Concepts have been a thorny issue in the study of unbelief and related areas like nonreligion, secularity and secularism. We tend to rely on several similar-sounding terms such as ‘atheism’, ‘nontheism’, ‘areligion’, ‘nonreligion. ‘secularity’ and ‘secularism’ which can be difficult to untangle. What is more, people often employ these terms in different ways.
This page provides the following resources to help researchers, students and non-academic users get a handle on this terminology:
- An overview of conceptual issues
- A link to the Oxford Dictionary to Atheism
- A glossary of core terms (bellow)
Derived from the classical Greek a-, normally meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’, and gnosis, meaning knowledge of the immaterial or transcendent, the term was coined by British biologist T. H. Huxley in 1869] 1. Agnosticism is a theory, belief, or ideology entailing the belief that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, with particular reference to the existence or nature of God.
Agnosticism is a form of *scepticism, but is narrower in scope, distinguished by its particular focus on questions concerning God(s) and other higher powers. It contrasts with any position positing knowledge about the existence or nature of God or the immaterial or transcendent, be it theistic or *non-theistic stances such as *positive atheism or *materialism.
Frequently thought of as a middle ground between theism and non-theism, agnosticism is really a distinctive philosophical orientation. In fact, it bears some similarities to religious mysticism (e.g., negative theology, apophaticism), *alternative spirituality, and other *existential philosophies that, in their different ways, also emphasise the limitations of human knowledge.
Agnosticism may refer to all knowledge concerning the spiritual and metaphysical or only to particular claims. It is therefore possible to combine some forms of agnosticism with theistic as well as atheistic beliefs and *existential philosophies. Agnosticism also encompasses an array of views concerning the extent of human knowledge. Many *materialists and *humanists claim to be fundamentally agnostic (including the *New Atheist Richard Dawkins in his influential book, The God Delusion (2006); they combine this note of agnosticism with a significant conviction in the capacity of humans to know not only the world but the nature of existence through science. Other forms of agnosticism are more sceptical of humankind’s ability to understand the nature of existence by any means.
2. The term is also used in a second sense to indicate a general attitude of indecision. In this sense, agnosticism can refer to a lack of commitment or conviction directed towards any topic, not only existential and metaphysical questions. This form of agnosticism is sometimes called ‘weak agnosticism’ and contrasted with ‘strong agnosticism’, used to indicate the sceptical form.
See also agnostic.
Opposition to, or a rejection of, religion. Anti-religion and its derivatives (anti-religious, anti-religiosity) may identify a generalised oppositional stance to religion, as opposed to opposition to specific religions (e.g., anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim (or Islamophobic) stances). New Atheism, state Atheisms and some forms of Communism are or claim to be opposed to religion in all its forms in this way. Alternatively, anti-religion can be used as an umbrella term for any number of oppositions towards specific religious traditions.
In practice, even generalized forms of anti-religion tend to be influenced by concerns relating to particular traditions of thought or practice. They may also be concerned with particular practices ascribed to religion, such as theism (see *anti-theism) or hierarchical organizational structures.
The absence of religion. Areligion is distinguished from *nonreligion (1), meaning contradistinction from religion, including hostile or *anti-religious *nonreligious attitudes. By contrast, areligion denotes the absence of any such attitude or otherwise meaningful relation toward religion.
Popular in the early nineteenth century, the term fell out of use until the 1970s. It has since reappeared, including its use in social scientific work attempting to provide more specific descriptions of positions vis-à-vis religion.
Derived from the classical Greek a- (normally meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’) and theos (‘god’), it first appeared in English in the mid-1500s as a translation of Plutarch’s *atheotēs.] A belief in the non-existence of a God or gods, or (more broadly) an absence of belief in their existence. Like its Greek forebear, and modern equivalents in other languages, atheism admits of a range of overlapping meanings. 1. An absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. This broad definition, faithful to the Greek etymology and favoured in much recent scholarship, encompasses a range of related positions, including (inter alia) active *disbelief, as well as most forms of strong *agnosticism and *religious indifference, and some technical philosophical stances (e.g., logical positivism). Sometimes referred to as *negative atheism or *non-theism (1.), or less commonly *weak or *soft atheism.
