Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Some thoughts about 'atheism', 'theism' and 'agnosticism'

It is common for people to describe themselves in relation to the question of the existence of God as 'atheist', 'theist' or 'agnostic'. Even before we get into the interminable debate as to whether there really is such a thing as God, I think there are a few things to be clarified in terms of how these labels are used. The following points are criticisms of what I take to be common assumptions concerning the use of the terms 'atheist', 'theist' and 'agnostic'.

It is popular among self-confessed atheists to define atheism as ‘lack of belief in anything supernatural.’ This is handy for the atheist, since in the famous debate over where the burden of proof lies, it is a common argument to claim that the burden does not lie with the atheist, who has a mere lack of belief in God; rather, the burden is on the theist to give evidence for his / her positive assertion that there is a God. However, ‘lack of belief in God’ is a very bad definition of atheism, since it is true of rocks, camels and Christmas trees, which lack all beliefs, including about God. It would be an abuse of the word ‘atheism’ to refer to a rock as an atheist, so this definition clearly will not suffice. It is also insufficient for distinguishing atheists from agnostics, who also lack belief in God. Though it may suit the atheist in debate to characterize his / her position in terms of lack of belief, rather than a positive belief of the same type as theism, it is very hard to accurately do so. 'A belief that there is no God', which sounds more traditional, also sounds like a more accurate definition of 'atheism'.

There are so many uses of the word ‘God’ that the term is practically ambiguous. Restricting ‘theism’ to ‘Christian monotheism’ as is commonly done is too restrictive, since there exists monotheisms in many other cultures. The scale of religious conviction is a continuum, with very weak theisms positing the existence of a creating and sustaining ‘mother nature’ type force, and very strong theisms positing the existence of a single, powerful divine mind. Perhaps we might define theism as ‘belief in a creator and sustainer of the universe.’ However, this is too loose: belief in a scientific law (common to theists and non-theists alike) might well be held to fall under this definition. Should we then include creative intelligence in the definition of theism? No, since ‘intelligence’ is also ambiguous, and there are many theists who do not think of God as a giant, powerful disembodied mind (quite a crude conception), but something more abstract. 

Agnosticism, taken as an ‘I don’t know’ position, is commonly criticized as being too weak, a kind of cowardly middle-man position held by the person who lacks the conviction to commit to either atheism or theism. However, the strength of an intellectual position should not be judged on the content of the belief itself, but on the amount of assessment, deliberation and criticism that has been invested in that position, and the strength to which the belief is held. Therefore, one can be a very strong agnostic if, after deliberating long and hard and weighing up the evidence, one decides that we don’t know / can’t know enough to assent to God’s existence or reject God’s existence. It's clear that agnosticism can be as firm a positive belief about the world as atheism or theism. At the very least, an agnostic must have considered the question of God's existence, if only for a second.

'I don't care'
It is also widely held that ‘atheism’, ‘agnosticism’ and ‘theism’ (or ‘religious belief’ for the purposes of this point) exhaust the possibilities concerning intellectual attitudes about God. The question ‘are you atheist, theist or agnostic?’ implies that one must fit somewhere here, perhaps on a continuum between strong atheist and strong theist. Richard Dawkins, in 'The God Delusion', introduces a similar 7-point scale. However, this is simply false, since the three categories are not exhaustive. This is because, as argued above, agnosticism is a positive belief about the world, the agnostic having actively concluded that, based on the evidence, we simply don’t (or can’t) know if God exists or not, based on at least a shred of consideration of the question. Agnosticism does not, therefore, cover the sizeable group of people who haven’t for a minute considered the question of God at all: ‘I don’t know’ is not the same as ‘I don’t care.’ He / she who has not to any extent considered God’s existence will have no belief about God’s existence, and will have come to no conclusions; therefore, to label such a person ‘agnostic’, as is popular, would be false. This person has not joined the debate; therefore such labeling is not justified. Rather than create a new term for people who have never considered God’s existence (such as ‘I-don’t-care-ists’ or some more catchy name), it is more sensible, I think, to consider such people as located outside the continuum from atheist to theist. Therefore, the three categories ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘theist’ are not exhaustive, and should not be used as if they are: they describe only a sub-set of human beings.


  1. I think it's worth stressing that, strictly speaking, agnosticism is the view that we *cannot* (currently) know whether there is a God, rather than simply the idea that we do not know. By putting such an epistemic spin on the idea, it paves the way for viewpoints such as atheistic agnosticism, which are ruled out by a characterisation that makes agnosticism, theism and atheism all mutually exclusive.

    1. Sure. I also think that the 'we' is important instead of 'I', strictly speaking. This rules out counterexamples, for example if I am braindead in a coma. I cannot know anything (including if there is a God or not), but it doesn't make me an agnostic.

      On the other hand, its not clear that 'I am an agnostic' says anything about humans generally; it says something about my personal beliefs. Any ideas?

  2. Over here in the U.S., we usually call people either liberal, conservative, or independent when talking about politics. But like theist/atheist/agnostic, these terms are not exhaustive; we just use them as shorthand because they're mostly accurate most of the time.

    If we happen to get deep into a political discussion, we might have to start calling people libertarians, marxists, and neoconservatists (etc.) In the same way, we can use terms like animism, ignosticism, and apatheism; but these are only necessary as details when deeply entrenched in philosophical discussion. In both cases, the "big three" terms can often be used as close analogies.

    To use myself as an example - I usually just say I'm an atheist, but if I wanted to be really accurate I'm also a metaphysical dualist, a moral realist, a modal fictionalist, and a secular Buddhist. While these things aren't *directly* related to the question of God, they differentiate me quite a bit from most other atheists.


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