Theist, Atheist, Agnostic, Oh My!

After my last post, my wife pointed out that it may have been the first time I’ve just come right out and identified myself as an atheist. She may be right about that. I didn’t mean for it to be anything shocking or revolutionary, but because the word carries so much weight, I can see how it would look shocking to some people. But I think much of that comes from a misunderstanding of the term “atheist.” So let’s look at that, as well as some other words that people may not completely understand.

First of all, let’s start with what I used to be: a theist. Dictionary.com defines it this way:

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).

So a theist is someone that believes in a god(s) that has been personally involved in the world through miracles or revelation. Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and pagans are all examples of theists.

A deist is different, though people often think it means the same thing as “theist.” Deism is defined as:

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.

A deist is someone who does believe in God, but it’s not the god of Christianity, Islam, or any other revealed religion. Deists typically look at creation as evidence for God’s existence, but they don’t believe he’s communicated with man in any miraculous way. Many of our founding fathers were deists: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, etc. When I first realized that there were problems in the Bible and with Christianity, I considered myself to be a deist. Though I don’t consider myself that anymore, I don’t have any problems with the idea of deism. In fact, I think it’s a pretty rational way to look at things. If you’re interested in learning more about it, I’d recommend deism.com as a great source of information.

So now we’re left with atheism and agnosticism. Atheists say there’s no god, and agnostics say they just don’t know, right? Actually, that’s not quite right, and that’s why the term “atheist” carries such a bad connotation.

Agnosticism is not some in-between position between theism and atheism. An agnostic is defined like this:

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. Synonyms: disbeliever, nonbeliever, unbeliever; doubter, skeptic, secularist, empiricist; heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

Someone who’s agnostic doesn’t know if gods exist, but they also think it’s impossible to know whether or not they exist. They think mankind will never know, so they offer no opinion on the subject. Very few people match the definition of a true agnostic. The term “agnostic” doesn’t tell you someone’s belief so much as it tells you the certainty of their belief. For example, very open-minded Christians might be considered agnostic Christians. When I thought of myself as a deist, I was an agnostic deist. In other words, I tended to view the Universe as something created by an intelligence, but I knew I could easily be wrong about that.

The term “atheism” is defined this way:

1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

Many people think that an atheist is someone who emphatically denies the existence of any god. In other words, they think atheists are arrogant enough to claim that they know gods don’t exist. But that’s not what most atheists think. Most atheists (myself included) are agnostic atheists. In other words, they don’t believe in any particular god, though they realize it’s possible they’re wrong.

Let me illustrate it this way (and I won’t be the first to do so): Christians are atheists in regard to Zeus, Apollo, Thor, Allah, and Krishna. They can’t know that those beings don’t exist, but they feel quite certain that they don’t. Thor’s possible existence is not something they worry about. Atheists feel the same way; they just add one more to the list than Christians do.

My other posts do a great job of explaining why I quit being a theist. But why did I go from deism to atheism? It’s actually fairly simple. I realized that my only real reasons for being deist boiled down to wishful thinking. I liked the idea of having a soul and having an afterlife. But as I spent more time thinking about our discoveries in biology, chemistry, and physics, I realized that I had never witnessed anything that couldn’t be explained scientifically. And throughout history, every time people bumped up against a problem they didn’t have the answer to (like why does it rain?), science eventually found an answer. Right now, we don’t know what caused the Big Bang. It’s tempting to ascribe it to God, but every other time we’ve done that, we’ve eventually found a scientific answer instead.

So in the end, whenever I called myself a deist, it just didn’t feel genuine — like I was just trying to fool myself. I found that the label “agnostic atheist” more accurately described what I really thought. Do I worry that I might be wrong? Do I worry that I might face an eternity of torment for my beliefs? No, I don’t. Ironically, I was much more concerned about that when I was a Christian. But I think tackling that question sufficiently will require another post. Until then… “be excellent to each other.”

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20 thoughts on “Theist, Atheist, Agnostic, Oh My!”

  1. Hi. I am studying this today, and enjoying it much, very much. The definitions that Nate gives refer more to “hard- Agnosticism,” as opposed to “soft- Agnosticism”, and there are differant levels and kinds of Atheism. There are some soft Agnostics who think that some day we can get to the bottom of it, we will know for sure, or we will believe more strongly based on more reasonable probability, hopefully absolute proof. Maybe we are skeptical, cynical, but also hopefully optimistic. I am going through a very uncomfortable, miserable, frustrating, stalemate in my life, it is a “crisis-experience”, unfolding for several years now. Maybe I am “soft-Agnostic.” Hard Agnosticism bugs the hell out of me, I cannot handle it. I want it to be an egg on a roof, destined to eventually fall on one side, which side we do not know, we are divided. Cognitive Dissonance, the ultimate frustration. I could write a book here, not sure how many characters you allow here.

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  2. Thanks again Joseph; I enjoy your comments. And I don’t think there’s a limit to what you can type — I’ve had some really long ones on here before.

