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:
Thanks Spud! :-) Honestly neither term holds up in an argument too well. When you claim to be a Realist, the theist can simply say, So am I, cuz God is real! Amen! Setting yourself up for failure with that one. Scientific Realist is only slightly better. The problem with this term is that it implies that only science can tell you what is true about the world, which is actually only about 2/3 right. Let me explain. I know, we all value objective reality and science here, but to say that science is the only path to truth is to say that there is no such thing as inner truth. No, I don't mean subjective "truth" (which is not truth at all but experience), I mean that our experiences provide us with a source of information about the world, specifically the inner world of our emotions and perceptions and consciousnesses, which can be described scientifically but would only give half the picture. The common example a philosopher might give is that of colors. A scientist would describe colors in purely objective terms as being the specific length of the wave of light bouncing from an object. But this is not what we mean when we say a thing is "red". the experience is half of the truth here. We would be at a real loss if, for example, we attempted to approach ethics and existentialism and others purely from a scientific perspective. A theist would start spouting all kinds of nonsense about the soul or the spirit, etc., and then you are in a double-bind, first because u have to sit there and listen to it a second because he's actually on to something but just what he is on to is not clear from the language he is using. We use the language of philosophy, and through philosophy we can talk succinctly about the human spirit with no reliance on supernatural explanations or anything other than naturalistic explanations (not that it's easy, but it can be done). So even Naturalist is better than SR. And since our inner experiences count as a way of coming to know the world (intuitions too I forgot to mention), and obviously objective, mind-independent sources count, PLUS adding in an objective analysis (through reason, logic, etc.) of our internal experiences, that gives us 3 parts, 2 parts objective and 1 subjective. This is obviously not a philosophically rigorous argument, even as I was writing it it began to unravel in my head, but I think you get the point. In any case, my basic point is that I would still vastly prefer Rationalist to these two alternatives, for the reasons I gave in the previous post. (Sorry, tired, only 3 hours sleep last night, doesn't make for lucid thinking).
"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."
Nope, distilled to its fundamental meaning, atheism only means: non-belief in supernatural/natural creator deities. Atheist/Atheism is more accurately a position, rather than an identity, creed or ideal; "non-theist" is a synonym …basically
"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?"
There already exists a term:
In some ways, the nontheist community is following similar steps as the LGBT community over the past 30 years. The "Out" campaign is an example, as is disagreement between people who accommodate vs. people who are "in your face". The name game is another such step. For over 30 years, LGBT people have been disagreeing with one another about what to call themselves. I understand the desire to define ourselves, to market ourselves, make a "brand name", to make a positive impression, to empower, to validate individuality and still be part of a movement. These last 2, leading to the alphabet soup, with explicit listing of some leading to exclusion of those not listed, and jockying for who goes where in the order. Is it LGBT or GLBT, and why do the BT people always have to be last, and that leaves out other people whose sexual identity is equally important. I would really hate to see the nontheist movement go in that direction. "Atheist" has a meaning, people can embrace it or not. So does nontheist, and so does Critical thinker. I consider myself all of those, same as I'm a man, an american, a veteran, gay, and a bunch of other things. What I hope never happens is the alphabet soup - Atheist Nontheist Secular Critical Thinker Bright, or ANSCTB. When that happens, we have wasted too much time on something that could occupy nontheists for the next 30 years. ON the other hand, I would love to see theists doing that, so we wind up with Christian Mormon Muslim Jewish Scientologist Hindu Episcopalian Baptist, or CMMJSHEB for short. Or is it BEHSJMMC?
I avoided posting my full blog post on the topic earlier, but one recurring thing needs to be made explicit here. There is "What you call yourself" and "what others call you."
Given the extensive, millenia old baggage tied to the word "atheist"... given that it is hurled as an epithet by religious people toward us... given that THEIR definition includes a hell of a lot more than just "lack of theism", I won't accept their label. Among friends, here? Sure, Atheist is a nice shorthand.
But when it is being used as a cudgel against me? Hell no, I won't accept their label or allow it to be used as the starting point of a conversation. It boxes us in way too quickly.
I agree with you on the name game... trying to force other people to call you something to appease your need for a label is a waste of time. Your examples are spot on with the LGBT, etc.... but let me suggest another parallel that is VERY close to what is done to us by those who throw the word "atheist" at us.:
"Are you colored?" Are you "Black"? What's your race? Negro? African American? As African-Americans try to claim a self-applied label, the "others" continue to apply the one that goes unchallenged: that race exists. I believe someone here quoted Morgan Freeman on this topic,
We gotta stop talking about it as a legitimate divide: theist/atheist. It's a made up "us/them" category designed to be used by the theist to cast us in the role of "them."
Rather than worrying about putting a name on ourselves, why not spend time questioning those who try to apply the labels to us...force them to answer and justify their positions. Make them continuously put their own feet in their mouths; make them aware of their assumptions and position of unquestioned privilege to ASSUME that being a theist is the default, and we are "other."
Or Sentient biped.
I'm a Secular Humanist. Atheism is more of a political, accidental side identity but doesn't define my values.
As a non-religious person, I have philosophies and ideas, not beliefs. As far as my favorite philosopher, it's Epicurus and I'd consider myself an Epicurean: we consider friendships a sacred thing and a fundamental ingredient of human happiness, we consider happiness the final goal of life, and we relish the simple things in life and even if we live frugal lives, we are able to relish water, bread, cheese, a good conversation, etc. Epicurean doctrine is about common sense.
The American Humanist Association has a lot of material on humanist ethics and philosophy for people who wish to explore these types of questions.
"Atheism is more of a political, accidental side identity but doesn't define my values."
Meh! …Identity? …Values? …It's a position, a single point of data. A "no" answer to an unbelievable question, the default answer; ...in the absence of evidence.
No more, no less.
Unless of course, …you can buy into the fundie demonization and marginalization of those who hold that position of no/non/not.
But, if you do, remember this; that those who define reality as the construct of a magic invisible contradiction of an super-being, …are telling YOU, …who you are, and you're buying what they're selling.
Of the suggested options, I think Naturalist is the best for your purposes. It's already an established term, and it seems to encompass what you're thinking. The only real problem is that it has more than one definition, like "humanist" does.
I was actually much more taken with the term "rationalist". The problem with "naturalist" as I see it is that the theist may simply say that what we call "supernatural" they call merely an extension of the natural, and that gets you into a pretty silly argument which is remarkably difficult to pin down and thus tedious. So it ends up putting you on the defensive. The argument which arises from calling ourselves "rationalists", on the other hand, goes right to the meat of the problem - faith is irrational, by definition, so that makes theists irrational. So what's the point in arguing with someone who is irrational? Case closed.