What Sort of Non-Believer Are You?  

Non-Believers are the fastest growing religious demographic. Pew Survey 2014: in the US the unaffiliated grew from 16% to 22% concurrent with an 8% decline in Christianity.  Around the globe the highest numbers of non-believers are in China 30%, Japan 31%, Ireland 44%, France 34%, Australia 48%, Czech Republic 48% and the Netherlands 42%, according to WIN-Gallop.

Only small % identify as atheists. How many Non-Believers do you think are Atheists?

Well…THEY ALL ARE. Atheists lack belief or disbelieve in the existence of god or gods, so by definition every single non-believer is also an atheist.

If this is a teeth-gnashing thought, let me assure you I have no intention of co-opting unwilling non-believers to the Atheist cause. But the point that anyone who simply lacks a positive belief in god or god’s, falls under the Atheist umbrella has some degree of utility.

For even amongst agnostics and non-believers there’s a fair degree of antipathy towards atheists, most particularly towards the New Atheists. The strident, evangelical types such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who, not only disbelieve, but mercilessly attack faith are also antitheists. Atheism is a much wider group than antitheism, incorporating all of those who lack belief in gods and who identify as such.

I am hopeful that, if you accept non-belief equals Atheism, if only in the definitional sense, it will soften negative views. Atheism needn’t be the horrible bogeyman it was once, when it was regarded synonymously with rapists and child abusers. Religion has peddled hard the theory that without belief, nothing compels us to behave morally. And that’s why atheists used to be killed as heretics and apostates, in fact, still are some parts of the world. If there’s any group who should understand the point that there is nothing immoral, untrustworthy or malevolent about Atheists, it’s that growing group of Non-believers of which Atheists are a subset.

For the record, refer Pew Survey, Atheists account for a mere 3.1% on the US non-believers, whilst the balance comprise, agnostic, 4.0%, and nothing in particular, 15.8%.

Worldwide, non-believers make up 23% of the population, with 13% Atheist (WIN-Gallup). A substantially higher proportion of people identify as Atheist in China and Secular Europe where the stigma associated with the word is not as prevalent.

Within the category of non-believer there are various metaphysical positions. The deficit between the total non-believers, and the atheists/agnostics, poses an interesting question. If they are not atheists or agnostics how do these people identify? And what rationale do they use to develop their worldview?

To illustrate the possibilities I will outline my specific Atheist outlook.

Since I lack belief in god I identify as an atheist: but why? I used to say I was agnostic until I began reading widely on the subject.

The metaphysical question ultimately resides in my view of the likelihood of god creating the universe. Richard Swinburne defines God as follows:

a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things

Firstly, I am agnostic on whether some Thing or Things created the universe. I think it’s probable that something has always existed, and “nothing” is not a real concept but a boundary condition. It seems there’s some, albeit inconclusive, evidence in the physics of the world that material things never reduce to nothing. Parmenides idea that “from nothing, nothing comes,” seems persuasive to me; not in suggesting some sort of invisible necessary being, rather, that nothing is an impossible state. Despite all this I can’t absolutely rule out a “creator.”

But if there’s a creator, it’s staggeringly unlikely to be an Omni-propertied, invisible person, satisfying the definition of the major world religions. In addition, I discount any likelihood the universe was created with humans as its special focus.

If a “creator” exists there’s no evidence to suggest what it is. The erroneous presumption of the traditional arguments for God, such as the Cosmological argument, is that a creator must be a personal being. But the “deduction” is flawed. It’s based on the same counterfactual argument as the Argument for Design: it appears as if an intelligent force must have created the universe because of the natural order of things. The argument for Design has been debunked by Evolution, a natural process, which only seems “intelligent” when viewed through the lens of anthropomorphic confirmation bias. So, just by dent of existing, we can hardly jump to the conclusion that the cause of existence has any knowable characteristics; that’s a non-sequitur of epic proportions.

The universe could have spawned by a larger universe, or the collapse of a previous universe; it could have arisen out of a “force” or a physical material within it as yet undiscovered. It’s even possible that whatever caused the universe no longer exists. Countless other examples might be listed. The point is that we just don’t know, and whilst I may personally hold a speculative belief that something always existed, I remain agnostic due to the lack of empirical evidence. Contemplating the history of human knowledge, as it stumbled from theories of animism to flat-earth to heliocentrism, we see again and again that it’s impossible to solve fundamental questions about the natural world by intuition or deduction alone. We have been spectacularly wrong in the past. Until 200 years ago most of what we thought we knew about the world was absolutely wrong.

To remain open minded on the existence of a creator is to be agnostic about deism, or adeist. This could easily translate to agnosticism; the belief we cannot know whether god(s) exist.

However, considering both the Abrahamic religions and Swinburne’s concept of God, I feel compelled to conclude that no such beings exist. Not only is there no proof, or reason, to think deities with such specific characteristics exist, I find it unreasonable to consider the possibility sufficiently likely to award it any epistemological status. In other words, I consider the existence of god(s) to be equivalent with the belief in other mythical, patently anthropomorphic, human concepts such as dragons, fairies and incubus, along with creatures of legend such as Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and xxxx.

