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Nontheism or non-theism is a range of both religious and nonreligious attitudes characterized by the absence of espoused belief in a God or gods. Nontheism has generally been used to describe apathy or silence towards the subject of God and differs 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, strong or positive agnosticism, weak or negative agnosticism, atheism, strong or positive atheism, and implicit atheism. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology.
Within the scope of nontheistic agnosticism, 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.
An early usage of the hyphenated non-theism is by George Holyoake in 1852, who introduces it because:
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.
- Williams, J. Paul; Horace L. Friess (1962). "The Nature of Religion". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Blackwell Publishing. 2 (1): 3–17. doi:10.2307/1384088. JSTOR 1384088.
- Starobin, Paul. "The Godless Rise As A Political Force". The National Journal. Retrieved 29 July 2010.
- Kenny, Anthony (2006). "Worshipping an Unknown God". Ratio. 19 (4): 442. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9329.2006.00339.x.
- Smith, George H (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. pp. 10–11.
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.
- Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Naturalism. 1998. p. 252.
- Chodron, Pema (2002). When Things Fall Apart. Shambhala Publications, Inc. pp. 39f. ISBN 1-57062-969-2.
- B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007, pages 97-98.
- A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, ISBN 0-06-067063-0
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- Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 51.
- "Raelians and Cloning: Are They for Real? Researcher Massimo Introvigne Talks About an Atheistic Religion (Part 1)". Center for Studies on New Religions. 16 January 2003. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
- Berryman, Anne (4 January 2003). "Who Are the Raelians?". Time.
- "SHJ Philosophy". Society for Humanistic Judaism. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
- "Humanism: Theological Diversity in Unitarian Universalism". Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
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