A nontheist is someone who does not believe in God or gods. According to the construction of the words, atheist and nontheist mean exactly the same thing. Theists believe in God. The prefixes a- and non- are both negators; therefore, a-theists and non-theists share disbelief in God. However, language is dynamic, and connotations of certain words tend to change over time. The term nontheist is relatively new and is coming into use as a reaction to the connotation that the word atheist is developing in modern usage. Putting the term in context on a continuum will be helpful in explaining nontheism and distinguishing it from atheism.
On one side of the continuum is theism, which is the belief in God or gods. Within theism, there are variations of belief: polytheism (many gods), monotheism (one God), deism (a detached Creator), etc.
Moving farther down the continuum from belief to unbelief, agnosticism has often occupied the middle territory. The word gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge,” and the prefix a- is a negator, so an a-gnostic is someone who has “no knowledge” of God’s existence, that is, he does not know whether or not God exists. Within agnosticism are those who simply admit that they personally have no knowledge of God’s existence and those who say it is impossible for anyone to know that God exists. This latter position is closer to atheism, for it denies the existence of a God who is capable of revealing Himself to humanity in a clear and meaningful way.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from theism is atheism. Traditionally, an atheist is simply someone who does not believe in God. However, over the past two decades, atheism has taken on a militant tone. The writings of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have been at the forefront of the “new atheism.” More and more, the connotation of the term atheist is of someone who actively opposes belief in God and challenges all religion and religious expression. Anti-theist might be a more accurate term.
Bound up with modern atheism are the philosophies of naturalism and materialism. In other words, atheism today assumes that the physical and the natural are all that exists. There are no supernatural or spiritual forces at work in the universe. Matter is the only thing that exists, and everything that happens occurs due to natural cause and effect.
As atheism has become more and more associated with militant opposition to belief in God and to all religious expression, the terms nontheism and nontheist have come into usage. A nontheist does not believe in God but, in contrast to the atheist, is still open to supernatural, paranormal, and spiritual forces at work in the world.
The Star Wars films provide a good example of nontheism. The Jedis are described as followers of an ancient religion. They can manipulate the supernatural “Force.” However, there is no God or gods in the Star Wars universe. Likewise, traditional Chinese philosophy deals with the “life force” or chi, which is a spiritual or supernatural force but is not God. Buddhism is often described as a nontheistic religion. The Buddha is not worshiped as a god but revered as one who was “enlightened.” Likewise, New Age philosophy is essentially spiritual and supernatural, but nontheistic.
It has become popular in the United States to describe oneself as “spiritual but not religious,” a position that embraces nontheism. Many people are open to all sorts of supernatural and spiritual forces at work in the world, but they reject the idea of God as defined by any religion or religious text such as the Bible. They would readily affirm a “Higher Power” as any individual would define it. This “Higher Power” need not be personal and could therefore be nontheistic.
There are many nontheists who may identify themselves as Christians as well. Nontheists may see value in religious ritual and expression and be involved in a church, not to find a relationship with God but to better relate to fellow human beings and cope with problems in the world. The nontheist sees stories in the Bible as powerful myths and helpful records of the religious experiences of those who have gone before us, but not actual revelation from God. First John 4:8 says, “God is love,” but many “Christian nontheists” may not so subtly change this to “Love is God.”
Christmas is the celebration of the time that God entered the human race. However, much Christmas celebration in the United States is nontheistic. While atheists might be adamantly opposed to Christmas, nontheists feel right at home in the Christmas season. Time-honored classic films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street as well as modern films like The Polar Express and most of the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel are filled with magical, wonderful, mystical happenings—but God is nowhere to be found. Faith is a virtue—on this the nontheist can agree—as long as it is faith in some nebulous, unknown, mystical Christmas power.
While atheism presents a more vigorous frontal attack on Christianity, nontheism is a more subtle corruption from within. Atheism is often seen as strident and mean-spirited, whereas nontheism is a kinder, gentler, more loving and tolerant denial of God that may still embrace the trappings of Christianity.