understanding of nontheist, as does an agnostic, a humanist, and many Quakers who find the whole practice of labeling our belief systems an unfortunate distraction from genuine religious living. (http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/what-is-a-nontheist/) […]

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