Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Atheism, Agnosticism, Theism and other

There seem to be quite a lot of people who have some deep and fundamental flaws in understanding basic terms.
The term "Atheism" is being mistreated and trampled over by atheists in various ways - some claim its a world-view (or it's a direct source of it), others claim it's an alternative to agnosticism and theism. There are people claiming it's mutually exclusive with agnosticism, or that the title aside - we should add something to the definition.

This post is an attempt to lay out some basic principles so that atheism group doesn't waste another 100 threads to discuss something long agreed upon.

Let us start with Latin and Greek:
Theism  - belief in a (personal) god
A - not,without,with no
Atheism - without belief in a (personal) god
Deism - belief in the so called 'First Cause', not necessarily personal or conscious, un-intervening creator.

Gnosticism -  related to knowledge about oneself. In the beginning gnosticism was a movement within early Christianity, somehow akin to Buddhism, where one was supposed to seek gnosis - ultimate knowledge about oneself and world. There were many 'branches' of gnosticism but ultimately were swallowed by manicheism. In contemporary philosophy regarded as a stance characterised by perfect and absolute knowledge, certainty, primarily about God.

Agnosticism - on a lexical level means "without gnosticism", ie claims that perfect knowledge is unattainable. With regards to existence of god claims we don't know for sure.

Huxleyan agnosticism, very often simply (but somehow incorrectly) "agnosticism". Stirs a lot of discussion due to numerous misconceptions about it. "Invented" by Thomas Huxley, claims that the existence of god is beyond our comprehension and we can't possibly know whether the god exists or not.

Apatheism -  a position of being apathetic to claims about existence or non-existence of god and claims of religions as irrelevant to one's life


God - with capital letter G - a personal, usually Christian god
god - a general god, might be personal but generally is not

There are various gods with various definitions. God as a hyper-idealized projection of oneself onto the universe exists in as many forms as many people believe in him. Basically it looks like god is a perfected version of ourselves. That is the reason the god knows believer so well, agrees with him and so on.

So when talking to a believer the very first thing should be to agree upon the definition of god you'll be considering.

Can be divided with regards to burden of proof.

Burden of proof - is the obligation on a party in an epistemic dispute to provide sufficient warrant for their position.

Weak atheism - "I don't believe the god exist", or in more formal way - I REJECT THE CLAIM "God exist" BASING ON INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE.
It is a rejection of a claim and as such does not carry the burden of proof.

Strong atheism - "I believe a (this) god does not exist" - usually with regards to a specific definition of god (i.e. Christian one), carries burden of proof so the claimant is expected to provide some evidence (material, logical, etc) to support his claim.

The example could be: "Christian god does not exist because he is internally incoherent, logically contradictory".

Huxley defined his agnosticism as our inherent inability to know whether god exists or not. This further can be divided into:
Weak Huxleyan Agnosticism - we can't know if god exists now, but we may be able to know in the future
Strong Huxleyan Agnosticism - we can't know if god exists now and we won't be able to know in the future.


Gnosticism and Atheism are not part of the same spectrum, are not of the same domain, don't talk about the same.

(A)Gnosticism talks about KNOWLEDGE

(A)Theism talks about BELIEF

Knowledge is a very specific subset of belief, such specific that it has own 'compartment'.

It is therefore possible to define four different positions one may take:

GNOSTIC THEISM - I believe in god and I know god exists. OR I accept the claim "God exist" and I am 100% sure I'm right.

AGNOSTIC THEISM - I believe god exists, but I don't know that for sure. OR I accept the claim "God exist" and I am NOT 100% sure I'm right.

AGNOSTIC ATHEISM - I don't believe god exists, but I don't know that for sure. OR I reject the claim "god exists" but I may be wrong.

GNOSTIC ATHEISM - I don't believe god exits and I know he doesn't. OR I reject the claim "god exist" and I am 100% sure I'm correct.

Both gnostic theism and gnostic atheism characterize themselves with an absolute knowledge. This is also the case for strong Huxleyan agnosticism. Because in practice absolute knowledge is unattainable, those stances for the most part are useless. Unless the definition of god is sufficiently specific and can be refuted (or not) by logical reasoning, the position is impossible to defend.

The most common position is a agnostic theism, even though a lot of people tend to mistake their belief for their knowledge. But when pressured in the discussion they usually admit they don't know, they just have faith/believe.

The best general position for an atheist is an agnostic atheist. There is no sufficient evidence to accept the claim 'god exist', but we don't know for sure and we don't claim absolute knowledge in the subject, so when the sufficient evidence is presented to us - we may believe.

It is also worth noting that BELIEF in a god is not the same as worship. If for instance someday Christian god revealed himself to everyone, rational people would surely believe he exist, but given the problem of evil we would not necessarily worship him.

The last but not least:
DEISM - in general a belief that there is a 'god' - a causal force that exists outside of space and time, created the singularity with Big Bang mechanism, set the whole thing in motion and backed off. It does not intervene, does not answer to prayers, doesn't do anything within the space-time continuum of our Universe. The evolution, abiogenesis and all the rest were within it's (god's) plan and that's it. DOES NOT require conscience!

Deists' god is a main character of the 'First Cause Argument'. It's important from the point of view of an atheist because a lot of believers will try to assume it's (god's) existence, "prove it" and then do a leap from deists' undefined god to Christian or Muslim God. A common practice of William Craig.

Given that atheism is a rejection of a claim it should be emphasized that it is NOT A WORLDVIEW.

Atheism has no dogma, no tenets, no rules, no assumptions, no philosophic conclusions, no ceremonies, no rituals, nothing of the sort.

Atheism is a rejection of a claim, nothing more, nothing less. A few analogies:

  • Atheism is a belief like OFF is a TV channel.
  • Atheism is a belief like BALD is a haircolour.
  • Atheism is a belief like ABSTINENCE is a sex position.

If we define claims about god as something to sell, atheists just don't buy what theists try to sell. It's not that atheists sell the contrary to what theist try to sell you.

A lot of atheists have some worldview or philosophy. Everyone probably does. But that is just a CORRELATION, not a causation.

Someone happens to be an atheist AND at the same time - say - humanist.
The world-view and/or philosophy come from other things, they do not a result of an atheism.

There are dozens of possible stances to choose from. If you feel the need to find how it is called what you are thinking, then you should definitely check
  • humanism, especially secular humanism
  • rationalism
  • secularism
  • scepticism
  • transhumanism
  • naturalism
  • objectivism (avoid Ayn Rand)
  • pragmatism
  • freethought
  • etc

The term Atheism should be kept as minimal as possible to avoid
  1. accusations that atheism is a religion
  2. accusations that atheism is a belief
  3. accusations that atheist worship science
  4. avoid burden of proof
  5. avoid being ridiculed by theists

And remember - when you go around claiming absolute certainty, you look PRECISELY like a theist. The only difference is in what you're irrationally stubborn with.