As a former member of the RD.net 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.