Most words used to describe the lack of religion of people have negative connotations, for example:

infidel, nonbeliever, disbeliever, unbeliever, skeptic, doubter, atheist, agnostic, heathen, heretic, nihilist, goy (Judaism), kaffir (Islam)

Many of these can also be applied to followers of other religions in addition to atheists.

Other words are at best neutral, for example:

secularist, freethinker

Are there any words with positive connotations that can be used to describe non-religious people?

For example, for religious people, we have:

holy, godly, pious, saintly, venerable, faithful

closed as primarily opinion-based by ermanen, user66974, tchrist, FumbleFingers, Nicole Apr 20 '15 at 15:08

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    Well, there is "Brights", which was excoriated (or at least heavily criticized) by the theistic community for being too positive an appellation (and by implication painting religious people as dim). Unfortunately it's mostly a proper noun (a name for specific group of secularists), and isn't popularly known in any case. – Dan Bron Apr 18 '15 at 13:59
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    Not wishing to be too "anti-theistic", I can't see why people who don't believe in a deity should need a positive term to identify themselves, any more than people who don't believe the moon is made of green cheese. All the negative terms are specifically created and used by religious people, who obviously tend to have a negative opinion of those who don't share their faith (historically, such a bad opinion that they often take active steps to wipe out the non-believers). – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '15 at 14:02
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    Worth mentioning that I don't feel that the specific words "atheist", "agnostic" or "nonbeleiver" are anything but descriptive and neutral. They generally don't carry value judgments; they were specifically introduced to be descriptive, without the baggage infidel et al carry. Of course, they can be used in a way paints them negatively, as any word can. In particular, when used by a religious person for "someone who disagrees with my foundational beliefs", it's hard to avoid such a slant. (Which is incidentally why I think goy is not neutral despite the of my Jewish friends.) – Dan Bron Apr 18 '15 at 14:15
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    @March Ho: Why do you say "freethinker" is "at best neutral"? It seems positive to me. – TRomano Apr 18 '15 at 15:06
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    Also, it should be pointed out that unlike agnosticism, atheism is a belief. Atheism is the belief that there is no Creator. Science cannot measure anything before the Big Bang, and so it must refrain from making assertions about what might or might not have existed "before". To science, the "before" is unknowable. To me, that imperative translates to agnosticism, not to atheism. So the atheists and the theists are in the same boat of Belief. – TRomano Apr 18 '15 at 15:10
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Given the nature of this particular subject matter it’s difficult for me to conceive of any term describing a lack of theistic belief which would not carry some negative or disparaging connotation for one who professes theistic or religious belief. In like manner, any term describing theistic or religious belief would tend to have a negative or uncomplimentary connotation for those who find such professions “unreasonable.”

That said, for me, the term “rationalism” and the related noun “rationalist,” are as neutral or non-disparaging as is conceivable.

rationalism noun

  1. A belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response: “scientific rationalism.” see Oxford Dictinaries rationalism
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    I like this term, Little Eva. It reveals how rational human minds can bend identical data toward contrary conclusions. The vast majority of people consider transcendent knowledge to be the rational inference of empirical data--like accepting the existence of quarks, though they are much too small to observe directly with current technology. So it has the added advantage of keeping epistemological conversations open. – ScotM Apr 18 '15 at 16:17
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    Rationalist might be the best choice, but it also carries meanings that might be the opposite of what you intend. For example, rationalism as opposed to empiricism is the theory that all valid knowledge derives from the mind alone, without regard to experience. In other words, rationalism is the belief that knowledge is innate or somehow transcendent. Plato and Descartes (a theist, on the basis of rationalistic deductions) are the prototypical examples. Noam Chomsky adheres to rationalism in a subtly different sense: he means that language-learning ability transcends experience. – Ben Kovitz Apr 18 '15 at 18:43
  • @Ben - yes, thank you, and well-put. I only offer "rationalism" after my preface, and then only in the sense taken from OD online. – user98990 Apr 18 '15 at 18:55
  • I don't call myself a rationalist even though I'm an atheist because rationalist even in the "science is good" sense seems to me to have acquired a negative connotation. Many who call themselves "rationalists" are referring to their adherence to an extremely rigid, quasi-legalistic style of reasoning and especially arguing, which excludes the looseness and complexity of a genuinely reasonable attitude. I don't think I'm alone among atheists in rolling my eyes when I hear someone claim to be a "rationalist". The inward reaction: "Oh no, another one of those argumentative twits." – Ben Kovitz Apr 18 '15 at 19:27
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    @LittleEva Indeed, any choice of word here is going to involve a trade-off. If we rejected words because they had unwanted senses or ambiguities, we would never speak at all. And actually, the word's primary sense, orientation by reason (rational being the adjective for reason), has a positive connotation. Notice that irrationalism has a strong negative connotation, even though some people openly declare for it. – Ben Kovitz Apr 18 '15 at 19:44

Are there any words with positive connotations that can be used to describe non-religious people?

