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Nontheism is a term that covers a range of both religious and nonreligious attitudes characterized by the absence of — or the rejection of — theism or any belief in a personal god or gods. It is in use in the fields of Christian apologetics and general liberal theology. "Nontheism" should not be confused with "irreligion".

Non-theism has various types. "Strong atheism" is the positive belief that a god does not exist. Someone who does not think about the existence of a deity may be termed "weakly atheistic", or more specifically implicitly atheist. Other, more qualified types of nontheism are often known as agnosticism, or more specifically explicit atheism. "Strong" or "positive" agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible for humans to know whether or not any deities exist. It is a more precise opinion than weak agnosticism, which is the belief that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is unknown but not necessarily unknowable. Philosopher Anthony Kenny distinguishes between agnostics, who find the claim "God exists" uncertain, and theological noncognitivists, who consider all God-talk to be meaningless.[1]

Other, related, philosophical opinions about the existence of deity are ignosticism and skepticism. Because of variation of the term "god", it is understood that a person could be an atheist in terms of certain portrayals of gods, while remaining agnostic in terms of others.

Invented originally as a synonym for secularism (see below), it has become an umbrella term for summarizing various distinct and even mutually exclusive positions united by a naturalist approach, sometimes in the plural, nontheisms.

Origin and definition

While the Oxford English Dictionary (2007) does not define non-theism, it does define a "non-theist" as "not having or involving a belief in God, especially as a being who reveals himself to humanity."

First recorded usage of Non-theism is by G. J. Holyoake in 1852,[2] who introduces it because

"Mr. [Charles] Southwell has taken an objection to the term Atheism. We are glad he has. We have disused it a long time [...]. We disuse it, because Atheist is a worn-out word. Both the ancients and the moderns have understood by it one without God, and also without morality. Thus the term connotes more than any well-informed and earnest person accepting it ever included in it; that is, the word carries with it associations of immorality, which have been repudiated by the Atheist as seriously as by the Christian. Non-theism is a term less open to the same misunderstanding, as it implies the simple non-acceptance of the Theist's explanation of the origin and government of the world."

This passage is cited by J. Buchanan in his 1857 Modern Atheism under its forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism, Development, and Natural Laws, who however goes on to state that

"Non-theism" was afterwards exchanged [by Holyoake] for "Secularism", as a term less liable to misconstruction, and more correctly descriptive of the real import of the theory.

Spelling without hyphen sees scattered use in the later 20th century, following Harvey Cox's 1966 Secular City:

"Thus the hidden God or deus absconditus of biblical theology may be mistaken for the no-god-at-all of nontheism." (p.225)

but reaches currency only from the 1990s, in contexts where possible association of the term "atheism" with active, ideological anti-theism are unwanted. The 1998 Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics has

"in the strict sense, all forms of nontheisms are naturalistic, including atheism, pantheism, deism, and agnosticism." (p. 252, s.v. Naturalism)

Pema Chödrön uses the term in the context of Buddhism:

"The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God.[...] Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold [...] Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves [...] Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on.".[3]


A few liberal Christian theologians, define a "nontheistic God" as "the ground of all being" rather than as a personal divine being. John Shelby Spong refers to a theistic God as "a personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities, which has shaped every religious idea of the Western world."[4]

Many of them owe much of their theology to the work of Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich, including the phrase "the ground of all being". Another quotation from Tillich is, "God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."[5] This Tillich quotation summarizes his conception of God. He does not think of God as a being which exists in time and space, because that constrains God, and makes God finite. But all beings are finite, and if God is the Creator of all beings, God cannot logically be finite since a finite being cannot be the sustainer of an infinite variety of finite things. Thus God is considered beyond being, above finitude and limitation, the power or essence of being itself.[6]

Secular humanist Sidney Hook wrote in an essay called "The Atheism of Paul Tillich":

With amazing courage Tillich boldly says that the God of the multitudes does not exist, and further, that to believe in His existence is to believe in an idol and ultimately to embrace superstition. God cannot be an entity among entities, even the highest. He is being-in-itself. In this sense Tillich's God is like the God of Spinoza and the God of Hegel. Both Spinoza and Hegel were denounced for their atheism by the theologians of the past because their God was not a Being or an Entity. Tillich, however, is one of the foremost theologians of our time.