    But you’re right that I was giving strict definitions. I probably should have written more about the way the terms are actually used. Most people do use agnostic to refer to an undecided state — usually someone who doesn’t believe in the gods of any “revealed” religion, but is open to the idea of a god existing. That’s pretty much where I sit too, but I’m personally more comfortable with the label “agnostic atheist” to describe my views.

    I can really sympathize with what you’re going through right now, though I’m not familiar with the specifics. But I wish you well in it — I know how agonizing these questions can be. If I can help at all, please let me know.

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  3. I appreciate you writing. Give me some input regarding three component of belief.

    I read deism.com regarding Islam, and not agree with the statement in articles. The verse and interpretation have been twist and turn.

    Well, keep writing.

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  4. Thanks for the comment!

    As I understand it, the “3 components of faith” are knowledge, belief, and trust. In other words, you must know something about a subject in order to believe it. Once you believe it, trusting in that belief is what finally makes it “faith.” I don’t know that I can offer much insight on it, but I’ll think on it a while. Maybe I’ll post about it.

    I’m sorry that you found the articles on Islam at deism.com to be inaccurate. I’ve never read those, so I can’t comment much on that. I first found the site when I was going through my initial struggles with Christianity, so most of the articles I read there had to do with deism or Christianity — I thought most of them were pretty good.

    Thanks again.

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  5. I’ve always used the term “agnostic” simply because of its implications. Growing up in the SE US, I’ve been inundated with a variety of religious beliefs for decades…each sect proclaiming their absolute authority on a litany of subjects. I’ve found that when replying to someone’s questioning of religious flavor, if you throw out “agnostic”, it implies a full conversation to the other party. Something to the tune of: “I really don’t care. I don’t care what you believe, it’s fine with me, and the continuation of this conversation is likely to die a swift death”.

    If I used the term “atheist”, for right or wrong, I’m implying that I think an extremely religious person is wrong. If I’m using any sort of condescension in my speech patterns (or something that the other party senses as condescension), I’m implying that I likely think that they’re stupid as well. While this sort of misunderstanding is unfortunate, it’s a loaded subject, and it’s prone to misunderstandings by its nature.

    This is an interesting post.

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  6. I think you make a really good point. In certain situations I try to emphasize the agnosticism of my position for exactly that reason.

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  7. I remember looking into this way back and I did call myself an agnostic for awhile (and maybe even a deist at one point). I switched to calling myself an atheist after I had looked at problems like the hiddenness of god and evil and suffering (for example) and decided that:

    a) If there is a god he would reveal himself to us.
    b) Any competent god wouldn’t set the world up the way it is set up so there probably isn’t any god at all.

    I’m interested in something though. I rarely find the topic of religion comes up. Some people go to church, some don’t. Maybe I just don’t get out enough (which is completely possible!) but unless you step inside a church or purposely engage a religious person in discussion – I don’t find the topic comes up. I’m trying to picture how the situation arises where you have to explain the particulars of your unbelief. I know for you Nate it would come up with your family members, but does it come up when you’re interacting with other people?

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  8. Hi Brenda,

    Yes, I’m in total agreement with you. It seems crazy to me that God would hide himself from us if he was really there. If he honestly wants a relationship with us, why is it possible to consider his nonexistence? I never wonder for a moment if my dad exists…

    And you bring up an interesting point about how rarely religion seems to come up. My wife and I have actually talked about this a great deal. When we were Christians, we believed whole-heartedly. We never missed a service (unless we were sick) — even when we were on vacation we found congregations to visit. We were very involved in our church. It always seemed strange to us that many people claimed to be religious, but spent very little time or effort involved in spiritual things. And now that we’re no longer Christians, we still think and talk about religion all the time. It still puzzles us that other people don’t seem to spend much time thinking about it.

    However, I will say that religion is one of those topics that people sometimes purposefully avoid. So that’s probably part of the reason it doesn’t come up that much. But I do still agree with you that if it were really as central to people’s lives as they claim, it would be talked about more than it is.

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  9. I’m sorry. You are wrong.

    I’ve come across this convenient redefining of agnosticism a lot lately. It causes me pause to wonder what book was written that everyone went out and read in the 60s or whatever to actually have a “popular” redefining of a long accepted word.

    You do get the “gist”, I imagine, in how you present your own beliefs and how they fall on the spectrum. I would agree that absolute atheism is not very common. Most people leave a little wiggle room. But you are wrong if you don’t realize a sizable number of atheists are very vocal that they are certain that, “There is NO God”. When anyone says those 4 words together, it’s an absolute. Even if they admit they’d change their beliefs if God smote them with locusts and brimstone and appeared to them in a burning bush, they are making that admission tongue in cheek. In their minds they think this is a silly notion and its only a half-admission, but not an admission that admits any realistic doubt.
    But here’s the problem with your definition. You are defining everything in contrast to a belief in a god. As if believing in a god has to be the starting point, and that other beliefs serve to counteract that belief. Atheism by that definition is disbelief in a god. But atheism could also be belief in “random and spontaneous creation of everything without any intelligent influence”. Imagine a society existing in a vacuum without any influence from traditional religion. Imagine that a “big bang” type of idea had been proposed by the archaics of that society and long accepted as truth, then someone proposes out of the blue an intelligent creator as a modern explanation. (Backwards from the traditional mechanism) the same opposed beliefs would still be represented. Only difference is that the belief in a god would be contrasted against the “spontaneous/random” concept instead of the other way around.

