Distinguishing The Atheist Agnostic, The Theist Gnostic, The Atheist Gnostic, and The Theist Agnostic

Distinguishing The Atheist Agnostic, The Theist Gnostic, The Atheist Gnostic, and The Theist Agnostic October 8, 2009

Peter Brietbart defines and schematizes distinctions between different kinds of atheists, theists, agnostics, and gnostics which have been growing in popularity in recent years.  Rather than misleadingly defining atheists as exclusively those who claim to know there are no gods, theists as those who claim to know there is a god (or gods) and agnostics as those who are purely in the middle about whether there is a god (or gods), Brietbart follows the recent trend towards making agnosticism not a separate position from theism or atheism but a feature of either the one or the other which is contrastable gnostic way of being the one or the other.  So, his result is as follows:

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.

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.

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.

The chart on the original article tries to account for The Atheist Agnostic, The Theist Gnostic, The Atheist Gnostic, and The Theist Agnostic by giving each its own square as decided by horizontal axis that covers degree of atheism to degree of theism and a vertical axis decided by degree of gnosticism and degree of agnosticism.   He cuts off half the Atheist Gnostic square and half the Theist Agnostic square because he judges those positions to be rarer.  That strikes me as an irrelevant way to cut a chart meant to schematize possibilities and not actualities based on hard data.

I like, in particular that he properly clarifies that agnosticism (in both cases) is a belief about the knowability of whether or not there is a God, rather than simply about whether the particular agnostic him or herself knows whether there is a God.  Agnosticism in this way does not simply mean “I don’t know” but “No one can know.”  But, nonetheless, various important, distinguishable possibilities are missing from this chart that should be distinguished in a more thorough taxonomy of possibilities:

1. A neutral Agnosticism may say, “Someone might be able to know, but I simply do not” option is a viable form of agnosticism distinct from the “no one can know kind.

2. Atheist Agnosticism can say “People in the future might be able to know but at present none of us may rightfully claim we know given the current state of knowledge.”

3.  Another variation of the Atheist Agnosticism spelled out in (2) might be “People in the future may more adequately define the conditions of a god that may then be verified to exist by physicists and cosmologists but at present this has not been done and since all previous definitions of a god or gods have yielded no adequate demonstration or conditions for demonstration, for the time being all belief in gods is unjustified, resting as it does always on .”

4.  Another variation of the Theist Gnosticism might be any of a number of strands of deism “I know there is a god (or gods) but it is (or they are) impersonal,” “I know there is a god (or gods) but divine intervention in human affairs is impossible,” “I know there is a god but it is simply an impersonal, non-intervening principle of all being”

5. While I can think of few or no actual Atheist Gnostics of whom I am aware who say they know with 100% certainty that there is no god (or gods) such is a possibility and it should not be shaved off the chart the way Brietbart does (even thought it is admittedly rare).

Finally, the apatheists (those who claim simply not to care, rather than to have an opinion) seem to me irrelevant to the chart.  None of these other positions have anything to do with whether or not one cares, it’s a matter of (a) belief and (b) belief about possibilities for justification of belief.  It’s about do you believe in a god or gods or not and do you believe that god or gods are matters about which we can have knowledge or not.  Any one of those positions above could be coupled with apathy.  There can be Atheist Agnostics who simply do not care about the question and even Gnostic Theists who do not care about whether there is a god or gods even though as they believe in it.  I believe that Jupiter has 63 moons.  Do I care?  Nope.  The apatheists are irrelevant to a chart concerned with beliefs.  Maybe the justification is that an apatheist has not bothered to form any beliefs on the issue and so cannot be placed in any other square (or half square).  This raises an interesting distinction to sort out.  There are those who do not have any belief stance on some issue because they have investigated them and found the evidence inconclusive and there are those who do not have any belief stance on that same issue because they have not investigated and so have no idea what is better or worse to believe whatsoever.

In that case, we might say that there are those who are torn between two possible beliefs because they actually believe that both positions have 50% evidence or an inconclusive 60%-40% split of some sort.  That sort of agnostic could wind up anywhere along either of the middle lines.  For example, you can have someone who believes the question of god (or gods)  is resolvable and as a result belongs on the gnostic line and yet they themselves are split down the middle as neither a believer in a god or gods and so belong right on the line between gnostic theism and gnostic atheism.  And the degree to which they are certain that the issue is in fact resolvable one way or the other will put them further or closer on the gnostic theism/atheism line to the intersecting agnosticism line.

Or, you can have someone who believes that the issue of belief in god or gods is not rationally resolvable but is torn on whether or not to have faith in light of this uncertainty.  And again, that person could be right on the agnosticism line but  not tipping in the theism or atheism direction.  And can be as far or close to the intersecting gnosticism line as the degree to which she is sure that knowledge of god (or gods) is possible or impossible.

So, in sum, this ambivalent person has either (1) seen 50-50 evidence for belief in a god (or gods) and is in the midst of reasoning from an already established position of gnosticism (that belief is possible) or (2) is split 50-50 in her reasoning about whether having faith is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do where she reasons from an already established position of agnosticism (that justified belief is impossible and the will must opt either to believe amidst uncertainty or refrain from belief because of uncertainty).

Someone split in this way, having considered evidence for belief and/or reasons concerning whether or not knowledge in these matters is possible (in other words, having actually considered reasons for choosing between atheism/theism and/or reasons for choosing between gnosticism/agnosticism) is in a much different position than someone who has never assessed evidence in either debate (theism/atheism, gnosticism/agnosticism).  I do not know if any such person really exists—though it is likely that most people have not very well explored the reasons for theism, atheism, agnosticism about god questions, or gnosticism about god questions, I find it hard to believe anyone has not considered any such reasons and does not belong somewhere on the chart—however little they may care about the issues at hand.

And even if someone does not belong on the chart at all, their apatheism is irrelevant to their placement or non-placement on the chart.  All that would take someone off the chart and matter with respect to their non-placement on it would be their complete and utter ignorance of all the issues involved that leads to know default beliefs on the issues at all.  Right now there is probably some raging debate in chemistry about which I am so utterly ignorant that my default non-belief in either position does not even qualify as a default acceptance of either other position.  It makes me simply without any kind of belief, implicit or explicit, about the issue.  Only that sort of person, 100% oblivious to all questions of gods or possible knowledge of gods would not belong anywhere on a chart like this.

Your Thoughts?

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