© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Coming to terms

The first in a series of five-minute posts while I’m writing a book on the religious/nonreligious mixed marriage.

One of the biggest challenges in writing this book is the damn terminology. Some of the most important terms and labels in this area mean very different things to different people.

Start with the basics: religious and nonreligious. Most people think of someone as religious if they believe in the existence of a God or gods. But many Unitarians, Buddhists, Humanistic Jews and others consider themselves religious even if they do not believe in God. They embrace aspects of religion unrelated to theistic belief, including identity, shared values, community, and tradition.

On the other side is an old friend of mine who believes deeply in God, prays daily, attends church weekly, and has Psalm texts painted around the border of her living room, but once told me she is “little if at all religious.”

She’s not alone in this. A slew of surveys show that millions of Americans believe in God but consider themselves nonreligious. Even more surprising are the six percent of respondents who identified as atheists in a 2007 Pew survey but said they believe in God — something Sam Harris says is like claiming to be “a happily married bachelor.”

Capturing this categorical mess nicely is a message I received from a nontheistic humanistic rabbi whose husband is an agnostic Catholic. “Steve would say we are a religious/nonreligious couple,” she said, “and I’m the religious one!”

In terms of the main message of the book itself — more on that eventually — all of this line-crossing ambiguity is PERFECT. But for the purpose of communicating with people outside of my own head, it would be nice to have some terms that mean roughly one thing each.

DING! (Okay, that was 9 minutes. More discipline next time.)



This was written on Monday, 01. July 2013 at 19:10 and was filed under Religious/Nonreligious Marriage Book. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Sounds like you may have to go with Atheist or Non-Theist vs. Theist as loaded and technical terms as they may be? Current non-denominational churches do their best to say they aren’t religious or religions but most definitely read the Bible and believe in God. To them, religious specifically means the traditional Christian sects.

    Comment: Mike G. – 02. July 2013 @ 11:47 am

  2. @Mike: Even that is difficult. In addition to being much less familiar to religious readers (i.e. ‘theist’ is our name for them, but not one they tend to think of), the issues are broader than those labels. Many people are nonreligious but don’t claim either atheist or non-theist.

    Comment: Dale – 02. July 2013 @ 9:01 pm

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