Theism/Agnosticism/Atheism: Three Taxonomies

As a former member of the forums1, I can testify to an everlasting threads contesting the meanings of ‘theist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’. Members would register their various opinions over what the terms really meant, and argue vociferously for those definitions. Viewed one way, the discussion was silly – if the point of it was to identify the meanings of words, then disagreement ought to have led discussants quickly to the conclusion that these words had different senses, not into entrenched debate. But viewed another way, the discussion was reasonable – if instead the point was to say what the definitions of these terms should be, then the obvious fact that these terms are understood in various ways doesn’t settle the issue, and discussants can quite rightly hold to their positions in the face of it. Indeed, one might think that the diversity of definition is precisely why the debate is worth having – if a single set of definitions can be negotiated, then we can avoid the confusion which diversity causes.

Anyhow, Emil of ‘Clear Language, Clear Mind‘ thinks settling the question is worthwhile, and to that end explores two commonly adopted nomenclature. The first of these he calls the ‘Old Nomenclature’:

  • Atheism means “the denial of the existence of God or gods.“
  • Theism means belief/faith in the existence of God or gods.
  • Agnosticism means either “the belief that there can be no proof either that God exists or that God does not exist” or is the lack of belief “either way”.

In contrast, the ‘New Nomenclature’:

  • Atheism” means the lack of belief in God or gods.
  • Weak/negative atheism” means the lack of belief ‘either way’.
  • Strong/positive atheism” means the denial of the existence of God or all gods.
  • Theism” means belief in the existence of God or gods.
  • Agnosticism” means either the belief that there is no knowledge about God or gods, or the belief that knowledge of God or gods is impossible.

But how do we decide between them? One argument Emil marshals is that we would prefer the terms of our nomenclature to be exclusive of each other – though he doesn’t say why, I expect that exclusivity is a virtue because if our terms are exclusive, then this an aid to both clarity and and efficient communication. So, given that the Old Nomenclature allows ‘agnostic’ to be combined with both ‘theist’ and ‘atheist’ categories2, the New Nomenclature is preferable – right? Well, no. In fact, the New Nomenclature is worse than the old in this regard – not only can ‘agnostic’ be combined with ‘atheist’, but the addition of ‘weak’ or  ‘negative’ makes for a triple-barreled label of overlapping terms.

A better argument he gives is simply that the Old Nomenclature is unclear. In particular, the root problem seems to be that it ascribes two meanings to ‘agnostic’ which are either compatible with the ‘atheist’ label (i.e. the “no proof” meaning”) or apparently incompatible (i.e. the lack of belief “either way”). This means that in any given case where someone self-identifies as agnostic, we have no idea what the relevant contrast positions are.

A third argument, which Emil considers is based in etymology: since the term ‘atheism’ comes from the Greek “theos”, meaning “god”, and since the prefix “a-” means “not” or “without”, we should construe ‘atheism’ as meaning “without God” or more awkwardly, “not God”. That is, we should construe ‘atheism’ as the negation of ‘theism’. Concerned to avoid the etymological fallacy, Emil rejects the argument; however, I find it reasonable – as Emil notes, etymology is a guide to meaning, and for my part I think it stands in favor of the New Nomenclature against the old that it gives a definition consonant with the contribution “a-” makes to other words (‘apolitical’, ‘agnostic’, ‘atemporal’, etc.). Certainly we have a fallacy if a straight line is drawn from ancient language to modern definitions, but where the original meaning is cited to show how the prefix works elsewhere, I don’t think there’s a problem.

Leaving behind Emil’s post, I think there are a couple more reasons to discard the old terminology. First, the overlapping of categories is much worse than it first seems. Imagine a person living in one of the Scandinavian bastions of irreligion, who publicly denies the existence of God for reasons of conformity, but privately believes that God exists, though he cannot be known to exist. Such a person would be, according to the Old Nomenclature, a ‘theistic agnostic atheist’. But this is absurd, for surely when one identifies as ‘a theist’, this excludes being ‘an atheist’, and vice versa! Yet this strange mixture is allowed by the identification of ‘atheism’ with performing a particular speech-act, that of denial, rather than contraposing it with belief in God. Unfortunately, the New Nomenclature generates equal absurdity – our Scandinavian would be a ‘theistic agnostic positive atheist’. Worse, since the denial of the existence of God does not here couple with a lack of belief in God, the Scandinavian would not count as an ‘atheist’, despite being a ‘positive atheist’!

