Atheism and Non-Religious Philosophies: Definitions

The following quotations were collected as a resource to help define some of the terms that are commonly used to describe non-religious peoples, organizations, and movements. The terms include: agnosticism, atheism, brights, freethinkers, humanism, naturalism, rationalism, skepticism, and universism.

Agnosticism:

"Agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God is impossible. It is often put forth as a middle ground between theism and atheism. Understood this way, agnosticism is skepticism regarding all things theological. The agnostic holds that human knowledge is limited to the natural world, that the mind is incapable of knowledge of the supernatural. Understood this way, an agnostic could also be a theist or an atheist. The former is called a fideist, one who believes in God purely on faith. The latter is sometimes accused by theists of having faith in the non-existence of God, but the accusation is absurd and the expression meaningless. The agnostic atheist simply finds no compelling reason to believe in God." - Skeptic's Dictionary

"Agnosticism may simply be the state of not knowing whether any gods exist or not, but people can take this position for different reasons and apply it in different ways. These differences then create variations in the ways in which one can be an agnostic. It is thus possible to separate agnostics in two groups, labeled strong agnosticism and weak agnosticism as analogs to strong atheism and weak atheism. If someone is a weak agnostic, they state only that they do not know if any gods exist or not. The possibility of some theoretical god or some specific god existing is not excluded. The possibility of someone else knowing for sure if some god exists or not is also not excluded. This is a very simple and general position and it is what people often think of when they think of agnosticism. Strong agnosticism goes just a bit further. If someone is a strong agnostic, they don't merely claim that they don't know if any gods exist; instead, they also claim that no one can or does know if any gods exist. Whereas weak agnosticism is a position that only describes the state of knowledge of one person, strong agnosticism makes a statement about knowledge and reality themselves." - Austin Cline, About.com

Atheism:

"The term atheism comes from the Greek word atheos, meaning godless. Atheos is derived from a, meaning "without," and theos, meaning "deity"." - The Atheist Empire

"An Atheist has no religious belief. An Atheist does not believe in a god or gods, or other supernatural entities...We are not a "religion." The concept of an agency outside of nature with the ability to reach into natural law and control events is supernaturalism, the foundation of any religion. Belief in the existence of that agency is based on faith. An Atheist has no specific belief system. We accept only that which is scientifically verifiable. Since god concepts are unverifiable, we do not accept them. " - American Atheists

"Atheism is commonly divided into two types: strong atheism and weak atheism. Although only two categories, this distinction manages to reflect the broad diversity which exists among atheists when it comes to their positions on the existence of gods. Weak atheism, also sometimes referred to as implicit atheism, is simply another name for the broadest and most general conception of atheism: the absence of belief in any gods. A weak atheist is someone who lacks theism and who does not happen to believe in the existence of any gods - no more, no less. This is also sometimes called agnostic atheism because most people who self-consciously lack belief in gods tend to do so for agnostic reasons. Strong atheism, also sometimes referred to as explicit atheism, goes one step further and involves denying the existence of at least one god, usually multiple gods, and sometimes the possible existence of any gods at all. Strong atheism is sometimes called "gnostic atheism" because people who take this position often incorporate knowledge claims into it - that is to say, they claim to know in some fashion that certain gods or indeed all gods do not or cannot exist." - Atheism.com

Brights:

"The defining attribute of the person (a Bright)...is this: possessing a worldview that is naturalistic..."Brights" include the many and various types of persons whose perspective, values, ethics, and conduct derive from a naturalistic worldview, free of any supernatural sorts of entities or forces. While they differ in the particulars of their outlook, they have this commonality...The simple noun term, "bright" has the potential to gather under the same umbrella all persons who hold a naturalistic worldview, whether or not they see themselves part of any of the various organizations in the communities of reason." - The Brights' Net

Freethinkers:

"free-think-er n. A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists. No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth." - Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

"The concept of freethought refers to the process of making decisions and arriving at beliefs without relying solely upon tradition, dogma, or the opinions of authorities. Usually the context of this is only in religion, although a person can be a freethinker in other areas as well. In place of tradition or dogma, freethinkers insist upon using reason, logic, and evidence as the bases for forming reasonable and justified beliefs. Superstition is rejected in favor of science. Most freethinkers are also atheists, although that is not required. It is possible to be an atheist without also being a freethinker, or to be a freethinker without also being an atheist." - Austin Cline, Glossary of Religion & Philosophy at About.com

