Beyond the distinctions “theist”, “atheist”, and “agnostic”

I received a comment about the four-way distinction between agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and so on, and I thought my reply to that comment would be a good way to illustrate why it’s so difficult to cleanly categorize people on messy people issues like divinity.

Here is the comment, from William:

I’ve heard of the four way distinction between agnostic atheist, agnostic theist, gnostic atheist, and gnostic theist before, and I think it’s legitimate. However, there is another legitimate way of distinguishing between these positions.

It’s based on the distinction between affirming a claim, suspending judgment about a claim, and denying a claim. Affirming a claim means you believe it, although not necessarily that you believe it with certainty. Suspending judgment about a claim means that you don’t believe either that the claim is true or that the claim is false; you’re neutral with respect to it. Denying a claim means you hold the positive belief that the claim is false, although you might not believe that it is false with certainty. If we apply this distinction to the claim that God exists, we get the alternatives of affirming that God exists (theism), suspending judgment about whether or not God exists (agnosticism), and denying that God exists (atheism).

I think both of these sets of distinctions are in wide use and have roughly equal utility, so I don’t see any way of reasonably demanding that someone who uses one set of distinctions use the other set..

While I understand that that both sets of distinctions are in wide use, I don’t think that they have equal utility, and I certainly don’t think either set is optimal! Here’s why:

People are going to use a set of distinctions that they feel comfortable with, and aren’t going to change unless they feel compelled to do so. Circumstance—what exists in the world—is the best way to determine what distinctions to use. People should be compelled to change the distinctions they use when their circumstances suggest that the change would be wise. When distinctions don’t accurately or satisfactorily describe what exists, or when a new set of distinctions would describe what exists in a way which is more accurate and useful, then it would behoove people to adopt the new set of distinctions. But, that sometimes causes controversy…

A good example of a controversial distinction is the word “cisgender” to distinguish a person as being non-transgender. People who are not transgender, but also not entirely cisgender—like genderfluid people—don’t like the word “cisgender” as the go-to distinction. By default, their non-transgender status labels them as cisgender, and they find that label offensive because they’re not comfortable being confined to a singular gender.

The impetus to create a new set of distinctions—”cisgender” and “transgender” plus potential others, like “pangender”—arises out of the circumstance in which people don’t fit neatly into the old distinctions. The right set of distinctions, in this case, is determined by its ability to describe people in a way that accurately identifies them and makes them feel comfortable.

Distinctions for describing how people perceive or relate to the divine are no less confounding, but like sexual identity those distinctions should be made based on actual perceptions and beliefs. I think the most helpful concept to come out of the four-way distinction was the idea of agnostic theism, which has come to be understood as the combination of having gods and not asserting their absolute or physical natures. It’s helpful because people have been using the phrase to mean, “I have some ideas or inclinations about this whole god thing, but I’m not making claims about the nature of the universe,” and that’s an increasingly popular stance.  (Not everyone who uses the term “agnostic theist” uses it in that way, though, which is a sign that even that four-way distinction is lacking and confusing.)

The problem with the three-way distinction is that people don’t fit neatly into it. Theism is generally accepted to be “believing in god”, agnosticism is generally accepted as “not knowing anything about god”, and yeah atheism is “denial of god”. But then you have people like me who shun belief, who don’t assume anything without evidence, and also experience gods. I can’t call myself “agnostic” because I have knowledge of gods— personal knowledge, or personal gnosis. And, despite the fact that I experience gods, I avoided calling myself a theist for the longest time because I didn’t want to give people the impression that I “believed in God” sans evidence.

It was through talking to someone else who ran up against the same problem that the word “polygnostic” was born. They mentioned that they remained agnostic despite the fact that they experienced gods and had personal gnosis, and also noted the contradictory nature of their statement. So I chimed in and said, “Time to make a new word!”

People like us polygnostic types, and agnostic theists who have inclinations toward gods but are happy to remain on the agnostic fence, need words or terms to identify ourselves. Insisting on the three-way dichotomy negates who we are. Maybe someone affirms their experiences of the divine, but doesn’t affirm those experiences to have absolute or universal significance. Maybe someone suspends judgment about absolute and material divinity, but can’t suspend judgment about the gods they experience or are drawn to understand.  If either of these are the case, then the three-way distinction causes them to have to identify as theist-asterisk or agnostic-asterisk, which gets uncomfortable and confusing.

Additionally, for people who don’t have personal experiences of divinity but trust that others do, there needs to be a term for the view that divinity is a messy people issue rather than something that emanates from an objective or measurable source that, say, created the universe 6000 years ago.


2 thoughts on “Beyond the distinctions “theist”, “atheist”, and “agnostic”

  1. William

    Your objection seems to be that using the three way distinction makes it more difficult to describe your position to others. You offer two distinctions that you think do the job better: “agnostic theist” and “polygnostic.”

