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Nontheism is a range of both religious and nonreligious attitudes characterized by the absence of espoused belief in a personal god or gods. Nontheism generally is apathy or silence towards the subject of God and differentiates 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 and atheism. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology.
Nontheism can be expressed in a variety of ways. Strong or positive atheism is the positive belief that a god does not exist. Someone who does not think about the existence of a deity may be termed a weak or negative atheist, or more specifically implicitly atheist. Other, more qualified subtypes of nontheism are often known as agnosticism: strong or positive agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible for humans to know whether or not any deities exist. It is a more precise opinion than weak or negative agnosticism, which is the belief that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is unknown but not necessarily unknowable. 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. Some agnostics, however, are not nontheists but rather agnostic theists.
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.
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.
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:
"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.
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." 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."
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.
Nontheistic traditions of thought have played roles in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, Dudeism, Raëlism Humanistic Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and Ethical Culture.
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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.
- "The Reasoner", New Series, No. VIII. 115
- Buchanan, James (1857). Modern Atheism under its forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism, Development, and Natural Laws.
- Cox, Harvey (1966). Secular City. p. 225.
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