Understanding the Godless

Last month I joined some of my fellow Morgantown Coalition of Reason members to sit at a table at our local university to talk to people about secularism. It went well, only one Christian wished our untimely deaths, and a fair number of people were eager to know they aren't alone.

The Secular Student Alliance sent the group we were supporting a bunch of materials to hand out. One was an information-filled brochure called "What is an Atheist? Understanding People Who Don't Believe in a God."

I thought it was a great thing to have and we handed out quite a few, so I wanted to share it with you.
What Is a Nontheist?
A nontheist is an individual who does not believe in a higher power, supreme being or supernatural entities.

A nontheist might choose one or more of many labels. Common terms include atheist, agnostic, freethinker, skeptic, humanist, secularist, naturalist or bright.

  • An atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods.
  • An agnostic either sees the existence of a god or gods as unknowable, or makes no individual claim to know the answer.
  • Freethinkers and skeptics see science and reason as more dependable than religious doctrine and revelation.
  • Humanism is a nontheistic philosophy which focuses on improving the human condition.
  • Secularists emphasize a secular society and approach to their lives.
  • For naturalists and brights, only the natural world (as opposed to the supernatural: deities, ghosts, etc.) warrants consideration, and empirical evidence is at the core of their naturalistic worldviews.
  • Many nontheists also use satirical labels such as Pastafarian (a fan of the parody religion “The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster”).
  • Another term that you might hear when talking about nontheists is the “Nones.” This term refers to the 15% of Americans that report no particular religious affiliation. However, many of these unaffiliated individuals still hold a belief in a higher power or a personal god. “Nones” may agree with nontheists on many issues, but a “None” with a theistic belief is not a nontheist.
More Than Meets the Eye
Nontheists and others unaffiliated with religion are practically invisible in our society, having no easily observable traits that set them apart from the majority (compared to racial minorities or nonnative English speakers, for example). This leads to the mistaken assumption that there are only a few stray individuals who do not believe in a god or gods.

There are more nontheists than most people realize. You probably have neighbors, coworkers, friends, classmates, and likely even members of your family who could be described as nontheists. Chances are very good that you know someone who doesn’t believe in a god or gods, even though you may not realize it.

However, since a person’s belief does not always match his or her religious affiliation when asked, the actual number of nontheists in America can vary from one report or survey to another.

One way to count nontheists is to ask individuals whether they believe in a god or a higher power. According to this metric, 12% of Americans would be considered nontheists as of 2008. This number is higher than most people expect, partly because some individuals who do not hold a god-belief claim affiliation with a religion even though they don’t agree with its theology.

Another way to quantify nontheists is to ask individuals what their religion is. In the United States, these self-identified nontheists outnumber Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Episcopalians. Nontheists in the U.S. outnumber Buddhists and all other eastern religions combined, and more Americans self-identify as nontheistic than religiously Jewish.

What Does a Nontheist Believe in?
It is a common mistake to confuse lack of belief in a god with a lack of affirmation in anything. Even though nontheists do not hold a belief in a god, we trust and value many things in our world.
People without belief in a god, most nontheists look first to the well-being and happiness of our fellow human beings. We care about our friends and family, and work to make the world and society a better place for all of humanity.
In many cases, this concern extends beyond the human race to include other animals and the environment.

Most nontheists believe that the best societies are democracies in which everyone is allowed to participate and civil rights are protected. As a minority, we particularly emphasize the freedom of religion and belief, which allows people to believe – or not – as they choose.

Many nontheists value education as essential to a society’s well-being. This includes learning about a wide variety of religions and cultures in order to better understand them. Another aspect of education that most nontheists feel strongly about is keeping public school systems free of religious influence: a child’s religious education should remain in the hands of that child’s parents, not the government.

Many Things!
Nontheists have their own passions and interests just like theistic individuals – nobody fits exactly into a mold. Among nontheists, you will find a wide spectrum of political affiliations, varying views on social issues, and even vastly different opinions on how important one’s nontheism is and what should be done about it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do nontheists get their morals from?
Nontheists’ moral concerns center around treating people with respect and compassion. Philosophers throughout history have contributed thoughts that help guide us toward this goal. The Golden Rule (i.e., “do to others what you would like to be done to you”) is one example, which was used independently in ancient Greek, Indian, Hebrew, Egyptian and Chinese cultures.

Aren’t nontheists just anti-religion?
Nontheists defend freedom of religion and belief as a human right which includes the right to practice any religion or none. Nobody should be forced to violate the dictates of their conscience as long as they don’t harm others. While we may be critical of certain aspects of religion, we strive to maintain respect for individuals regardless of their worldview.

What do nontheists think happens to them after they die?
Nontheists generally don’t believe in any kind of afterlife or reincarnation. As a result, we have a deep appreciation of the life we live: it’s the only time we have to be with the people we love and our only chance to make the world a better place.

How do nontheists explain the complexity and wonder of life and the universe, and where it all came from?
Nontheists appreciate the beauty and wonder of life and the universe without a need for supernatural explanations. In many cases, awareness of natural processes serves to further increase our appreciation. When we do encounter things that we don’t or can’t understand, admitting that we don’t know is more satisfying than trying to explain the unknown through a god or other supernatural force.

Where do nontheists get comfort, if not from a god?
In times of need, nontheists find comfort and support in our friends, families and communities, as well as smaller joys such as pets or hobbies.

All statistics from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey

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