2. Belief that there is no God or gods. Arguably the most popular current usage, atheism here signifies disbelief in the existence of a God or gods, and is distinguished from both theism and *agnosticism. In common speech, the term is often understood to imply a degree of conviction or certainty (see also *anti-theism). Sometimes referred to as *positive atheism, or less commonly *strong or *hard atheism.
3. Belief in the falsity of a specific (normally culturally dominant) form of theism. Definitions of this type focus on denials of a particular understanding of God or the gods. Thus the Romans and early Christians each regarded the other as atheists for rejecting their own (‘true’) God(s). More recently, it is sometimes claimed that modern western atheism is simply the ‘negative’ of Judeo-Christian monotheism. Sometimes referred to as *relative atheism. See also atheist; irreligion; unbelief; non-theism.
Practices, symbols, beliefs and other cultural formations associated with an *existential philosophies. In addition to beliefs and other ideational aspects, existential cultures may be associated with particular geometric and other abstract forms (e.g. the cross in Christianity), symbols (e.g. the *Happy Human in *Humanism), social groupings (e.g. networks, congregations, ‘imagined communities’), everyday practices, more formalized ritual practice and ceremonial rites, and the observance of moral and ethical codes of behaviour.
Philosophies characterized by existential and metaphysical beliefs about the origins and nature of human life and consciousness, the transformation of both after death, and any meaning, value, sense of purpose or ethics bound up with these beliefs. Existential philosophies therefore deal with what have been referred to as ultimate questions, foundational beliefs or comprehensive doctrines, though the concept of existential philosophies specifies the content of those philosophies, rather than characterizing them according to their significance or scale (‘ultimate’, ‘foundational’, comprehensive’). The concept also bears striking similarities to the notions of ‘worldview’ and ‘life-stance’, both of which are popular with *humanists, and other *non-theists seeking to describe their commitments in positive terms.
An array of practices and other cultural phenomena are identifiable in relation to existential philosophies, and the non-philosophical aspects of an *existential culture may be more salient aspect than its explicit philosophical content.
Most religious traditions can be understood to have existential philosophical aspects, as can many nonreligious and areligious philosophies and traditions such as *humanism, *materialism, *existentialism, or Marxism. Theism may be seen as an existential philosophy, to the extent that belief in God implies something about the nature of human existence. Alternative spiritualities* often have existential philosophical dimensions.
In addition, some *nonreligious, *positive atheist, or *non-theist identities are attempts to express existential philosophies that are alternative to religious ones.
The inverse of a particular religion, or of religion in general, typically based on the rejection of that religion or religions.
Previously defined as ‘hostility or indifference towards religion’, this usage has largely been subsumed by the concept of nonreligion*, which is broader and more specific than irreligion in this sense. See also irreligious experience, religious indifference.
The state of not having (especially religious) faith or belief. Like *unbelief, non-belief can be used in a wide sense, connoting a general absence of belief in religious tenets, and a narrower sense, as the absence of belief in all or some tenets of a particular religion. In its wider sense, non-belief and unbelief can both be used to indicate either non-theism* or positive atheism*, on the one hand, or atheism*, negative atheism* or indifference* on the other. In practice, non-belief does not have the same established history of usage in, or in relation to, Christian theology and is therefore more often associated with negative* and weak* stances compared to the term unbelief*. See also unbeliever.
1. Phenomena primarily identified in contrast to religion, including but not limited to those rejecting religion. The ‘non-’ prefix here is used as in ‘non-violence’ to indicate something meaningfully unlike the phenomena at hand; it therefore contrasts with *areligion. Since the concept of *religion is defined in many ways, so the concept of *nonreligion may vary. For some, nonreligion incorporates *atheism and *non-theism because they see theism as an integral component of religion; for those who draw a distinction between religion and theism (e.g. those that consider atheist existential cultures such as *Jainism a religion), nonreligion does not imply atheism and/or non-theism.
Because the concept of nonreligion in this sense is concrete, it can apply to particular characteristics, even of phenomena that are not generally considered to be nonreligious. Those who identify with the category ‘spiritual but not religious’ are for example identifying themselves in nonreligious terms, though their beliefs and practices might be perceived as religious in other regards.
