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Are there any terms for "atheism" or "irreligious" that aren't negative?
January 22, 2008 12:58 PM   Subscribe

Are there any terms for "atheism" or "irreligious" that aren't negative? That is, don't mean that someone is "not a believer." It doesn't matter what language the terms are in or if they're archaic or coinages that never took root.

I don't mean that "atheism" or "irreligious" are derogatory but that they are definitions away from something.

The closest terms I've come up with are "skeptic" and "free-thinker" but that seems to me to apply more to agnostics than atheists or, at the least, to both groups but not atheists exclusively.
posted by Kattullus to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite




posted by runincircles at 1:01 PM on January 22, 2008

The thing is... that's what atheism is. It's a lack of belief (in a God or gods). Atheism isn't the presence of anything - only the absence of faith.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:02 PM on January 22, 2008

A further note - you can come up with things like skeptic, or humanist - but they're only loose synonyms for atheism. For example, I'm a humanist and atheist, but not all atheists are humanists.

I'll note that secular is probably not a bad option, but it still means "separate from religion," so it may not be quite what you want.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:04 PM on January 22, 2008

You could call someone who only believes in the physical world a Materialist, though you might run into some confusion with the more commonly used term with the same name.

It doesn't mean the same as atheism; atheists can still believe in and souls and ghosts and angels and stuff.
posted by aubilenon at 1:05 PM on January 22, 2008

Well, there's always Bright. Not exactly synonymous with atheist, but close.
posted by Bromius at 1:05 PM on January 22, 2008

You could call yourself a positivist if you thought that all knowledge could only come from science, and your atheism was merely a consequence of this.
posted by grouse at 1:09 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hedonism has both a positive and negative connotation, depending on how you look at it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:15 PM on January 22, 2008

Or possibly apatheism, if you don't care whether gods or spirits exist.
posted by exphysicist345 at 1:17 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Humanist is the closest you get in English.

But really it's like trying to find a word for someone who isn't political, or doesn't like strawberries. If you have (TOPIC) all of the words that describe someone who doesn't care about (TOPIC) are going to be expressed in terms of (TOPIC).
posted by tkolar at 1:17 PM on January 22, 2008

Just to clarify, I'm perfectly happy to call myself an atheist or describe myself as irreligious, I'm looking for a word to use as a title of a piece I was asked to make. Thank you for your answers, "positivist," "bright" and "materialist" are pretty close to what I'm looking for. Please keep'em coming.
posted by Kattullus at 1:18 PM on January 22, 2008

get over it. if there was no religion, the very concept of atheism would be moot. atheism IS a response to religion.

i'm an atheist. when people ask, i look them in the eye, and say, "i'm an atheist." there's no shame, no negativity. it is what it is.

if i were black, i'd say "i'm black." and the only reason i'd have to say it would be because there are others who are not. sure, black is the opposite of white, but in this context, there's nothing negative about it.
posted by klanawa at 1:19 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]



3. a. One devoted to what is real, as opposed to what is fictitious or imaginary.
posted by cashman at 1:20 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's no perfect term for it, other than atheist (i.e. without theism). Some prefer rationalist, but there are certainly irrational atheists and (very largely) rational theists. Humanist isn't a great choice either, both because of the way the right (in the US at least) has spun it and because there are Christian humanists as well as anti-humanist atheists.

"Irreligious," means hostility or indifference toward religion. I'm not sure where that leaves you with respect the truth value of the same, which would be a separate issue.

Skeptic is a fairly good bet (though not as good as atheist or agnostic, if either of those is what you really mean). I've always felt that free-thinker is overly self-congratulatory. I've sometimes said, one the few occasions that anyone has asked, that I "don't have much use for religion" or that I'm "not religious." But that's just a polite way of saying "atheist."
posted by wheat at 1:22 PM on January 22, 2008

posted by null terminated at 1:25 PM on January 22, 2008

Or just rational.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:26 PM on January 22, 2008

There's (metaphysical) naturalist. It's not strictly the same as atheist or irreligious since one could belong to a religion that does not believe in any deities per-se, or one could not believe in any gods but still believe other supernatural stuff. But still, I think it fits the bill of what you're looking for.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:27 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

"The thing is... that's what atheism is. It's a lack of belief (in a God or gods). Atheism isn't the presence of anything - only the absence of faith."

