Since the topics we’re going to be writing about are often misunderstood or unclear, I thought it would be good to explain the lexicon we’re using. After all, you can’t hold a constructive conversation if people aren't using the same definitions.
I want to start by dispelling common misconceptions about “Agnostic” and “Atheist.”
An Atheist by definition is simply someone that doesn’t hold a belief in a god or gods. Theists propose god concepts, and those that aren’t convinced by any of them are Atheists.
An Agnostic by definition is someone who simply claims that they lack knowledge or certainty about a topic. You can claim to be Gnostic or Agnostic about any topic, we’re just most familiar with it in regards to religion.
This means that rather than a continuum from Christianity/Islam/etc. to Deism, to Agnosticism to Atheism we have two axis overlapping.
Gnostic Theists say: “I believe in a god or gods, and I know I’m right.”
Examples include: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Greeks, Norse, etc.
Agnostic Theists say: “I believe in a god or gods, but I don’t claim to know I’m right.”
Examples include: Deists, many individuals of Gnostic Theist religions, etc.
Gnostic Atheists say: “I don’t believe in any gods, and I know I’m right.”
Examples include: Buddhists, Scientologists, Raeliens, some 'strong' Atheists, etc.
Agnostic Atheists say: “I don’t believe in any gods, but I don’t claim to know I’m right."
Examples include: Most self described Atheists and Agnostics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists.
Next I want to define or clarify terms that are commonly used by non-theists: Freethinker, Skeptic, Secular Humanism, and Secularism.
A Freethinker is someone who values evidence, logic, and reason in order to determine their beliefs and world views. Freethinkers reject beliefs based solely on tradition, authority, dogma, scripture, revelations, or personal experience. This is less an assertion that these beliefs have no value, but just a consequence of the fact that arguing on these bases break basic rules of logic (i.e. They are fallacious arguments).
A Skeptic is someone who requires evidence before believing a claim. There are degrees to this. Most skeptics would allow that a mundane and inconsequential claim is fine to accept if you trust the source. For example, if a good friend tells you that the restaurant across town wasn't very good, a skeptic can accept that claim at face value. However, when the claim would have significant impact on your actions, interactions, or perceptions, a skeptic should carefully consider the belief before incorporating it into their life. While religion would most certainly fall under this category, the implications are much broader. Skeptics are less concerned with “being right,” than they are with having “as few wrong beliefs as possible.” The phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a reflection of the skeptic philosophy.
Secular Humanism is a non-religious belief in the value of human dignity. It also asserts that humans have the power to improve their own lives and their society, rather than relying on traditional lifestyles or non-democratic authorities. It is democratic in nature, focusing on common good and common goals. Because it is secular it is not exclusively atheist (the origins of secularism actually come from a religious movement to put an end to hundreds of years of religious warfare in Europe). The minimum statement of Humanism is below:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality [as justifications for behavior].”
Secularism is a concept that the government and other public institutions should exist separate from, independent of, and indifferent to religions and religious beliefs. When Jefferson wrote that there was to be "a wall of separation between church and state," and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he was writing with a secularist philosophy.
And finally to attempt to avoid offending anyone in the future, I’ll clarify what we mean when we use certain religious terms. There are precise definitions to these words when used in study of comparative theology, anthropology, or secular religious studies, and while they may not conform to the common usage of individuals, they are the most useful ways to use these terms when talking about religions in general. The terms are: Supernatural/Divine, Religion, Sect, Cult.
The Supernatural refers to anything outside of the natural world. This includes, gods, goddesses, demigods, angels, spirits, demons, ghost, magic, ESP, witchcraft and sorcery, prayer, and superstitious rituals (like always wearing the same pair of lucky socks before a big game).
While not all cultures explicitly define their religions in this way, all theistic religions do share a common feature: there is a supernatural realm and a natural realm. Entities of the supernatural realm (Heaven, Hell, Mount Olympus, Valhalla, etc.) have a will of their own and have some power to act on the natural realm (the physical universe). Humans, living in the natural realm, cannot act in the supernatural realm, but they can sometimes harness gateways to it, allowing them to influence the will of the supernatural entities to act for them on the natural realm. These methods are what we call magic, witchcraft, and prayer. Not everything supernatural is divine, but everything divine is supernatural by definition.
This isn’t a word with a value judgment attached to it. In the academic use of the word it does not mean “unnatural,” it is simply distinguishing between the natural realm and the supernatural/divine realm.
A religion is a belief system that has tenets, doctrines or dogmas, scriptures, holy men, ritual and ceremony, symbolism, a figure of authority (either man or divine), makes a metaphysical truth claim, and has a strict code of mores. Any social organization with these characteristics is considered religious in nature. This includes non-theistic religions like Buddhism, Scientology, and Marxism.
Sect is the generic term for Denomination, which is a more Christian term. Sects or Denominations are simply divisions of a larger religious body, due to either cultural, theological, or administrative differences.
Cult is generally a smear word, but it still has a specific technical meaning. A religious sect that attempts to strictly isolate their followers from the world outside the group, including but not limited to practices that tear apart families, is a cult. Cults tend to be heavily structured, intrude on all aspects of life, and be excessively authoritarian. Cults can be of their own religion or they can be a sect of a larger religion.
Feel free to ask questions or discuss why you disagree. If I see a need to refine definitions I'll make note of it and edit the above post. Soon we'll get inspired to talk about something more interesting, I promise.
*Note on guest posts: If you want to write something that fits in with our themes but you use a word in a very different way, please make that clear at the beginning of your post to avoid confusion.
In pursuit of reason,