Terms for Non-Believers Other Than, "Atheists," and Why We Might Want to Use Them
Definition by Negation?
Generally speaking, a statement of disbelief does not affirm that in which one does believe. We Atheists have lost track of this simple truth and by so doing do injury to our own causes and concerns while neglecting the important differences between us. My contention is that , "Atheist" is a term that may have once applied to so few people and was so disparaging so as not to warrant any serious further investigation regarding the particular individuals whom claimed it. As our ranks grow, and an increasingly multifaceted visage emerges, we need to start employing words to describe ourselves that reveal, not only what we don't believe, but more importantly what we do believe and what the particular agendas are within our subgroupings.
Atheism, strictly speaking simply states that we don't regard the revelations of any particular Theism, extant or extinct, to be metaphysically valid. It doesn't necessarily even preclude the hypothesis of god. The term, "Adeist" has never actually been officially coined but this too, is a important distinction. One can reject all Theisms as Anthropomorphic inventions and still be a Deist. Deism be definition is a belief in a first intelligent causal agent to the Universe. However, this intelligence is not personal, does not answer prayers, and is not concerned with us. So the first question to ask yourself if you are not religious and regard no Theology as true or revealed is, "But am I a Deist?"
Now the rather nebulous term, Agnostic should be dealt with. Many Atheists, myself included, are also materialists who believe in science which entails not holding any belief to be dogmatically absolute. Thus in a very strict manner of speaking we are actually all Agnostics. I may believe in any Particular Theology only to the same extent that I believe in Russell's, "Celestial Teapot," or in unicorns but because I cannot absolutely prove a negative I must admit that I cannot absolutely rule anything out. In this sense I am an Agnostic but the minutia of possibility is so extreme as to cause me to call myself an Atheist and behave as if no Theology were true.
If you are someone who considers themselves an Agnostic, you should ask yourself what specifically are you Agnostic about. Are you reserving judgment on a particular Theism having validity, are you Agnostic as to perhaps the veracity of one Theology over all others containing revealed truth and just can't decide which, or are you Agnostic in regard to a Deistic god. Most of my conversations with professed Agnostics actually reveal them to be people who do believe in a vague creating intelligence of some ineffable, unknowable type. You may actually be a Deist if this is the case and claim rightfully claim the term. On the other hand if you truly can't make up your mind on the, "Prime Mover," question then Agnostic may be the correct nomenclature for you.
The study of comparative religion, the examination of, "revealed," Theistic texts and an empirical rationalism has rendered me an Atheist and the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, and more recently Steven Weinberg and Lawrence Krauss have made me, further still, an, "Adeist."
Now that the terms regarding disbelief and doubt have been dealt with we can move on to terms regarding the various things we skeptics do hold to be true and of eminent importance.
Claiming Our Beliefs and Agendas
I mentioned the term, Materialist above, this is the stance of positive content that all things are at least within the epistemological realm of Scientific Laws and potentially discoverable as physical interactions of matter and energy. This belief precludes both Theism and Deism in that they both hold claims for metaphysical entities outside of physical law and scientific explanation.
If your a Materialist, it's not a necessity but it's likely your also a Secularist. This term pertains by way of positive assertion what the Political agenda of many Atheists is composed of, namely, though I wouldn't presume to speak for all atheists, Stem Cell research, a woman's right to choose abortion, Scientific autonomy, equality of human rights including the right of consenting adults to marry, amongst other things. The term by definition simply means that legal and civil policy should not take Theistic claims into account while being debated and formulated. I find it highly ironic that the US is perhaps the first and most clearly demarcated Democratic Secularist society, at least in theory, by way of it's first amendment yet with one of most Religiously charged Political arenas amongst developed nations. Regardless, whether you are an Atheist, Agnostic, Theist, or Deist, you may or may not also be a Secularist. It all depends on what portions of which world viewpoints you feel should be relevant in governing and legislation.
The term, "Secular Humanist" is often used, however these are two separate orientations, neither of which necessitates the other. A Humanist is someone who holds that the treatment and respect of people, both individually and collectively, is an ethical imperative. And so you see in the last century, Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, two instances of Secularist societies that were not Humanistic. Further, these two perspectives can sometimes result in a mutually exclusive amalgation of views. For instance a Secularist Political agenda generally includes stem-cell research funding, the import of choice in matters of abortion, and may or may include support of capital punishment. While a Humanist may oppose stem cell research, abortion, and would most likely be anti-capital punishment. And so it is certainly not the case that Secularism implies Humanism or that Humanism necessitates all aspects of Secularism It should also be noted Theism does not preclude Humanism, though historically they have often made for violent bedfellows.
Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch religious Philosopher, was excommunicated from the Judaic Church for his writings on Pantheism. This is often misrepresented as a metaphysical orientation towards some kind of vague Deism. It actually is roughly synonymous with Materialism and merely asserts the workings of physical law and the phenomena observable within nature as a kind of Euphemism for god, in that they, like a Theistic view of god, are ubiquitous and omnipotent. I, in particular, am rather inclined toward claiming myself to be a Pantheist. I think my alacrity for this term is, firstly, that it denotes positive content as opposed to the vapid word Atheist. I much prefer to define myself by what I do believe rather than by what I don't believe. Further, I find a kind of numinous majesty in the study of physical science. Particularly when I look at Hubble telescope pictures, contemplate the parsimony and tremendous intellectual achievements embodied by Evolutionary Theory and Unified Relativity Theory, or try to appreciate an infinitely accelerating expanding Universe of an age of 14 billion years I am filled with a kind of awe that I imagine it must feel something like to be religious.
I hope I've been able to clarify a few Philosophical orientations and help the non-religiously oriented to find some terms that they can embrace that hold actual content. I think that these terms can help us to better come together on what we do agree upon and delineate where we differ. This is of importance because we all have Political agendas that we would like to see forwarded but this project is often thwarted by the overly inclusive term, "Atheist," which only implies a universal set of non-beliefs without allowing us to organize ourselves as special interest groups towards the various things that we do believe, which indeed are not universal amongst us.