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Non-theistic beliefs, spiritual paths, etc.

Comparing non-theistic belief systems:
secularists, Agnostics, to strong Atheists

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One of the problems in the field of religion and ethical systems is that certain terms have multiple meanings. Perhaps the most impressive example of confusion in the field of religion are the terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft." They have at least 17 different definitions, some of which are mutually exclusive. This confusion carries over into non-theistic or secular belief systems, like Atheism, Agnosticism, Humanism, etc.)

One member of the organization that sponsors this website describes his theological belief as Agnostic, his religious affiliation as Unitarian, and his ethical system as Wiccan. When asked "What is your faith tradition" he might answer any of the three, or all three.

A strong majority of adults in North America are theists: they believe in a personal God or supreme power that intervenes in human life. A surprisingly large minority of adults believe in a remote deity, and have beliefs close to Deism even though the vast majority are unaware of the term.

Theists may regard God as a unity (as in Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism) or a duality (a God and Goddess as in Wicca), a Trinity (one entity with three persons as in most Christian faith groups), etc.

There is a growing minority of adults who have abandoned traditional organized religious beliefs about deity and define themselves in various ways with a confusing series of labels. Unfortunately, polling agencies often count Agnostics, Apatheists, Atheists, etc. as "unaffiliated" or "NOTA 5 (None of the Above) so the size of these belief systems is difficult to estimate:

bullet Agnosticism is not a religion or complete ethical system. It is simply a belief that we cannot prove either the existence or the non-existence of deity; (i.e. of one or more gods, one or more goddesses, or combinations of the above). Many Agnostics, sometimes called "Strong Agnostics" or "Positive Agnostics" believe that we can never know about the existence of a deity. Others, often referred to as "Weak Agnostics" suggest that we cannot know anything about deity or deities at this time using the currently available evidence, but that this could conceivably change in the future.

bullet Apathetic Agnosticism (a.k.a. Pragmatic Agnosticism)  is a form of Agnosticism where the individual believes that there is no proof for or against the existence of a deity, and, in addition,  that the question is not particularly meaningful or important to them.


Apatheism: The term is a portmanteau -- a combination of two words 1 -- either "apathy" and "Theism" or "apathy and "Atheism." An Apatheist is a person who regards the existence of gods or supreme being as a relatively meaningless and irrelevant question. Even if a proof for a god or gods existed -- or for that matter, a proof that no god existed, -- they wouldn't care.

bulletAtheism is also not a religion or a complete ethical system. It has two main definitions:

bullet The lack of a belief that deity, in the form of one or more supernatural gods or goddesses, exists. American Atheists define an Atheist to be a person who "...does not believe in a god or gods, or other supernatural entities." 2
bullet The Barnes & Noble Encyclopedia define Atheism as "The denial of the existence of God or gods." This is sometimes referred to as strong Atheism.

bullet The Brights: This is a recently created network of individuals who view the universe as "free of supernatural and mystical elements." Brights consist of a diverse community including: Agnostics, Apatheists, Atheists, Freethinkers, Humanists, Rationalists, Secularists, religious skeptics, as well as some Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, Wiccans, Neopagans, and followers of other religions.

bullet Cosmicism is philosophy developed by H.P. Lovecraft based on the insignificance and helplessness of humans, the absence of a deity, and the existence of "powerful beings and other cosmic forces" that are completely indifferent towards humanity. 3


Deism does not really belong in this list, because Deists do believe in a god. But their god is very different from the traditional concept of a personal deity. They believe that god created the universe, assigned it physical laws that made life possible, departed, let "nature" take its course, and has not returned. Their god remains remote and not directly concerned with the affairs of humanity. Over 20% of North American adults hold beliefs in a remote god similar to those of Deists, however, few of them have heard of the term.

bulletEthical Culturalism: This is a movement founded in the U.S. by Felix Adler (1851 - 1933). He advocated replacing religious beliefs and codes with a secular ethic.

