What's the Difference Between Nontheism and Atheism?

Atheist Dictionary
Atheist Dictionary. Anthony Bradshaw; Getty

In principle, there is no difference and should be no difference between nontheism and atheism. Nontheism means not believing in any gods, which is the same as the broad definition of atheism. The prefixes "a-" and "non-" mean exactly the same thing: not, without, lacking. Each belief system agrees that there are no deities that created or control mankind. Essentially the belief is that man is on their own and will not be helped by a higher power.

Many atheist and nontheist believe strongly in science and the scientific method. 

Why was Nontheism Created?

Nontheism was only created and continues to be used in order to avoid the negative baggage that comes with the label 'atheism'. Some Christians hold very negative views of Atheism. Unfortunately, this has caused some bigotry between those of the Christian faith and atheist. However, it should also be noted that some Atheist are also known to be condescending and overbearing about their lack of religion which makes some people not want to associate with the term. But no matter what term people prefer to use it's best to be respectful of their beliefs and culture.   

When Did Nontheism Start?

While the term may seem new nontheism is actually a very old word. The earliest usage of non-theism may be from George Holyoake in 1852. According to Holyoake: The earliest usage of non-theism may be from George Holyoake in 1852.

According to Holyoake:

Mr. [Charles] Southwell has taken an objection to the term Atheism. We are glad he has. We have disused it a long time [...]. We disuse it, because Atheist is a worn-out word. Both the ancients and the moderns have understood by it one without God, and also without morality.

Thus the term connotes more than any well-informed and earnest person accepting it ever included in it; that is, the word carries with it associations of immorality, which have been repudiated by the Atheist as seriously as by the Christian. Non-theism is a term less open to the same misunderstanding, as it implies the simple non-acceptance of the Theist's explanation of the origin and government of the world.

George Holyoake at least adopted a positive-to-neutral attitude. Today, usage of nontheism is more likely to be accompanied by a hostile attitude towards atheism: people insist that nontheism and atheism cannot mean the same things and that while atheism is dogmatic and fundamentalist, nontheism is open-minded and reasonable. It's the same sort of argument heard from people who are convinced that agnosticism is the only "rational" position to have. It's generally preferable to be respectful towards others beliefs even if they are different from your own.