Both within and outside the informal association of Friends who call themselves nontheists, there is little common understanding of what the word nontheist means. There is also little common understanding of related words such as atheist, agnostic, humanist, and materialist, but believers and unbelievers alike have at least a sense of what they mean by those words.
Some of those who write about the subject on Quaker blogs seem to read nontheist as a synonym for atheist, which is unfortunate. A great many of those associated with nontheist Friends would not go so far as to describe themselves as atheists. I would personally go that far, but that’s a subject for another day.
I will put out my own understanding of the word nontheist here, and welcome others to either embrace that definition, or offer their own understandings. I would be delighted to see responses from those of all perspectives, including theistic perspectives.
Nontheist seems to be a fairly new word. Some of its earliest uses have been by those who feel a deep and genuine attachment to something they choose to call God, but who feel a need to reject traditional understandings of what God is. Most prominent perhaps is Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is quite clear about rejecting theistic understandings of God as “a personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities, which has shaped every religious idea of the Western world.” Yet he holds to some yet-unformed understanding of God not as a personal being, which does not intrude in the natural world as a supernatural agent, and which in fact may not be presumed to have a separate, objective existence. He uses Paul Tillich’s phrase “ground of being,” though to be honest I have always had a hard time comprehending what is meant by this. In any case, it seems to me not far from the understanding of a great many Quakers who would not dream of describing themselves as nontheists.
So, I would put forth that a nontheist is someone who does not accept a theistic understanding of God, as described in the preceding paragraph. Such a person may reject all understandings of God, may embrace certain non-theistic understandings of God, may find God language useful and rich in trying to describe their experience of the world but not true in a literal sense, may believe in certain non-material, transcendent realities that have little in common with the common understanding of the word “God.” An atheist falls within this understanding of nontheist, as does an agnostic, a humanist, a Buddhist, and many Quakers who find the whole practice of labeling our belief systems an unfortunate distraction from genuine religious living.
What are your thoughts?