Another problem is that the old terminology seems fundamentally unfair on the atheist. Supposing a theist to be someone who believes that God exists, a person who identifies as a theist does not commit themselves to being able to provide any reasons for that belief – they are merely self-reporting. On the other hand, if an atheist denies the existence of God, then identifying as an atheist involves making a truth-claim (It is not true that “God exists”), and like all truth-claims, there is an expectation that the claimant has good reason to back that claim up3. I take this asymmetry to be undesirable – the point of our terminology is identify distinct attitudes to God’s existence, not to impose an evidential burden on one party or other. Insofar as it does impose a burden, the asymmetry tends to distort our picture of what people’s attitudes are, as some will be more willing to take on this burden than others.

At any rate, it seems that both the New and Old Nomenclature are problematic. So how should we define our terms? I humbly suggest the following definitions:

  • Theism: the belief that “God exists”.
  • Atheism: the lack of belief that “God exists”.
  • Agnosticism (in the context of religion): the lack of knowledge about one’s belief or lack of belief that “God exists”.

These definitions are hardly earth-shattering. However, that’s the point. For the sake of clarity, the formal definitions of the three terms ought be pretty close to what we’ve been working with – else we’ll just be adding more confusion to their use. Therefore ‘theism’ stays exactly the same. ‘Atheism’ is now symmetrical to ‘theism’, and together these two terms are mutually exclusive and exhaustive: one is either a theist, or an atheist, that’s it.

The big change, of course, concerns ‘agnosticism’. As with the other terms, it’d be best if it matched previous definitions, but failing that, a revisionary definition would do well to accord with common use, which is what my definition does: I take it that far and away the most common use of ‘agnostic’ is to designate the proverbial fence-sitter, rather than the refined philosophical skeptic. As such, ‘agnostic’ should denote a middle ground between ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’, something which seems at odds with the mutual exclusivity and exhaustiveness of those labels. Defining an  ‘agnostic’ as a person who lacks knowledge of their own God-beliefs lets us have our cake and eat it too – though it must be true that the person either has a belief in God or lacks it, and thus is either a ‘theist’ or an ‘atheist’, we wouldn’t expect the self-identified agnostic  to be able to commit to one side, given that they lack the knowledge to say which. Further, the definition has the added benefit of being (somewhat) faithful to philosophical use of the term – ‘agnostic’ here does indicate a lack of knowledge, though the particular lack it indicates differs from the traditional one. Outstanding.

Well, that’s my recommendation about how we should define these terms – I think it overcomes all the muddle-headed difficulties, Old and New, and all at the small cost of revising the one term out of the three which is most abused. Think it’ll catch on?

1 Yes, once there were forums. It was awhile back.

2 I’ll freely use ‘theist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ throughout, rather than the mass terms, since it is easier to explain the pros and cons by citing cases. I take these terms to apply to persons, by the way, thus avoiding the problem that  terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ on some definitions might queerly be thought to apply to inanimate objects.

3 An easy argument for this: utterances of the form “X, but I don’t know X” sound strange to most ears, indicating that some linguistic expectation has been violated. Since it doesn’t seem contradictory, it’s likely to be some pragmatic expectation that’s been cancelled, resulting in the odd pitch – in this case, the expectation that one has adequate evidence for one’s belief is cancelled by denying one’s knowledge of X.


12 thoughts on “Theism/Agnosticism/Atheism: Three Taxonomies

  1. Yair says:

    I prefer the New Nomenclature. Under yours, the Agnostic who knows that no knowledge about god is possible comes out an Atheist. Under the NN, there may very well be an Agnostic Theist – a person that acknowledges that knowledge of God is impossible, but nevertheless believes in God. And there is also a label for denying the existence of god, even if it’s a long one.

    Either way the nomenclature is problematic in that agnosticism is serving two roles. If I were to suggest one, it would be as follows:
    * Atheism: the position that god(s) don’t exist.
    * Strong Atheism: atheism held with conviction
    * Weak Atheism: great uncertainty on whether god exists, but leaning towards atheism
    * Mesotheism: Ideally, the mesotheist feels it’s just as likely that god exists or not. By extension, it also covers very weak atheism or theism.
    * Weak Theism:….
    * Strong Theism: ….
    * Theism: the position that god exists.

    * Agnosticism: the position that it’s impossible to know whether god exists.
    * Gnosticism: the position that it is possible to know whether god exists.

    This way, lots of people will describe themselves as mesotheists instead of agnostics, and things will be much clearer.

