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by Scott Hughes
In the following topic I will use 3 different logical distinctions to come to an exhaustive list of 5 mutually exclusive categories of belief in the existence of any gods.
The Agnosticism Distinction
The word Agnostic is derived from the Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-) meaning "without" and (gnōsis) the Greek word for knowledge. The English usage of the term was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. The term agnosticism means 'the doctrine that humans cannot know of the existence of anything beyond the phenomena of their experience'. The term actually refers to a broad epistemological position, not simply a position on whether or not a god or gods exist (source 1, source 2 - page 66). Thus, an agnostic in the general sense is not someone who is equally skeptical about the existence or non-existence of god, but rather someone who is skeptical about all knowledge or at least all metaphysical knowledge. I think we can agree that in contemporary everyday life at least with non-philosopher laymen most people misinterpret the term 'agnostic' to denotatively mean specifically just someone who is agnostic about the existence of god who may not be agnostic in general about other things, right? An even worse misunderstanding is that some people may forget that the term deals with knowledge not mere belief; however that is completely incorrect, per not only the sources already listed but because belief and knowledge are clearly two different things.
What that all means to our purposes for this topic is that, using the law of the excluded middle, we can categorize people into two categories when it comes to their belief in god:
- agnostic (about theism or atheism) - One who does not claim to know whether or not a god or gods exist
- gnostic (about theism or atheism) - One who claims to know whether or not a god or gods exist
The Theism Distinction
Theism is 'the belief in the existence of a god or gods' (source). I have provided a source as good argument form, but I do not think that premise would be debatable anyway. A theist is thus a person who believes a god or gods exist.
Atheism refers to the logical negative of theism. Thus, an atheist is simply a person who is not a theist.
In other words, an atheist is not the opposite of a theist in the sense that up is the opposite of down, that loud is the opposite of quiet, that the hometeam's goal is the opposite of the awayteam's goal, or that icecold is the opposite of scalding hot--which let's call 'polar opposites'. Rather, an atheist is the logical opposite of a theist, in the sense that not up is the logical opposite of up, that not loud is the opposite of loud, that not a goal for the hometeam is the logical opposite of a goal for the hometeam, or not icecold is the opposite of icecold. Keep in mind that West is not North and East is also not North, for example. Argumentatively, this is demonstrated by comparison: asexual means not sexual rather than some polar opposite of a certain sexual orientation; amoral means not moral rather than immoral; asymmetrical means not symmetrical rather than some polar opposite of symmetrical.
The Positivity Distinction
In this post on the topic "Belief: the difference between I DO & I DON'T", I showed that logically a rational person's belief regarding any given proposition must fall into one and only one of the following three categories:
- A) "I believe X AND I do not believe -X."
- C) "I believe -X AND I do not believe X."
- D) "I do not believe X AND I do not believe -X."
A and C both refer to positive belief. A is positive belief in X; C is positive disbelief in X. Logically, that is synonymous with saying that A is positive disbelief in -X, and C is positive belief in -X.
In contrast, D refers to negative disbelief in both X and -X.
The point is that disbelief in X does not necessarily mean one believes in -X or vice versa.
All theists have a positive belief in theism by definition. In other words, by definition, a theist believes god exists; a theist doesn't merely not believe that a god does not exist.
In contrast, atheism in simply being a rejection of that positive belief can be categorized as either positive or negative. Positive atheism refers to an atheist who also believes that the statement 'no gods exist' is true. Negative atheism refers to a person who simply does not believe that any gods exist but without necessarily believing that no gods exist.
Exhaustive, Mutually Exclusive Categories of Belief in The Existence of a God or Gods
The three preceding logical distinctions, with respect to the law of the excluded middle and principle of bivalence, logically leads to the following exhaustive list of 5 categories of belief towards the existence of god(s). If the preceding argument is sound, each rational person's belief regarding the existence of any gods must fall into one and only one of the following 5 categories:
- Gnostic Theist - "I know one or more gods exist."
- (Agnostic) Theist - "Although I don't know, I believe that one or more gods exist."
- Negative Atheist - "I neither believe that any gods exist nor believe that no gods exist."
- Positive (but Agnostic) Atheist - "Although I do not know, I believe no gods exist."
- Gnostic Atheist - "I know no gods exist."
So which are you?
Alternative terminology note: 'Gnostic Theism' and 'Gnostic Atheism' could also be referred to as 'Epistemic Theism' and 'Epistemic Atheism' respectively. 'Positive Atheism' could be referred to as 'strong atheism', although sometimes it is unclear when someone uses the vague qualifier 'strong' if they mean 'gnostic/epistemic' or 'positive'.