Nuanced Atheism

I was thinking this weekend about positions on the border between atheism and religion. There are a few, I think, and they have a range of features: some closer to atheism, some obviously heterodox forms of belief. Here’s my list.

Bear in mind I have a deep distrust of categories, so I think these are merely labels one might want to adopt from time to time, not pigeon holes to conform to. I, for example, have occupied most of them at some point. I am nearest to a Cultural Christian in this sense at the moment, but I think that hardly does my views justice either!

Please suggest more, and maybe we can grow this post into something more widely useful.

Religious Naturalism. Atheistic and rationalistic, but using God-language to refer to certain experiences such as ‘transcendence’ or ‘spirituality’. The idea that one can have features of the religious experience about the natural world.

The following four categories are relative to some particular established religion. I’ve used Christianity as the example in the first three, but I would imagine there are equivalents for any faith – let me know if there are terms that are in use in other faiths.

Christian Atheism. A follower of the teaching of Jesus, who doesn’t subscribe to the existence of a God, or any supernatural dimension to Jesus’s life. Many Christian Atheists are also independent of the Christian church and do not participate in Christian ritual.

Christian Humanism. A Christian who believes that human action is valuable intrinsically, and that positive change in the word requires human action. At the extreme end, this viewpoint rejects the ability or propensity of God to intervene.

Cultural Christianity. A person who values and participates in the tradition and ritual of the religion, without an associated belief in the existence of its God. This pattern is highly developed in Judaism, where it is called Humanistic Judaism.

Nominalism. Where a person identifies with a particular religion or denomination (on legal declarations, for example) without participating in that religion. This usually includes lack of belief in at least some of the religion’s teachings.

Reverent Agnosticism. A person who feels a sense of sacredness without claiming to understand its origin or dynamics. Reverent agnostics claim no knowledge of any divinity, but  face that ignorance with humility and reverence.

Deism. The belief in a divinity that has no immanent connection with the cosmos. This may be a God who is disinterested, wholly other, or that once existed but now does not. Deists may additionally believe that a God was once involved in the cosmos (as creator, for example).

And finally two positions which I think cross-cut the positions above. So one can be a Pantheist Religious Naturalist, for example.

Pantheism. The belief that God is another way of talking about the totality of the cosmos.

Panentheism. The belief that the cosmos is one part of a greater reality that might be called God.


2010-02-15: Added ‘Reverent Agnosticism’, on tysdaddy’s suggestion.


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9 responses to “Nuanced Atheism

  1. I am, for the most part, a panentheist. But I don’t use that term much. I keep it hidden, for when I’m doing some serious discussion with people I respect.

    Publicly, I refer to myself, after A. J. Jacobs, as “reverently agnostic.” I appreciate the sacred, perhaps even The Sacred, and yet have my doubts.

    Great set of nuances . . .

  2. Ian

    Thanks tysdaddy, I hadn’t come across that phrase before, but did some digging around and added my understanding of it to the post. Let me know if I’ve misconstrued your point of view.

  3. In your “weak” moments, which do you feel yourself slide into?

    I feel the panentheist, occ. religious naturalism (Luke calls it Enchanted Naturalist), and a reverent agnostic (first time I heard it was from Tysdaddy).

    I feel that the mind is not unified and to pretend you are of one set of beliefs is due to lack of imagination or insight or both.

  4. Ian

    Good question. As per my previous post, religious naturalism is quite attractive, but the terminology turns me off.

    I’m pretty sure I know that God doesn’t exist beyond human experience, so I’m never really tempted by the ‘some reality out there’ kinds of angles.

    I guess I’m often a Cultural Christian, since I often participate in my religious community.

    I am inclined to some sense of mysticism and spirituality, however. But my beliefs on it are psychological: they are states of mind that I enjoy or want to repeat. Where all of the above seem to imply external source or grounding, or at least the possibility of that.

  5. I added these as self-descriptions to my “Declare Thyself” chart for atheists.
    Thanx ! Great list.
    Would you mind if I addended my list (in fear that this list will ever disappear)? (I will credit you)

  6. Ian

    Glad you like them.

    No problem at all.

  7. Pingback: Forms of Non-Theism | Irreducible Complexity

  8. Kay

    I think I’d have to combine “Reverent Agnostic” with “Panentheist,” if that makes any sense. And some days I might have to toss a form of animism in there too. 🙂

  9. Ian

    It makes a lot of sense. I think lots of folk often span these categories fluidly. Many folks in the west become cultural Christians at Christmas, for example, or nominal when filling out hospital forms.

    I didn’t put an animism category. If you could give me a working definition of a ‘nuanced atheist’ form of animism, I’d be happy to include it!

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