In thinking about the difference between a definition of atheism and a definition of nontheism, it occurred to me that while atheists generally rule out all beliefs of a supernatural or magical kind, perhaps nontheists might not believe just in deities, but that would not rule out beliefs in a spiritual world or many other similar nonsensical beliefs. But atheism by definition does not rule these out either. I don't believe in magic, or ghosts, or pink unicorns, or leprechauns, or FSMs, or zombies, or vampires, or ghouls, goblins, necromancers, dragons, demons, devils, angels, demi-gods, etc. ad nauseum. How I wish there was a word which defined my beliefs better! It would certainly go a long ways towards combating religions if the word we used to describe ourselves lumped a belief in deities in with all this other garbage. Any thoughts or ideas?

Update! So far some very good responses:

Human being!



Scientific realist


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Well, by their official definitions "nontheism" is technically an umbrella term for "agnosticism", "atheism", etc, but I tend to prefer a similar meaning to how you used it.


As a specific term, I would say that a non-theist is someone who does not acknowledge non-experiential belief systems. In the positive, this would be a person who only forms beliefs and convictions based on consistently-accessible personal experience, ignoring any transient or ephemeral topics as lacking substance. Where an atheist rejects specific flaws within a belief system, a non-theist has no impetus to examine or salvage parts of any belief systems that can't be personally verified.


When discussing this with other people, I find "non-spiritual" is a very effective term. For highly religious or dogmatic people, it conveys the absence of the 'yearning' part of their identities which drives their need for belief, and that's not really something they can argue or take offense at. Many of them actually find it to be a stunning revelation because they've never considered that the 'hunger for faith' could be absent in other humans (which is why I think theists often mistake atheism for a rejectional faith). 


So a 'non-spiritual' person would inherently brush aside any form of superstitions or fictional creatures (those ghosts, unicorns, etc.) except in the case where they could encounter such a creature at will. So a "haunting" experience would not be convincing, but sitting down for a cup of joe with the Flying Spaghetti Monster (an unrestricted encounter) would be completely sufficient. This almost automatically eliminates any religious beliefs because high-deities are never presented as freely-accessible to common people.


My tentative definitions:

Atheism: The automatic rejection of untestable beliefs

Agnosticism: The 'hands-off' acceptance of untestable beliefs

Non-Spiritual: The disregard of untestable beliefs as 'inaccessible' (irrelevant to normal life)

If non-theism means something like what you call "their official definitions", then it is worse than agnosticism in that while agnostics claim not to know whether there is a deity or not, non-theists would be completely unsure what they believe, or even whether they claim to know what they do not know if they believe or not know it. So I don't know how to take what you say in your first paragraph.

Your explanation of what a non-theist is in your second paragraph seems to mean the same thing as your definition of atheism which you give towards the end. But how you explain atheism in your second paragraph conflicts with your second definition. I prefer your second definition, whereas your claim that an atheist rejects only specific flaws within a belief system does not do atheism any justice. It certainly isn't what I have in mind when I call myself an atheist. I do not reject only specific flaws within religious belief systems, but I reject religious belief systems outright, as well as any belief system with untestable beliefs.

I might otherwise agree with you that the term "non-spiritual" might suffice for the rejection of all untestable beliefs, if it weren't for the fact that being spiritual is taken to mean something quite different already. I take it to mean having a certain depth of experience such that one feels powerfully moved/motivated by certain types of experiences. These would be the kind of experiences one has which cause a deep sense of joy or beauty or harmony/peace with one's relation to the world. They could be very simple experiences, such as walking in the woods or admiring a beautiful landscape, or they could be more complex, but taken this way, being spiritual just means feeling positively moved in a highly aesthetic sense. And under this "definition", I would consider myself spiritual. So I do not see this as a particularly effective term for the ends at hand. Moreover, expressing this to religious people might have the effect of telling them that you do NOT feel any particularly deep or harmonious/peaceful connection to the world, or are not particularly moved by beautiful things in a way basic to humanity. This might get them thinking that you are probably an atheist because you do not have the depth of emotion which leads people to do great things, whether they are greatly good things or greatly stupid. They might dismiss you as being overly rational, and this is an accusation which I would understand. So I wouldn't describe being spiritual as having a "hunger for faith", but rather as having a hunger for life for which, unfortunately, faith is taken as a substitute. I would rather try to argue with religious people that I possess the same depth and breadth of emotion as they do, that they are not in possession of some type of experience of which I am not. And where do they get off claiming that they are privy to a type of experience that is forbidden to me? Prove it, but do it using reason, and then the argument is on terms in which I have the distinct upper hand. And atheism is a rejection of faith. Faith means "just believing" something, without evidence. That is the whole point.

