The Difference Between a 'Nontheist' and an Atheist

Nontheist Is Another Label for Atheist

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Nontheist is a term covering a wide range of beliefs, all characterized by lacking belief in any gods, rejecting of belief in gods, or deny the existence of any gods. A nontheist is a nonbeliever.

The definition of nontheist is effectively the same as the definition of atheist. The prefixes "a-" and "non-" mean exactly the same thing, a negative. Theism means belief in God. Put them together and both words stand for not believing in the existence of a god or gods. The "Oxford English Dictionary" defines non-theist as "A person who is not a theist." This is the same as the broad, general definition of atheist, thus the two labels can be used interchangeably.

Avoiding the Baggage of the Word Atheist

The label nontheist was created and continues to be used in order to avoid the negative baggage that comes with the label atheist due to the bigotry of so many Christians towards atheists. You might call yourself a nontheist when you know the word atheist will trigger hostility but you are being pressed to declare your belief or nonbelief in God.

Nontheism can be used as an umbrella term covering many attitudes and philosophies about whether or not a god or gods exist. Some people, however, use nontheism a synonym for negative atheism or implicit atheism rather than explicit atheism. In this usage, a nontheist may not have explicitly said, "There is no God," but rather does not believe there is a God. Some also use the term nontheistic agnosticism, in which there is still uncertainty as to whether or not God exists or whether the concept of God is meaningless. There is a wide spectrum of degree of implicit and explicit atheism and agnosticism, with nontheism casting a large umbrella.

Examples of Nontheism

"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."
- George Holyoake, "The Reasoner," 1852

"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."
- Pema Chödrön, "When Things Fall Apart"

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Cline, Austin. "The Difference Between a 'Nontheist' and an Atheist." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Cline, Austin. (2020, August 27). The Difference Between a 'Nontheist' and an Atheist. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "The Difference Between a 'Nontheist' and an Atheist." Learn Religions. (accessed March 28, 2023).