Somebody said this above. But consider this argument. Most people today don't believe in the Loch Ness monster. You would not think to call one of those who hold this majority opinion "amonstrists." Almost everyone, but not everyone, is an amonstrists in this sense. But imagine that someone takes a picture which seems to show the LNM in the Loch, and that people begin to actually believe in it. In fact, imagine that the photo is so compelling that 90% or so of the population eventually believes in the existence of the LNM. What would you call the 10% that didn't believe before the photo, and continue to not believe. Their beliefs have not actually changed, so their beliefs are not presented in opposition to anybody elses beliefs. Would they then become amonstrists?

I think atheists believe in the ability of people to understand the world using their own faculty of reason, or they believe in the ability of people to understand the world without recourse to superstition. Science is not superstition, since scientific thinking can be invalidated by observation. Superstitious beliefs transcend observation. You might call believers areasonists, but that would be insulting.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 1:29 PM on January 22, 2008 [8 favorites]



One who aims at actuality or realism. Hence actualistic a.
a1866 J. GROTE Moral Ideals (1876) xv. 375 To which the actualist ever answers, The moral given by human constitution and circumstance. 1887 Harper's Mag. Jan. 324/1 In his first essay in the field of fiction he turns out an actualist, whose first wish seems to be truth to his facts and the meaning of them. 1893 Funk's Stand. Dict., Actualistic. 1921 HANNAY & COLLINGWOOD tr. Ruggiero's Mod. Philos. 201 Over against this actualistic concept of life,..we find absolutely intellectualistic conception. 1934 Essays & Stud. XIX. 145 An actualistic drawing-room play.
posted by cashman at 1:33 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also Empiricist or Corporealist. I like Corporealist:

1646 J. MAINE Serm. Unity (1647) 37 Another is a Corporealist, and holds the death of the Soul with the Body. 1744 BERKELEY Siris §259 Some corporealists and mechanics, who vainly pretended to make a world without a God. 1768-74 TUCKER Lt. Nat. (1852) I. 329 The atheists, I believe, to a man were all corporealists, holding no other substance in nature besides matter. 1836 Blackw. Mag. XL. 253 note, Perhaps..we may prove him a corporealist.
posted by cashman at 1:41 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll note that secular is probably not a bad option, but it still means "separate from religion," so it may not be quite what you want.

The French laïque doesn't have such baggage, but secular doesn't equal atheist anyway.
posted by ersatz at 1:59 PM on January 22, 2008

posted by mattbucher at 2:16 PM on January 22, 2008

I refer to myself as a "Mechanist". That doesn't tend to have any instant negative connotations, but it does have the drawback that a lot of people don't know what it means. (And the further drawback that I'm not using it to mean what a philosopher would use it to mean.)

What I actually am is a "Materialist", but the problem with that word is that for most people it means "whoever dies with the most toys, wins". And that's not what I mean by it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:21 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd like to point out that I don't agree that "atheism" is a synonym for "irreligious". I believe in atheism, but I know it can't be proved. For me, atheism is my religion.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:24 PM on January 22, 2008


I'd be a humanist, but I'm also a misanthrope...
posted by pompomtom at 2:29 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

i wish there was a word for "belief in the nonexistence of god" rather than "nonbelief in the existence of god." in other words: something that illustrates that it is an active belief, not a passive lack of belief.

that said, i like "nonreligious" or "secular" for most occasions.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:33 PM on January 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Atheist and irreligious don't mean the same thing. You have to decide which one you're looking for synonyms for. There are several religions that are nontheistic (Buddhism is the big one, but many Unitarians and Jews are also atheists).

