Presuming Certainty

By:  TᵢG  •  4 years ago  •  3 comments

Presuming Certainty

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Critical Thinkers

Theological discussions often turn ugly.   A major contributing factor is our terminology.  Theists seem to equate ' atheist ' with ' evil ' while atheists liken ' theist ' with ' mindless follower '.

We routinely use the terms atheist, agnostic and theist yet  it is not clear they mean what we think they mean .

Everyone is either a theist or an atheist in terms of belief in a deity (supreme being).  A theist believes in one or more deities whereas an atheist believes in none.†

Certainty of Knowledge

What about agnostic?   The word  agnostic  refers to a measure of certainty of  knowledge .  Much like atheist counters theist  in  belief agnostic counters  gnostic  in  knowledge .   Agnosticism has crept into descriptions of belief because most people realize that  certainty  is not supportable – one could be wrong.   Agnostics recognize they could be wrong about a deity whereas gnostics insist they have found truth.  This is a  huge  difference in position.

Combining  belief  with  knowledge  yields four positions regarding belief in deities:

  • Gnostic Theist — 100% certain their deity(ies) exist; no other possibilities
  • Agnostic Theist — believes in at least one deity yet acknowledges may be mistaken
  • Agnostic Atheist — no belief in a deity but open to persuasive evidence to the contrary
  • Gnostic Atheist — 100% certain no deity exists;  no other possibilities

Having established the ( well known ) terms ...

Why Does This Matter?

It matters in discussions between atheists and theists.   

Most everyone, I submit, is  agnostic  - either an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.   This is a rational position given nobody can  absolutely know  if a deity exists or not at this point.   In contrast,  gnostic  positions are usually untenable‡ and easy to dismiss.

During discussion (or debate), many presume ' atheist ' to mean ' gnostic atheist ' when in reality most every atheist is an ' agnostic atheist '.   When the atheist stipulates: ' I am not convinced a deity exists ' the theist often  presumes certainty : ' there is no deity '.   Even outspoken activist atheist Richard Dawkins  acknowledges that he is an agnostic atheist .   If provided with persuasive evidence I am confident even the most ardent atheists such as Dawkins would be theists, and with no regrets.  

Similarly, atheists tend to presume every theist is a gnostic theist - an individual who would  under no circumstances  question their belief (e.g. Ken Ham).  There is a huge difference between strong belief and irrational certainty such as with Ham.   While there are quite a few gnostic theists I suggest  most  everyday believers within Judeo-Christian religions privately acknowledge the possibility that their deity does not exist.  

In short, people can hold strong positions without necessarily being irrational.   Yet discussions / debates often  presume  the most extreme positions - gnostic atheism and gnostic theism.   If you are arguing with ' the other side ' check to see if they are claiming certainty.   If not, you may be debating a fellow agnostic who leans one way while you lean the other.   Do not presume certainty - there is likely more common ground than you might imagine.



†   Those who claim to not know if they believe in a deity do not, by definition, have a belief and are atheist.

  Note that these positions arguably depend upon specific deities.   A pantheist for example equates all of existence with 'god', the gnostic position here is supported by definition.   A gnostic atheist position that no deities exist is impossible to prove.   A gnostic theist position of a specific deity with a self-refuting characteristic such as omniscience is untenable by logic.


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