The Conversation Game — Four Words, A Word

The Conversation Game — Four Words, A Word

The trouble with words, other than their preposterous spelling, is that they are adept at adopting different meanings. It is important, as a consequence, that players—of conversation—share a uniform understanding of the words in play, lest the game digress into a farce of confusion, penalties, and false victories—an irritating state to be sure. Discussions of God certainly suffer from discorded definitions, and it’s worth the time to engage in dialogue that’s purely dedicated to resolution.

In the context of godly discourse, there are many important words. For now, I’d like to focus on just four: theism and atheism, gnosticism and agnosticism. These are basic terms, but they are frequently misunderstood, and each carries its own baggage of misconceptions.

A Starting Point

A good starting point is to state the obvious: all four words have something to do with the claims about the existence or non-existence of a God. On occasion, the gnostic set is not used in this sense, but that’s neither here nor there. The first thing to clarify is that the two sets of words are not interchangeable. Here’s why:

Theism and atheism address the question of belief, whereas gnosticism and agnosticism address the question of knowledge

Knowledge is a subset of belief. It follows that knowledge is not required for belief. So, let’s put it aside for the time being, and let’s delve into belief first. It is, after all, the more important topic because people act according to their beliefs, not their knowledge.

A Binary Proposition

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re prompted with terms and conditions whilst installing software. Yes, the majority of us will just click accept without hesitation. But let’s imagine, difficult as it might be, that you withhold the urge to do so. Perhaps you’re hesitant to agree because you think that it’s impossible to understand the legal jargon. Or maybe you decide to investigate the legalities with the reasonable expectation that you’ll agree to it in the future. At this point, it should be clear, you have not yet accepted the contract.

Belief works in the same way. You either believe or you do not. If you believe the claim God exists, you are a theist, if you do not believe it, you are an atheist—with respect to that particular God claim, at least. There’s no middle ground. Even if you think that God is unknowable, you are an atheist because you don’t actively believe the claim of God’s existence. Remember, knowledge is still stewing on the back burner.

What Rejection Does Not Mean

It is true to say that the number of hairs on your body is either even or uneven. The default position—regarding the even or unevenness—is to be neutral. One is not required to believe that it is even, or that it is uneven.

Now if someone had to voice their belief that the number of hairs is uneven, and no reasonable justification is offered, I would reject the claim. The person might be right, the person might be wrong, that doesn’t matter. The point I’d like to make here is that my rejection of the claim—that the number is uneven—does not mean that I believe the opposing claim—that the number is even. Indeed, I would similarly reject that claim if justification is not provided.

A very common misconception is that atheists, by rejecting theistic claims of God, necessarily make the opposite belief claim that God does not exist. Not true. And this is why atheists do not carry a burden of proof. Some atheists do make a belief claim that Gods do not exist, but it certainly is not necessary. The minimum that is required to be an atheist, is to not believe the claims that Gods exist.

Belief, A Recap

There are two possible claims one can make regarding the existence of a God: the God exists, and the God does not exist. And for each claim there are two positions that one can take: belief—or acceptance—of the claim, and disbelief—or rejection—of the claim.

For the claim God exists, the theist takes the position of belief, and the atheist takes the position of disbelief

For the claim God does not exist, the theist takes the position of disbelief, and the atheist can take either position, that of belief (called strong atheism), or disbelief (called weak atheism)

In my experience, theists typically tuck all atheists under the strong blanket, and they are often not aware that there are different types of atheism. Weak atheists are occasionally labeled as agnostics, which is, of course, incorrect.


Gnosticism deals with what one knows or claims to know. Simply put, we can say that a gnostic is a person who makes a claim of knowledge, and an agnostic is someone who does not make such a claim. In this sense, these terms can be used as quantifiers, as I will show later.

However, If we look at the word gnostic in isolation, and in the godly sense, it typically means someone who claims knowledge that the assertion God exists is true. An agnostic is one who makes no such claim—it literally means one who lacks knowledge.

Agnosticism is sometimes incorrectly thought of as a mid-point between theism and atheism. This misconception is largely due to the popular philosophical position, invented by Thomas Huxley, that states that the answers to questions about the existence of gods are both unknown and fundamentally unknowable.