  2. Emil says:


    The word “denial” need not refer to the speech act of denying something. Denying is frequently used in philosophy to mean belief in the negation. In the old nomenclature, an atheist is a person that denies the existence of God or gods, that is, a person that believes that it is the case that there is no god, or that there are no gods.

    With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that it is possible given the NN or the ON to be an atheist theist. That is of course impossible, since they are mutually exclusive in both nomenclatures.

    As for the NN not consisting of exclusive terms, that’s incorrect. The reason it seems so is that you considered them in the wrong way. Think of them like this:

    Gnostic theist = a person that believes that he knows that there is a god or gods.
    Agnostic theist = a person that believes that there is a god or gods, but doesn’t believe he knows it.

    Negative atheist = a person that lacks belief that there is a god or gods, and lacks belief that there is no god or gods.

    Gnostic atheist = a person that believes that he knows that there is no god or gods.
    Agnostic atheist = a person that believes that there is no god or gods, but doesn’t believe he knows it.

    These are the mutually exclusive options given NN. We may note, as I did in my paper, that it is possible to be other things than listed above, but that these other positions are internally inconsistent.


    Suggestions like these is why I prefer the terms “positive” and “negative”, they do not give people ideas that the distinction between weak/strong atheist is that of a difference in how strongly the belief is held. How strongly a belief is held is irrelevant for both the NN and the ON.

  3. TaiChi says:

    Under yours, the Agnostic who knows that no knowledge about god is possible comes out an Atheist.” ~ Yair

    Not necessarily. Since an agnostic lacks knowledge about their own belief or lack of belief, being an agnostic doesn’t determine which of these disjuncts is true.
    But insofar as you mean to say that an ‘Agnostic Theist’ under the NN might not count as an ‘Agnostic Theist’ under the TCN (TaiChi Nomenclature), you’re right. They’re simply a theist, and they’ll have to express their sophisticated philosophical view with some other term.
    I find your own terminology clear enough. I just think it’s quite unlikely that such philosophical distinctions are adopted widely, so I’d prefer to roughly match the terminology to folk usage, and let philosophers build their fine distinctions out of that.

    Denying is frequently used in philosophy to mean belief in the negation.” ~ Emil

    Huh. It doesn’t match my experience, but there it is, definition 1, even. That clears up some confusion.

    As for the NN not consisting of exclusive terms, that’s incorrect. The reason it seems so is that you considered them in the wrong way.” ~ Emil

    I understand that you can combine these terms to produce exclusive categories, but the same is true of the ON, so the criticism in your post seems misplaced. (I accept your point about clarity in the section ‘Clear Definitions and Exclusiveness’, but I presume that exclusiveness is supposed to be another point in addition to it).
    I took exclusivity a different way. In the NN, the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ are not exclusive because they can be combined, so too with ‘theist’ and ‘agnostic’. This is a vice (I thought) because (i) in using any single term one does not express a definite position in the NN, and (ii) using multiple terms in combination is less efficient than if we could use single terms instead. With that in mind, the TCN is preferable: at least in practice, one only uses a single term (atheist/agnostic/theist), and this does stake out a definite position for each term.

  4. Martin says:

    These definitions don’t seem right to me. Consider proposition Q. There are only a few positions you can take on whether Q is true or false:

    1. It’s true
    2. Its false
    3. I don’t know
    4. It’s not possible to know
    5. I don’t care.

    By defining “atheism” as “not-1” you aren’t really defining it. It could be 2, or 3, or 4, or 5.

  5. TaiChi says:

    I don’t see why I’ve failed to define ‘atheism’ if it covers a disjunction of more specific positions, since what matters to definition is just that it rules some applications out, and some in. My definition does that. Besides, the way I’ve defined ‘atheism’ is no different than one would define ‘non-belief’, which (correct me if I’m wrong) unobjectionably covers 2-5.

  6. Martin says:

    If that’s what people want, OK, but it just seems weird to me.

    A proposition is either true or false. It’s binary. So it seems to me the two primary positions on a proposition should be either true or false.

    Out there in the real world, whenever I dare to use the term “atheism,” the debate descends into squabbling over semantics. “Lack of” this and “gnostic agnostic lack gnostic lack-of belief agnostic” that.

    As a result I’ve stopped using it and I now just use “those who think theism is false.” But that’s kinda long. Maybe I could invent a new word to describe it.

  7. TaiChi says:

    Yes, it is semantics, and ultimately it’s not very important. So I’m neither surprised nor displeased that anyone disagrees with me over this issue. Still, I think there are at least as good reasons for defining the terms in the way I suggest as any other way, and I was interested to do so as the idea seemed somewhat original.
    At the end of the day, I’d probably use the New Nomenclature as Emil sketches it, despite my feeling that something better could be had, since it’s rather futile to employ definitions that no-one else uses.

