A Short Explanation of Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism


Atheists often accuse theists of arrogance, since they claim to know, for certain, that God does not exist. Likewise, atheists are often accused of arrogance, since they claim with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Someone who does not want to get accused of arrogance might say that they are an agnostic – instead of saying “I believe” or “I don’t believe”, they say “I don’t know” or “I can’t know” if God exists. This, however, is a confusion of what theism, atheism and agnosticism actually mean.

Theism is the belief that at least one deity exists. Although it is true that many theists will say “I know that God exists”, with faith as the justification for their certainty, theism is really only about belief. You can believe in something without thinking it is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But this does not mean a belief is just an opinion – beliefs can also be, and should be, based on evidence. Atheism is simply the rejection of theism. It is not its own belief system, but a response to the claim that God exists. And its response is a lack of belief in God or any other deity. The atheist will say “I do not believe in God”, not “God does not exist.” So neither theism or atheism is arrogant by nature.

Agnosticism is not the opposite of Gnosticism (a medieval school of thought which teaches that union with God is achieved through abstinence and philanthropy.) Agnosticism means “without knowledge” and does not mean, as many think, that there’s a 50:50 chance whether God exists or not; that it’s just as likely that God exists and that God doesn’t exist. Agnosticism is the view that the truth or falsity or certain claims, usually the claim of God’s existence, is unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism is more to do with knowledge than belief. An agnostic will say “I do not know if God exists”, but this does not mean that the agnostic thinks that God’s existence is just as likely as God’s non-existence.

Thomas Henry Huxley or Darwin’s “bulldog” coined the term agnostic in 1869, although agnostic thought has existed for much longer. Sanjaya Belatthaputta, an Indian ascetic teacher and contemporary of the Buddha, said that when confronted with claims about the afterlife and supernatural beings, said that he prefers to neither believe nor disbelieve in them. In Protagoras’ lost work On the Gods, he wrote: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not.” That, in a nutshell, is the agnostic position.

But if agnosticism is just about a lack of knowledge, whereas theism and atheism focus on belief, can you be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist? You never hear people describe themselves with either of these labels, yet the labels are not contradictory. An agnostic theist is someone who does not know if God exists but believes in God’s existence anyway. The existentialist Soren Kierkegaard falls into this category. He said that a knowledge of God is impossible.

An agnostic atheist, on the other hand, is someone who does not know if God exists but does not believe in God’s existence. I would probably describe myself as an agnostic atheist. I do not know that God doesn’t exist, in the same way, I do not know that demons do not exist, but I still disbelieve in the existence of God (and demons). The agnostic part of this label seems like common sense – I just cannot know the existence or non-existence of God for certain, so I won’t claim to have knowledge that I don’t have. I think that’s a humble opinion to have. But I leave open the possibility that God exists because, well, anything is pretty much possible if it doesn’t violate the laws of physics or the rules of logic. Whether the properties of God (as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent) would violate the laws of physics or the rules of logic is another issue altogether.

I believe that atheism, as a lack of belief in God, is justified because there is a total absence of evidence for God’s existence. The lack of belief then is based on what evidence is available. Bertrand Russell is a famous example of an agnostic atheist. Richard Dawkins, although known as a staunch atheist, admits that the possibility of God’s existence must be left open for scientific inquiry. He argues, however, that the likelihood of God’s existence is so low (because there are so many religions, so many gods – and a total absence of evidence for any one of them) that he is 99% certain God does not exist. The 99% is not supposed to be an accurate estimation, just a way of representing how improbable it is that any god exists.

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