1.4 Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism, and Nontheism Defined

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1.4.1 There is a lot of confusion about these terms and what they mean, even by many of those who would classify as such. I will explain each of these, as best as I have been able to determine. People may disagree, but these disagreements seem largely to be a reflection of what they wish the words to mean, as opposed to what they technically mean.

1.4.2 A Theist is a person who believes in a god (monotheist) or gods (polytheist). The forms of these gods may vary, as well as the role they play in the universe and our lives. Another form of theist is a pantheist, who in general believes that all of the universe together forms a god of sorts.

1.4.3 An Atheist is a person without a belief in a god or gods. Many people misunderstand what this means. Some people may accuse atheists of needing as much or more faith than the theists because they have no evidence that there is not a god. However, an atheist is not a person with a belief that there is no god. An atheist is a person who does not have a belief that there is a god. In skeptical terms, there is no physical evidence proving the existence of god, therefore there should be no belief in such a god.

1.4.4 For example, the words moral, immoral, and amoral each have different meanings. Immoral acts are those which contradict morality. Amoral acts, on the other hand, are those which are without pertinence to morality - absent of morality or immorality, like pouring a glass of water or walking. Likewise, an "A-theist" is someone without theism. Not holding a belief in a deity does not mean that we necessarily believe there is not or cannot be one. It is a subtle but crucial point to understanding atheism.

1.4.5 What most people think of when they here "atheist" would be something like an imtheist or antitheist. There really is no word for this position that I know of because, most people who choose to believe things without evidence, would generally choose to believe something more pleasant, like their being a god that watches over us and ensures justice in the end. Therefore the true believer in the nonexistence of god/s, who might be called an antitheist, is a minority, even among the minority of atheists themselves. And, I might add, is in a logically absurd position, likely the result of having negative experiences with religious people in the past - not a good reason for forming philosophic positions. "Antitheists" might be over-emphasizing their atheism as some sort of revenge tactic against theists and, as such, do not really justify a commonly used label in philosophic terms.

1.4.6 The term agnostic was coined by British biologist Thomas Huxley. Some people imagine agnosticism to be a midway point between atheism and theism, but this is incorrect. As has been explained, theism and atheism are not equal opposites. Theism is the possession of a belief that God is real, and atheism is 'everything else' regarding belief in gods. So, there is no being in the universe that holds beliefs that is not either theist or atheist. There is no in between. Agnosticism is not about God per se but, rather, about one's approach to knowledge. An agnostic believes that you cannot know something without suitable evidence. Non-agnostics (gnostics) would be those people who believe it is possible to know facts about things, without some experience or possession of suitable evidence (perhaps through faith, intuition, mental powers, revelation, unknown senses, etc). That applies to anything, but even when applied to God, it is another layer that falls upon both theists and atheists. It is the reason one is theist or atheist. This gives four kinds of belief-holding (sentient) entities in the world:
  • gnostic atheists (who lack a belief in God and claim to know this because of mystic powers or faith)
  • gnostic theists (who hold a belief in God because of mystic powers or faith)
  • agnostic theists (who hold a belief in God and believe they have evidence for a God)
  • agnostic atheists (who do not hold a belief in God and know of no evidence for a God).

1.4.7 To avoid all of the semantic confusion and debate, and because it is more clear to the lay person, the word nontheist has been used to describe both atheists and agnostics. Like atheism, this word describes a person without a belief in a god or gods while avoiding being classified with the allegedly "anti-thestic" atheists, as well as the allegedly "wishy-washy" undecided agnostics. So, the word is designed to cover avoid confusion that can arise from either of these misconceptions.

1.4.8 While some may point to the dictionary as a simplistic means of solving the dilemma, there are a few problems with this. For one, dictionaries differ in their precise wording and people will often choose the dictionary that happens to supports their proposed definition. Another point is that dictionaries are reflections of the usage of the language - not the rules of how we are to use the words. No one would point to the presence of "ain’t" in the dictionary as evidence of its viability in the proper English language. I therefore prefer to look at two things in deciding this: the logic of the linguistic structure of the word (what little logic there is in English), and the original usage of the word, provided that it doesn’t go back so far that using the word in such a way would be ridiculously extreme. My short answer to an appeal to any dictionary that says atheists "believe there is no god" would be this: it is wrong.

1.4.9 Another way to explain the concept may be by analogy. As I write, there are some who have observed images of the cracked surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s natural satellites, and who have come to the conclusion that entire oceans of water may exist below the surface, kept in liquid state by the internal seismic heat of the satellite. Coupled with several instances discovered recently of life on Earth in what we would call hostile conditions, it is believed that life could exist in Europa’s oceans as well, however simple the form. While the existence of god cannot, even in principle, ever be proven or disproved, life on Europa might someday be discovered and confirmed to exist. Nevertheless, at present this is irrelevant for, like the existence of god, we currently have no direct evidence confirming or denying the existence of life on Europa. I personally would be thrilled if we were to discover life on Europa and I find the idea exciting. However, were someone to ask me, "Do you believe there is life on Europa?" I could honestly answer, "no" for I hold no such belief. Although we have some clues that indicate a possibility, for me to hold a belief that there absolutely is or is not life on Europa would be foolish. Now imagine what people would think if I, not only believed wholeheartedly that life on Europa existed, but I also had all sorts of beliefs concerning what this life was like, why it was there, and what it cared about. Then imagine that I set about living each day of my life in a manner which is based on these conclusions and went around suggesting that others do the same. If you can imagine this, then you will have understood how I see theists.

1.4.10 There may not be full consensus on these terms as I have described them here but this overview will nevertheless give the reader the definitions, as I will use them in this treatise. In general, I will refer to those without a belief in god/s as atheists. Agnostic will be referenced rarely. And nontheist may occasionally be used in cases where I mean to emphasize a lack of or aversion to "anti-theism" but is also considered somewhat extraneous because it is identical with the technical definition of atheist. I will use "anti-theism" to describe those who hold the untenable view that god/s absolutely do not exist (I feel it is better to create a word for a group which has never had one, rather than to misuse all of the other terms).

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