I agree with your (second) definition of atheism, although the whole point of my discussion topic is that it is quite an unfortunate choice of term to stand in for this definition. I disagree that agnosticism can be defined as "The 'hands-off' acceptance of untestable beliefs". In fact I think you meant to say "rejection", not acceptance, but agnosticism means, literally, "without knowledge", meaning that these are people who claim either not to know either way, to be indifferent, or to have only a preference but without believing that they can support their preference. And their preference can be either for or against religious beliefs - there are both religious and non-religious agnostics. And I've already explained why I would reject your definition of "non-spiritual".

My first paragraph was pointing out that, in official usage, "non-theist" is an umbrella term that can't be used to describe a single person. I then clarified with an alternative, specific definition for the common-usage meaning of the term when it is (mis)applied to describe the beliefs of an individual.


I see that I was a bit sloppy in my wording in the second paragraph. Individual interpretations of atheism target various indicators of untestability in a belief system, but these aren't always presented in a scientific context. I would say atheism is generally the default rejection of the unproven, but the requirements for proof can vary greatly.


The distinction in "non-spiritual" is the disregard, rather than rejection of the unproven. This shifts the primary burden of proof to the encounter of subjects rather than critical analysis of the beliefs about them. This places it closer to agnosticism because there is no particular urge to refute superstitions, religion, etc, but neither does it include tolerance of behavior resulting from such beliefs. 


I see your point about spirituality, but I believe you have missed the underlying component of it. The fundamental premise of spirituality is that passive sensory experiences alone may "touch your soul" and provide you with fundamental insights about the world. In the religious sense, it's the belief that when a highly-faithful person feels God as a deeply penetrating mental experience that this is sufficient and complete evidence of God's physical existence. Essentially, "non-spirituality" could be described as the rejection of mental experience without corroborating physical experiences where "spirituality" instead gives full precedence to mental experiences.


The actual mental experience involved in spirituality is what I call "Resonance", which happens when the structure of a sensory event is strongly aligned with the viewer's mental identity. The strength of the Resonance comes from the amplified reflection of past memories within the alignment, so a longer history creates a larger subjective impact. I consider this to be a non-specific psychological phenomenon, totally separate from the underlying claims of spirituality.


You're probably right about the theist interpretations of it, though. Since my argumentative persona tends to be ultra-rational anyway, I probably wouldn't have picked up on those misperceptions.


While agnosticism doesn't involve confirmation of untestable beliefs, the tolerance which it applies can surely be considered acceptance. In a more accurate sense, agnosticism tends to reflect a Subjectivist view of "I can't find an objective solution, so theists are not inherently wrong for relying on faith (despite my inability to agree with them)". I would consider 'hands off' to be a correct description of how they handle believers, in contrast with the active deconstruction ("You can't use faith") or refutation ("Your faith is wrong") of an atheistic rejection.


Tip: You can put spaces on blank lines to maintain paragraph separation.

Oh cool tip! That was driving me nuts!


As for spirituality, it was precisely that business about how subjective experiences "'touch the soul' and provide you with fundamental insights about the world" to which I was indeed referring. I know this sounds contentious, but here is an example of what I mean. I was just now sitting with one of my sons, and he put his head on my chest. There is no set of rational beliefs that could provide me with better corroborating evidence of the importance and meaning of a father's connection with his child than the subjective experiences one has in the actual act of being a father. Before I was a father, I hardly knew how much I wanted to be one or how much it would fulfill me. I suppose this is what you were trying to say when you said ""non-spirituality" could be described as the rejection of mental experience without corroborating physical experiences where "spirituality" instead gives full precedence to mental experiences." I think you meant to say "the rejection of emotional experience without corroborating evidence, where "spirituality" instead supplies its own justification" without corroborating evidence, or some such. In other words, reasoning and objective evidence are useful in that when you have them, you can't ignore them or dismiss them. However, it IS subjective experience that underpins our connection to the world - in fact one could say, as I do, that reasoning is a subjective experience, and so subjective experience underpins even rationality (as far as we can ever be rational). Now, in the case of fatherhood, the evidence only supports my position that being a father is a deeply meaningful experience, one which should be approached with all of your heart/energies/motivation/spirit (and depending on how you define it, perhaps soul as well). But in the case of religious belief, or beliefs of the magical or metaphysical or what-have-you type, the evidence does nothing but undermine such beliefs. So one needs to adjust one's beliefs to fit the facts, and not the other way around. But as you can see, this does not mean that one has to disregard emotional (i.e. spiritual) experience as irrelevant. Quite the opposite, one does well to remain in tune with one's emotions and deeper, inner drives/motivations, as well as to remain vigilant in their reasoning. It is when one does one at the expense of the other that one fails to live up to their full potential.

