What’s in a word? Non-religious people describe and define themselves (and are described and defined) in various ways. These variations do reflect some differences in meaning and emphasis, though in practice there is very considerable overlap.
“Non-believers” do, of course, have many beliefs, though not religious ones. For example, they typically hold that moral feelings are social in origin, based on treating others as they would wish to be treated (the ‘golden rule’ which antedates all the major world religions). They may describe themselves in various ways, and the most common today are listed below. These non-religious positions, attitudes and beliefs have a long history, though denial of religion began to be publicly acceptable only during the 19th and 20th centuries. During this period a range of organisations began to serve and represent the interests of the non-religious.
Beliefs and Definitions:
“Agnostic” in normal usage today means “don’t know” or having an open mind about religious belief, especially the existence of God. It can also mean something much firmer: that nothing is known, or can possibly be known, about God or supernatural phenomena, and that it is wrong to claim otherwise. That is the original meaning of the word, and 19th century “agnostics” lived their lives atheistically in practice – that is, without any reference to any concepts of gods or the supernatural.
“Atheist” includes those who reject a belief in the existence of God or gods and those who simply choose to live without God or gods. Along with this will usually go disbelief in the soul, an afterlife, and all other religious beliefs.
“Freethinker” is used of those who reject authority and tradition in matters of all belief, including religious belief, preferring to think for themselves. It was a very popular term in the 19th century and is still used in some European countries by non-religious organisations to describe himself.
“Humanist” is used today to mean those who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. A humanist may embrace all or most of the other approaches introduced here, and in addition humanists believe that moral values follow on from human nature and experience in some way. Humanists base their moral principles on reason (which leads them to reject the idea of any supernatural agency), on shared human values and respect for others. They believe that people should work together to improve the quality of life for all and make it more equitable. Humanism is a full philosophy, “life stance” or worldview, rather than being about one aspect of religion, knowledge, or politics.
“Non-religious”: … (full text).