One of the commonly misunderstood positions on the proposition of the existence of a god is agnosticism. It is often incorrectly perceived that agnosticism is somewhere in between atheism and theism and that it amounts to undecided or is some less dogmatic version of atheism.


The fact is that there are no other possible positions with regards to belief in a god than theism or atheism. You either have belief or you lack belief. Being uncertain is not having belief. Furthermore, theism is a position of belief while gnosticism is a position of knowledge. So, what is the difference between belief and knowledge?


Belief: the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true


Knowledge: justified true belief


Truth: a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, or principle; conformity with fact or reality


It is important to note that the definition of belief, above, does not require that a proposition is true. It is also not necessary that an individual has justification for maintaining a belief. Knowledge, on the other hand, requires both. The diagram below depicts the relationship between knowledge, belief, and truth.


Diagram depicting how knowledge is defined in terms of truth and belief


Since belief and knowledge are not mutually exclusive, and since theism and gnosticism are positions of belief and knowledge, neither are theism and gnosticism mutually exclusive. The diagram below shows how these various positions on the proposition of the existence of a god may overlap.


Diagram depicting the relationship between theism and gnosticism


This is why some atheists refer to themselves as agnostic atheists. This means that they lack belief in a god and have no knowledge proving or disproving the existence of a god. I would argue that with regards to the existence of a god it is not possible to be gnostic. The proposition is not provable or disprovable so neither a theist nor an atheist may be gnostic on the subject. Of course this does not stop someone from claiming that they know with certainty one way or the other. Certainty is not knowledge though. It is necessary to prove that their position has justification and can be universally acknowledged as truth.


This is only a brief overview of a few aspects of epistemology. I highly recommend reading more about this topic if you are still uncertain where you stand or if you disagree with the conclusions presented here.

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Comment by Keith Pinster on September 23, 2011 at 9:09pm

@Howard Dunn – You can take the definition of any word to such an extreme so as to be ridiculous.  It amazes me when people do that with these terms.

 

'Gnostic' is not an “arrogant label” at all. What part of “believing in something that has been proven beyond reasonable doubt” is arrogant?


Your example of the Higgs-Boson is a perfect example of agnosticism.  The fact that there are certain characteristics of physics that need to be explained, and the fact that the HB particle explains them coupled with the fact that the HB has not been conclusively proven is, by definition, belief without conclusive fact.  However, no physicist would go around claiming to have “knowledge” of the HB.  Also, this example has absolutely nothing to do with superstition.

 

If you want to take the definition to the extreme that you protest, you MUST be agnostic about the concept that there are invisible pink unicorns dancing on your head.  How can you know there aren’t?  Based on your logic, just because there is absolutely no evidence supporting such a supposition, and all your senses and the facts surrounding it says that there it’s not true, how can you REALLY be sure? 

 

It is the exact same case for religion.  There is and never has been ANY evidence supporting ANY religion’s assertion of its validity.  Especially any of the abrahamic religions that support contradictory beliefs.  Based on that, I believe that it is perfectly acceptable to be a Gnostic Atheist.  I put believing in a god in the same category as believing that there are leprechauns living at the end of rainbows with pots of gold and boogie men sleeping under your bed.  Or talking wolves that eat little old ladies and then dress up in their cloths in order to trick little girls into getting close enough to eat them, too.  Yes, technically, we can’t know beyond our perception and ability to comprehend reality, but within those realms, we can be absolutely sure of certain things.

 

However, I do not believe that it is possible to be a Gnostic Theist.  People might (and unfortunately do) “believe” in deities, divinity, superstition and fairy tales, but until there is the slightest shred of evidence to support any of these, there can never be true “knowledge”.

Comment by Jaime Leyton on December 26, 2010 at 10:13pm

New here, just sign in because of this post.

I agree with everything you wrote and I think is a real nice semantic essay.

Beign an agnostic I will put it this way thou:

So huge the difference between "knowledge" and "belief" that after realizing you're an agnostic, what difference your belief will make? What relevance will it have for the main proposition?

Comment by Tom Thompson on March 2, 2010 at 3:26pm
@SecularBob, thanks for commenting.

"It is a problem with the common understanding of certain words, I can agree with that."

We can only understand each other and agree if we are using the same meaning for words. This is a problem but it shouldn't be a surprising one. All we can do is define our terms when we communicate to make sure that what we mean is what the other person hears. For this reason I prefer to avoid using ambiguous words when I communicate. I never speak with religious people about "atheism" or "evolution" because these words have different meanings and are emotionally charged words for theists. Instead I talk about specific ideas or about "common descent" if the topic of evolution arises. There is virtually no scientist that disagrees about the theory of common descent even if they actively try to discredit evolution (e.g., Michael Behe).