The term "resonance" fits i think quite nicely with all I have just said. It certainly is an amplification, but I wouldn't describe it as you do. I would describe it as an amplification of emotional experience, most likely in a relationship with an eye towards the objective facts of ones circumstances. But if you consider resonance to be "totally separate from the claims of spirituality", then I think I would disagree, and I would also ask you what you meant then by the first sentence of the same paragraph in which you said that "The actual mental experience involved in spirituality is what I call "Resonance"". That would seem to have been a contradiction on your part.


I think I would agree with your assessment of agnosticism and atheism as you frame it in your last paragraph.

Resonance is separate from spirituality in the sense that spirituality is inclusive of resonance, but not the other way around. You can have resonance without believing in the primacy of mental experience, basically. 


Part of the difference in our perspectives is that you seem to favor Idealism (subjective > objective) a bit more, while I generally lean towards Physicalism (objective > subjective), so we're choosing different wording for similar ideas.


Another part of the difference is that my descriptions are shaped by a very comprehensive, structural theory of the mind that I have been developing over the past few years. Where Western cultural beliefs tend to drawn a sharp line between "emotions" and "rational intellect", I see this as a false dichotomy between fundamentally-connected and closely integrated decision-making processes in the mind.


In particular, I believe that emotions are not sensations, but instead reflect feedback decisions that serve to guide the parallel mechanisms we use for deciding our output behavior. The direct source of emotions (they can arise indirectly as well) is the "logistical evaluator" in the mind which follows how our own identities and that of external things change over time. When you looked down at your son and felt the strong fatherly sense, it was you mind thinking "I have been very successful in cultivating something I value very much" - and your awareness of that, further enhanced by resonance with your memories of raising him, is what came across as that strong emotion. 


The core implication of non-spirituality is the belief that if you didn't have your child there - if he was grown up and off to war, living across the world, etc - that you could not derive that same experience from hearing "how brave he was" or "how he was so generous to others". If you couldn't actually see him again, you could only have faith that you did well as a father. Non-spirituality says that meeting him as a grown and successful man is what gives you true knowledge of his growth. Conversely, spirituality says that if you heard he "lived like a saint", that your yearning for him is a purer emotion than what you would experience from meeting him again. 


Epistemologically, non-spirituality gives primacy to external perceptions and our reactions to them, while internal sensations which lack an external component are more of an 'echo' in comparison. Spirituality gives primacy to those internal sensations and glorifies a resilient focus on them strictly because of their ephemerality and lack of support from external experiences.


Additional combinations include strict Empiricism, which would focus on the external perceptions and discard the reactions to them; Materialism, which would discard any consideration of perceptions in favor of physical action; Subjective Idealism, which would discard the external perceptions but select the reactions to them; and a whole variety of other possibilities. Empiricism is particularly popular among atheists and science-cultists, so I get the sense that your expectation for that kind of response has been shaping your impressions of my responses. I'm not totally sure of that, though, since we've been mucking around so much in the nuances.

Are you are reductive or a non-reductive physicalist? I think either you have a nebulous sort of idea of what Idealism actually is, or you are jumping to wild conclusions as to my epistemology and theory of mind. I am by no means an Idealist. I haven’t been focusing on epistemology or theory of mind for some time now (I have been focusing on ethical theory and political philosophy), but I have done enough epistemology in the past to get me to this point. However, it appears that it may be time to begin revisiting these topics.


I think I mostly  agree with your assessment of the false dichotomy between reasoning and emotions.


You had me at “logistical evaluator”, and I agree that how we view our selves, how we create our sense of identity, is essential to understanding our behavior. You lost me at resonance.


First of all, I make it a point to any and all atheists that we should never use the word “faith”. Ever. Use a word that means what you intend, like “belief”. As for what you are trying to say here, you seem to be making an epistemological point about whether or not testimony can provide us with justification of any sort, but this confuses the issue. And I disagree with your assessment here of the differences between spirituality and non-spirituality. Spirituality, the way I have been describing it, does not say that our emotions would be more powerful, or even as powerful, as they would be absent more direct experiences with those things that provoke powerful emotions from us. They would probably be less powerful.


I do not agree with your assessment. Spirituality as I take it does not revolve around the idea that one can take an emotion and magnify it (perhaps this is what you mean by resonance) at will and without input from the external world. It simply means that one can have experiences of a certain depth and power that remind us that it is our experiences of our existence and our place in the world which provide us with values, meaning, and purpose. It is a reminder that we are experiential agents capable of the subjective experiences which supply our motivations. It is a reminder that we are human, and that it is subjective experience which provides the essential quality for being so, not our rational abilities (precious few of those that there are) or whatever objective truths can be gleaned about our existence.


