Can anybody provide a single word for labelling someone a disbeliever in a particular religion despite them adhering to that religion?

  • please try to make yourself a little clearer. Do you mean someone who is an adherent of that religion, but doesn't seem to be so?
    – Thursagen
    Sep 20, 2011 at 8:33
  • @Thurs: I think the OP means a person is born into a certain religion, but does not actively practise or believe in it.
    – JoseK
    Sep 20, 2011 at 8:45
  • @JoseK, that would be 'born [religion]' and might not be what OP wants. Mahjoob, you should specify (or give examples) of what kind of adhering is practiced - if the complete adhering is practiced then the person is a firm believer; if only some adhering occurs then it is important what type...
    – Unreason
    Sep 20, 2011 at 9:27
  • 5
    This question needs to be clarified - in present form it is ambiguous and self-contradicting (most answers present very different answers that are correct depending on how the question is interpreted).
    – Unreason
    Sep 20, 2011 at 12:22
  • @Unreason: Exactly, I thought of heretic & unbeliever but not sure what mahjoob intends.
    – JoseK
    Sep 20, 2011 at 12:24

10 Answers 10


If I understand the question correctly I would use the word "nominal" e.g. a nominal christian. From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nominal 1.being such in name only


I think the best word would be heretic. A heretic claims to be a believer, but either professes ideas contrary to the official religious doctrine or rejects ideas included in that doctrine.

During the Reformation (and in some contemporary circles, for that matter) a Catholic would have called a Protestant a 'heretic', though the Protestant would have called him/herself a Christian.

The judgment is ultimately subjective.

  • I think a heretic is sincere, in that they openly profess, act, and believe consistently, just that it is different from what everybody else does (and everybody else is intolerant of that difference).
    – Mitch
    Sep 20, 2011 at 12:46
  • I don't at all disagree, Mitch. I interpreted the question to be asking after just such a person - someone who adheres to a religion but is, in actuality (from the speaker's perspective, at least), not a "true believer". I don't think the question is entirely clear when it comes to the person's sincerity ("adhere" is rather vague), so I can see why words like hypocrite were suggested, too.
    – user13141
    Sep 20, 2011 at 14:32
  • Oh, I see now. Really much more ambiguous a question than I thought..every part depends on a possibly different point of view, who is doing the adhering, who is the judge of true believer, what each individual believes or not.
    – Mitch
    Sep 20, 2011 at 18:01
  • I see why you said this but I think the better word would be "apostate".
    – Wudang
    Sep 20, 2011 at 22:15

Though hypocrite is the probable expected one-word answer, there is another concept which fits the description. Throughout history there have been many instances where an invading or ruling class forces a group of people to convert to the main religion (at least in the west this has occurred in many directions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims). In English such a person is called a:

forced convert

Many convert altogether, but some, despite outwardly keeping the converted practices, maintain hidden privately the religious practices and beliefs of preconversion religion (and this can be for generations).

There are a number of specific terms for a Jew who was forced to convert but maintained practices and/or beliefs in private (and descendants who maintain them too). The accepted term in English is the borrowing from Hebrew:


which means 'coerced'.


I think the normal word is 'hypocrite'.

  • 2
    Hyprocrite is usually the reverse, someone who doesn't adhere to a religion despite at least professing to believe (and possibly actually believing). Sep 20, 2011 at 11:12
  • @David: it depends on what is meant by 'adhere'. I take it to mean 'outwardly practices'., and actual beliefs are hidden.
    – Mitch
    Sep 20, 2011 at 12:43

I don't know about other belief systems, but Christians commonly refer to this as in name -- as in somebody is a Christian in name if they label themselves as Christians but don't actually believe in its tenants or live by them. It is also common to use expressions like cultural Christian for those who let themselves wear the label but don't actually know or believe in the teachings.

In spite of the dictionary definition being so similar, the term nominal tends to have a different shade of meaning than saying in name. A nominal Christian, for example, would imply a shade stronger adherence to the beliefs, but would be somebody who doesn't take them very seriously.

If the disbelief you mention is more active than passive, you could call them doubters or dissenters. It's possible to belief something and yet doubt aspects of it, in which case it's acceptable to be labeled like this. However at some point, if the doubting or dissenting becomes the defining feature, stronger descriptors such as hypocrite start becoming appropriate. Somebody who actively disbelieves rather than just questions and yet still labels themselves as Christian eventually stops having the right to use that label at all. If you keep down this path of holding dissenting views and yet claiming those views belong to the whole, eventually you become a heretic. Note that it's somebody who does not claim that their beliefs are Christian at all can't be labeled as a heretic. Heretical teachings give false doctrines under a wrong label.


Wikipedia's article on atheism and religion lists a term Humanistic Judaism where

It defines Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people and encourages humanistic and secular Jews to celebrate their Jewish identity by participating in Jewish holidays and life cycle events (such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvah) with inspirational ceremonies that draw upon but go beyond traditional literature.

It would fit a specific type of disbeliever - so it might be completely inappropriate. Also, it seems to be a common term only for Judaism.

You should define what kind of adhering and for what purpose is going on for the term you seek.


Is it possible to adhere to a religion and not believe it? Usually belief is one of the requirements of most religions.

Anyway: I'm a Christian and when my Christian friends don't go to church I say they're a "heathen" or a "backslider"

Or for add emphasis you could say a "heathen backslider"

You could also say "non-practicing" as in "I'm a non-practicing Catholic"

  • 2
    Generally "non-practicing" refers to the opposite: someone who believes but doesn't attend church/worship/rituals.
    – Hugo
    Sep 20, 2011 at 8:45
  • "Usually belief is one of the requirements of most religions." Most modern Western religions, anyway. This doesn't apply to most forms of modern Paganism, where practice, not belief, is what matters.
    – TRiG
    Sep 23, 2011 at 19:00

Such a person would have been called "sanctimonious":

making a hypocritical show of religious devotion, piety, righteousness.

Putting that into noun form, he could be:

A sanctimonious fraud,
A religious hypocrite,


Try agnostic. Or perhaps agnostic theist.

EDIT: Unfaithful seems to work.



'The early Catholics excommunicated the Protestants.'

  • excommunication implies that the religion's authority (forcibly) excluding certain people from practicing the religion, I don't think that's the intended meaning.
    – Lie Ryan
    Sep 20, 2011 at 11:10
  • 2
    Besides having the wrong meaning (no matter how you interpret the admittedly rather vague question), excommunication is entirely the wrong part of speech.
    – Marthaª
    Sep 20, 2011 at 17:39
  • @Marthaª I think Mahjoob is looking for a noun that reflects the process of labelling someone as a disbeliver not the actual label itself. Jan 10, 2012 at 8:54

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