What if someone would tell you that they are both an atheist and an agnostic at the same time? Would you tell them that they’ve got their terms wrong? That they are confused? That they simply do not understand important matters of spirituality and knowledge?
To some, the term agnostic is simply redundant. To others, it is the equivalent of atheist. There are also people who state that the agnostic is a believer who has yet to understand religious matters.
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write a blog entry about the differentiation in meaning and religious stance for terms like theist, atheist, agnostic, secular, but so far I postponed writing the article. It’s recent interactions on social media and the fulminating rise of communities of openly declared atheists, agnostics and secular people that made me delay no more.
So here is my view in what regards terminology and religious stance for theism, atheism, agnosticism, and secularism.
I will start by providing here the dictionary definitions for each of these words so that we all have the same operational clarifications of the terms. The definitions offered by various English dictionaries are slightly different in what regards the additional information considered necessary in defining the words, but the general meanings are similar, so I will only present one such definition and a link for the extended presentations.
1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation (distinguished from deism).
2. belief in the existence of a god or gods (opposed to atheism).
1.belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism).
2.belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.
3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic: Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality.
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal:
2.not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred): secular music.
3.(of education, a school, etc.) concerned with nonreligious subjects.
4.(of members of the clergy) not belonging to a religious order; not bound by monastic vows (opposed to regular).
5.occurring or celebrated once in an age or century:
the secular games of Rome.
6.going on from age to age; continuing through long ages.
Now, from the beginning, I think it is easy to spot that each of these terms defines something specific and that none can actually be fully substituted by another. Therefore, understanding the differences and specificity of each concept becomes critical to properly incorporating a description or label (if one must be used) into one’s identity and system of beliefs (unrestricted to religious beliefs).
Many conflicts also arise or are maintained – in both online and real environments – by the misuse of the terms above, but what I mainly find troubling is that the improper use of the terms has found its way into the discourse of people who try to educate and inform the general public regarding these topics or critical thinking. Bloggers, book authors or educators already spread a distorted view upon the concepts and, although some do pick out the errors, if not modified in time, their efforts could rather result in confusion, than clarification.
I will provide here several perspectives and ways to consider these concepts, in the hope that it will become easier to discriminate between them for later use. I do not state that my understanding is the correct one, but it is definitely an informed one.
I think the key to understanding these concepts is properly assigning perspectives and most of all, contexts.
Contexts or Paradigms
If we look at the five terms and their definitions – Theism, Deism, Atheism, Agnostic(ism), Secular(ism) – we will find that several of them are directly linked to the idea of religious belief or the notion of God. From this, we can separate the terms as follows:
Theism, Deism, Atheism – Pertain Exclusively to the Religious Paradigm
Secular – Has several meanings that Exclusively pertain to the Religious Paradigm. Meanings 2,3,4.
Agnostic, Secular – Have meanings that can be placed in a Religious Paradigm, but do not exclusively pertain to it. Agnostic – Meaning 1. Secular – Meaning – 1.
Agnostic – Has no meaning exclusively pertaining to the Religious Paradigm.
From this categorization we can infer that agnostic is the only term whose use cannot be automatically linked to a religious stance, since that can be assigned only after we place the term in that specific context ourselves, to serve a purpose of communication or some other purpose.
What do I actually mean by that? If you use words like theism, atheism, deism, you are definitely linking whatever you have to say to religion. If you use secular, you may be linking it to religion, depending on which meaning of the word you use, and if you use agnostic, you are most likely not referring to religion, unless you state so. Agnostic is not religion dependent.
Let’s take a further look at what exactly these concepts mean within a religious paradigm and outside of it.
Within the Religious Paradigm
What does it mean to be theist, deist, atheist or agnostic when considered in a religious context? By religious context or paradigm, I mean a context, framework or pattern of thought that involves the belief in a deity or deities and, perhaps, other divine beings and principles.
