Monday, December 16, 2013

Agnostic vs Atheist

Recently, I found myself involved in a lengthy twitter debate on the meanings of a few words: agnostic, theist, atheist and gnostic. At issue is the following table:

TheistGnostic -- TheistAgnostic -- Theist
AtheistGnostic -- AtheistAgnostic -- Atheist
You can find the same basic table listed in numerous blogs online, but for reference here's one article that tackles the same basic content:
And here's yet another in swedish:
The table is laid out according to common assumptions about the meanings of these words. This same basic layout is found referenced in numerous places and is perhaps evidence of a misguided predilection toward order. Systems that inspire us to organize ideas in this way while we tackle the consequences and meaning behind it all appease some higher ideal, and yet I find myself immensely frustrated with the sophomoric attempt to sift these complicated words into simple boxes.

My position is that being an agnostic intrinsically implies being an atheist. The notion of an agnostic theist is nonsense. Gnostic atheism is likewise ridiculous, but for a different reason.

Part of what's at play is, I think, a basic misunderstanding on what these terms actually mean. That or the words truly have been co-opted in recent years and have taken on different meanings. If this is the case it is indeed problematic, because the former connotations carry a lot of weight in philosophy.

So what do these words Mean?

Gnosis: This is a greek noun and means, as expected, knowledge. This word gnosis, however, has a long history of meaning in scholasticism (and patristics) and philosophy alike. Gnosis is a kind of spiritual awareness of god's presence; a mystical insight into one's relationship with the spiritual reality. Words and meaning evolve and this is no where more true than with loaned words, however, in this case I think it remiss of us to ignore the relevance of that original meaning. It's this original meaning of the word from which its antonym is derived. Gnosis is the **reason/cause** for belief in god. Obviously, we're not going to be arguing for hard empirical evidence of god, which means that in any way we can

Theist: Theist is, I think, a far less complicated word. A theist believes in god[s].

Atheist: Like theist, atheist is simple. An atheist lacks belief in god[s]. Though the actions, convictions and rhetoric of many known atheists may be interpreted as manifest to the contrary, the word in fact means nothing more than the lack of this belief. This is in juxtaposition to a theist which as stated above believes in god[s].

Agnostic: For agnosticism it's important to understand the origin of the word and where it comes from. Agnositicism was coined by Thomas Huxley and in direct response to this same gnosis described above.
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis"--had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion...
It's clear to me that his notion of agnostic isn't as simple as utter ignorance. It's a statement and response to the notion of gnosis. He's claiming to not have this spiritual awareness of god.

Where does this leave us?

There are really are only two salient positions in the table above that remain cogent: gnostic theist and agnostic atheist. The other two positions though seeminlgy reasonable are in fact incoherent. I will detail them here one by one:

Gnostic Theist: This one is clear. A gnostic theist claims to have spiritual knowledge or understanding of god[s] and, therefore, believes in god[s].

Gnostic Atheist: This one is, I think, absurd. Certainly, according to the definitions I laid out above it's illogical, but I maintain that it has other issues. Other sites (like the two I mentioned at the top) will maintain that gnosis is just simply knowledge, and, therefore, this simply is an expression of knowlege about the lack of gods. Atheist is a lack of belief, so what this really refers to is knowledge about ones lack of belief. This may say something about ones personal insight, but it's hardly a religious utterance. This is where the popular definition of the word atheist rears its head: denial of gods, and so we're left with definitive knowledge about the lack of gods. However, we know it's impossible to be certain of negative knowledge. My detractors will argue that it's theoretically possible to imagine a confused individual who believes that they have knowledge of the lack of god, but that's hardly a reason to keep it in the list. There are loads of bad-faith assumptions and confusions we could come up with, but that doesn't mean that they are sound and should be entered into a matrix to justify its own existence.

Agnostic Theist: The connotation here is that someone who lacks gnosis (which is the only reason to ever believe in god) nevertheless *believes* in god. At this point, I think it's incumbent upon me to discuss the word belief. This word is tricky. Belief in this religious sense is more than the belief associated with the word trust. Do I know the sun will rise tomorrow? No, but I trust that it will based on previous experience. I do, btw, have loads of experience and evidence to corroborate my trust. The same cannot be said of religious belief. Here I have only faith. Faith is a special sort of belief: belief that specifically does *NOT* rest on testable claims or material evidence. Furthermore, the origin of the word agnostic itself is a statement about the lack of conviction behind this belief. Huxley didn't coin this word, because he hadn't seen the empirical evidence supporting god, rather the term stands extant as a repudiation of gnosis. No theist believes, because of evidence. Theism is about belief/faith in spite of the lack of evidence. It's belief because of gnosis.

Agnostic Atheist: Finally. This combination, I think, makes sense but is redundant. An agnostic, lacking gnosis, cannot believe in god and therefore lacks the belief. It's simple.

There we have it. This matrix stands as a model based on common use of the words, but misses, I think, some important background behind what these words mean. Also, I am sure that some will argue that there are loads of atheists who claim to *know* that there are no gods, but I hardly see how this matters. This position is indefensible, and whether they believe (falsely) to have knowledge about the lack of gods or not that position is completely incomprehensible.