Although Buddhism has a vast number of scriptures and practices, the fundamental core of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, are distinguished in the world of religion for not having any mention of any god(s) or any notion of worship of any deity. They are purely ethical and meditative guidelines based on the truths of psychological suffering due to impermanence.

Since the time of the Buddha, the refutation of the existence of a creator has been seen as a key point in distinguishing Buddhist from non-Buddhist views.[7]

The Buddha said that gods (Pali: devas) exist, though he portrayed them as mortal and, in some cases, deluded. He did not center his teaching around these gods, but instead around the explanation of dukkha (suffering, imperfection) and attaining freedom from it.

Although the Buddha did affirm a positive belief in the existence of gods, he stated that they are not to be worshiped and are themselves in the cycle of samsara.

The question of a Creator God, however, was answered by Buddha in the Brahmajala Sutta. The Buddha denounced the view of a Creator and sees that such notions are related to the false view of eternity, and like the 61 other views, this belief causes suffering when one is attached to it and relates to these views with desire, hatred and delusion. At the end of the Sutta the Buddha says he knows these 62 views and he also knows the truth that surpasses them.

Belief and practice

On one occasion, when presented with a problem of metaphysics by the monk Malunkyaputta, Buddha responded with a story of a man shot with a poisoned arrow. The man's family summons the doctor to have the poison removed, and the doctor gives an antidote:

"But the man refuses to let the doctor do anything before certain questions can be answered. The wounded man demands to know who shot the arrow, what his caste and job is, and why he shot him. He wants to know what kind of bow the man used and how he acquired the ingredients used in preparing the poison. Malunkyaputta, such a man will die before getting the answers to his questions. It is no different for one who follows the Way. I teach only those things necessary to realize the Way. Things which are not helpful or necessary, I do not teach."[8]

Relative and ultimate truth

Some revolutionary Buddhist teachers teach that mention of divine beings in the scriptures does not refer to actual existing gods, but was a language employed by Buddha to bring about a meaning, which was subsequently misunderstood. An example of this is Ajahn Buddhadasa of Thailand. The majority of teachers, however, disagree with this revolutionary interpretation, and teach the orthodox teaching (from the Pali Canon and Mahayana Sutras) that conventional gods do exist and can influence our lives. These gods, however, cannot give people enlightenment, and they are themselves unenlightened and unaware of the true Dhamma.

Zen Master Bassui (1327-1387) had strong words for those applying notions of divinity to any separate beings, such as bodhisattvas:

"... so you should realize that all the names of the bodhisattvas are just different names for the nature of mind. As an expedient in the World-Honored-One's sermons, he defined things using certain names, and with these names he pointed to the truth. Ordinary people, unaware of this truth, become attached to the names and, in the hopes of attaining Buddhahood, seek the Buddha and Dharma outside their minds. It's like cooking sand in the hopes of producing rice."[9]

Taoism of Laozi

The Daodejing, describes the Dao (or Tao) as the mystical source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. According to the Daodejing, humans have no special place within the Dao, being just one of its many ("ten thousand") manifestations. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act "unnaturally", upsetting the natural balance of the Dao. The Daodejing intends to lead students to a "return" to their natural state, in harmony with Dao.[10]


Hinduism is generally regarded as being characterised by extremely diverse beliefs and practises.[11] In the words of R.C. Zaehner, "it is perfectly possible to be a good Hindu whether one's personal views incline toward monism, monotheism, polytheism, or even atheism."[12] He goes on to say that it is a religion that neither depends on the existence or non-existence of God or Gods.[13] More broadly, Hinduism can be seen as having three more important strands: one featuring a personal Creator or Divine Being, one that emphasises an impersonal Absolute and a third pluralistic and non-absolute.[14] Some scholars regard devotion to a personal deity as the ultimate reality is the last and perhaps most significant stage of Hinduism's development.[15] This article will focus on the latter two traditions - which can be seen as nontheistic.

