No Religion? 7 Types of Non-Believers

    By Valerie Tarico, AlterNet     Printed on June 13, 2012

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:  

Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as ‘in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.’

These three definitions of agnosticism, though different, all focus on what we do or can know, rather than on whether God exists.  This means it is possible to be both atheist and agnostic.  Author Phillip Pullman has described himself as both.

The question of what term to use is a difficult one, in strict terms I suppose I’m an agnostic because of course the circle of the things I do know is vastly smaller than the things I don’t know about out there in the darkness somewhere maybe there is a God. But among all the things I do know in this world I see no evidence of a God whatsoever and everybody who claims to know there is a God seems to use that as an excuse for exercising power over other people, and historically as we know from looking at the history in Europe alone that’s involved persecution, massacre, slaughter on an industrial scale, it’s a shocking prospect.

4. Skeptic.  Traditionally, skeptic has been used to describe a person who doubts received religious dogmas.  However, while agnostic focuses on God questions in particular, the term skeptic expresses a broader life approach.  Someone who calls him- or herself a skeptic has put critical thinking at the heart of the matter.  Well known skeptics, like Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, or James Randi devote a majority of their effort to debunking pseudoscience, alternative medicine, astrology and so forth.  They broadly challenge the human tendency to believe things on insufficient evidence.  Australian comic Tim Minchen is an outspoken atheist who earns a living in part by poking fun at religion.  But his most beloved and hilarious beat poem, Storm, smacks down homeopathy and hippy woo.

5. Freethinker.  Free-thinker is a term that dates to the end of the 17th Century, when it was first used in England to describe those who opposed the Church and literal belief in the Bible.  Freethought is an intellectual stance that says that opinions should be based on logic and evidence rather than authorities and traditions.  Well known philosophers including John Locke and Voltaire were called freethinkers in their own time, and a magazine, The Freethinkerhas been published in Britain continuously from 1881 to the present.  The term has gotten popular recently in part because it is affirmative.  Unlike atheism, which defines itself in contrast to religion, freethought identifies with a proactive process for deciding what is real and important.

6. Humanist.  While terms like atheist or anti-theist focus on a lack of god-belief and agnostic, skeptic and freethinker all focus on ways of knowing—humanist centers in on a set of ethical values.  Humanism  seeks to promote broad wellbeing by advancing compassion, equality, self-determination, and other values that allow individuals to flourish and to live in community with each other.  These values drive not from revelation, but from human experience.  As can be seen in two manifestos published in 1933 and 1973 respectively, humanist leaders don’t shy away from concepts like joy and inner peace that have spiritual connotations. In fact, some think that religion itself should be reclaimed by those who have moved beyond supernaturalism but recognize the benefits of spiritual community and ritual.  Harvard Chaplain Greg Epstein dreams of incubating a thriving network of secular congregations.

7. Pantheist.  As self-described humanists seek to reclaim the ethical and communitarian aspects of religion, pantheistscenter in on the spiritual heart of faith–the experience of humility, wonder, and transcendence.  They see human beings as one small part of a vast natural order, with the Cosmos itself made conscious in us.  Pantheists reject the idea of a person- god, but believe that the holy is made manifest in all that exists.  Consequently, they often have a strong commitment to protecting the sacred web of life in which and from which we have our existence.  The writings of Carl Sagan reflect this sentiment and often are quoted by pantheists, for example in a “Symphony of Science” video series which mixes evocative natural world images, atonal music, and the voices of leading scientists, and has received 30 million views.

If none of these fit . . . .  Keep looking.  Many of the American founding fathers were deists who didn’t believe in miracles or special revelation through sacred texts but thought that the natural world itself revealed a designer who could be discovered through reason and inquiry.  Naturalists assume a philosophical position that the laws operating within the natural realm are the only laws governing the universe and no supernatural realm lies beyond.  Secularists argue that moral standards and laws should be based on whether they do good or harm in this world and that religion should be kept out of government.  Pastafarians playfully claim to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and their religion is a good-humored spoof on Abrahamic beliefs and rituals.

