How should one use the words disbelief and non-belief especially when it relates to the belief in god?

Consider these prefixes:

Disbeliever of god

Non-believer of god

Do they have different meanings?

  • 1
    This is a personal opinion, presented as a comment rather than an answer, but I tend to think of a disbeliever as someone who actively rejects a belief, often campaigning against it, while a non-believer is someone whose lack of belief is more passive, often as a result of never having been presented with the belief as an option. For me someone who was brought up as a Christian or Muslim but turned atheist would be a disbeliever while a member of a remote tribe who had never met a missionary would be a non-believer. – BoldBen Jan 11 '18 at 11:35
  • 2
    The terms used in the Authorised Version of the bible are unbelief (used sixteen times) and unbeliever (used eleven times). – Nigel J Jan 11 '18 at 14:12

The following extract from The Grammarist may be helpful. Dis- and non in your case would essentially convey the same meaning of someone who doesn't believe in God.

  • The most common negative prefixes in English are in-, un-, non-, de-, dis-, a-, anti-, im-, il-, and ir-. While some of these prefixes are interchangeable in some uses, there are subtle differences between them.

in-, im-, il-, ir-

  • The in- prefix (from which im-, il-, and ir- are derived) is generally the least useful of the negative prefixes, as it only goes with certain Latin-derived stems (e.g., intolerant, inarticulate, impenetrable), is highly conventionalized, and is identical to morphemes used in words that are not negative (as in inflammable, which means the same thing as flammable; irradiate, which means to expose to radiation; and illuminate, which means to make luminous). Thus, in- and its derivatives generally aren’t useful for creating new words.


  • The un- prefix is commonly attached to Latin derivatives that end in suffixes such as -ed and -able, resulting in adjectives such as unfounded, unassailable, and unbelievable.


  • The prefix non- is the most useful negative prefix, as it can be attached to virtually any noun, verb, adjective, or adverb and is not confusable with other common morphemes. Unlike in-, and un-, which often create nonabsolute negatives, non- is generally used to create a word that describes the complete opposite of its nonnegative form. In other words, for example, a nonconformist is someone who absolutely does not conform. If we were to coin the nouns uncomformist and inconformist, they wouldn’t have the same sense.

  • When affixing non- to a word, no hyphen is needed unless the stem is a proper noun. Spell-checkers might catch any unhyphenated non- words you invent, but this doesn’t mean your coinages are incorrect.

de-, dis-, a-, anti-

  • The prefix de- is usually affixed to verbs to denote reversal of an action. The prefix dis- is similar in some uses to de- and in other uses to un-. A- is affixed to adjectives ending in -al. Anti- means against.
  • Good wide-ranging answer. But what about "counter", as in "counter-productive", "counter-cyclical", or as Americans say "counter-clockwise" (UK "anti-clockwise")? – WS2 Jan 11 '18 at 11:17
  • @WS2 - that sounds like another potentially good question. – user240918 Jan 11 '18 at 11:18
  • Similarly "contra-" as in "contraband, contraception, contradiction" etc. I don't incidentally think that "disbeliever" and "non-believer" are nuanced in the same way. A "non-believer" would, in my view, be more open to arguments for and against than a "disbeliever" whose mind would appear to be more closed off. – WS2 Jan 11 '18 at 11:22

From a colloquial perspective, I have never heard anyone say that they "disbelieve in God" or are a "disbeliever" (in a religious context). It sounds wrong to my ears. In my experience, disbelief is usually reserved for extreme incredulity.

On the other hand, "non-believer" is regularly used to refer to atheists or other non-religious people - for example in the title of this book. For this reason, I think that the correct answer should be "non-believer."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.