Kurt Bell

A life of courage, joy and independence.

A field guide to the identification of atheists

The video series My daughter meets Christianity continues to draw comments and email. This week I was asked again if I am atheist or agnostic. I responded that I’m both, which answer seems to require a little explanation.

In common usage ‘atheist’ describes a condition of disbelief regarding the claims of deity, while ‘agnostic’ refers to someone who’s still on the fence and not sure if God or Gods are real. While ‘theist’ (or sometimes ‘deist’ for those who think deity simply set the world in motion and then walked away) describes someone who believes God or Gods are real, created us and then maintains an active interest in the world. That’s a handy scale. A little spectrum covering believers to non-believers as well as folks in the middle who haven’t made up their mind. Pretty simple and straightforward. It’s also wrong.

In fact, it’s quite possible to be both agnostic and theist or agnostic and atheist at the same time, without contradiction. Such people are referred to as agnostic-theists and agnostic-atheists, respectively. Most of you reading this are probably one or the other.

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities.

Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether God, the divine, or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.

The key is that atheism and agnosticism answer two separate and very different questions. Atheism is concerned with belief and answers the question do you believe in God? while agnosticism deals with knowledge and the question do you know if God exists? The word ‘know’ in this case refers to the facts gained from observing and measuring the world around us. Such knowledge is the stuff of science labs and experimentation; and any scientist worth their PhD is strictly agnostic to any and all claims which have not met their burden of proof. Without this position the scientific method simply breaks down and we arrive at belief unsubstantiated by facts, which usually gets us nowhere. Interestingly though, anyone interested in God or Gods is also agnostic to this particular claim if they also think the reality of deity has not been well demonstrated or is beyond measure (transcendent is a popular word). Such people are actually looking at the world like scientists, and reporting ‘I can’t prove to you that God or Gods are real’ which is a strictly agnostic position to take. However, this does not mean they cannot, or do not, believe in God. Only that they don’t have any good evidence that God is real, and must instead rest their belief on some inner conviction, a gut feeling or a really strong hunch. There’s no good word to describe this conviction in science, though religious believers tend to use the word faith. So a believer who can’t empirically prove their belief, yet who maintains their conviction on terms of faith, is in fact an agnostic-theist.

So, instead of just the three basic positions of theist, agnostic and atheist, there are actually four positions which I’ve illustrated below. These four positions describe various stations along two axis labeled knowledge and belief.

scale v2

  • Agnostic-Theist (people of faith usually fit here)
    Believes in God and either can’t prove God is real or thinks good proof is impossible
  • Agnostic-Atheist (what most people think of when they use the term ‘atheist’)
    Doesn’t believe in God because they are not aware of any good evidence to prove God is real or think such evidence is impossible to find
  • Gnostic-Theist
    Believes in God and thinks they can provide good evidence that God is real
  • Gnostic-Atheist (rare)
    Doesn’t believe in God despite the fact they have good evidence that God is real

Most ‘atheists’ are also agnostic which is usually the root and cause of their disbelief. For how can we believe something we can’t even know is true? Most theists though are also agnostic, the difference being they persist in their belief despite having no good evidence to show they are right. This belief in spite of good evidence is often revered as faith by believers, and as gullibility by those who cannot bring themselves to believe something which cannot actually be known.

There’s also the word none which is growing in popularity and used to describe those who have better things to do than propose as true, stories which can’t be proven, or write blog posts defining the difference between theist, agnostic and atheist.


Flickr image by Michael Rosensteln used with permission of Creative Commons license





2 comments on “A field guide to the identification of atheists

  1. Emile Blomsma
    June 18, 2016

    Hello Kurt,

    I'm reaction on this last post.

    What should(could) you believe when you paragnostic like I am? Can I prove anything? No! Do I believe that God exists? Don't now! Do I believe we live on after we passed away? Yes. Still a lot off questions and no answers. II think it should be that way.

    Greetings Emiel from America the Netherlands

  2. Mark Sackler
    June 23, 2016

    Check out David Eagleman’s “Possibilianism” which he defines as rejecting both absolute theism and absolute atheism and being open to possibilities we can’t yet test for or perceive. I refer to it as proactive agnosticism.

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