In recent years, the term has become widely used in social-scientific scholarship into *atheism, *irreligion, *secularity, *secularism and related fields. Its perceived utility is evidenced in the titles of the *Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network and the academic journal Secularism and Nonreligion, as well as its increasing occurrence in academic and non-academic publications.
2. In common usage, nonreligion and *nonreligious are also used to identify something or someone that is entirely unrelated to religion, or *areligious. In common speech, nonreligion in this sense is often contrasted with *atheism, in which atheism indicates *positive atheist belief and especially atheism as an explicit *non-theist personal and social identity.
1. In common usage, non-theism tends to indicate the absence of theism (*negative atheism), as distinct from the explicit rejection of theism (or *positive atheism). For example, Jainism is often described as a ‘non-theistic religion’, meaning that it does not have a theistic element. Because *atheism has come to be associated with *positive atheism and is often used as an identity label by or about *positive atheists, *non-theism is frequently used to identify *negative atheism or to differentiate a *positive atheist outlook from others that are referred to as *atheism, such as the *New Atheism.
2. In new scholarship, non-theism indicates any phenomena primarily identified in contrast to theism; including but not limited to rejections of theistic claims. It is contrasted with *atheism, in the same way that *nonreligion is contrasted with *areligion. This approach is used to bring core terms in this area in line with English-language conventions and to simplify distinctions between *strong and *weak, and *positive and *negative atheisms.
Term used to describe the perceived phenomenon (especially in secularized, Western societies) of people who take little interest in, or have little care for, religious matters. In reality, the concept of indifference has not been extensively researched (though this is changing), and the extent to which societies exhibit religious indifference in general, or more religious indifference than formerly (as *secularizationists contend) is unclear. The meaning and usefulness of the term is also contested, both from religious and nonreligious perspectives.
Religious indifference is often theorized as a third or intermediary category, distinguished from clear expressions of religiosity, *nonreligion (especially various forms of *positive atheism) and *existential philosophies (e.g. materialism) alike. Beyond this, the term is not often theorized in any more sharply defined way, and it is not always obvious whether the term is being applied to those who are indifferent to religion only or to those who are equally indifferent to religion and avowed religion-related stances such as *anti-religion, *alternative spirituality and so forth. Claims to being religious indifference may also relate to a particular religious belief, practice, identity, or institution rather than others. Most commonly, the term is applied to a restricted collection of religious phenomena (not always or even commonly identified by the user), though it may be applied in principle to the whole consortium of phenomena labelled as ‘religious’.
secular [From the Latin saeculum, meaning ‘generation’ or ‘age’, and in Christian Latin ‘the world’, especially as opposed to the church]. 1. Of or pertaining to ‘this age’ and/or ‘this world’, as contrasted with eternal or spiritual time and/or space.
The term was originally applied to members of the Christian clergy who lived and worked outside of a monastic order; by contrast, members of such orders lived a ‘regular’ or ‘religious’ life, observing the ‘rule’ of their order. This distinction is now frequently generalised to distinguish civil, lay or other worldly affairs from all religious and spiritual affairs. These two senses can be reconciled by relativizing the concept of the secular so that it denotes that which is primarily or majorly concerned with ‘this world’ or ‘this time’.
2. The secular is sometimes used as an adjectival form of *secularism. Thus, secularist organizations and movements are sometimes refereed to as ‘secular’ (as in the *National Secular Society) whilst the idea that a person could be ‘secular-minded’ emerged from mid-nineteenth century onwards and implies an attitude toward the secular, rather than a manifestation of it. See also organized secularism.
3. In addition to these positive senses, the secular is sometimes used in a purely negative sense to indicate that something is not religious, or *areligious. This sense is particularly applied to the discussion of public institutions, including education.
4. The above-given senses are those most pertinent to nonreligion and atheism, but additional senses use the term to mean, not ‘this’ time in particular, but to refer to time in other senses. The secular can indicate that a phenomenon occurs once in an age, century or other long period; or that a phenomenon endures for an age or other long period of time. These usages are often associated with relatively specialised areas, e.g. in scientific language, but are also present in literary works of the early modern and modern periods.
secularism 1. Secularism is a theory, belief, ideology or political modality that demarcates the *secular from other phenomena (usually religious, but also sacred and/or metaphysical ones) and prioritises the secular over the non-secular in some regard.
