Sunday, 10 September 2017

What the Heck is Non-Theism Anyway?

This seems to be a question that is appropriate, given thought and worry within our Yearly Meeting (that is, Britain Yearly Meeting) at this time. I don't doubt there are other unprogrammed Yearly Meetings with similar concerns. There's a lot of discussion and worry about non-theism, and perhaps as a consequence, much discomfort among some non-theist Friends that we are no longer feeling as welcomed and a part of our Religious Society as we once felt. For there can be no doubt that we've been around for quite a while, but there is an almost sudden increase in worry about us. Whether this is because of increased visibility, or because of concerns being aired by visible or weighty voices among us, I couldn't say. At least, without some in-depth study, and I doubt anyone is going to fund me to do that.
So let's get right back to basics. What are we talking about here anyway? What is this weird term, “non-theist”? Is it the same as when it's written “nontheist”? How is this different from “atheist”. What are atheists doing in a religious society? You might be surprised how often I've heard things that seem to amount to that last question...
The first, important point to cover is the difference between non-theism and atheism. What I, and some other non-theist Friends, have said on this is quite simple. Atheism is taken by many, if not most people, to mean a complete rejection of the transmundane – absolute materialism, philosophically speaking. Most, but not all, non-theist Friends are not such absolute materialists. Indeed, an atheist in a religious society seems so contradictory largely because of this loaded meaning on the term “atheist”. Thus, while linguistically, we might think that “theism” and “atheism” are opposites, or complements, the usage of the term “atheism” has drifted away from that meaning, and the use of “theism” has, frankly, not been significant enough for many people to be comfortable with it as a term.
However, non-theism is, to me, conceived of simply as the complement of theism – if it isn't theism, it's non-theism. That then rather relies on having a clear meaning of theism, which there could be a lot of academic debate about. I will explain it in terms that I consider practical, and that also happen to be based on what my Religious Studies teacher taught us in school – and that some online sources agree with, and others don't.
When I learned the term “theism”, it was in terms of classification of beliefs independently of the usual division of faith traditions and denominations. It was also contrasted with deism. The latter is a belief in a creator god or gods who do not interact with the world, while the former involves a god or gods who interact with the world. More than that, however, it was explained to me, the concept of theism also supposes that this god (or these gods) have personal identity and desires, and the ability and will to act on them, in relation to our world – usually through great cosmic powers. Of course, the personality and desires may be utterly beyond our ken, but that does not remove the idea of them. Indeed, the related concept of classical theism, in philosophy of religion, supposes all of this, and omnipotence, omniscience, etc.
Thus, one might be a non-theist by rejecting any element of this definition. A deist is certainly a non-theist, as, in this conception, is one who views their god as utterly impersonal, more a force of nature than a personality. Potentially, even a god who has personality and desires would not be sufficient for theism, if that god acted in the world, could only act in the world, by nudging the actions of people.
Theism is a very broad category, including the mainstream theological positions of most major world religions (at least, as I understand them; I am not an expert in comparative theology, merely a knowledgeable amateur). Likewise, so is non-theism. Pantheism and panentheism, viewing God and the universe as in some way equivalent, may be theistic or non-theistic, quite readily. Modern Pagans who worship or invoke pantheons may or may not be theistic, depending on their view of the objective/metaphysical reality of their gods. Buddhism is generally considered non-theistic, though properly discussing it requires a deeper understanding of south Asian spirituality than may be obtained by reading simple translations of native texts, as concepts do not map readily across.
Now, one of the first things to understand about the definition(s) given so far is that they are useful principally in categorising beliefs, not in describing people. It is not usually helpful to apply labels to others beliefs, but it is helpful to understand the identities they apply to them for themselves. This is where it all gets awfully fuzzy.
A person may claim the identity of “Christian”, and most people would probably assume some things from that – a reverence for the person of Christ as depicted in the Gospels would probably be the usual minimum, while others would assume trinitarianism, a belief in the resurrection, or even the Nicene Creed. Those are not safe assumptions, especially among Quakers, but they are most likely assumptions shared by most of the population. If thinking about things in terms of theism and non-theism, you would probably also assume theism. And yet, I have known those who identified as Christian and as non-theist. I have known those who urged me, despite my absence of most of the beliefs seen as key in Christianity, that I should identify as Christian, and simply define it in a way that makes sense to me. Certainly, the latter doesn't seem to me to be compatible with the tradition of plain speaking, but the former I have no problem with; that another person's self-identification should not be questioned without great reason is a precept I have long lived by, and furthermore, there are non-theists who draw on the life of Christ as a great source of wisdom and teaching. Indeed, I do not find it entirely barren myself, no more or less than most religious stories.
For someone to identify as a non-theist among Quakers can have many reasons and meanings. It often means not accepting the literal meaning of our business method as seeking “the will of God”. It sometimes means a general identification as not affiliating with any mainstream theological basis, be it Christian or otherwise. It certainly usually means a rejection of special authority of scripture, though not always a rejection of all value in it. Often, it reflects a degree of agnosticism, or ietsism, a term based on a borrowing from Dutch, that might be said as “something-ism” – a belief that there is something beyond the physical, the strictly material, but an uncertainty or indifference as to what it might be.
So, I have given you some idea of what non-theism means to me, intellectually. A detailed account of what it means to me, personally, will have to wait for another occasion. The important thing to take from this post is that you cannot, simply cannot tell precisely what another's views and beliefs are by simple labels and self-identifications. You have to talk to each other and share ideas and experiences. You have to, put simply and in Quaker cliché, get to know one another in that which is eternal.
Though we could spend a lot of time debating the precise meaning of that well-loved (and well-used) quote!
PS: Oh, on the question of the hyphen, I'm sure there are some who find it very significant, but to me it is largely stylistic. I suppose, if pressed, I would say that the hyphen form, non-theism, emphasises the contrast with theism, while nontheism stands more on its own. Also, my spellchecker prefers the hyphen.
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