It is a lifelong struggle to be understood.
Comment by SecularBob on March 2, 2010 at 1:40pm
A little side track...I feel that sometimes people who say there agnostic are actually deist. I try to explain the difference to them and sometimes they agree with me and sometimes they don't and other times they sorta just blow it all off. Anyone else find this? It is a problem with the common understanding of certain words, I can agree with that. I also agree that there is no way to disprove God, as the same of proving God. I was a youth minister (in training) for 3 years in my teens. I decided that after years of questioning his existence that i would look into other possible answers (at this time there was no way i was gonna be an Atheist) After years of looking I finally came to the conclusion that I was truly a non believer. However I do keep a tiny spot in the back of my mind that i could be wrong, not because of fear of a fiery pit, but just to be open-minded. I can not see my self as being a believer again, it seems that the facts are overwhelming, but on the off chance Jesus comes to my poker game and tells me to fold, or I see my cat speak in tongues, or my dead father comes back and tells me change, or if the Spagetti monster shows up on my dinner plate. Just in case LOL


ps mega typos i know had three min to reply
Comment by Tom Thompson on February 19, 2010 at 11:30pm
For the purposes of semantics, which are not entirely irrelevant to my article, it is not possible to have knowledge (justified belief in a proposition which is demonstrably true) about the existence of an entity which may or may not exist outside of our reality. I'm pretty certain we are all agreed on this.

Where everyone is getting hung up, it seems, is on the justification part. Yes, you are fully justified in disbelieving that such a being exists, or even maintaining a belief that no such being exists (there is a difference). It is for the theist to prove the proposition. That doesn't make your position knowledge, by epistemological standards, but there is absolutely no reason for you to have such knowledge, any more than you should have knowledge about teacups orbiting the sun.

I wrote this article in an attempt to point people in the direction of a better understanding of knowledge, not to spark up a debate about what we do or do not know. I suggest that such an argument is the game that theists would have us play. I don't like playing their game.
Comment by Jeremy Todd Brashear on February 19, 2010 at 11:20pm
Eh. Not only is there no proof of a 'god', but there is no theory of how such a thing (Specifically, the 'god' of xians, who exists outside of time and space- which it supposedly created.) might have come about. Until such a starting point is presented, there idea that such a being exists is not even worth considering IMHO.
For me to even consider the label 'agnostic atheist', there would have to be something that needed the postulation of a 'divine being'. Never have I seen any such occurance.
A couple of other things to consider- Unless it was part of a larger system, where would its 'power' come from, itself? Then unless it didn't follow thermodynamics, it would be less powerful after creating the universe and obviously not the 'god' of the Judaic traditions. If it is immune to this, then how?
Sorry, but word play doesn't do it. So far as I can see, not only is there no 'god', but there isn't even a way that one could exist. At least, not without either re-defining 'god' or a complete upheaval of physics.
For more difficult logic problems, might I suggest the works of Raymond Smullyan?
Comment by Tom Thompson on February 19, 2010 at 11:12pm
@John D, I appreciate your argument and the fact that language is fluid. Without a common understanding of the meaning of words we are ultimately unable to communicate. It is sometimes safe to assume what someone means when they use a word with multiple meanings. It is rarely safe to assume that someone will understand what you mean when you do the same. That is why I prefer to always define my terms instead of assuming that someone uses the same definition that I do.

Gnostic has changed meanings over time, just as atheist has. I chose to use the meaning that epistemologists now use.
Comment by JayBarti on February 19, 2010 at 5:02pm
I am a "gnostic" atheist in a 99.9999999999...% sense, I will give a 0.000000000000...1 that I could be wrong, but I highly doubt it. I am one of those who cheerfully says there is no God(s). I don't consider it arrogance however to state such an opinion however. Until someone comes along and shows me some actual evidence of something supernatural, I will continue to be a gnostic atheist.

Personally however I do not care much how a person chooses to label themselves, it is often just semantics and labels are often misunderstood by both parties involved. Instead I care more about someones actions, and how what they believe affects those actions.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on February 19, 2010 at 3:46pm
'gnostic' is, at the very least, a tremendously arrogant label to take for oneself. Agnostic is, in my opinion, is the only reasonable position - in the correct sense of the word. In fact, empiricism itself implies agnosticism.

For example, all reasonable particle physicists will tell you that, until the Higgs boson is found, the prevailing theory (the standard model) will be 'debunked' and they will have to rebuild a new picture of what the universe is composed of.

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