‘Atheist’: The word atheist is used to describe somebody who does not believe in a god. Knowing somebody is an atheist does not tell you much more about their wider beliefs or worldview. Many atheists will hold a humanist approach to life, but some will not. Some people who consider themselves to have a religious identity (e.g. Jewish or Anglican), perhaps for family or cultural reasons, are also atheists because they do not believe in a god.
‘Agnostic’: This word is sometimes used to describe somebody who cannot decide whether they believe in a god or not. However, the original use of the word was to describe somebody who believes we cannot know for certain whether a god exists or not.
Some people describe themselves as both agnostic and atheist. They accept we cannot know for certain whether a god exists or not (it’s impossible to prove that something does not exist), but they choose not to believe in one and live their lives accordingly.
‘Secularist’: The word ‘secularism’ was historically used to describe a non-religious worldview, and non-religious people and worldviews are still sometimes described as ‘secular’. However, the word today is normally used to describe a political position on how society and the state should be organised. Someone who supports secularism is a ‘secularist’. Humanists will typically be secularists, but so will many religious people.
‘Non-believer / unbeliever’: These terms are often used to describe somebody who does not believe in a god. Many atheists prefer not to use these words because people who do not believe in a god do, of course, hold many other beliefs (about the nature of reality, how we should live, and how we should treat other people).
‘Non-religious’: This term might be used by a wide variety of people who do not identify as being religious. It does not tell you much about a person’s wider worldview. Some non-religious people may hold beliefs associated with being religious (e.g. believing in a god), but most will not.
‘Freethinker’ was a term, popular in the nineteenth century, used by those who rejected authority in matters of belief, especially political and religious beliefs. It is still used in different languages in some European countries by non-religious organisations to describe themselves.
‘Rationalist’ can mean someone who prioritises the use of reason and considers reason crucial in investigating and understanding the world. Rationalists often reject religion on the grounds that they believe it cannot be founded on reason. (Rationalism is sometimes contrasted with fideism – positions which rely on or advocate ‘faith’ to some degree).
‘Sceptic’ today usually means someone who doubts the truth of religious and other supernatural or ‘paranormal’ beliefs. (‘Sceptic’ also has a special philosophical meaning: someone who rejects or is sceptical with regard to all claims to knowledge).
It is important to recognise that people will use labels in different ways, and knowing what label someone applies to themselves doesn’t always tell you a great deal about their approach to life. Once you know how somebody identifies themselves, rather than making assumptions about their wider worldview, it is better to ask them further questions about their beliefs and values.
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