Cultures around the world have unique relationships to world religions. In most cases, the culture of a particular place can be categorized as Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Buddhist, animist, or some combination of these. A growing number of people around the world, however, do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion.
Being nonreligious means you do not practice any form of organized religion. In some cases, entire peoples have a long history devoid of any religion. In other cases, the nonreligious started out relating to a religious framework of some kind but abandoned religion in reaction to abuse, hypocrisy, and perceived irrelevance within the tradition.
The nonreligious sometimes seek to limit the influence of religion on society and often consider religion to be the source of conflict and trouble. They may point to the persecution of people by religious leaders as evidence of the negative impact religion can have. Nonreligious people, therefore, reject the notion that religion can be a positive force in culture. Instead, they turn to other philosophies to help them make sense of the world around them.
Three Main Groups of the Nonreligious
Many (not all) nonreligious people consider themselves to be atheists, meaning they do not believe there is a God. They also may deny religious concepts such as life after death, supernatural miracles, spiritual realities, angels, demons, heaven, etc. For the atheist, what we see here on earth is all that exists. Because they don’t believe there will be any judgment by a higher power or even an eternal existence, atheists are usually more focused on the here and now. The promise of an encounter with God after death does not motivate them; they’re concerned with the present.
“Nonreligious people reject the notion that religion can be a positive force in culture.”
Other nonreligious people consider themselves to be agnostic, which means “without knowledge.” The agnostic remains morally neutral on the question of God’s existence. Usually, agnostics find themselves somewhere between a desire to believe in something beyond the material world and a need for more evidence for God. They tend to be slow to draw conclusions about spiritual things, and therefore can be put off by strong assertions and truth claims. Agnosticism is centered around what should be done based on what can be knowable.
Humanists are another group of nonreligious people. Often overlapping with atheism or agnosticism, humanism is the philosophy that people should think for themselves rather than be led by any set of doctrines. Instead of consulting a religious framework for how to think about the world or make life decisions, the humanist considers viable options and does what he or she thinks is best. Information, logic, and instinct make a lot more sense to the humanist than faith, grace, or God.
The Problem of Evil
A nonreligious person will likely say that humans are morally neutral. Typically, they believe people are born innocent and then learn or are shaped to do bad things by their family, school, neighborhood, or religion. The nonreligious would say that despite our propensity to learn and exhibit bad behavior, we have the basic capacity for good.
Many nonreligious people do not believe they or the world have a sin problem. While they understand there is bad in this world—wars, suffering, natural disasters, and other atrocities—they don’t necessarily equate it to an inherent depravity. Instead, they would say the suffering that exists in the world is caused by other humans and comes about when “human rights” are not granted to all people as individuals. If injustice, poverty, and inequality could be eradicated, the nonreligious believe the world would be great.
The solution most nonreligious suggest to end suffering, then, is to ensure and respect every person’s human rights. Typically, they propose solutions to be accomplished by large organizations—governments or collections of governments like the EU or the UN. These institutions can help facilitate education, primarily science-based education, to correct the simple or willful ignorance that causes humans to infringe on others’ rights.
Individuality for the Nonreligious
Religion or spiritual thinking is often a private matter for the nonreligious. Since a person’s beliefs are to remain their own, to impose a universal standard of right or wrong would be a violation of a person’s rights and the sovereignty of their individuality.
Appeals to religious systems of right and wrong, good and evil, or moral codes aren’t convincing for the nonreligious. If someone does not believe in any religious law, an appeal to that law in the name of religion will not make sense to him, no matter how universal that law may seem to us.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” may prick the conscience of the nonreligious, but because their moral framework has no “rules” about going against one’s conscience, they’re not likely to respond with contrition or belief. The nonreligious often have great difficulty seeing the need for salvation because they don’t have a law that pronounces them guilty.
The Nonreligious Worldview
The nonreligious often focus on science, living life for the moment, and pursuing personal happiness. Many focus on current circumstances and have no concern for what happens to them after they die. They still tour historic church buildings, practice yoga, and allow temples and mosques to be built, but they generally do not think about spirituality or religion in their day-to-day lives.
Christopher Hitchens described this kind of worldview in his book, God Is Not Great. He wrote, “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. . . . Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind. . . . We do not believe in heaven or hell. . . . We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.”
The problem many nonreligious recognize is how to collectively lead ethical lives while agreeing on what is ethical, especially when crossing cultures. Andrew Copson argues secularism is the best way to deal with diverse societies and achieve a cooperative society. He uses a modern definition of secularism based on sociologist Jean Bauberot’s work to explain how to accomplish such a task.
- Separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the political sphere by religious institutions
- Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs and manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights of others
- No state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or nonreligious worldview, with everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds
A lack of religious belief is not new to humanity. As Pew Research reports, the abandonment of faith is on the rise, at least in the Western world. Religion, for those who have none, has become passé, relegated to stories told on museum walls as humanity outgrows its need for religious constructs and faith. Musician Reggie Watts summarized the nonreligious community’s view well, tweeting, “Religions are the training wheels of the self-enlightenment. They can be helpful in the beginning, but at some point they need to be let go.”
For ideas on how to thoughtfully dialogue with the nonreligious, check out this article.
Video by Andrew Rivers, who lives with his wife in Southeast Asia.
Trey Shaw and Shane Mikeska also contributed to the content of this article. They serve European peoples through the IMB.