Too many times I have informed someone that I am an atheist, only to have them reply,
“Oh, but how could you know that God doesn’t exist? You’re taking a faith position!”
Many headaches later, we finally come to an agreement over the definitions of these words.
This arrangement is an attempt to clarify and classify these words, so that their rogue meanings no longer confuse and muddle religious debate.
To begin with, here are the four key terms arranged on a graph with their opposites across from them.
This should allow a very rough placement of one’s theological position. It will be refined in greater detail later.
Now here are the terms defined:
If the terms are new to you, refer up to the graph to get an idea of how they relate to one another.
So, to restate:
These four labels can be very useful in describing the way we feel about gods.
They can combine together to make more precise labels.
An atheist agnostic is someone who does not believe in gods and also thinks that the existence of gods cannot be known. This might mean that they don’t believe in gods because they haven’t seen any evidence that supports their existence.
A theist gnostic is someone who believes in a god/gods and thinks that the existence of gods can be known. This position is usually referred to as just ‘theist‘, since people who believe in gods, usually also think that their existence can be known.
An atheist gnostic is someone who does not believe in gods, and who thinks that we can know that gods do not exist. A fairly unusual position, they might think they have found proof of the non-existence of gods, or might have been persuaded by life experiences.
A theist agnostic is someone who believes in gods, but thinks that they could not know for sure that their god exists. Another fairly unusual position, as people who have faith in gods usually also think that their god can be known to be real.
So we have two common positions: atheist agnostic and theist
and two less common positions: atheist gnostic and theist agnostic
and we can change the graph to reflect that:
In terms of numbers, the main positions are represented here, and the fringe positions minimized.
Though the corners are cut, these positions are by no means impossible.
For example, absolute atheist gnostic would express: “I know with absolute certainty that no Gods exist.”
And absolute agnostic theist would express: “There is absolutely no way to know God’s existence for certain, but I have no doubt whatsoever that there is one.”
The direction of the arrow represents the direction of skepticism on the graph.
The upper-most left is the position of the most doubt, whilst the lower-right displays the position of the most certainty.
The absolute central position is one of apathy or indifference. An apatheist, perhaps.*
Someone who does not know what they think yet cannot be placed on the graph, and should make up their mind if they wish to find a theological label for their views.
A very important point is that claims to knowledge are only made in the bottom half of the graph.
Only gnostics make claims to knowledge.
A quirk of the theist/gnostic box is that the concept of God changes from corner to corner.
So, to get an idea of what all this means, here’s some common positions located on the graph:
It’s important to remember that these terms can still be misleading.
When talking about different gods that people believe in, we could pick different positions on the graph depending on which god is under discussion.
For example, Christians will be on the theist axis when it comes to Jesus, but on the atheist axis when it comes to Zeus.
People who refer to themselves in casual usage as atheists usually mean that they are atheists for all possible gods, whilst a Muslim would be an atheist for all gods except Allah.
Finally, here’s the graph in its final form.
Where do you fit?
* Such a person will act as if there are no gods, since they are utterly indifferent to the idea. For all intents and purposes, they are an atheist. This is a non-trivial point. Babies are born indifferent to the idea of gods – indeed – they cannot conceive it, and accordingly are atheists: they do not believe in gods because they can not.