    As a result I’ve stopped using it and I now just use “those who think theism is false.” But that’s kinda long. Maybe I could invent a new word to describe it.

    You can always go with ‘Strong Atheist’, or ‘convinced atheist’ if you want something more perspicuous. I probably should’ve included strong and weak atheism subtypes in my list.

  8. Martin says:

    Damn! My username/real name identity has been revealed! Stupid stupid!

    My problem with “strong” vs “weak” atheism is that in theory these should be synonymous with “atheism” and “non-theism”, respectively. In fact, I think those are better terms.

    But in practice, most atheists I know use them more as certainty levels rather than position. I.e., they think theism is false but their justification for that position is weak.

    I think this is wrong. Certainty levels should not lead to a distinctive position. I don’t seen anything analogous to this in any other position in philosophy. If you think Platonism is true you’re a realist; if you think it’s false you’re a nominalist. Your arguments for one or the other might be strong or weak, but your position is that Platonism is either true or false.

  9. TaiChi says:

    Problem solved.

    My problem with “strong” vs “weak” atheism is that in theory these should be synonymous with “atheism” and “non-theism”, respectively. In fact, I think those are better terms.

    But ‘non-theist’ obviously covers anyone who’s not a theist, so it covers both strong and weak atheism.

    I think this is wrong. Certainty levels should not lead to a distinctive position.

    I tend to agree. Particularly in the case of religion, people hedge, making the distinctions almost useless.

  10. Eric says:

    “Atheism: the lack of belief that “God exists”.”

    I think it must be emphasized that if atheism is defined in this way, it’s essentially a psychological account (i.e. check all of S’s beliefs, and you won’t find the belief, “God exists”). But, if this is so, then it follows that terms like “true” or “false” or “rational” or “probable etc. cannot be predicated of ‘atheism.’ It may be true *that* you lack the belief, “God exists,” but it’s meaningless to say *of* your lack of belief, “It’s true (rational, probable, etc.). I don’t think many atheists have grasped the implications of defining atheism as you suggest.

  11. TaiChi says:

    We could use a dispositional account of belief: S believes that P is true if S acts as though P were true; S believes that ~P is true if S acts as though ~P is true; and S neither believes P nor ~P (i.e. lacks a belief either way) is S neither acts as though P were true or as though ~P were true. So it doesn’t have to be cashed out psychologically.
    But apart from this, I think we could call atheism ‘rational’. Whilst we call beliefs ‘rational’, we also call persons ‘rational’, where that person’s beliefs are arrived at through accredited epistemic practices. Therefore atheists can be rational, in part because they lack a belief in God, and so I think we can on that account extend ‘rational’ to atheism itself. By the same token, I’d call lack of belief in the result of a coin-flip ‘rational’.
    As for the probability of atheism, it is perfectly consistent to lack a belief in God, whilst having a belief that the existence of God is extremely unlikely. In fact, most atheists would say that their lack of belief in God is a result of their probabilistic estimate. Similarly, one could lack a belief in God if one judged the odds of his existence to be 50-50.

  12. Eric says:

    (1) I think that a dispositional account of atheism would lead us to conclude that most atheists act (or, more accurately, would act in the proper context) as though theism is false, and not as though neither theism nor its denial are true. But that aside, while I think any decent account of the notion of ‘belief’ must include dispositions, it seems to me as if the dispositional element not sufficient.

    (2) I don’t think it’s accurate to say S arrives at a lack of belief through ‘accredited’ epistemic practices. Let’s say I believe that ghosts exist, but, through investigation, come to the conclusion that my reasons for believing so are poor. Now it’s not the case that I merely lack the belief that ghosts exist; rather, I hold the belief that there are no good reasons to believe that ghosts exist. That is, the fact that I’m a person who doesn’t believe that ghosts exist is not best defined as my lacking the belief that ghosts exist, but as my believing that there are no reasons to believe ghosts exist. After all, a newborn lacks the belief that ghosts exists in a way that
    is qualitatively different from the way I do.

    (3) Whether it’s meaningful to speak about the probability of atheism depends on how you define the term ‘atheist.’ What’s the probability we’d assign to a newborn’s lack of belief in god? I’d say that’s a meaningless question. But if a lack of belief in god(s) is a necessary and sufficient condition of atheism, then how does the newborn’s atheism differ from yours?

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