Most of the other terms imply more than just atheism. Humanists are a community of people who have positive beliefs about the world that many atheists do not share. "Brights," materialists, positivists, corporealists, are also subsets of atheism, but not synonyms. One can be an atheist and still believe in the supernatural (e.g., reincarnation, astrology, witchcraft, etc.). Atheists can hold very different beliefs about whether there exists objective morality and where that morality might come from. The only thing they have to agree on is that no gods exist. So it makes sense to define them by that single characteristic, because it's the only thing they have in common.

An irreligious person can be an atheist or not. All he or she has to do is refrain from joining in organized religious practices as our society understands them. Irreligious people may believe in gods but believe that those gods don't care to be worshiped. They may be "spiritual but not religious." Or they may be atheists. It makes sense to use a word that lumps them together in contrast to religious people, because not following religion is the only thing they have in common.
posted by decathecting at 2:37 PM on January 22, 2008

i wish there was a word for "belief in the nonexistence of god" rather than "nonbelief in the existence of god."

Nonbelief in the existence of a god is agnosticism.
Belief in the non-existence of a god is atheism.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:43 PM on January 22, 2008

By the way, there are two distinct flavors of agnosticism.

A weak agnostic says, "I don't know if there are any gods."
A strong agnostic says, "It's impossible for us to determine if there are any gods, so it's a waste of time to worry about it. (Until such time as some god gives us a unambiguous sign, which hasn't happened.)"
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:49 PM on January 22, 2008

i wish there was a word for "belief in the nonexistence of god"
For a lot of people, that's exactly what atheism is. In fact, it sounds like that's how SCDB is using it.

The Wikipedia articles on atheism and agnosticism are interesting reading. While it's a common formulation to say that agnostic means you don't take a position on the existence of god, and atheist means you deny the existence of god, the Wikipedia articles take a different angle, saying the two are not mutually exclusive: agnosticism is an epistemological position, and atheism is a life stance. So you could admit the theoretical possibility, however remote, that god (or something) is out there, but live your life as if he isn't.

Anyhow, getting back to the original question, I don't think there's a positive word that perfectly coincides with the denotation of "atheism." I think "rationalism" is probably closest, but it still ain't right.
posted by adamrice at 2:50 PM on January 22, 2008

The word atheism is kind of like the word non-profit. It's really difficult to come up with a word for either that's "positive". not all atheists are humanists, not all non-profits are charities. But for some reason nobody bugs non-profits about defining themselves as a "negative".

Personally, I don't think it matters one bit whether or not a word is "positive" or "negative". When I encounter atheists, I think, "Hooray, atheists!". It's a positive thing, and that's all I care about. Anyone who worries about atheists defining themselves relative to something else are just being pedantic. If there wasn't any religion, I wouldn't need to call myself anything, and I'd be fine with that too. Until then, might as well accept the words we have.
posted by kiltedtaco at 3:08 PM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

How about just;


Why is it assumed that someone is religious unless they state otherwise? Every religion has a name, not labeling one's self with a religion seems the most positive way of saying that you're not religious.
posted by krisjohn at 3:41 PM on January 22, 2008

seconding gauchodaspampas. Naturalist = one who believes that there are only natural things, no supernatural things. [This is prone to misinterpretation, since it can also mean "one who studies nature". Also, don't mistakenly say "naturist", which means "nudist".]
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:03 PM on January 22, 2008

I don't like the term `bright'. If you're not atheist, ho hum. If you're not bright, well...
posted by tomble at 5:10 PM on January 22, 2008

posted by Abiezer at 5:23 PM on January 22, 2008

Bugger! That's in your question. Apologies.
posted by Abiezer at 5:24 PM on January 22, 2008

Seconding realist.
posted by amyms at 5:57 PM on January 22, 2008

"Non-believer" is often best (although the term includes agnostics); "non-religious" can also be good (context should make it clear that you're not merely opposed to organized religion). As others have noted "humanist" and other positive replacements for "atheist" are all somewhat distorting, since atheism itself doesn't necessarily include a positive regard for humans or reason or anything else.