How do we know

To claim knowledge does not necessarily mean that there is proof, or evidence, or even good reason to back up the claim. This is a sticky point between believers and disbelievers.

You don’t need knowledge to believe, but it certainly has a big influence. Or, at least, it should. It can be agreed, I’m sure, that people want to hold the maximum amount of beliefs that are true, and the minimum amount that are false. And if knowledge can guide our beliefs, it is important to pursue it. The question is how do we gain knowledge? What are the best methods to determine if our knowledge is true?

Most atheists trust in evidence-based, empirical science, and appeals to emotion generally fall on deaf ears. Most theists, on the other hand, trust in their strong convictions, and subjective human experiences are rated highly. I’m obviously in the camp that believes that science is more reliable.

Not Mutually Exclusive

In conclusion, it’s time to bring the two sets of words together. By the definitions used here, they can be combined for greater clarity.

Agnostic Atheist — Does not believe any god exists, but doesn’t claim to know that no god exists

Gnostic Atheist — Believes that no god exists and claims to know that this belief is true

Agnostic Theist — Believes a god exists, but doesn’t claim to know that this belief is true

Gnostic Theist — Believes a god exists and claims to know that this belief is true

Reference used: Atheist vs. Agnostic from Iron Chariots, a counter apologetics wiki. This article is dedicated to Matt Dillahunty, who first explained all of this to me on the excellent Atheist Experience tv show.

26 responses »

  1. For my part i always avoid absolutes. Theists don’t, they love the 110% assertion that their particular god exists, but i find this absurd. Not the belief (well, yes, the belief) but the certainty. It’s quite irrational to say something is absolute.

    • I *absolutely* agree 😉

      Yes, absolute knowledge or certainty is an untenable position to take. It’s generally a useless notion. Considering what is likely to be true or false is much more useful.

      Have you ever noticed theists’ need to keep asserting their certainty, typically on Sundays. Over and over again…

      • I think there ought to be a term ‘absolutely absolutely certain’. I think no one can be absolutely absolutely certain of anything, in the sense that all of this could be a dream, and in the sense that we can assume that our merely human knowledge maps onto the material world in some way that we can’t properly imagine without it actually describing how the world really it is. However, there is almost no one dead or alive who claims this degree of certainty for his knowledge.

        However, when it comes to normal conversations and about whether this tree is made of wood, whether my mother really is my mother and whether the Second Law of Thermo-Dynamics is true, I think you are entitled to be absolutely certain about such things, so as to distinguish this from merely thinking something to be so. Only pedants will pick you up on this, the same people who, when the waiter brings your meal and you say, ‘I’m the beef’, go on endlessly about how this isn’t quite the correct term, you should say, ‘I am the person for whom the beef is intended’ or some such pedantic wankery.

  2. I really liked this. The language game that precedes (or, should precede) God-discussions is infuriating, but you’ve got it crystal clear.
    (I also like that you sincerely nuanced your view, and brought out a slightly larger theme, since the ‘The Burden is Heavy’ post. It is a slight shame that this won’t be as controversial, because I like a bit of controversy…)

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked it, I appreciate you saying so.. I’ve come to respect your opinion a lot btw, you run an excellent blog, and you’re so god-damned prolific!

      I guess I’m getting softer as my blog grows older,but rest assured, controversy will return.. 😛

      In more seriousness, one of my goals is to engage both theists and atheists, and to do so respectfully; to be as objective as I can. It’s a fine balance.

      • I look prolific, but if I promise you I won’t write anything more until June, the blog still updates! It’s all scheduled. I get lots of ideas, often under one theme, and I write them all down and schedule them at around 1 a day.

        I’m glad you like my stuff though. It’s nice to get feedback. I enjoy reading your stuff to!

  3. I absolutely love the way you write, of course I agree with you. I’m sharing this with everyone, and may reference it the next time I have to explain my particular stance to someone. Thank you writing this!

  4. Great post – and a good one to read when I’ve just adopted the “gnostic atheist” position. Actually, I do that for pragmatic reasons when faced with believers who can’t perceive that “weak” atheist positions are possible. There’s another reason to do so as well, which is that the agnostic atheist position for all practical purposes tends to the gnostic position.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      To claim knowledge that God does not exist is quite different from not claiming so. Can you elaborate why you say that the agnostic atheist position practically tends to the gnostic position.

