In my first post on this blog, I briefly discussed two different “kinds” of atheism: strong and weak (also known as positive and negative, respectively). It has recently come to my attention that there is more confusion than just between the types of atheism, but also how they relate to agnosticism and theism. So I have decided to create a post that details concise defintions and descriptions of each of the common positions regarding the various orientations toward the existence of God and what we can know about it.
First, I would like to explain the most common position we should expect to find in America: theism. Theism is defined by philosophypages.com as “[b]elief in the existence of god as a perfect being deserving of worship.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also says that “[t]heism is the belief in a “personal” God which in some sense is separate from (transcends) the world.” Together, we can condense these definitions into one: theism is the belief in the existence of a personal god who is perfect and transcendent. Now, to further clarify on this defintion, I would like to explain what we mean by “personal” and “perfect”. A personal god is one who can be considered a person who has thoughts, feelings, intentions, and all of the normal capabilities that one would attribute to a normally-functioning human being. A perfect god is one who, for every attribute it has, it is perfect in that attribute. So if God is moral, then he is perfectly moral. If he is knowledgeable, then he is perfectly knowledgeable, and so on. (What it means to be perfect in attributes like these, however, is a subject of much debate itself.)
Theism is the standard mode of belief for the three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). So if you are not a theist, then you definitely do not belong to any of the mainstream lines of thought in these traditions. Most theists interpret “perfect” as including the attributes of omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and omnibenevolence (all-good). So from the theistic perspective, not only is God transcendent, but also he(/she/it) is a person who is able to do any possible thing, knows all truths, is morally perfect, and he interacts with the world and persons in it according to his(/her/its) divine will. It also standard belief that the theistic God is responsible, in one way or another, for the existence of the universe (whether it be creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) or some other process).
Now that the majority perspective is laid out fairly clearly, it is time to move on to its antithesis: atheism. Atheism is simply defined as the negation of theism. Be sure not to only interpret the “negation” as meaning a positive denial of the truth of theism, for although it can be interpreted that way, there is also another way to understand it. The negation of theism, in its most humble form, is known as weak or negative atheism. It is simply the lack of belief in theism. Anyone who does not hold theistic beliefs is technically a weak/negative atheist (I personally prefer the term “negative” as opposed to “weak”). Under this definition, babies and the severely mentally retarded are technically negative atheists. Cultures that are completely unaware of this kind of conception of God are also technically negative atheists as well. The other side of atheism is strong or positive atheism. Positive atheism is the bold claim that a theistic God absolutely does not exist. Be sure to notice the distinction here: negative atheists are simply without belief in god and do not commit themselves to deny the possibility of god’s existence, while positive atheists are without belief in god and do commit themselves to the denial of the possibility of god’s existence. Some very bold philosophers, such as Michael Martin and Victor J Stenger, have attempted to justify positive atheism in light of philosophical and scientific arguments. Most philosophers and scientists, however, generally believe that no kind of argument could ever absolutely prove or disprove the existence of God. As such, negative atheism is the most common form of atheism that one is likely to run into, and it is the position that I support as well.
Finally, we have agnosticism. In my experience, there is no philosophical position concerning God’s existence that has been more misrepresented and misunderstood by the very people who claim to hold the position. So please allow me to clear up the inconsistencies here. Theism and atheism are ontological positions. This means that they are claims about belief in the objective existence of something. Gnosticism and agnosticism are epistemological positions (I won’t be discussing gnosticism here, since it is fairly straightforward and is the standard epistemological position of most people). This means that they are claims about what we as human beings can come to know, subjectively, about something. So when someone claims to be an agnostic, this is only a claim about what knowledge he or she thinks we can possibly attain. It says nothing of whether or not they believe that a god exists. And again, there are two types of agnostics: strong and weak. Weak agnostics believe that the evidence and arguments concerning the existence of God that we currently have are not sufficient to make a decision one way or the other on God’s existence. Strong agnostics, alternatively, believe that there is no possible evidence or arguments concerning the existence of God that could possibly allow us to give a definite answer to the question. So weak agnostics are basically just waiting for the right argument to come along, and strong agnostics are convinced that no argument could sway them, since it cannot be proven either way.
The major misuse of the term that I want to point out is when people are asked about their beliefs on God’s existence, people often reply with “agnostic”. This, however, is not answering the question. The question is: “Do you believe that God exists?” Agnostics cannot answer yes to this question, and ‘agnostic’ is not a possible answer. When somebody asks you about what beliefs you hold, you perform a mental check of the beliefs in your “belief inventory”. If one is truly an agnostic, then there is no belief in that inventory that reads “God exists”. Therefore, agnostics must answer “no” to the question “does God exist?”. Using this understanding of agnosticism, all agnostics are essentially negative atheists. Agnosticism is not a halfway, fence-sitting position between theism and atheism. It is in a completely different area of inquiry. So the next time someone announces that they are agnostic, politely point out that this reply does not answer the question of what they believe about God’s ontological status, and request that they clarify their position.
So, I hope that this was helpful in clearing up some confusion about these terms. If you are still confused after reading this, please leave a comment to let me know what your questions are so that I may attempt to answer them or refer you to a source that can. And, as with any survey of philosophical positions, there are many more out there that I did not cover. If you would like to know more about those, I can try to help you with that, too.