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.