    As an agnostic atheist, your exposure to religion is so ingrained that you can’t even think in such a flip-flipped manner. Most of us can’t without trying!!

    But to the problem with your definition. I would agree that agnosticism exists in a spectrum. It doesn’t by definition mean “undecided”. But it doesn’t EXCLUDE undecided either. There are agnostics who choose to put more weight on the probability that there is no god, and I think it’s fair to call those people “agnostic atheists”. That is someone who isn’t willing to vocalize an absolute, but is more comfortable with an explanation for existence that doesn’t require an all powerful intelligence.

    And likewise, there are thiest or diest agnostics. Those who recognize that there are, I their minds, good reason to take the concept of god completely on faith alone, recognizing that faith can be misguided or wrong. They will probably say, as agnosticism is defined, that there is no way to be certain or to know that god doesn’t exist or that he does. They will argue that even scientific evidence of how the universe may have formed is not probable anymore so than god. So they choose to put faith in a god: yes these are thiest or diest agnostics.

    But what your definition as explained above fails to recognize is that there are a great many of us who can see both arguments, who realize that both perspectives are equally valid, that there is no way to know, so we don’t even care to establish *faith* either way. To believe in god, even in an agnostic way, requires faith in an idea that has been explained by men. To believe there is no god, as explained through science, also requires a faith in the explanation of things through ideas explained by men. To admit the infallibility of men, and to recognize that you don’t have to have a starting point from which to contrast these ideas, to realize that not choosing to even worry with either idea is as valid a position as any, is the purest form of agnosticism. But it’s also the form of agnosticism that CAN be viewed as “middle of the road”. Because this form of agnosticism CAN probably be swayed, as would likely be the case if a smoting with locusts and brimstone occurred. Or if a Big Bang was observed in a distant void of space.

    You, as an atheist agnostic, may not hold such a middle of the road idea about religion or other the absolute dogma of atheism. But that does not mean that someone who identifies as middle of the road *isnt agnostic*
    You don’t get to monopolize a definition in that way πŸ™‚

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  10. Nice point, WHR — thanks for weighing in. I see what you’re saying. I agree that agnostic can refer to people like yourself who are truly in the middle of this issue. I think I hinted at that in the original article, but I didn’t spend much time with it. I guess I assumed most people fell to one side or the other of the issue a little more. And in those instances, “agnostic” may not be a full enough description of where they actually stand.

    But I concede your point: I should have spent more time with that group of people that actually do fit best within the one-word description “agnostic.” Thanks for pointing this out. πŸ™‚

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  11. Yeah, I’ve done some research. I like a lot of what it presents and perhaps lean more towards it than any other “belief.”

    Here’s a quote from their website: “Scientific or natural pantheism … deeply reveres the universe and nature and joyfully accepts and embraces life, the body and earth, but does not believe in any supernatural deities, entities or powers.”

    I guess some would describe it as an atheist belief but since I don’t like “labels,” that’s not what I call myself. Of course, if I say I’m a scientific pantheist, few would know what I’m talking about!

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  12. Of course, if I say I’m a scientific pantheist, few would know what I’m talking about!

    Sometimes that’s a good thing! “Secular humanist” is another good label that doesn’t seem to raise the same flags “atheist” does. πŸ™‚

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  13. I didn’t mean to be crass πŸ™‚ if it came across that way. I just encountered you blog in a Google search and felt compelled to comment.

    I recently got into a heated debated about this very subject. The problem was that the person I was debating got his definition of agnosticism from “rational wiki”, and unfortunately didn’t even understand his own source. First, “rational wiki” is an “unofficial” offshoot of Wikipedia but its drawback is that it is populated by atheists and scientific minded academics. Nothing wrong with that, but language expresses *ideas* whereas science expresses falsifiable data and mathematics. Often, people who favor mathematics over more expressive and liberal disciplines do not appreciate the fluidity of language. So, in the rational wiki page, it discusses atheist agnostics and thiest agnostics, but it doesn’t sufficiently describe the middle ground. It doesn’t exclude the middle ground, by any means, but someone looking to affirm their own ideas about agnosticism might mistakenly interpret that rational wiki article as saying there is no middle ground, which is absurd.

    The actual Wikipedia article on agnosticism is not so absolute. Probably because it has been written based more on referenced material as well as edited by a broader spectrum of people and more inclusive thought. I wouldn’t have imagined this 5-10 years ago, but Wikipedia is starting to be more reliable than most other Internet resources for accurate explanations.

    Thanks for allowing my comments!

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  14. but someone looking to affirm their own ideas about agnosticism might mistakenly interpret that rational wiki article as saying there is no middle ground, which is absurd.

    This is a really great point, and it’s one I hadn’t considered. I hate it when people feel marginalized, and I can now see where that could happen with those definitions of agnosticism.

    Thanks for calling my attention to it! πŸ™‚

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