Although the Vedas are broadly concerned with the completion of ritual, there are some elements that can be interpreted as either nontheistic or precursors to the later developments of the nontheistic tradition. The oldest Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda mentions that 'There is only one god though the sages may give it various names' (1.164.46). Max Müller termed this henotheism, and it can be seen as indicating one, non-dual divine reality, with little emphasis on personality.[16] The famous Nasadiya Sukta, the 129th Hymn of the tenth and final Mandala (or chapter) of the Rig Veda, considers creation and asks "The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. /Who then knows whence it has arisen?" [17]. This can be seen to contain the intuition that there must be a single principle behind all phenomena: 'That one' (tad ekam), self-sufficient, to which distinctions cannot be applied.[18][19]

It is with the Upanishads, reckoned to be written in the first millennia (coeval with the ritualistic Brahmanas), that the Vedic emphasis on ritual was challenged. The Upanishads can be seen as the expression of new sources of power in India. Also, separate from the Upanishadic tradition were bands of wandering ascetics called Vadins whose largely nontheistic notions rejected the notion that religious knowledge was the property of the Brahmins. Many of these were shramanas,who represented a non-Vedic tradition rooted in India's pre-Aryan history.[20] The emphasis of the Upanishads turned to knowledge, specifically the ultimate identity of all phenomena.[21] This is expressed in the notion of Brahman, the key idea of the Upanishads, and much later philosophizing has been taken up with deciding whether Brahman is personal or impersonal.[22] The understanding of the nature of Brahman as impersonal is based in the definition of it as 'ekam eva advitiyam' (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1) - it is one without a second and to which no substantive predicates can be attached.[23] Further, both the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads assert that the individual atman and the impersonal Brahman are one.[24] The mahāvākya statement Tat Tvam Asi, found in the Chandogya Upanishad, can be taken to indicate this unity.[25] The latter Upanishad uses the negative term Neti neti to 'describe' the divine.

Classical Samkhya, Mimamsa, early Vaisheshika and early Nyaya schools of Hinduism do not accept the notion of an omnipotent creator God at all. [26][27] While the Sankhya and Mimamsa schools no longer has significant followings in India, they are both influential in the developent of later schools of philosophy.[28][29] The Yoga of Patanjali is the school that probably owes most to the Samkhya thought. This school is dualistic, in the sense that there is a division between spirit (Parusha) and nature (Prakriti).[30] It holds Samadhi or 'concentrative union' as its ultimate goal[31] and it does not consider God's existence as either essential or necessary to achieving this.[32]

The Bhagavad Gita, contains both passages which bear a monistic reading and others which bear a theistic reading.[33] Generally, the book as a whole has been interpreted by some who see it as containing a primarily nontheistic message,[34] and by others who stress its theistic message.[35] These broadly either follow after either Sankara or Ramanuja[36] An example of a nontheistic passage might be "The supreme Brahman is without any beginning. That is called neither being nor non-being." Which was interpreted by Sankara to mean that Brahman can only be talked of in terms of negation of all attributes - 'Neti neti'.[37].

The Advaita Vedanta of Gaudapada and Sankara rejects theism as a consequence of its insistence that Brahman is "Without attributes, indivisible, subtle, inconceivable, and without blemish, Brahman is one and without a second. There is nothing other than He."[38] This means that it lacks properties usually associated with God such as omniscience, perfect goodness, omnipotence, and additionally is identical with the whole of reality, rather than being a causal agent or ruler of it. [39]