In a religious context, a theist is one who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being(s), usually Creator/Creators and other supernatural beings of divine nature. A deist is a type of theist, a person who believes in the existence of a God, but denies revelation and/or the involvement of this God in any further aspects regarding this world, other than the creation.
Now let’s see about the agnostic’s stance within the religious paradigm. In order to make my explanation clearer, I created the picture above. Let’s consider belief in a God/Gods as a continuum ranging from complete/total belief (left extremity) to complete lack/absence of belief (right extremity). If we were to ask both theists and non-theists/atheists to sit in a row on this imaginary line of belief, we would have theists in the far left side of the row, and atheists in the far right of the row. Theists believe in God, Atheists do not. In between the two, we would have different levels of belief, based on many factors, because not all men believe in the same way, think about religion in the same way (even if they label themselves as religious), do not believe with the same intensity and do not practice with the same involvement. Some would say that in the religious paradigm you would only have the extremities: you either believe or you don’t. But that only happens if you consider theists and atheists. When you place agnostics in the religious contexts and if we are again to think of that row of theists and atheists, the agnostic would not sit in that row. Nowhere at all. No place on that line would actually be assumed by an agnostic. The Agnostic is next to the row, but not in it. Why? Because the agnostic position, in the religious context, is that of neutrality, due to lack of information considered sufficient to draw conclusions, and therefore make a decision.
In what regards the agnostic’s stance in the religious paradigm, both believers and non-believers often got it wrong and assumed that the lack of position can be interpreted in various ways as follows:
- Both theists and atheists may consider the agnostic a non-believer.
- Theists may consider the agnostic a believer who has yet to understand the meaning of the religious dogma.
- Atheists (more often than theists) may consider the agnostic a lesser version of an atheist, one who has not yet fully committed to the idea that a God does not exist.
In my opinion, they are all wrong. The Agnostic is simply that: neutral. They are not undecided. They are not wobbly. They do not lean in one direction or the other. For the sake of the drawing, I placed my Agnostic in the middle of the chart, but he/she could be placed anywhere on that chart, as long as it is not in that row of belief.
“I don’t know” or “I do not think we are capable of knowing or understanding” does not equal belief or non-belief. Some atheists say that as long as the Agnostic does not directly believe, he is by default an unbeliever. No. Because the Agnostic did not make that step towards the row. There is not sufficient data. Thus, no conclusion.
Agnosticism IS NOT a level of belief. It’s a way of thinking about belief, without assuming any of the two stances – belief or non-belief.
For atheists to say that agnostics are by default atheists too, means to use the exact thinking creationists use to explain creation of the world. “We don’t know, so it must be this”. But no data support the claim. Psychologically, it’s cognitive distortions at work. Jumping to conclusions, mind reading, dichotomous thinking, etc. “If it’s not one, it must be the other”, only seeing the black and white, but not the grays, it’s proof of dichotomous thinking. It’s also emotional reasoning, because they assign a value of truth to that option that makes them feel good. This time, it goes for both theists and atheists. And I would definitely not endorse the substitution of a distortion with another distortion.
At the same time, one can clearly observe that the Atheistic stance is, ironically, a religion-related, religion-locked stance. The atheistic stance does not exist outside of the religious paradigm. It only implies a stance of opposition, but the concept it opposes is still validated by assuming this position. So when you are using a label like “Atheist” (especially to describe yourself), you still haven’t left the religious paradigm.
The secular stance, in the religious context, is not the same as an atheistic stance, although many would think so. The secular position does not involve theism, nor atheism, but it just says that the matter of religion/belief will not be taken into consideration in certain contexts. The secular position is also different from the agnostic one because it does not imply that its decision to leave out religion from certain affairs is due to lack of conclusion in the field of belief. It is like differentiating between a personal perspective and a professional one. You can have whatever belief you want (belief or non-belief), but depending on the social context (personal or professional) you decide not to implicate your beliefs in certain aspects of your life.
Outside the Religious Paradigm. Into the Big World.