These people could describe themselves as Empiricists:

noun

A person who supports the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses:

Since the fundamental dispute between agnostics and religionists is about the veracity of knowledge that transcends scientific observation, it makes sense for agnostics to define themselves at the cutting edge of the discussion.

Empiricists challenge the transcendent notion of God.

  • +1. However, although this is a good answer, I feel that it still does not have as much of a positive connotation as "rationalist". – March Ho Apr 18 '15 at 17:40
  • @Margan Horse - Careful, in Marxism, empiricist has a not very nice connotation. I vaguely remember it had to do with doing bad science -- creating experimental evidence to support the position you had before you started the experiment -- if I remember right. – aparente001 Apr 19 '15 at 4:23
  • It is true, @aparente001; with such a diverse group speaking English, we have very little hope of finding a word that has purely positive connotations. – Morgan Horse Apr 19 '15 at 20:07

Humanist is a term used by some.

Humanism:

  • a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion. (M-W)
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    I can't go with this, because humanist implies subscribing to any system of thought or ideology which places humans, or humanity as a whole, at its centre, esp. one which is predominantly concerned with human interests and welfare, and stresses the inherent value and potential of human life (OED). Just because someone doesn't believe in a personified deity doesn't mean he has a "god-sized hole" that needs to be filled by "humanity". – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '15 at 14:13
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    +1 I understand @FumbleFingers's analysis of agnosticisms deeper motivations, but humanist has generally positive connotations, and it does describe a popular worldview sans transcendent beings. It would be good to realize that in the minds of some religious folks, the tag carries mixed baggage: + for elevating mankind - for marginalizing God. As a man with faith in worlds beyond our wildest imagination, I believe that it is healthy for all people to define their stands in positive terms. – ScotM Apr 18 '15 at 15:53
  • Isn't the historically accepted term 'secular humanist'? Which supposedly is a positive name for those in the group but cause for spitting by those outside, (just like 'fundamentalist'). – Mitch Apr 18 '15 at 16:20
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    The first iteration of the Humanist Manifesto is secular in nature as well as it subsequent iterations. The word Secular was added by religious folks to distinguish from Christian Humanism. – ScotM Apr 18 '15 at 16:53
  • The most common argument I hear from religious people with a burning desire to convert me is that if I raise my children without inculcating a belief in god, they will grow up valueless. I think that's why "humanist" and "humanistic" are popular -- they show that we have separated out the teaching of values from the other, irrational stuff. However, if I forget for the moment about protecting myself from the folks who itch to convert me to their religion, and think only about my own motivation for rejecting religion, it's to give myself back my self-determinism (as opposed to praying). cont. – aparente001 Apr 19 '15 at 13:07

Admittedly with malice aforethought, I have been known to describe myself as 'godless'. The fun thing about this term is that it takes a frequent insult of religious people and wears it as a badge of pride (cf 'queer'). Oh, and it lets me say that I have a godlessdaughter in Chicago....

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    It seems this kind of co-opting is an attempt to create positive connotations rather than to employ them. – Good A.M. Apr 18 '15 at 22:26
  • @GoodA.M. doesn't seem like that much of a stretch to me. Supposing you by god you mean a being who is broadly responsible for the state of the world, godlessness might seem a positive advantage - just as to a gay person with normal levels of self-esteem, any label for their orientation would obviously have some positive connotations from their perspective, regardless of whether it was originally intended as an insult. – Daniel Earwicker Apr 18 '15 at 22:52
  • @DavidPugh, Yes, godlessdaughter is cute. – aparente001 Apr 19 '15 at 4:21

'pagan' or 'irreligionist' are positive connotations - as soon as one realizes, that religions are bad for mankind: they bring war and death.

btw: what's bad about animals? they don't have any gods, and we are all animals, too. therefore, i see no reason to put anything negative into the words who are describing a antheist

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    Merriam Webster seems to support a highly negative connotation for "pagan". "<the Spanish conquistadores regarded the native peoples of the lands that they conquered as pagans who were uncivilized and inherently inferior>" – March Ho Apr 18 '15 at 14:16
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    I also fail to understand the "animal" comment. I did not mention anything about animals (or animism for that matter) in my question. – March Ho Apr 18 '15 at 14:17
  • the 'animal' comment is ment to say: we are all animals, thus, why should non-believing be a bad thing, even thought the mentioned definitions are suggesting a negative coonotation? this is defently not true if you see what religions and believing is all about! – rudy Apr 18 '15 at 14:33
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    In my experience, all human institutions---not merely those of a religious orientation---inevitably become invested in the accumulation of power and self-perpetuation and, therefore, war and it's correlate, death. – user98990 Apr 18 '15 at 15:57
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    I think the negative connotation of "pagan" is historical. But since paganism is now a religion (or a group of religions, some ancient and some modern), it doesn't answer the OP's request for a word describing non-religious people whatever connotations it has. – alephzero Apr 18 '15 at 19:36

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