See also


  1. Kenny, Anthony (2006). "Worshipping an Unknown God". Ratio 19 (4): 442. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9329.2006.00339.x. 
  2. "The Reasoner", New Series, No. VIII. 115
  3. Chodron, Pema (2002). When Things Fall Apart. Shambhala Publications, Inc.. pp. 39f. ISBN 1-570-62969-2. 
  4. A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, ISBN 0-06-067063-0
  5. Tillich, Paul. (1951) Systematic Theology, p.205.
  6. Sidney Hook, "The Atheism of Paul Tillich", in Religious Experience and Truth: A Symposium ed. Sidney Hook. (New York University Press, 1961).
  7. B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007, pages 97-98.
  8. Nhat Hanh, Thich (1991). Old Path White Clouds: walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. Parallax Press. pp. 299. ISBN 0-938077-26-0. 
  9. Braverman, Arthur (2002). Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. Wisdom Publications. pp. 56. ISBN 0-86171-320-6. 
  10. Ivanhoe & Van Nording (2005). Pg 162.
  11. Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 17.
  12. Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 51.
  13. R. C. Zaehner, (1966) Hinduism, P.1-2, Oxford University Press.
  14. Smart, Ninian,(1999) World Philosophies. Routledge, ISBN 0415184665 p.35
  15. Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 51.
  16. Masih, Y. A comparative study of religions, P.164, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 2000 ISBN 8120808150
  17. O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, (1981)The Rig Veda: An Anthology of One Hundred Eight Hymns (Classic) Penguin
  18. Collinson, Diané and Wilkinson, Robert Thirty-Five Oriental Philosophers, P. 39, Routledge, 1994 ISBN 0415025966
  19. Mohanty, Jitendranath (2000), Classical Indian Philosophy: An Introductory Text, p:1 Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0847689336
  20. Jaroslav Krejčí, Anna Krejčová (1990) Before the European Challenge: The Great Civilizations of Asia and the Middle East, p:170, SUNY Press, ISBN 0791401685
  21. Doniger,Wendy, (1990) Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions,P. 441, Merriam-Webster, ISBN 0877790442
  22. Smart, Ninian (1998) The World's Religions P.73-74, CUP ISBN 0521637481
  23. Wainwright, William J. (2005) Ch.3 Nontheistic conceptions of the divine. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion p.67 OUP, ISBN 0195138090
  24. Jones, Richard H. (2004) Mysticism and Morality: A New Look at Old Questions, P. 80, Lexington Books, ISBN 0739107844
  25. Brown, Robert L,(1991) Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God, SUNY Press, ISBN 079140656.
  26. Larson, Gerald James, Ch. Indian Conceptions of Reality and Divinity found in A Companion to World Philosophies By Eliot Deutsch, Ronald Bontekoe, P. 352, Blackwell, ISBN 0631213279
  27. Morgan, Kenneth W. and Sarma, D S, Eds. (1953) Ch. 5. P.207 Hindu Religious Thought by Satis Chandra Chatterjee, The Religion of the Hindus: Interpreted by Hindus, Ronald Press. ISBN 8120803876
  28. Flood, Gavin D, An Introduction to Hinduism,(p.232) CUP, ISBN 052143878
  29. Larson, Gerald James,(1999) Classical Samkhya, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, ISBN 8120805038
  30. Feuerstein, Georg (1989), Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy, Tarcher, ISBN 0874775205
  31. King, Richard (1999) Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, p:191, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 0748609547
  32. Clements, Richard Pauranik, Being a Witness in Theory and Practice of Yoga by Knut A. Jacobsen
  33. Yandell, Keith. E., On Interpreting the "Bhagavadgītā", Philosophy East and West 32, no 1 (January, 1982).
  34. Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, page 45, 98, 115, 136.
  35. Catherine Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. Routledge Press, 1992, pages 47, 51.
  36. Flood, Gavin D, An Introduction to Hinduism, (pps 239-234) CUP, ISBN 052143878
  37. Swami Gambhirananda, (1995), Bhagavadgita: with the Commentary of Sankaracharya, Ch. 13. Vs. 13, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta ISBN 8175051507
  38. Richards, John, Viveka-Chudamani of Shankara Vs 468.
  39. Wainright, William, (2006), Concepts of God, Stanford Encyclopedia of Religion

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Nontheism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.