Recently there has been steep uptick in people who identify as godless and a parallel uptick in atheist and humanist visibility efforts.  Many godless people are newly out of religion (or newly out of the closet).  Despite the best efforts of, say, the Humanist Community Project or Foundation Beyond Belief, stable communities organized around shared secular values and spiritual practices have yet to emerge.  That means our labels are largely individual and sometimes experimental.  We may try one on for size, live with it for a while, then try on something else.

As a movement, sexual and gender minorities have faced a similar challenge.  LGB started replacing the term “gay community” in the 1980s. It then became LGBT, and then LGBTQ (to acknowledge those who were questioning) or LGBTI (to include intersex people).  In India, an H got added to the end for the Hijra subculture.  For urban teens, the catch-all termqueer has now replaced the cumbersome acronym.  Queer embraces the idea that sexual and gender identity is biologically and psychologically multifaceted.  It includes everyone who doesn’t think of themselves as straight.  Secular rights activists may eventually evolve a similar catch all, but in the meantime, organizations that want to be inclusive end up with long lists on their ‘About’ pages:  atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, pantheist, skeptic and more.  So, join the experiment that picking one that fits and wearing it for a while.  Or make up your own.  I often call myself a “spiritual nontheist.”  It’s a mouthful, but it forces people to ask, what is that?  and then, rather than having them make assumptions I get to tell them where I’m at:  I don’t have any kind of humanoid god concept, and I think that issues of morality and meaning are at the very heart of what it means to be human.  Maybe next year I’ll find something that fits even better.


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at

 View this story online at:

Pagan and Agnostic: The Tale of the Doubting Witch

Pagan and Agnostic: The Tale of the Doubting Witch

Author: Jeffery Johnson

I’ve lived just over three decades on this planet, which I realize isn’t long. However, I’ve lived long enough to know that time changes people. It can change our personalities, our way of looking at the world, our beliefs on any number of things. As an awkward teenage boy I felt so certain of a divine being’s existence, namely the God of Abraham. Or did I? I remember having doubts at times. I was always quick to sweep them under the rug. I figured life couldn’t possibly have meaning without a higher power, and why bother living then?

When I made the break with Christianity in 2009, then in my late twenties, the old gods and goddesses romanced me. I fell in love with the Great Mother, personified by the shining moon and the earth. For me, she stood for beauty, sexuality, knowledge, empowerment, love and acceptance. She symbolized personal freedom and justice. As a gay man who’d spent the better part of his life repressed by the church’s threats of damnation, it doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to figure out why I’d be drawn to the Goddess.

And this begs the question—does the Goddess really exist? Are Ishtar, Isis, and Inanna really waiting to hear their devotees’ prayers and praises, eager to aid them and receive their offerings? Do Kernunnos and Pan dwell in the forests among the wild stags and is Green Man incarnate in shrubs and vines? Are they real, or are they symbols? I’ve been struggling with that question for some time.

Some people believe in one or more deities and would stake everything they hold dear on that conviction. Others, to the contrary, consider belief in Allah, Minerva, or any divine being or force to be the product of ignorant, childish, delusional minds and wishful thinking. I wish I could have such certainty one way or the other. However, as it turns out, faith or lack thereof isn’t always so cut and dry. I may feel to the depths of my being on any given day that the Goddess lives, and on another day I’ll feel quite agnostic, or even atheistic. At this point in my life, I’m very much a skeptic with regards to the divine.

Visions and near-death experiences, although I read of them with fascination, feel awfully subjective upon inspection. For example, in author Betty J. Eadie’s NDE (described in her book Embraced by the Light) , Christ plays a prominent role. In the NDE’s of others he is absent, along with any other godlike entity. For many, their experience of the other side is joyful; for some it’s frightening. Mystics, saints and ordinary people alike have claimed to visit realms both heavenly and hellish (hence popular Christian books such as 23 Minutes in Hell) . Certainly, these contradicting “visions” aren’t all accurate or valid, and surely some are outright hoaxes. Yet I’m in no position to judge the sincerity of those who really believe they’ve had such encounters. Are such visions and visitations the result of overactive imaginations or hallucinations? In the case of NDE’s, is a real spiritual experience taking place or is the phenomenon the brain’s response to physical trauma? I remain skeptical.