But what I mainly want to indicate is what *not* to call yourself. Please don't call yourself "secular." Atheists looking for a term with more positive associations began using this term some time ago, and have over the last several years been joined in this usage by conservatives, who are eager for very different reasons to assert that "secularism" is indeed another word for "atheism" (although of course it is not, since the term denotes merely the principle that a separation of church and state should be observed by government).

It's important at this moment, as the religious right decries "secular humanism" and "secular progressives," that those who value church-state separation make clear that secularism itself is neither essentially atheist nor Christian, and has in fact often been championed by men and women with deeply religious convictions. By misusing the term "secular" as a synonym for "atheist," some non-believers unwittingly do a favor for those on the right eager to make the case that secularism and atheism are really the same thing.
posted by washburn at 6:39 PM on January 22, 2008

I'm not going to wade through the responses (too lazy), but it's entirely possible to look at just the "a" prefix [MW (look at the 2nd prefix def. of "a"]: atheism is not anti-theism. It's "without" and not "against."
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:57 PM on January 22, 2008

I'll note that secular is probably not a bad option, but it still means "separate from religion," so it may not be quite what you want.

While you could say this, the OED entry suggests that it comes closer to meaning "of the world," with "separate from religion" being the meaningful result. So "secular," especially in a pairing like "secular humanist" seems to fulfill the original request, for a phrase that means "irreligious" without explicitly defining itself against "religious" as the norm.

I hadn't thought of Washburn's objections to this use of "secular humanist" before, but I'm not sure they're entirely sound. Because there's a difference between the functioning of the "secular" in "secular humanist," where it's indicating that one's sense of ethics comes from the world itself (and not from a god-like authority) and the functioning of the "secular" in "secular education," where it's indicating that a public schooling is or should be separate from religious beliefs. In the first instance, it does pretty strongly imply that the secular humanist in question doesn't have a god-faith, but only by virtue of the logical leap that if one's ethical sensibilities come ultimately from somewhere other than religion, then one must not be all that religious. (Is there any monotheism in which one's god-faith isn't meant to be the ultimate bedrock of moral authority?). With a "secular school," the being-of-the-world or being-separate-from-religion doesn't imply anyone's lack of belief in a god figure.

It seems that if the word can be properly re-infused with it's original sense of being separate, but not without, then both usages hold up.

(possible counter-snark from the religious right?: A secular individual, in holding themselves away from religion, is an atheist. A secular school, in holding itself away from religion, merely acts like one.)
posted by nobody at 9:15 PM on January 22, 2008

An addition: Calling oneself "secular" just sounds wrong to my ear, anyway, and I can see how Washburn's objection makes sense in that case. But calling oneself a "secular humanist," with "secular" modifying "humanist" (and not standing directly as the adjective for you, yourself) I'd like to keep as a-okay.
posted by nobody at 9:19 PM on January 22, 2008

I myself belong to an Ethical culture society, which is part of the American Ethical Union. It's an organization/philosophy that is humanistically devoted to the basic potential of humankind and responsibility we have to to nurture and support one another. And I really like their core values.

Other than that, I like Secular humanist or Empiricist. You may use all of those interchangeably at an ethical culture society.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:37 PM on January 22, 2008

Teapot Agnostic

I like that term, and when you use it it normally causes confusion. That means you get to fully explain your position, without all the negative connotations of "Atheist".
posted by MaHaGoN at 10:58 PM on January 22, 2008

Muriel Gray would like you to use the term 'Enlightenist.'
posted by OilPull at 8:28 AM on January 23, 2008

A great name for an atheist group would be Occam's Barber.

Quip about Occam's Barbershop being too "materialistic".
posted by ersatz at 1:30 PM on January 23, 2008

this is interesting. however, agnosticism insists that it is not possible to know with certainty whether or not gods exist. it is not the non-belief in god, it is the proposition that it's not possible to prove either position.

one who has never been taught about the possibility of the existence of gods is not an agnostic. that person is an atheist, though they don't know it, because the word itself implies the supposed existence of gods.
posted by klanawa at 2:53 PM on January 25, 2008

just "rational person"
or "non-religious"
posted by ac at 9:20 PM on August 31, 2008

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