    Using the term “agnostic theist” doesn’t make it easier to describe your position, in my view. Using the term “agnostic theist” for yourself requires you to affirm that you think God exists, with the caveat that you don’t claim knowledge for this belief. But that stance can perfectly well be captured by the three way distinction as “theist.” You might want to term that’s both noncommittal about the existence of God and noncommittal even about whether you’re an agnostic, but “agnostic theist” does not meet that criterion.

    Your other suggestion, “polygnostic,” doesn’t really make your position easier to express either, because the term is not in common use, which means that you will have to explain your position from the beginning in every conversation whether you use the term or not. You object to the three way distinction on the grounds that it doesn’t have a place for your position, making you a “theist-asterisk,” but the reason the three way distinction doesn’t have a place for you may be that no commonly used distinction has a place for you.

    1. ardaasura Post author

      I’m going to make a long point about assumptions regarding theism, so bear with me here:

      Theism doesn’t have to imply any belief of God’s existence. First of all, not all theists assert the existence of capital-G God. Monotheistic gods are just a few gods among a whole slew of gods. If someone claims to be an agnostic theist, they could be asserting the existence of Isis, or even some god that nobody’s ever heard of before.

      Second, the god they’re asserting may not even have the same nature as capital-G God. Just as gods have many different mythologies, they also have many different “properties”. Most gods aren’t thought to be omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect, eternal rulers of the universe– that’s mostly a Western monotheist thing.

      So when someone says they’re a theist, they could simply mean that they have a statue deity in the corner of their office, who has a mythology relevant to their life, and whom they honor when they’re at work. And maybe the deity talks to them every now and then. That’s a perfectly legit deity.

      Third and last point on the belief in capital-G God aspect: A person who honors an idol god in their office doesn’t have to *believe* the idol god to be a god. They can experience a sense of the sacred around the statue which *moves* them to call it a deity, and if the statue is of an anime character from whom they get “major god vibes” (some people get those, moi included) then that makes the decision to deify rather easy on their part. Alternatively, they can just assert that the statue is a deity and thus make it a deity in their experience. The simple assertion may lead to the experience of the sacred, and if so their assertion creates a sense of the divine. People can not only chose their gods, they can affect experiences of their gods through their assertions.

      The kinds of theism where people’s assertions and actions, and subsequent experiences of the numinous play off one another are the kinds of theism which I postulate we’re wired to experience. They’re closer to the kinds of theism seen in primal peoples, and they’re growing in pagan communities and even Christian communities. Christians speak in tongues and hear God speak to them, and pagans talk to their gods, interpret their gods’ intentions through divination exercises, experience palpable closeness to their gods during ceremonies, and even allow their gods to possess them. Some people are naturally drawn to these kinds of direct, intense experiences of the divine, and derive great satisfaction from the play of assertions, actions, and experiences of that which they perceive to be divine. These people are the kinds of people who might just have altars in their homes.

      So, all of that and then some is theism. It’s not just a belief in some distant and perfect god, it can be something very much alive to the person who practices it, which is why I assert that it’s important to look at experiences and not just beliefs when talking about the nature of the divine. Theism as a whole is an enormous and highly involved mess of experiences, sensations, drives, and yes, beliefs.

      In rational circles, where I’m guessing you’re from because of your focus on terminology, most of this isn’t really on the table. Theism is assumed to be pretty one-dimensional and dumb. I don’t think that’s a problem with my usage of the word; I think that’s a problem with rational circles. Their ideas of theism are as one-dimensional as fundamentalists’ ideas of it, and they don’t seem to appreciate people who throw wrenches in their conceptual schemes. They think of those proverbial wrenches as unnecessary and misleading, and all the while they pretty adamantly maintain the status quo with regard to inclinations and perceptions which may well be part of our natures, in our genes. Their assumptions are partly to blame for lack of progress in understanding people’s natural inclinations where divinity is concerned.

      When I say I’m a theist, I say I *have* gods. I say I get god vibes from anime statues and that I sense radically wicked numinous beings who tell me mind-blowingly awesome things every day. I say that I find fulfillment in knowing, personally, beings who embody my highest ideals, as well as some ideals which I wouldn’t have known I had were it not for their showing them to me.

      Towing the one-dimensional fundamentalist line, even from a position of rationalism, is not something I do.

      Anyway, considering the above, tacking “agnostic” onto “theist” could warrant any number of different legitimate interpretations for the meaning of that resulting term. For me it would mean that I don’t assert that there’s anything supernatural about my experiences. For others I gather the term “agnostic theist” is more an acknowledgement of the god vibes they get from fictional characters and anime statues. We have a long way to go before any of this terminology becomes reliably universal, because people are still only just beginning to question what’s really behind all this god stuff.

      I don’t know if “polygnostic” will go anywhere, to be honest. It’s an experiment. Whether or not it ultimately succeeds doesn’t matter to me. I’m more concerned with overturning the status quo and helping people to make sense of gods. But, I do like the word, and I do want more terms to accurately describe people’s perceptions. Being unrecognized and unknown by most people isn’t cool.


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