I want to believe I’ll survive the event of my bodily expiration. I want to know with certainty that I’ll see my loved ones again. Yet I doubt. I love to read ghost stories and have a sizeable collection of them. Time after time, I’ve seen fairly credible-looking people assert the reality of their run-ins with spirits of the dead. Plus, I have sane friends who have told me they’ve experienced ghosts and other eerie events that can’t be explained away. Additionally, I’ve read or heard of some fairly convincing accounts of reincarnation. As one example, the movie Yesterday’s Children, in which Jane Seymour’s character dreams of a former life in Ireland, is perhaps based on actual events. She eventually travels to Ireland to have every detail of her past memories confirmed. I want to believe, but my stubborn brain is always getting in the way of my heart. Logos versus pathos.

I admire nonbelievers—people like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis, whose novel Elmer Gantry depicts the evils of a power-hungry charlatan preacher. People like Madalyn Murray O’ Hair, once dubbed “the most hated woman in America, ” who challenged school prayer and made a career out of mocking religion at a time when doing so was extremely unpopular. I equally respect the “new atheist” crowd, especially the late Christopher Hitchens, who could reduce clergy and creationists to babbling puddles with his brilliant “hitchslaps.” Whether one loathes or loves antitheists, one can’t help but marvel at their fearlessness in bucking the status quo of mainstream piety, exposing the hypocrisy of many of God’s so-called followers. More often than not, I find their observations about religion to be right on.

Still, Neopaganism gives me a framework with which to celebrate life. Observing the cycle of seasonal sabbats and phases of the moon makes me feel more grounded in my connection to the web of life, of which I am a tiny part. I love the drama and beauty of ritual. I’m proud to be part of a faith, or rather a way of life, which claims among its ranks bold pioneers such as Laurie Cabot and Margot Adler. Pagans, Witches and Heathens, like atheists, humanists and freethinkers, are widely misunderstood and discriminated against, and both groups have fought and continue to fight hard battles to have their voices heard in a Christian-dominated society.

I know I’m not the only Pagan who doubts the existence of gods and life after death. Are we of the agnostic persuasion being disingenuous in continuing to call ourselves Wiccans, Pagans, Druids, etc.? Undoubtedly my atheist friends would tell me it’s time to throw away my tarot decks and Raymond Buckland books and without excuse embrace nonbelief in its entirety. “Quit pretending, ” they’d say. Surely the Flying Spaghetti Monster waits with noodly appendages wide open to embrace me as one of the Pastafarian fold.

The thing is, I’m not pretending. I’ve not sugarcoated my doubts, nor have I hidden the fact that I believe organized religion more often than not is a negative force on this planet. When I die, I may very well cease to exist, only to live on in people’s memories and through the good deeds I did while living. Or perhaps I’ll discover that really does go on in another form.

Either way, I want to keep my mind and heart open. Is imagination always a bad thing? If I take a walk in the forest and feel the Green Man’s presence, am I psychotic? According to some, probably so. But I’ll never go door to door asking folks if they’ve accepted Green Man into their hearts. No holy war has ever been fought, to my knowledge, in the Green Man’s name. Mine would be a harmless delusion, to be sure. So, at the risk of being considered insane by the atheists I so admire, I refuse to divest my existence of possibility. Maybe Green Man is real. Maybe he exists only in the minds of those who honor him. Does it matter? I’m not sure it does.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is cool, to be sure, but I need to cut back on carbs. For now, my heart remains with the Old Ones, who continue to inspire me—real or not. As I stated earlier, time changes people. Maybe one day my faith will be reborn. So mote it be! RAmen!