More on Atheism, Agnosticism, and Humanism, and the Nature of God

First, some general definitions.
Atheist: Someone who does not believe in God. There are many distinctions you can make among atheist--strong, weak, implicit, explicit, practical, theological--but the two major ones are strong atheism vs. weak atheism. A strong Atheist believes that it is certain and clear that there is no God. A weak Atheist does not believe in God, but doesn't assert the lack of God--it could be said to include all forms of non-theists.

Non-theist: Someone who does not assert a belief in God. I would include Agnostics, Atheists, most Buddhists, and many others in this group. Some would argue any non-theist is an atheist. I generally reserve the term "Atheist" for the group that is really strong Atheists, and use "non-theists" as the catch-all term.

Agnostic: Someone who does not know whether or not God exists. Again, can be divided into many categories, the main ones being strong or weak. A weak Agnostic does not know if there is a God, but may feel that they are still weighing evidence or will receive more evidence. A strong Agnostic believes that ultimately it's unknowable whether or not God exists.

Humanist: Humanism has meant many things, but right now I'll borrow a definition from the Continuum of Humanist Education: "Humanism is a godless philosophy based on reason and compassion." A major distinction I would make among Humanists is religious Humanists and secular Humanists. Secular Humanists would assert that Humanism is a philosophy and has nothing to do with religion. Religious Humanists can see Humanism as a religion, albeit one that does not require a belief in God. It is also possible to believe in God and be a Humanist, I would assert. If you follow a "godless philosophy based on reason and compassion" that does not mean you cannot believe in God. Theistic Humanists may be rare, but they exist.

And a Note on Capitalization: Many Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists would not capitalize these words, and many do not capitalize God. I choose to capitalize God except when I am specifically pointing out that there are a number of different gods that have been believed in by different cultures. It is important to recognize that Atheists don't believe in any god, however, not just the Judeo-Christian God. I choose to capitalize here, although I'm often inconsistent, the terms Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist out of a measure of respect for them as religious or areligious systems. That is certainly arguable, and I imagine it will be argued. I support you who do not capitalize in your lack of capitals. I choose to differ.
I put myself in the category of Agnostic and would call it a meta-strong Agnosticism: I believe it's currently unknowable whether or not it is unknowable whether or not God exists. And I'm a Religious Humanist. I once preached a controversial sermon in my internship congregation called "A Humanist's Search for God," and was told by some Humanists that a Humanist can't search for God. (I would call them church-going Secular Humanists, which seems like an oxymoron, yet I've encountered many in Unitarian Universalist churches.)

As an Agnostic, however, I have some very clear ideas of what kind of god is possible, and what kind is not. And I have an absolute faith in this, and it's definitely a faith, because it's based on my passion, not on reason, if you want to make a distinction between faith and reason, although I reject such distinctions. We are a reasonable faith, in Unitarian Universalism. Our faith is grounded in reason.

But my faith in what kinds of god is impossible is not based in reason, although I'm sure that a reasonable argument for my atheism towards certain gods could be based in reason.

Here goes:

If there is a God...
  • God does not choose the victor in football games.
  • God does not choose sides in human wars.
  • God does not save some people from disease while letting others die.
  • God does not "bless America" or any other country.
  • God does not send floods, hurricanes, or other natural disasters to punish people.
  • God does not create diseases to punish people.
  • God does not appear to some people and not others.
  • God does not damn people for their sexual orientation or gender.
  • God does not damn anyone.
  • God does not demand belief in God.
I would say I am atheistic towards those gods. And like all atheism, in my opinion (here's the fighting words), this is based on a passionate belief that goes beyond reason. My heart and soul reject the idea that there could be a God who answers some people's prayers for life and health and not others, because I want to believe that if there is a God, God is good, and this would not match my definition of good.

No, I do not believe in the healing power of prayer. I have heard people say that I do not pray or will not pray with people. This is not true. I do it all the time. I just don't do the "God, please heal so-and-so" type of prayer. And when I am asked to pray for people, which I will do, I do not pray for God to heal them. I pray for them. I pray (which is to say voice my hope, directed to a possible God) that they find the love or the strength or the compassion they need, in themselves and in their support networks. I voice what we are grateful for, or what needs are. To me that is prayer. And that is about as far as prayer can go, in my opinion. It can give voice to things, name things. That's about it. If you hear me give the prayer at a dinner at church, you'll hear something like, "Spirit of Life, we remember... (insert negative things that are relevant--poverty, hunger, etc.), and we are grateful for... (insert food, company, program, other noteworthy positive things). Blessed be and Amen." Pastoral prayers in situations like the hospital often take a similar structure.