You have left out some very important alternatives, such as Rationalism, which holds that all knowledge is derived from reasoning alone, and Pragmatism, which merges Rationalism with Empiricism. And of course you are right that there are dozens of other isms as well. I am probably more of a Pragmatist than anything else, although I am by no means an expert on this subject. And none of this has anything to do with the posted topic. I would however be interested in taking up this discussion further somewhere else. Is there a theory of mind group? Or an epistemology group? Perhaps we can start our own group and then delve deep into these complex philosophical problems. Send me a message if you are interested and let me know what you think.

"[Spirituality] simply means that one can have experiences of a certain depth and power that remind us that it is our experiences of our existence and our place in the world which provide us with values, meaning, and purpose." 


While I agree with your sentiment, I do not believe it reflects the meaning that others imply when they say that they are or do something "spiritual". In every case I have encountered, the term is used to introduce a tacit  reverence of the ephemerality of mental experiences, especially those which are disconnected from external sensations (as they are the faintest in regular conditions). So while part of the meaning refers to the powerfully-moving sensations you describe (which I call "resonant" experiences), the term "spirituality" also includes a veneration of the disconnection of the mind from physical things.


Since my own philosophies happen to reject reverence as a self-limiting action (if you place something on a pedestal it tacitly conveys a belief that you are inherently inferior to it), I'm trying to push the point that you can have profound experiences as a regular part of your life. A reverent viewpoint (as with spirituality) would present these as once- or twice-in-a-lifetime events, but I see instead that if you can understand why you were able to strongly experience the world then you can develop yourself until you can feel that strongly as once- or twice-a-week events.


From that, my personal interpretation of non-spirituality is the belief that anything which you can experience in a rare instance, if it is an actual thing, can also be experienced without limit if you learn how it works. Conversely, anything which can never be experienced outside of rare instances is too transient to possibly be real. When reverence is used to isolate and glorify the rare or transient, the learning which could make it common is no longer possible. So non-spirituality is the commitment to learning about all things deeply enough to eliminate the unreal, root out the causes of the damaging things, and amplify to your greatest ability the beneficial and enjoyable things you find.


I'm being a little bit strong on the rhetoric here, but was it enough to clarify the underlying belief systems behind the terms which I was trying to highlight?

"In every case I have encountered, the term is used to introduce a tacit  reverence of the ephemerality of mental experiences, especially those which are disconnected from external sensations."


I certainly have not had the same experiences as you have then. Wherever have come across someone using the term, it was merely to express the feeling one cannot describe when one is particularly moved/motivated from within, but always in connection with the external environment. I would put it out there to see who interprets spirituality the way either of us put it. In fact, I think I may start that discussion topic shortly.


I do agree with you, however, that "you can have profound experiences as a regular part of your life." So it seems that we do both agree on what kinds of experiences one can have. Where we disagree is only in whether or not one can properly call such experiences "spiritual". I would point out that I do not go around calling myself a "spiritual" person, but neither do I say that spirituality cannot be understood and contained within my mental framework and within the framework of atheism as I ascribe to it. I do not think it does any good dismissing the term, especially when it can be put to such good use by explaining to (religious) people, look, that experience that you have which you call "spiritual" just is this sort of experience that anyone can have, you don't need to be religious to be spiritual, etc.

I think what you are getting at here is the fact that there are no real experiences which some people, e.g. the religious, are privy to which others, e.g. atheists, might be exempt from. This is something I heard Christopher Hitchens arguing against which I thoroughly enjoyed. I'm paraphrasing, but he was like, how dare you tell me that you are capable of this whole class of experiences which is for some reason denied to me. Anyway, I think this is not at all what people mean when they talk about spirituality. In fact I have heard plenty of other atheists on this site expressing having some spirituality.

i prefer the term Naturalist

Yeah, naturalist. That is likely to be the best one I will come across. Great, thanks!

Or Realist. I am just into reality as it is. I don't really have to question life or it's intricacies, I just accept it as it is. This term 'feels' like it covers what I feel. I hate being labelled and making labels but it is what we have to do to describe ourselves. All in all, I am just ME!

Human Being would also cover what I am. Just a regular old human being.

Good reply Sandi! I like realist as well, and human being! I have family that is unfortunately very religious, and I would like to respond to probing questions without giving an opening to more questions. I think humanist might also be a good shut-down reply. I dunno, but thanks!



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