When we leave the religious paradigm, we no longer find Theism, Deism or Atheism. We will only encounter those meanings of Secular that are not religion-related and Agnostic, that can be applied to a variety of segments of knowledge.
One can be agnostic about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Yeti, leprechauns, healing energies or climate change. That does not make them atheists.
For some of these subjects, proof can be found easier and therefore, the Agnostic will leave his/her agnostic stance and assume that of a believer or non-believer. For others, the situation will be similar to the subject of God.
So… Can the Atheistic and Agnostic Stance Co-Exist in the same Mind?
Considering everything I have written above, my answer is “Yes, as long as one is aware of the different contexts”. One can be an atheist in the religious paradigm and an agnostic in the wider context of existence. What I state here is not necessarily the equivalent of Robert Flint’s concept of “agnostic atheist”, but I definitely agree that one of his statements fits in the context of this article: “As to the wish, most certainly a man who is merely an agnostic is entitled to protest against the injustice of being spoken of as an atheist. On the other hand, if a man be really an atheist in the ordinary meaning of the term he has no right to claim to be regarded merely an agnostic, and by doing so he necessarily spreads and confirms the very error against which he protests – the confusion of agnosticism with atheism” (Flint, R., Agnosticism, page 9).
The way I see them coexisting is “agnostic, atheist” or “atheist, agnostic”, order irrelevant, each term meaning something else in the specific contexts. I also want to mention the fact that the agnostic, by definition, is the one open to the idea of changing one’s beliefs if proper proof is provided. The atheist simply does not believe. An atheist who claims they are open to changing their mind in this regard is simply unaware of his additional agnostic stance.
Unfortunately, many of those who speak pro-atheism get these concepts wrong. One of the latest situations I encountered is that of author Peter Boghossian. I did not read any of his books – did not find sufficient reasons to do so and his posts on Twitter convinced me for some time that he gets some things really wrong, yet he is a prominent figure in the atheist community – but a quote from his book that someone posted online caught my attention and will explain why. The segment is the following: “I dislike the terms ‘agnostic’ & ‘agnosticism’. I do not believe Santa Claus is a real person who flies around in a sleigh led by reindeer, delivering presents. I’m a Santa Claus atheist. Even though there is nothing logically impossible about this phenomenon, I’m not a Santa Claus agnostic. ‘Agnostic’ & ‘agnosticism’ are unnecessary terms“. Now, if the quote is valid, Boghossian definitely misuses the term atheist, by considering it a valid synonym for “unbeliever” and disregards the idea of God included in the concept of “atheism”. Santa Claus is obviously not a deity, but a kid may be agnostic in what regards Santa. I know Boghossian has a way of defining concepts in a manner that works for him, but that does not make his statements valid. In this case, he’s no different than Deepak Chopra, who uses terms from physics and medicine as he pleases, to suit his claims. For the thing above alone, I think refunds would be a valid action.
Anyway, going back to the main topic of this article, I believe that not seeing the conceptual differences between atheist and agnostic, or considering that such differentiations are redundant, is a really simplistic and superficial view upon the matter and can produce unnecessary confusion in the minds of those who are in the process of understanding and assuming their own positions in the world.
If you agree or disagree with the view presented in my article, you can share your opinion in the Comments section below.
*The assignation of black or white for the Figure above was random. Given the general meaning of these symbols, I do not wish to imply some are good and some are not. On another note, atheists are rather used to being seen as the black sheep in the religious context, so I thought they would mind less (if at all) if black was assigned to non-belief.
agnostic. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 26, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/agnostic
atheism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 26, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheism
Can a person be both an atheist and an agnostic at the same time? (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2016, from https://www.quora.com/Can-a-person-be-both-an-atheist-and-an-agnostic-at-the-same-time
deism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 26, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/deism
Flint, R. (1903). Agnosticism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
secular. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 26, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/secular
theism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 26, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theism
The ideas presented on this website are my own. When reading these articles, keep in mind that Psychology Corner is a blog. Also, I am not a native English speaker.