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The Poetics of Non-Belief

- Holly Pester


"We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and nonbelievers."

Barack Hussein Obama, 20th of January, 2009

We are living through a language of reflections, reactions, counteractions and otherness. Words are turned against themselves in acts of repudiation or remonstration. ‘Post’, ‘anti’, ‘intra’ or ‘extra’ fold language and thought over what came before. In the last few months one such word, expertly orated in the inauguration speech of President Obama, has dismantled this system of polarisation, instigating one of the most necessary debates in contemporary culture. The word was "nonbelievers".

Coming at the end of a sentence that triumphed grass roots, secular American policy, to utter this loaded word was at once an act of inclusivity, negation, subdividision, embracement, classification and declassification. "Non-believer" is the reduction of a wide cast of disparate convictions into one aversed name; atheist, agnostic, Humanist et al bleached into one system of unbelieving.  Despite the seemingly reductive nature of the word, its obvious that this President's idiom does not align non-belief with the threaten-heavy dialect of his predecessor’s, i.e. “disbeliever, sceptic, doubter, doubting Thomas, cynic, nihilist, freethinker, infidel, pagan, heathen” 1 (The preceding pause, and the approving nod that the speaker inflected on that final name is enough to re-welcome secularity to America’s party.)

What is a nonbeliever? A bearer of nonbeliefs? Disbelief is a failure or a refusal to acknowledge an occurrence; belief is removed, or distanced from understanding. Misbelief is a flawed conviction, disapproved by others, yet propagated by the believer. Atheism denotes a system of belief absented from a god. 2 A nonbeliever, and to deem someone a nonbeliever is to grant a position that operates likewise to faith. In ‘nonbelief’ the gap between the idea and its cancelling out is the form of a belief in itself. So we can be assured that Obama’s “non-” is hardly semantically negative. The counteracting prefix, 'non', cuts a shape out of the word 'belief', creating a space that reflects its negative. Like a rhetorical figure, the negative space has a form and a content, making nonbelief as solid with meaning as its inverse.

An encounter with nonsense is often described as an absence of sense, or a relocation of sense, apart from the event. But isn’t it truer to say that an instance of nonsense is a multiple layering of senses, creating a network of resonating and dissonant meanings.  “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers” is far from a litany of positive nouns, full-stopped by a negative. In this circular system of reflective meaning, ‘nonbeliever’ umbrellas all of the above, simultaneously creating an additional Other, while issuing them all as Other. Every theism is an anti-theism of another god, and every belief is activated through denial. The Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus in Obama's list are all non-believers of each other. If God is the name for the nameless, the unnameable and unknowable space, then non-believer is the negative space of many names, atheist, scientist, Buddhist (insert the name of any organised religion here). If you negate something you enhance its presence, releasing it into plurality. 'Belief' alone is hardly a satisfactory signifier for the manifold horizon of principles, spiritual or otherwise, we all of us live by. The rhetoric of "I believe in/ I am convinced of/ I trust in/ I am certain of evolution/flat-earth/extra terrestrials/God” reflects this partial Western language that limits our convictions to leaps of faith, frustrating us with the impossibility of knowledge.

Where a language is narrowed to the shape and structure of religion, vocabulary re-appropriates itself, turning negatives into positives and pasts into futures. Altering prefixes clip onto words like a corrupting bug and send the signifier into disorder. Language in/as protest perhaps? Art sovereign Nicolas Bourriaud has coined this epoch, mid-globalisation and post-financial collapse, as Altermodern. It is Modernity reconfigured for an age of de-linearity and hypertextuality. It is the Other to Modernity, one absented from particular histories and museumifaction. The ‘post-’ of Postmodern was a rupturing force that annulled historical narratives and de-ranked culture into a heteroglot, while the ‘alter-’ of Altermodern creates a future out of a non-history, an everywhen for flattened dispersion.

Someone who describes themselves as “post-Catholic” lives by and through the fissure between their life experience and the religious policy they were raised upon. This departure from a god (or the impossibility of such) defines their belief. Christianity itself defines God as Other to everything, while Buddhism locates god as everything. Dare we ask then what an alterbelief would be? Not a belief in alternative spirituality, but perhaps the figure of a word independent of faith or belief. The word that remains absent from our language yet strives to break through into our experience of the world – natural and social. The inclusivity inherent in Obama’s “nonbeliever”, encircling all religions and non-religions within the term, may just be the alterbelief needed to decentralise religious faith. It’s the positive negation that will allow a linguistically denied unity. We are all alterbelievers, Others from something, which is precisely what makes us the same.



1 Taken from an online thesaurus entry for ‘nonbeliever’

2 The true etymological origin of Atheism seems to free up the binary that constrains the way we codify our adherence to particular thought.  Rather than being "a" (without) "theism" (god), atheism comes from the Greek word "atheos" meaning godless, with the "a" (without) already embedded in the word god rather than belief. Athe(os)ism then translates as a godless belief system, a range of beliefs that circulate affectively without allegiance to a deity.

Holly Pester


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