Humanism:

"As Kurt Vonnegut succinctly described: being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead. Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." - American Humanist Association

"Humanism is a philosophy of life inspired by humanity and guided by reason. Humanists think that science and reason provide the best basis for understanding the world around us. Humanists believe that moral values are properly founded on human empathy and scientific understanding. Humanists see no convincing evidence for gods, the supernatural, or life after death. Humanists believe we must live this life on the basis that it is the only life we'll have -- that, therefore, we must make the most of it for ourselves, each other, and our world. Humanist philosophies have arisen separately in many different cultures over many thousands of years. Today, even though most have never assigned a label to their most cherished ideas about life, knowledge, ethics, purpose, and the universe, a significant portion of society shares this non-religious approach to life. Whether or not they use the term humanism, tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the world agree with the humanist philosophy of living a happy and productive life based on reason and compassion." - Institute for Humanist Studies

"Secular Humanism is a way of thinking and living that aims to bring out the best in people so that all people can have the best in life. Secular humanists reject supernatural and authoritarian beliefs. They affirm that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the communities and world in which we live. Secular humanism emphasizes reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation." - Council for Secular Humanism

Naturalism:

"Naturalism is a metaphysical theory which holds that all phenomena can be explained mechanistically in terms of natural (as opposed to supernatural) causes and laws. Naturalism posits that the universe is a vast machine or organism, devoid of general purpose and indifferent to human needs and desires...naturalism neither denies nor affirms the existence of God, either as transcendent or immanent. However, naturalism makes God an unnecessary hypothesis and essentially superfluous to scientific investigation. Reference to moral or divine purposes has no place in scientific explanations. On the other hand, the scope of science is limited to explanation of empirical phenomena without reference to forces, powers, influences, etc., which are supernatural." - The Skeptic's Dictionary

"The hypothesis that the physical universe is a 'closed system' in the sense that nothing is neither a part nor a product of it can affect it. So naturalism entails the nonexistence of all supernatural beings, including the theistic god." - Paul Draper, as posted on The Secular Web

"Naturalistic - not only do we hold that evidence for the supernatural has not been convincingly demonstrated, but that belief in the supernatural has lead to a great deal of misery for humanity and needs to be rejected and replaced with critical inquiry, accountability, and science." - Secular Student Alliance

Rationalism:

"Rationalism: The mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience, independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority." - American Rationalist

The doctrine of rationalism holds that the source of knowledge is reason and logic. This is usually contrasted with the idea that faith, revelation and religion are also valid sources of knowledge and verification. - Austin Cline, Glossary of Religion & Philosophy at About.com

Skepticism:

"Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece when Socrates observed: "All I know is that I know nothing." But this is not a practical position to take. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false. Other claims, such as hypnosis and chaos theory, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between "know nothing" skepticism and "anything goes" credulity." - Michael Shermer, as posted by the Skeptic Society

"Philosophical Skepticism is a critical attitude which systematically questions the notion that absolute knowledge and certainty are possible, either in general or in particular fields. Philosophical Skepticism is opposed to philosophical dogmatism, which maintains that a certain set of positive statements are authoritative, absolutely certain and true. Philosophical Skepticism should be distinguished from ordinary skepticism, where doubts are raised against certain beliefs or types of beliefs because the evidence for the particular belief or type of belief is weak or lacking. Ordinary skeptics are not credulous or gullible. They don't take things on trust, but must see the evidence before believing. Ordinary skeptics doubt the miraculous claims of religions, the claims of alien abductions, the claims of psychoanalysis, etc. But they do not necessarily doubt that certainty or knowledge is possible. Nor do they doubt these things because of systematic arguments that undermine all knowledge claims." - Skeptic's Dictionary

Universism:

"Universism is the world's first rational religion...We celebrate faith in reason, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress...A Universist an individual who applies personal reason and experience to the fundamental questions of human existence, derives inspiration from the natural uncertainty of the human state, and denies the validity of revelation, faith and dogma." - United Universists