You know what’s funny is how often people will use a word to describe themselves when almost no one can agree what that word means.
For the purposes of my own ongoing narrative, there are four words that people use, three of which no one agrees on. The first of the four, and the one that is easiest to define, is theist. A theist believes in a God or gods. A theist Christian believes in the Biblical God, for example.
Now we enter muddy waters, and what I am about to tell you is not a strong definition but my own personal use of the words. Let’s start with agnostic. This is a weird one, actually, as gnostic generally means seeker of knowledge, or just knowledge… So to be agnostic would, from an etymological reading, be a person who denies seeking knowledge. Like Astrology, however, the meaning of the word’s roots has been dropped over time, and now an agnostic is a person who does claim knowledge of theistic truths. That bears some additional definition, I fear.
It is sometimes said that a person is a “teapot agnostic”, which evokes the narrative of Bertrand Russell’s space teapot. Russell, a late nineteenth-early twentieth century atheist, once posited that there was a teapot floating around in space, and it was his right to believe in it because you could not prove that it did not exist. To prove that it did not exist would be to make a constantly evolving, exhaustive map of the entire solar system at all point simultaneously (the teapot moves, obviously). A teapot agnostic, therefore, is said to believe that the likelihood of God existing is comparable to that of the teapot; very unlikely, but possible.
Atheist, then, is a word I use to describe those that believe, actively, that there is no God. These are the people who tell religious people they are wrong, and that they should update their thought processes and stop being so… So wrong! I am not this thing, or at least, I would not describe myself this way. I certainly am not one who holds to the belief that there is no God.
Nontheist is a somewhat newer word, though I do not know the detailed etymological history of it. I know for a fact that it has been in frequent use since the 90s, and was used by Richard Dawkins in his 2002 TED talk on atheism.. But to me, it signifies something slightly different than atheist. To me, a nontheist is not someone who believes there is no God, or believes in a God, they are just someone who does not believe in a God. That… That is admittedly a very difficult statement to explain, and very difficult to understand, and it took me many years to iron down even the way I felt, let alone a word to use to describe it.
How to describe it without sounding atheist or agnostic? I don’t even truly know. I certainly do not have an active belief that there is no God. I am certainly partially agnostic, but not in the traditional “Could be or not could be,” sense. I just… Don’t believe there is a God (or, perhaps, a Personal God who cares what I think or do on a daily, moment-by-moment basis). I am sorry, even to me this is a deeply unsatisfying definition. In my head it evokes a wide-reaching set of ideas and feelings that I seem not to be able to put into words.
Anyway, words are hard. That’s really the point here.