On this particular Sunday morning, I wanted to take a moment to clarify the confusion surrounding the various positions on gods. I generally observe confusion on the terms surrounding religion and belief, and I wanted to address this today, giving the terms clearer and more concise definitions.
The next time you interact with anyone, be it a religious person or not, listen carefully to the words they choose to use. Most often, you will hear a lot of terms thrown around to describe people with various belief systems. Believers in religion will often describe themselves as simply religious most of the time, or will proudly proclaim their particular religion, saying something like, “I am Methodist.” Some people who aren’t so sure about religion will describe themselves as agnostics or unsure. They might just say, “I don’t go to church.”
The first thing to know is that it is critical, should you choose to engage in any sort of discussion or debate with a religious person, that definitions be clearly outlined. Most of the time, when I have engaged in any sort of “debate” with anyone, the terms are not clearly defined. If we are to have any sort of luck having a real debate and moving someone else’s view on a subject, the terms must first be defined, and neither side must be allowed to get away with any loose definitions of terms.
So, fundamental to this debate, let us define the starting terminology for what we could call ourselves with respect to our positions on gods. The following list represents the choices for a person’s philosophy of religion:
- Theism – The belief that there is at least one god, or multiple gods (a positive claim).
- Atheism – Divided into two categories: strong atheism and weak atheism. Strong atheism is the position that there are no deities (a positive claim). Weak atheism is the lack of belief that there is at least one god, or multiple gods (not a positive claim).
- Agnosticism – The belief that there is no way to know about gods.
- Apatheism – The lack of caring whether or not any gods exist.
The first thing to note is that these philosophical positions are not mutually exclusive. That is, you do not have to be just one at the same time. However, two positions that are not possible to hold at the same time are those of theism and strong atheism. In other words, it would be impossible to believe there is a god and not believe there is a god at the same time. That said, you could be, as I call myself, an agnostic atheist. That is, you can certainly reject the claim that there are gods while at the same time believing that there is no way to know about gods. Likewise, it is possible to be an agnostic theist, believing that there is a god, but being unsure that there is any way to prove its existence.
There are other subsets of these philosophies that serve as positions. For example, under atheism, there is antitheism, which is direct opposition to theism and belief in any gods. Most often, antitheism is synonymous with strong atheism,but not always. Antitheism can mean a direct opposition to religion or belief, for example because some antitheists believe religion is harmful.
Under theism, there are a several positions, including:
- Pantheism – The belief that God exists as everything around us. This position holds that God is everything.
- Panentheism – This is a belief that God exists as everything around us (just like pantheism), however also is greater than everything – is transcendent and immanent.
- Deism – The belief that God is transcendent, but does not interfere in any way with human life or the laws of the universe.
- Monotheism – Holds that there is a single God who rules the universe as a separate entity.
- Polytheism – Holds that there are multiple gods who rule the universe as separate entities.
- Henotheism – The belief that there may or may not be multiple gods or deities, although only a single supreme being exists.
- Henology – This is the belief that multiple facets (avatars) of a deity or god exist, they represent aspects of the supreme deity or god.
As may become clear by simply reading through the various stances, there are a lot of options for what you believe. However, the purpose of this post is to point out that, again, definitions are vital if we are to have any sort of honest debate. The real question we want to address is, “What do you believe, and why?” It is only from this question that we can extrapolate and identify our positions and hope to move one another at all. The next vital question is, “Do I care whether or not what I believe is true?” I find that it is this second question with which so many people struggle. Some will live in denial their entire lives and never really answer the second question.
I have also found that many who are religious have a vehement and visceral reaction to the words atheist or agnostic. The problem here, and most often in my opinion, is that they just don’t understand what these words really mean. Far too many atheists are likewise just as guilty as theists when it comes to not defining their positions properly. It is somewhat confusing to many a religious person to understand the difference between strong and weak atheism. So atheists need to do a better job clarifying this up front in order to have any hope of having an intelligent conversation with theists.
Atheism is the lack of a belief in any gods. Quite rightly according to grammar and definition, placing an “a” in front of the word theist negates the positive view or claim surrounding the definition. Whereas the theist believes there is a god or gods, the (weak) atheist simply does not believe this claim. He is simply rejecting the theist’s positive claim that there is a god based on a lack of evidence. The burden of proof is on the theist who is making this positive claim. However, once an atheist identifies as a strong atheist (sometimes conflated with the term antitheist) and positively makes the claim that there are no gods, the burden of proof rests on the atheist.
In my mind, logic, reason, and evidence lead me to the philosophical position of agnostic atheism. I am a weak atheist who is agnostic. I make no positive claim about the existence of any deity. I furthermore believe that it is not possible for us to know about such things. I have even wrapped this into my own philosophy statement.