      I find gnosticism virtually unattainable. But perhaps I’m tying it too closely with certainty. I would answer *no* to the question, “Do you know there is not a God”. I say this because I do not have certainty, because I lack the knowledge.

      On the other hand, I will claim knowledge that the existence of God is unlikely. because of the knowledge and logic at my disposal. I guess there is an argument to be made, that if I know something is unlikely to exist, I by extension know that it does not exist. But I’m not sure, I can make that leap.

  5. Like everyone else here, I liked both your style and your logic. And I liked the way you credited someone or other with shaping your views. All too often the blogger gives you the impression that he formed his ideas out of the void.

    All your categories sound right, though I am going to think about them before adopting them. For example, it would never have occurred to me that knowledge is a sub-section of belief. Until I can see why that is, I will stay agnostic about it.

    One small point. I spotted 3 typos in your post and two were the same one, ‘hair’ instead of ‘hairs’. Was there a reason for this? If we are talking even and uneven then it must be plural (the other typo was ‘falls’ instead of ‘falls’. Sorry, I am anal about my own posts and so can’t help being so when I read other well-written posts).

    • Thanks. I appreciate the compliment.

      The knowledge being a subset of belief comes from Plato,

      It’s the correct response to not accept things on face value, especially not from a wordpress blog 😉

      Thanks for the spell check, now fixed. The only reason I can offer for the oversight, is that English is my second language, and it’s easy to fall into these traps. I still say jean instead of jeans; it drives my wife nuts. Also, it’s tough editing your own stuff, man! But I’m an aspiring writer, so I must get this shit under control 🙂

      You don’t perhaps feel like doing a sanity check on my latest post, do you? I suspect it’s a minefield, but no-one’s taken me to task, yet.

      • Jesus Christ, if English is your second language then you must be a Nabokov in your first! Or maybe English has now supplanted your mother tongue in terms of writing? Not for a second would I have thought that English wasn’t your first language, though now thinking about it you write too well to be a product of either the British, America or Canadian education system. And now that you mention those rogue ‘s’s, maybe I should have suspected. I’m an English teacher so I’m supposed to notice such things. In reality I rarely do.

        I will take a look at your latest post, though as you said it is very l-o-n-g. It’s like trying to eat five dinners at once. Even so, I’ll attack it in bite-sized chunks.

      • Haha. No, English has very much supplanted my mother tongue (Afrikaans). It’s something I should be ashamed of, but I just don’t feel it. I’ve always preferred English for some reason; I suspect movies had a big impact. I started speaking English almost exclusively when I came to London six years ago.

        Thanks for the willingness to go through the very l-o-n-g post; you really don’t have to, but it would be useful for me. A real, honest-to-God, English teacher marking my work. Hey, wait a minute, maybe this is a terrible idea!

    • You’ve written a fine essay, well done.

      The second part is the stronger in my view. I think you illustrate well the concept of knowledge being a function of belief.

      I disagree with your view that there’s a semantic difference between disbelief and abstinence (to say I don’t believe and I also don’t disbelieve), when evaluating a specific claim. If you don’t believe a claim, you disbelieve the claim. I.e. Don’t believe = disbelief. Abstinence, as defined above, is nonsensical and equates to saying: I don’t believe and I also believe.

      I can, however, hold a neutral position. Consider the question whether there is a God or not. Two claims can be made: God exists and God does not exist. If I don’t believe either claim, on the grounds say, that I feel I don’t have the knowledge to justify either belief, I am neutral. This is the agnostic stance, which is reasonable. But it’s also an atheistic stance because the theistic claim God exists is not believed. I.e. Agnostics are atheists.

      Thank you for sharing. I too enjoyed reading it.

  6. *Please feel free to delete this comment; I just wasn’t sure how to communicate with you! Twitter would seem a desperately public cry to reach you– Feel free to respond somewhere on my blog if you would prefer*

    Did you decide against publishing my response to your response?

    • Err, since your original message, any comments by you are auto-approved. So methinks that WordPress messed up. I don’t have any comments awaiting approval..

      You’re very welcome to re-post the response if you still have it.

