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.
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.
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