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.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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.