  7. I don’t think these are exactly the same thoughts but they will have to do:

    First: Agreed. The second part is most definitely the stronger. I abandoned my attempt to keep everything as simple as possible, as with the first part, as it was just detracting from the effort. Or perhaps the subject matter is just too full of traps that clarity began to suffer.

    And onwards:

    “If you don’t believe a claim, you disbelieve the claim. I.e. Don’t believe = disbelief. Abstinence, as defined above, is nonsensical and equates to saying: I don’t believe and I also believe.”

    Interestingly, this isn’t quite true— well, it would been considered sound around the time of Frege, Russell, Whitehead etc. through to the Tractatus– we do need to be careful with the semantics, you’re right, but you’re putting too much emphasis on *disbelieving* as opposed to *not believing*. For instance, were I to say to you that there are black swans (and let us suppose you weren’t aware of this fact), you weren’t *disbelieving* this to be the case before you first heard the claim— more likely, your ‘disbelieving’ happened at the point where you first engaged with the idea, at that moment when someone first made the claim: “Did you know there are black swans?” Now, you might observe a difference in your attitude from before, now your idea of ‘disbelieving’ could start where before you lived in blissful ignorance. My point really here is that we use the word ‘believing’ in a variety of contexts; it’s impossible to pin down a specific acceptable meaning for the same reason it is with something as simple as the word ‘table’!

    More than this, approaching language mathematically as you did above leads one astray can cause all sorts of complications. Consider:

    “… the statement “I believe it’s going to rain” has a meaning like, that is to say a use like, “It’s going to rain”, but the meaning of “I believed then that it was going to rain”, is not like that of “It did rain then”.
    “But surely ‘I believed’ must tell of just the same thing in the past as ‘I believe’ in the present!”— √−1 must mean just the same in relation to -1, as the √1 means in relation to 1! This means nothing at all.”

    It also causes problems here:

    “Consider the question whether there is a God or not. Two claims can be made: God exists and God does not exist.”

    These mathematical notions of ‘truth’: either something is the case or it is not the case with a statement, are misleading when applied to language— Grayling had one example demonstrating a problem with this approach when he said in an interview some years ago:

    ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’– [Two claims can be made]: Either you have stopped beating your wife; or you have not stopped beating your wife.

    We are not *actually* confined to these two answers. But how trapped the innocent husband must feel with his response!

    Two claims can be made, yes, but there are alternatives.

    There is a vast amount of grammar surrounding the word ‘god’ that causes all sorts of problems when it’s used in a sentence. I’d suggest myself that the sentence is nonsensical. I accept, however, that to certain pockets in society, even to entire societies, that claim would make sense. But *I*, for certain, have no idea even to *begin* if someone were to propose that sort of claim to me. ‘Do you believe there is a god or there is not a god?’ The mind boggles. I don’t even understand what I would be denying or accepting.

    To steal from something I wrote earlier today:

    It’s part of the trap of growing up in the western civilisation that we’re led to believe that there either is a god, or there is not a god, based on our cultural history. Another option is to look at it as nonsense— or, at least, that the word has different connotations and different meanings for different people. Look at how different sections of Christianity can argue in respect to the image of god or the idea of god, then compare this to people from other cultures who have their very own, distinct, ideas of what or ‘who’ (n.b. some would say it doesn’t make sense to speak of ‘who’ in the context of ‘god’) ‘God’ is. Let alone the differences between religious positions, non-religious people see how these different groups / societies use the word but cannot get close to grasping what on earth the others are talking about. Or have their own idea but, inevitably, it doesn’t necessarily synchronise with other peoples’ ideas.

    People in their own society take for granted the fact that, often, everyone around them shares similar ideas to them of the words they use. You often don’t have to venture very far away from your own society to find that people think very differently from you on ideas that, assumedly, you feel should be mutually shared. ‘God’ to a lot of Americans, for example, brings to mind in particular the Judeo-Christian God. Here in the UK, this is no longer the case, for instance. You increasingly encounter theists, who struggle with the concept of ‘god’ but certainly don’t envisage it as conforming in any sense or form to the Christian version. Same word, but altogether different meaning, images, and connotations.

    Anyway, just wanted to share! Or perhaps over-share, as it has turned out. This post is certainly much longer than the original….

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