Therefore, I would identify as a gnostic atheist. Noting and recognizing that this position is substantially stronger than agnostic atheism (not knowing and non-believing), or weak atheism (simply lacking belief in god(s)), I prefer to be just as unequivocal about god(s) existence as other mythical creations.

In addition to the absence of any evidence, the concept of god as practiced in the major world religions is patently borne out of the human desire to understand and explain the world, to provide a purpose to life, to provide consolation in death, appealing to the primal urge to survive. The “soul in a soulless world,” said Marx, the appeal of religion is obvious and transparent. Whenever we hear a bang on the roof, and upon inspection find a fallen tree limb, we notice our evolutionary wiring to ascribe agency (an intelligent will) to nature as an instrument of survival.

The concept of god is incoherent and contradictory. Reflecting on the Abrahamic concept of god, a singular being, self-created, self-sufficient, of no parents, and with no relationships to other equal or similar beings; and yet having familial feelings of love for one species of creatures he’s created, strikes me as absurd, and a manifestly human projection. The problem of evil stands in contrast to the purported Omni properties of god. And theologians who rationalize the necessity of the random deaths of thousands in tsunami’s and earthquakes, of the millennia of high infant mortality, the brutal and arbitrary nature of life in the universe, are faced with the idea of heaven; where no evil exists for eternity.

Similarly, the timeless nature of god seems incoherent. How did god think of his creation prior to creating it when there was no time? Recall, god apparently exists independent of time and space, and created the world from nothing. Under Christianity for example, god must have desired to create a universe with humans as his special focus of creation. The reasoning involved to create such a universe would be activities taking place outside of space and time? What was gods first thought then? How did one thought precede another without time? A personal being which plans and creates yet sits outside of time itself seems like a contradictory hypothesis.

As we have observed, personal beings such as humans are complex organisms which have evolved over millions and millions of years from less complex life forms. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion,” the simple precedes the complex.

For these reasons I identify as a gnostic atheist. I am aware of others who hold similar views on the extent to which we can have knowledge of god(s) who identify as agnostic or weak atheist. One of the key reasons I reject agnosticism is that we are forced to make a choice between supporting religious belief or not. Simply agreeing we cannot know with absolute certainty would be fine if we were discussing a concept which had no bearing on our lives. But we have powerful religious lobbies, religious influence in government, tax free exemptions, the rise in religious cults, sectarian violence, religious wars, religious instruction in schools, school chaplains, denial of evolution and climate change, the religious influence on social policies such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and the infiltration of political parties and leaders by undisclosed religious ideologies. Again and again the hand of religion is out asking for assistance and support.

The agnosticism which proffer’s no opinion on the existence of god(s), but recognizes that we can have no knowledge of whether they exist or not, is bound to acquiesce to the demands of religious groups far too often. Agnostics sometimes erroneously claim that atheists and theists hold beliefs whereas they simply observe reality. Agnosticism is a belief also: the belief we can have no knowledge of whether god(s) exist. When it’s demanded that we observe some aspect of religious doctrine, such as requests for donations, or allowing clergy into schools, we either assent to the belief in god(s) influencing our life or not. A decision is required.

So, what type of non-believer you are largely depends on your level of certainty about the existence of god(s). Answering the following questions might help in establishing your position.

Do you lack belief in god(s)? Identify: Weak Atheist, Agnostic Atheist.

Do you positively disbelieve in the existence of god(s)? Identify: Strong Atheism, Gnostic Atheist.

Do you hold no beliefs in the existence of god(s) but still think it’s likely that some sort of spiritual realm exists? Identify: Agnostic, Spiritual.

Do you believe in the values of a particular religion and believe there must be some sort of god or deity, but that we cannot know what it is? Identify: Spiritual, Deist, Agnostic.

Do you think we cannot know that god(s) exist but still think it’s likely they do? Identify: Agnostic theist, Agnostic.

Do you have certain knowledge god(s) exist? Identify: Gnostic Theist, Theist.

What sort of non-believer are you?

3 replies
  1. RDF
    RDF says:

    Where did you get your data for Australia? It’s wrong. In collating the PEW-Global; IPSOS (world), WIN-Gallop and Australian Census data, we are far more than 48% non-believers — the real number is 68% (with 31% Religious [of all faiths]; and 1% no answer); while the 68% is comprised of Agnostic ~30%; Atheist ~14%, and simply ‘Non-Religious’ comprising the balance.

      • Hugh Harris
        Hugh Harris says:


        You might note that 8% figure is one I’ve quoted several times in pieces in Fairfax and in New Matilda. I was quoting the 2012 Global Survey of Religiosity and Atheism, which uses a graph which shows Australia was 48% not religious, 10% atheist. (http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf)

        The Census had non religious at 22.3 in 2011, but we expect it to grow to over 30% in 2016. We, (The Rationalists Society of Australia) commissioned an IPSOS poll which showed no religion at 38% (asking the same question as the Census) earlier this year.

        I’m not sure how you’re arriving at your stats. Please let me know.


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