Religious identity has always been a big deal in America. Identifying yourself as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or some other religion, is a convenient shortcut to let others know who you are—whether you’re like them or different—and offering clues as to how to interact with you. But what if you don’t identify with a recognizable religion? What if you’ve quit, or never joined up in the first place, or find yourself in a place on the fringes or somewhere between the lines? What do you call yourself, when the conversation inevitably—if not politely—comes around to the topic of religious identity?
As shown in the recently published Pew Research study, a growing percentage of Americans are growing away from traditional religious identification. I’m one of them, and I still struggle to define where I stand. It’s complicated.
On a recent NPR talk show, the discussion began with those statistics. And then, all call-in hell broke loose, when people began phoning in to describe their own, unconventional religio-spiritual identities.
One woman, who identified herself as an Episcopal priest, protested that the term “Christian” has been “hijacked and “unfairly claimed” by ultra-fundamentalists. She then declared herself to be a “Christist,” which she defined [if I understood her correctly] as a person who follows the teachings attributed to Jesus, without the ritualistic requirements of formal Christianity.
Another caller proclaimed himself to be a “deist.” He didn’t define it very clearly, but he was obviously making a distinction between his beliefs and those promulgated by churches he had tried to participate in.
You get the idea. Religious identity—in a way that strikes me as similar to sexual identity—is becoming fluid and confusing. That call-in show sent me into research mode: I’ve been trying to get definitions for the various shades of un-belief and un-religion.
Today, I stumbled onto an article that offers helpful descriptions [meaning definitions that I can actually understand] of seven of the more popular—and traditional—shades of non-belief. Unfortunately, reading these definitions makes me even more confused about what to call myself.
The term atheist can be defined literally as lacking a humanoid god concept, but historically it means one of two things. Positive atheism asserts that a personal supreme being does not exist. Negative atheism simply asserts a lack of belief in such a deity. It is possible be a positive atheist about the Christian God, for example, while maintaining a stance of negative atheism or even uncertainty on the question of a more abstract deity like a “prime mover.”
(Hmmm. I’ve been calling myself an atheist for a while, now. It turns out that, according to this definition, I’m more of a negative than a positive atheist. But even that is not a perfect definition, because the author says that negative atheism “asserts a lack of belief” in a deity. I object to the word “belief:” I don’t think that the word “belief” belongs in a definition of atheism. In my kind of atheism, I simply do not accept the premise of a deity. It has nothing to do with belief, and everything to do with thought.)
The term anti-theist says, “I think religion is harmful.” It also implies some form of activism that goes beyond merely advocating church-state separation or science education. Anti-theism challenges the legitimacy of faith as a moral authority or way of knowing. Anti-theists often work to expose harms caused in the name of God like stonings, gay bating, religious child maltreatment, genital mutilation, unwanted childbearing or black-collar crime.
(Well, then, maybe I’m an anti-theist, as well as an atheist, because I keep telling people that I quit religion when I realized that it creates divisions among people and that a shitload of bad things have happened under the guise of religion.)
…The term agnostic represents a range of intellectual positions that have important substance in their own right and can be independent of atheism. Strong agnosticism views God’s existence as unknowable, permanently and to all people. Weak agnosticism can mean simply “I don’t know if there is a God,” or “We collectively don’t know if there is a God but we might find out in the future.”
…These definitions of agnosticism, though different, all focus on what we do or can know, rather than on whether God exists.”
(So, it’s possible to be an atheist and an agnostic? Is that what I am?)
One author—Philip Pullman—is quoted as calling himself both:
The question of what term to use is a difficult one, in strict terms I suppose I’m an agnostic because of course the circle of the things I do know is vastly smaller than the things I don’t know about out there in the darkness somewhere maybe there is a God. But among all the things I do know in this world I see no evidence of a God whatsoever and everybody who claims to know there is a God seems to use that as an excuse for exercising power over other people…
Traditionally, skeptic has been used to describe a person who doubts received religious dogmas. However, while agnostic focuses on God questions in particular, the term skeptic expresses a broader life approach. Someone who calls him- or herself a skeptic has put critical thinking at the heart of the matter. Well known skeptics, like Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, or James Randi devote a majority of their effort to debunking pseudoscience, alternative medicine, astrology and so forth. They broadly challenge the human tendency to believe things on insufficient evidence.
Free-thinker is a term that dates to the end of the 17th Century, when it was first used in England to describe those who opposed the Church and literal belief in the Bible. Freethought is an intellectual stance that says that opinions should be based on logic and evidence rather than authorities and traditions…The term has gotten popular recently in part because it is affirmative. Unlike atheism, which defines itself in contrast to religion, freethought identifies with a proactive process for deciding what is real and important.
(All of these definitions are making things much more complicated. Probably, many of us on the un-belief spectrum would like to think of ourselves as somehow fitting into each of these categories, because they make us think we’re smarter than the blind-faith believers.)
While terms like atheist or anti-theist focus on a lack of god-belief and agnostic, skeptic and freethinker all focus on ways of knowing—humanist centers in on a set of ethical values. Humanism seeks to promote broad wellbeing by advancing compassion, equality, self-determination, and other values that allow individuals to flourish and to live in community with each other. These values drive not from revelation, but from human experience.
(Personal anecdote: About 30 years ago, when I still participated—with a large dollop of skepticism—in religion—I was in the presence of a scholarly older gentleman, to whom I expressed my reservations about the Jewish holiday we were commemorating. “I hear what you’re saying,” he said. “You do realize, don’t you, that you are a secular humanist.” I didn’t. But I do now. I just hope that all of these definitions are not mutually exclusive. I really don’t want to have to choose at this late stage of the game.)
…Pantheists center in on the spiritual heart of faith–the experience of humility, wonder, and transcendence. They see human beings as one small part of a vast natural order, with the Cosmos itself made conscious in us. Pantheists reject the idea of a person- god, but believe that the holy is made manifest in all that exists.
(At last, I think I’ve found a category that doesn’t fit me. That’s a relief.)
But let’s not forget the deists—most notably America’s founders—
…who didn’t believe in miracles or special revelation through sacred texts but thought that the natural world itself revealed a designer who could be discovered through reason and inquiry.
Or the Naturalists,
..who assume a philosophical position that the laws operating within the natural realm are the only laws governing the universe and no supernatural realm lies beyond.
Or the Secularists,
…who argue that moral standards and laws should be based on whether they do good or harm in this world and that religion should be kept out of government.
Maybe, like the whole notion of the existence of some form of supreme being, it’s just not definable at all, and—except for those who proclaim “faith” and unshakable belief—we all have to learn to live with the vagueness and ambiguity, trying on different definitions for size, and sometimes switching from one to another.
In my ideal world, though, having a name for whatever one thinks about the origin and organization of the universe wouldn’t be such an important part of one’s identity or a getting-to-know you social requirement.