Atheist: Someone who does not believe in God. There are many distinctions you can make among atheists—strong, weak, implicit, explicit, practical, theological—but the two major ones are strong atheism vs. weak atheism. A strong Atheist believes it is certain and clear that there is no God. A weak Atheist does not believe in God, but doesn’t assert the lack of God.
Non-theist: Someone who does not assert a belief in God. I include Agnostics, Atheists, most Buddhists, and many others in this group. I generally reserve the term “Atheist” for the group that is really strong Atheists, and use “non-theists” as the catch-all term.
Agnostic: Someone who does not know whether or not God exists. A weak Agnostic does not know if there is a God, but may feel they are still weighing evidence or will receive more evidence. A strong Agnostic believes it’s ultimately unknowable whether or not God exists.
Humanist: I’ll borrow a definition from the Continuum of Humanist Education: “Humanism is a godless philosophy based on reason and compassion.” Secular Humanists assert that Humanism is a philosophy and has nothing to do with religion. Religious Humanists can see Humanism as a religion, albeit one that does not require a belief in God.
I put myself in the category of Agnostic and would call it a meta-strong Agnosticism: I believe we can’t even know if the existence of God is the sort of thing that can be known. And I’m a Religious Humanist. I have preached a controversial sermon called “A Humanist’s Search for God” and was told by some Humanists that a Humanist can’t search for God. (I would call them church-going Secular Humanists, which seems like an oxymoron, yet I’ve encountered many in Unitarian Universalist churches.)
As an Agnostic, however, I have some very clear ideas of what kind of god is possible, and what kind is not. I have an absolute faith in this, and it’s definitely a faith, because it’s based on my passion, not on reason, if you want to make a distinction between faith and reason, although I reject such distinctions.
But my faith in what kind of god is impossible is not based in reason, although I’m sure that a reasonable argument for my atheism towards certain gods could be based in reason.
Here goes: If there is a God . . .
- God does not choose the victor in football games.
- God does not choose sides in human wars.
- God does not save some people from disease while letting others die.
- God does not “bless America” or any country.
- God does not send floods, hurricanes, or other natural disasters to punish people.
- God does not create diseases to punish people.
- God does not appear to some people and not others.
- God does not damn people for their sexual orientation or gender.
- God does not damn anyone.
- God does not demand belief in God.
I would say I am atheistic towards those gods. And like all Atheism, in my opinion (here’s the fighting words), this is based on a passionate belief that goes beyond reason. My heart and soul reject the idea that there could be a God who answers some people’s prayers for life and health and not others, because I want to believe that if there is a God, God is good, and this would not match my definition of good.
I have heard people say that I do not pray or will not pray with people. This is not true. I do it all the time. I just don’t do the “God, please heal so-and-so” type of prayer. When I am asked to pray for people, which I will do, I do not pray for God to heal them. I pray for them. I pray (which is to say, voice my hope, directed to a possible God) that they find the love or the strength or the compassion they need, in themselves and in their support networks. I voice what we are grateful for, or what our needs are. To me that is prayer. And that is about as far as prayer can go, in my opinion. It can give voice to things, name things. That’s about it. If you hear me give the prayer at a dinner at church, you’ll hear something like, “Spirit of Life, we remember . . . (insert negative things that are relevant—poverty, hunger, etc.), and we are grateful for . . . (insert food, company, program, other noteworthy positive things). Blessed be and Amen.” Pastoral prayers in situations like the hospital often take a similar structure.
Which brings me to the type of God I believe possible. I find it impossible to rule out the possibility of any sort of God. Yes, the world can be explained without God, but that doesn’t prove the negation of the possibility, or the lack of possibility that there is something more. The God I believe could be possible would be a God that, if God is a sentient being, cares for and loves all people equally and with a perfect love that, ultimately, saves everyone. More likely God is something more like love, or positive energy, or the greater sum of all the parts of the universe, or something we create together in the work of love and justice. It’s quite possible that humans do create God, and that God isn’t fully created yet. Those kinds of God are possible, to me.
Adapted from “More on Atheism, Agnosticism, and Humanism, and the Nature of God,” September 17, 2009, at the author’s blog “Rev. Cyn.”