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Nontheism (or non-theism), broadly conceived, according to Caporale & Grumelli (1971) , is the absence of belief in both the existence and non-existence of a deity (or deities, or other numinous phenomena). The word is often employed as a blanket term for all belief systems that are not theistic, including atheism (both strong and weak) and agnosticism, as well as certain Eastern religions like Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism. This usage is somewhat misleading, however.

Relationship to Agnosticism

Used in the strict sense, as by those who self-identify as nontheists, the term describes a particular worldview for which the question of divinity is regarded as irrelevant and meaningless. When used in this sense, nontheism is often confused with agnosticism, although there is a distinct difference. An agnostic, by definition, views the question of God's existence to be necessarily unanswerable, but not necessarily irrelevant. A nontheist, by definition, views the question to be necessarily irrelevant, but not necessarily unanswerable. Thus, it is possible that an agnostic could consider the nature of God to be a fact of tremendous importance. It is also possible that he could consider the question unimportant. Provided that he remains convinced that the existence of God is unknowable, he remains an agnostic. Likewise, a nontheist may or may not believe the existence of God to be inherently unknowable; this has no bearing on his status as a nontheist. It is possible that one individual could be both an agnostic and a nontheist; indeed, most nontheists are agnostics, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, the concepts are distinct, and it is entirely possible that one could be exclusively a nontheist, or exclusively an agnostic. Many early agnostics were not nontheists, in that they considered religious questions to be worthwhile and important. The French Proto-Fascist Charles Maurras, for instance, was an avowed agnostic. However, he was also a staunch clericalist, viewing the Catholic religion as a necessary part of society, and the question of divinity as an integral part of the (typical) human psyche. Maurras could be said to be an agnostic, but not a nontheist.

Conversely, many modern-day atheists could be described as non-agnostic nontheists, in that they regard the existence of God as both meaningless and definitely false. However, self-identifying nontheists tend to regard themselves as distinct from atheists. Though both camps view the question of God as unimportant, atheists may be said to be more emotionally invested, and interested in arguing the point. To nontheists, such a position is viewed as a concession to the positive assertions of theists. By arguing the issue, atheists tacitly admit that it is worthy of discussion, and capable of resolution. Nontheists believe that theistic claims are unworthy of recognition due to their lack of falsifiability.

Nontheistic worldview

When faced with the question of whether or not gods exist, a nontheist would respond that the question itself is unimportant, that it concerns information that is unfalsifiable, unmeaningful, superfluous, etc. To a nontheist, the issue of God's existence is no different than, for example, the existence of leprechauns or extraterrestrials. This conviction is generally based on skepticism and empiricism, although it may also be motivated by the pragmatic desire to rid oneself of an inconvenient and irresolvable dilemma.

Insentient life, infants, etc.

On rare occasions, the term nontheistic is applied to living beings that are intellectually incapable of establishing any kind of positive or negative opinion about a deity, e.g. animals, fetuses, infants. This usage is disputed by some theists, who believe that all creatures are innately theistic, and that departure from theism constitutes a pathological turn away from nature. Obviously, nontheists reject the latter belief, since they presume deities to be a purely ideological construct, with no hand in nature and biology.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic church once held that unbaptized infants were unsaved, and would therefore be consigned to Purgatory (or Hell, according to stricter theologians) if death took place before baptism could be completed. This suggests that the Catholic church considers (or once considered) nontheism to be the innate condition of mankind, perhaps reflecting the estrangement of man from God inherent in original sin.

Nontheism in philosophy

A large number of philosophers have historically been nontheists, although, for the sake of convenience and comprehension, many of these have publicly categorized themselves as atheists or agnostics. The most famously nontheistic school were the Logical Positivists, including Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and A.J. Ayer. The Positivist position, as formulated by Ayer, was that "asking whether God exists is simply not meaningful." The perceived dichotomy between theism and atheism was merely a case of mutually exclusive suppositions, neither of which could be empirically tested, and neither of which made any kind of meaningful assertion. To a Logical Positivist, a statement like "God exists" is a kind of tautology, since the very concept of a deity is (in the view of the Positivists) inseparable from the assertion that it exists. It would therefore be something like saying "dragons have wings". By the same token, the positive rejection of such a tautology (i.e. "There is no God") would itself be a meaningless tautology, akin to saying "dragons do not have wings". According to the Positivists, neither assertion has meaning, since both involve the creation of a separate entity, one having wings and another not having wings. The fact that neither creature is observable renders the issue meaningless. By recognizing the dilemma of divinity as a similar fallacy, the Positivists hoped to escape the endless cycle of belief and disbelief.

Nontheism in Buddhism

The first historically significant nontheist was probably the Buddha Shakyamuni, who, when asked whether God existed, usually responded with complete silence (see also mu). On one occasion, he responded with a story of a man shot with a poisoned arrow:

When the doctor arrived to remove the arrow, the man grabbed the doctor's hand and asked:
"Before you start treating me, Doctor, tell me, who was it that shot me? Was he of warrior class or some other class? Was he tall or was he short? Was he young or was he old? Was he dark skinned or light skinned?"
The doctor ignored the questions and removed the arrow. Had he taken the time to answer the questions, the patient would have died.

"For this reason," said the Buddha, "I will not answer your question about God. If I did, you would just spend your time in endless speculation, and never awaken from your current state."

Nontheism remains a common element of many schools of Buddhism. However, many theologians have argued that Buddhists have merely transferred their theistic devotion to ancestors, bodhisattvas, kami, and other "deity surrogates". Other observers have dismissed these practices as mere folk traditions, analogous to the pagan undertones present in European Christian worship, and not a feature of higher religion. Most modern Buddhist teachers, such as Soyen Shaku and Robert Baker Aitken, avoid addressing the existence or nonexistence of deities, regarding the issue as an indulgence and a distraction.

See also


Rocco Caporale & Antonio Grumelli (eds.). The Culture of Unbelief. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971.