Political secularism is one of the most commonly discussed forms of secularism, particularly in recent public and academic debates which explore the role of religion in contemporary societies and the ways in which secularist political regimes have (and ought to have) regulatory powers over religious institutions. (In this, notions of political secularism have moved away from the idea of a ‘separation of church and state’ towards an idea of political secularism as a particular relationship between religion and politics.)
Political secularism is not, however, the only form that secularism may take. Secularism is also applied to public institutions (e.g. secular schools, or secular hospitals), and can in theory be used to describe any phenomena that can be discussed according to several parts. Where the secular is contrasted with the spiritual or the sacred, it is even possible to talk about secular elements to religion, such as in its dealings with the mundane, e.g., matters of accounts-keeping, building repair, and so on.
The secular has always been bound up with distinctions – between secular and regular, the mundane and the sacred, or the separations of spiritual and civic authorities or religion and politics (often referred to as a separation of ‘church and state’, a phrase which points to the origins of the concept in Christendom). Secularism implies more than a mere distinction between religion and secular, though, entailing an intrinsic normative dimension, so that the status of something as secular is not only described in secularism but also protected or promoted. Thus, monastic distinctions between regular and secular clergy are not secularist per se, because they do not imply that secular clergy are superior or in some way preferred to regular orders. By contrast, Christians who advocate a restricted role for religious cultures in political life can be described as secularists.
2. In addition to the abstract concept of the secular (see 1.), secularism is also used to indicate particular cultural movements. It is particularly associated with a cultural movement arising in mid-nineteenth century England associated with George Holyoake, who in fact coined the term in 1851. Holyoake’s Secularism entailed ethical *materialism only; that is, it involved an ethical orientation shaped by the concerns of ‘this world’. The notion was later co-opted by Charles Bradlaugh, who developed it into an existentially *humanist orientation, committed to *materialism and *rationalism, with *anti-theist dimensions. Secularism and the *secular have retained this association with materialism and *positive atheism ever since.
In recent years, critical secular studies scholars have associated secularism with a much broader cultural formation that encompasses a whole epoch, rather than one movement within it. Secularism in this sense is an intrinsic aspect of Western modernity, involving a materialist, often humanist existential culture.
Often these two senses of secularism – abstract secularism (1.) and Secularism as a historical cultural movement (2.) – are conflated, though attempts are sometimes made to distinguish between these or related phenomena. A distinction between ‘philosophical secularism’ (meaning existential materialism) and ‘political secularism’ (meaning abstract secularism applied to the political domain) is often made. Another distinction is made between ‘secularism’ and ‘secularity’, though the meanings attached to these terms vary (see *secularity).
1. The quality or state of being secular; akin to the sense implied by the concept ‘secularness’, which is not a term in circulation.
2. Sometimes contrasted with *secularism in order to distinguish between phenomena, though applications vary. For example, secularity may indicate the manifestation of the secular in the individual’s beliefs, attitudes, values or behaviours, contrasted with secularism as the manifestation of the secular in societal institutions. Or, secularity may indicate the making and performing of distinctions between religion and secular undertaken by people in their everyday lives, as compared to secularism as a formal political ideology. These senses contrast with other classificatory approaches, e.g., including distinctions made between philosophical secularism (as a personal, *existential philosophy) and *political secularism.
There is, in short, no standard way of using secularity and secularism to distinguish between phenomena. Most attempts to do so are recent, and indicate an increasing concern to differentiate different aspects of the secular, rather than providing finalised models for doing so. See also secular.
[Derived from Middle English unbelefe and variants; first used in the 12th century as translation of the Greek apistia, meaning lack of belief or faith, in translations of the New Testament.] The state of lacking (especially religious) faith or belief. Like *non-belief, unbelief is often used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods. Used in this way, it is normally interchangable with *atheism, especially, though not exclusively, in its *weak or *negative senses. Compared to *non-belief, however, *unbelief is more likely to connote *strong and *positive atheism, perhaps because of its established use and association with advocates of atheism and irreligion. It can also be used more specifically: e.g., as unbelief towards a particular theological claim. In both senses, the word is perhaps most prevalent within Christian theological circles, presumably due to its long usage in translations of the New Testament (e.g., ‘I do believe, help my unbelief!’ at Mark 9.24.)
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