This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What are non-theistic religions? Is nontheism different than atheism? What is nontheism’s definition?
Non-theistic religions are religions that do not require or espouse the belief in a God or gods. Non-theistic religions often don’t say God doesn’t exist, as atheism does; gods just aren’t part of their belief systems.
We’ll cover some of the most common non-theistic religions, go deeper into the nontheism definition, and look at how they influence the world today.
What Constitutes a Religion?
Before we look at the nature of non-theistic religions, let’s look at the definition and requirements that make a belief system a religion. Often, non-theistic religions don’t seem like a religion, at least not a religion like Christianity, so it’s important to understand the definition of the term. Then, we’ll look at the additional requirements that give particular religions their unifying function.
To be a religion, a system has to meet two requirements:
- The system has to be predicated on the belief in a “superhuman” order. As used here, “superhuman” is defined as “not the product of human actions.” For instance, professional soccer shares a lot in common with religion: it contains rituals, rites, and laws. But because these rituals and laws are determined by humans (in this case, FIFA), professional soccer isn’t a religion.
- The system must establish norms and values, like modesty in dress or showing compassion. Many people believe in ghosts, but these beliefs don’t give us moral standards to meet, so they don’t constitute a religion.
Non-theistic religions meet both these requirements. The religions that revolutionized the world and led us toward a more global empire have two more requirements.
- The system must be universal. Believers must believe that their system is true everywhere and applicable to everyone. Below, we’ll look at how local religions like animism gave way to universal religions like Christianity.
- The system must be missionary. Believers must be fanatical about spreading the universal truth of their system to everyone on earth.
Religions that are both universal and missionary appear relatively recently in history. These religions have the power to bolster our imagined social orders and unify humanity on a grand scale. The non-theistic religions discussed below meet all four of these requirements.
Nontheism definition: religions that do not require or espouse the belief in a God or gods.
Nontheism vs. atheism: Non-theistic religions often don’t say God doesn’t exist, as atheism does; gods just aren’t part of their belief systems.
As we know, a system need only meet two criteria to be a religion: it needs to be based on the belief in a superhuman order and it needs to establish norms and values. By this definition, there are many other religions, some we don’t normally think of as religions, such as capitalism, Communism, and Nazism. These are non-theistic religions.
Further, these religions meet the 3rd and 4th criteria that give a system power to legitimize political orders and change history. These religions are both universal and missionary.
For instance, like Buddhism, Communism is a religion based on natural laws, a non-theistic religion. In the case of Communism, these laws were discovered not by the Buddha but by Marx, Engles, and Lenin. Communism’s holy book is Marx’s Das Kapital and its holidays are the First of May and November 7th, the anniversary of the October Revolution. Devout Communists have been expected to give up faith in other religions, such as Christianity, and spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin. When viewed this way, Communism is a religion just as much as Buddhism or Christianity are.
Other non-theistic religions include capitalism, nationalism, and humanism.
One of the most widespread non-theistic religions is humanism. Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens rather than God or gods. They believe that man is special and that his sacredness distinguishes him from plants and other animals. Other species exist only for the benefit of Sapiens and the sacredness of man is the most important aspect of the universe.
There are three non-theistic sects of humanism:
1) Liberal Humanism
Liberal humanists believe that the sacredness of humanity lives in every individual. Therefore, the most important thing is to protect each individual’s sacredness and freedom. This is where our modern idea of “human rights” comes from.
2) Socialist Humanism
Social humanists believe that the sacredness of humanity lives in the collective, the Sapiens species as a whole. The most important thing is to protect the equality of individuals in the species (rather than the individual freedom favored by liberal humanists). Inequality denies our sanctity because it privileges unimportant qualities like wealth or skin color.
3) Evolutionary Humanism
Evolutionary humanists believe that we need to actively direct the evolution of our species, making sure we evolve into superhumans rather than subhumans. Naziism is the most famous form of evolutionary humanism.
The non-theistic religions may not seem like religions in the traditional sense, but, like Buddhism, their lack of a God doesn’t exclude them from the category.
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- How Sapiens outlived and outlasted the 8+ other human-like species on Earth
- The 3 critical revolutions in human existence that led to our domination of the planet
- How much of what powers our world today is really just a shared mass delusion
- What the future of humanity might look like