bulletFreethinking: This originally referred to persons who doubted the Trinity -- the concept that a Godhead existed -- a single entity composed of three persons: a Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Freethinkers supported the concept of a single indivisible deity. The term has since changed its meaning to include persons who reject religious beliefs in general.

bullet Humanism (a.k.a. secular humanism) is a philosophy which in most cases embraces Agnosticism or Atheistic belief about the non-existence of a deity. But it goes further to create moral and ethical systems based upon reason and logic. It regards humanity as the measure of all things. Humanists emphasize the importance of doing good in society.

bullet Nontheism (a.k.a. non-theism) is defined as the Oxford English Dictionary as: "... not having or involving a belief in a god or gods, especially as a being who reveals himself to humanity." The author Pema Chödrön, when writing about Buddhism, states:
"The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. ... Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold. ... Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. ... Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on." 4

bulletRationalism: This was a movement in the 18th century Protestantism that abandoned the idea of Biblical inerrancy and adopted the belief that the Bible can be analyzed as a historical document. Some Rationalists assert that the existence of some form of deity can be proven by reason. Others see Rationalism and Atheism as synonyms.


Satanism is a term with many unrelated meanings:

  • LaVeyan Satanism: (a.k.a. Satanism) According to its founder, Anton LaVey (1930-1997), the Church of Satanism was founded on Walpurgisnacht, 1966-APR-30, (I Anno Satanas). It appears to be the largest Satanic group in North America, although they don't publish membership numbers. Anton was an Agnostic. The church is now being led by an Atheist couple. They do not worship Satan as a deity or as a living entity as is often charged by religious conservatives. They rather regard him as a symbol of lust, sensuality, the drive for survival and physical enjoyment. Thus, a member's spirituality  and worship are not directed towards a god but rather inwards towards themselves. Their ethics are based more on an "eye for an eye" rather than forgiveness of others. Most Satanists appear to be Agnostics, Apatheists, or strong Atheists. After LaVey's death, his daughter founded the First Satanic Church which she believes is true to the original intent of her father. Many groups imitating the Church of Satan have been organized; essentially all had short lives.

  • Theistic Satanism: (aka Traditional Satanism, Spiritual Satanism, Devil worshipping, etc.) believes in and worships Satan as a deity. They are generally not recognized as a valid Satanic group by non-theistic Satanists. They are largely Internet-based.

  • Medieval Satanism: In North America, many conservative Christians still hold to the medieval concept of the existence of Satanists as profoundly evil persons. They are viewed as as worshipers of the Christian Satan as god, who have devoted their lives to committing evil deeds to harm or kill others. Then and now, the actual total number of this type of Satanist is either zero or close to zero. It seems to have been an invention of the Catholic Church at the time, and has remained as a part of the beliefs of many Christians today. From this source came the Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) hoax of the 1980s and early 1990s. That hoax included the belief that Satanists were murdering tens of thousands of children a year. None were ever supported with hard evidence. SRA played a role in Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) which is rare today but has left behind a trail of emotionally crippled victims of therapy. Finally, it led to Multiple Personality Disorder therapy (MPD). a.k.a. Dissociative Identity Disorder therapy that also created victims of hundreds of thousands of people and their families of origin before it was largely abandoned.

bullet Strong Atheism is a belief that no supreme being exists. In mathematical terms, deities are considered a null set -- the imaginary creation of humans desperately seeking security in an unpredictable universe.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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Related essay:

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References used and a note:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The word "portmanteau" has two unrelated meanings: a word made up from two other words fused together, and a suitcase.
  2. "Introduction," American Atheists, at:
  3. "Cosmicism," Wikipedia, 2008-AUG-18, at:
  4. Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, Shambhala Publications, (2002) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. Note: We use the term "nota" (None Of The Above) to describe the religiously unaffiliated. The rest of the world uses the term "nones," which we consider an unsuitable word, since it sounds exactly like "nuns."

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Copyright © 1996 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update and review: 2014-APR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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