Okay, you say, but aren't you doing a blessing of the animals this week? Why yes. One definition of "bless" means to "hallow or consecrate." I believe all creatures are holy (inherently good and worthy of love), and so blessing something is simply a naming of its holiness. And it is possible that there is a God of love who loves all creatures, and so blessing them is a naming of that possible fact in ritual.

Which brings me to the type of God I believe possible. The God I believe could be possible would be a God that, if God is a sentient being, cares for and loves all people equally, and with a perfect love that, ultimately, saves everyone. More likely God is something more like love, or positive energy, or the greater sum of all the parts of the universe, or something we create together in the work of love and justice. It's quite possible that humans do create God, and that God isn't fully created yet. Those kinds of God are possible, to me. I find it impossible to rule out the possibility of any sort of God. Yes, the world can be explained without it, but that doesn't prove the negation of it, or the lack of possibility that there is something more.


Robin Edgar said…
Excellent post Cynthia. I generally agree with your definitions but have a few quibbles about some other points you make. I do not have time to voice my quibbles right now so I will return later.

For the record I generally reserve the terms "fundamentalist atheist" and even "Atheist Supremacist" for the subset of *really* strong Atheists. The kind of atheists that go around telling believers that they are stupid and/or delusional and who often try to actively oppress believers and suppress religious belief when it is within their power to do so. Quite regrettably such *really* strong Atheists may be members of U*U "churches" and *some* such "fundamentalist atheists" are even ordained U*U ministers who preach anti-religious atheist dogma from U*U pulpits and actively oppress bona fide God believing Unitarians in their so-called Unitarian Church.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Just wanted to point people also to an interesting blog post on these subjects at Jess's Journal:
I want to comment on your piece in the UU world that is credited to coming from this post, called "If there is a God...". Cynthia, I want to thank you for putting into words my exact beliefs. You articulately expressed them without me even knowing that's exactly what I believe. As I read it, I just kept says "yeah, that's what I think too!" I loved it. It really helped me to get clear on my own brand of UUism, after my whole life of 46 years being a UU. I feel like I just had my own mini-BYOT class. I shared about it in Joys and Concerns today. Thank you.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Thank you so much Christine. It's been so wonderful to hear how much people have appreciated this piece.
VillemezBrown said…
I just read your article in UU World and I also loved it. The definitions section was so clear and easily-understood. I don't know if I am a strong Agnostic or a "meta-strong Agnostic" but I really like the concept of a meta-strong Agnostic!

I am a member of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines. I follow a few blogs, including two by atheists and two by fundamentalist Christian women. I did not follow any UU blogs - until now. I will be following your blog and I am very glad UU World included the url at the end of the article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.

Cynthia Landrum said…
Thank you, Adele! I'm so pleased you liked the article. It's great to have another follower of the blog, too!
Greg W said…
I also enjoyed your article in UU World. It's always a pleasure to find someone who shares my worldview and articulates it so well. Thanks!
SeekerKeeper said…
Nice article in the UU World. I liked your point about the kind of gods you find impossible being based on passion not reason. I am also a humanist but honestly the reason I do not believe in the kind of gods you mention is more personal. Two of my uncles were gay, and the thought of a god punishing them for being who they were is just wrong to me. I am also exploring my own thoughts about what kind of gods might be possible, and believe that everyone should have the freedom to do that. Thanks again and best wishes.
Secular Planet said…
I must take issue with your definition of strong atheism. Strong atheists have a belief that no gods exist, but they don't necessarily claim certainty. (This is a common misconception. Do a search if you're skeptical.) Very few, in my experience, claim certainty.
Julia Lemke said…
I absolutely loved this article. I have been reading religion articles all night at this was undoubtedly the best article I read. I completely agree with everything in your article and I am so pleased that someone was able to coherently formulate many of the thoughts I have also had. Thank you.

P.S. I would love to come visit your church since I live less than an hour and a half away. :)
Cynthia Landrum said…
@Secular Planet - I have, and I stand by it as a definition. To lack gnosis makes you an agnostic.

@Julia - Wonderful! We'd love to have you visit! I'm on sabbatical through early April, but we have a wonderful line-up of guest speakers and lay speakers until then.
Matt Leary said…
Im not going to get into what I think about atheism as a system of thought and debate. I will say only that this article illustrated the modes in which I myself am atheistic and agnostic, when it comes to contemplating or addressing definitive models of God. As far as the 'kinds of gods' lists and concept, I am in complete agreement. I cannot accept a selective and side-taking, and especially not a narcissistic God. But to distinguish myself, I would phrase it as what I accept as possible about God. Other than that I love and endorse everything in this article! Especially the part about prayer which is close to my own practice.

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