Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic

Too many times I have informed someone that I am an atheist, only to have them reply, “Oh, but how could you know that God doesn’t exist? You’re taking a faith position!”

Many headaches later, we finally come to an agreement over the definitions of these words.

This arrangement is an attempt to clarify and classify these words, so that their rogue meanings no longer confuse and muddle religious debate.

To begin with, here are the four key terms arranged on a graph with their opposites across from them. This should allow a very rough placement of one’s theological position. It will be refined in greater detail later.


Now here are the terms defined. If the terms are new to you, refer up to the graph to get an idea of how they relate to one another.

The horizontal axis concerns WHAT YOU BELIEVE:


The vertical axis concerns WHAT YOU THINK WE CAN KNOW:


So, to restate:


These four labels can be very useful in describing the way we feel about gods. They can combine together to make more precise labels.

An atheist agnostic is someone who does not believe in gods and also thinks that the existence of gods cannot be known. This might mean that they don’t believe in gods because they haven’t seen any evidence that supports their existence.

A theist gnostic is someone who believes in a god/gods and thinks that the existence of gods can be known. This position is usually referred to as just ‘theist‘, since people who believe in gods, usually also think that their existence can be known.

An atheist gnostic is someone who does not believe in gods, and who thinks that we can know that gods do not exist. A fairly unusual position, they might think they have found proof of the non-existence of gods, or might have been persuaded by life experiences.

A theist agnostic is someone who believes in gods, but thinks that they could not know for sure that their god exists. Another fairly unusual position, as people who have faith in gods usually also think that their god can be known to be real.

So we have two common positions: atheist agnostic and theist
and two less common positions: atheist gnostic and theist agnostic
and we can change the graph to reflect that:

In terms of numbers, the main positions are represented here, and the fringe positions minimized. Though the corners are cut, these positions are by no means impossible. For example, absolute atheist gnostic would express: “I know with absolute certainty that no Gods exist.” And absolute agnostic theist would express: “There is absolutely no way to know God’s existence for certain, but I have no doubt whatsoever that there is one.”

The direction of the arrow represents the direction of skepticism on the graph. The upper-most left is the position of the most doubt, whilst the lower-right displays the position of the most certainty.

The absolute central position is one of apathy or indifference. An apatheist, perhaps. *

Someone who does not know what they think yet cannot be placed on the graph, and should make up their mind if they wish to find a theological label for their views.

A very important point is that claims to knowledge are only made in the bottom half of the graph. Only gnostics make claims to knowledge.

A quirk of the theist/gnostic box is that the concept of God changes from corner to corner. (Click images to enlarge)


So, to get an idea of what all this means, here’s some common positions located on the graph:


It’s important to remember that these terms can still be misleading.

When talking about different gods that people believe in, we could pick different positions on the graph depending on which god is under discussion. For example, Christians will be on the theist axis when it comes to Jesus, but on the atheist axis when it comes to Zeus.

People who refer to themselves in casual usage as atheists usually mean that they are atheists for all possible gods, whilst a Muslim would be an atheist for all gods except Allah.

Finally, here’s the graph in its final form. Where do you fit?


* Note: Such a person will act as if there are no gods, since they are utterly indifferent to the idea. For all intents and purposes, they are an atheist. This is a non-trivial point. Babies are born indifferent to the idea of gods – indeed – they cannot conceive it, and accordingly are atheists: they do not believe in gods because they can not.

By Peter Brietbart

127 Responses to “Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic”

  1. It’s just like Tangrams! Perhaps Barry could give a prize to the reader who can arrange the shapes into the most interesting design?

    (Sorry about that: it’s very good really. I like visual representations of concepts – probably because I’m a bit thick!!)

  2. Excellent graph =]
    This helped refine my own understanding a bit more, as well as introduce me to the “gnostic” side of things. I’ll be showing this to just about everyone I talk to about religion / beliefs.
    Personally, I’m atheist-agnostic. I used to think those were completely separate, haha.
    Thank you for taking the time to do this, Peter!

  3. Great Post. Anyone who follows the Atheist / Freethought blogosphere has encountered these arguments far too frequently. Greta Christina had a recent post about the same issue just yesterday: http://gretachristina.typepad……hristina...

    It is one of the most common misconceptions I hear from people outside the debate who know I’m an Atheist and like to label my position as one based on certainty. It has nothing to do with certainty and everything to do with probability.

  4. I’m not sure how I fit in.
    I believe it is possible to demonstrate that no god can exist which is both good and omnipotent; but I accept that an omnipotent evil god could (potentially) exist.

  5. An interesting discussion and the illustrations certainly help. It’s always a good idea to get the semantic arguments out of the way to avoid them derailing a proper discussion, but I can’t help but think a certain end of the spectrum are often unwilling to learn what words actually mean when it is so much easier to react to them in an emotional manner. ‘Atheist’ is still a very charged word, no matter what it may actually mean in any given context.

    Anyway, there is a position which I would consider myself to be that I am not quite sure where to plot it on the graph. I do not believe in any particular, personal god’s existence, but I also think it is very possible to know whether a god exists or not (if it were to tell us of its existence, that would be a good start). I would have gone with the term atheist agnostic since I don’t believe but I think we could know, but all examples of this position seem to point to knowing that there is definitely not a god. That’s not really reflective of what I feel. So any help here would be appreciated. Maybe I just missed something.

  6. Why is the arrow in final51.jpg diagonal? Shouldn’t be the kind of god be outside the diagram? As for the different gods, there should one diagram for a higher-power-god and one diagram for a personal god: I can be absolutely certain that a higher power exists or just half-way certain that a higher power exists. The certitude of belief (x-axis) has nothing to do with the kind of god believed in.

    Don’t confuse certainty of belief with level of activity. It is true that believer in a personal God tend to religiously more active than believers in a higher power. But that says nothing about the certitude of belief.

  7. To clarify, while I think we CAN know if a god exists, that doesn’t mean I think we DO know yet. So I am sort of a potentially-gnostic-atheist I suppose, but that doesn’t seem the right terminology.

  8. Doesn’t this all depend on how one defines ‘god’? As an atheist I believe that the 3 letter word – ‘g o d’ exists just as much as any other word and if I choose to use it as a synonym for the mysteries of existence that science hasn’t yet explained who is to say I’m wrong? God defined in that way does ‘exist’ and inasmuch as we do not know if there are any natural limits to the scope of scientific enquiry it is even possible that this ‘god’ may be eternal.
    This is an entirely different thing from saying that there exists any supernatural being that has ever had any interest whatsoever in the human race, or ever will have, will ever make his existence known, or whose existence we shall ever prove or disprove.

  9. I consider myself an ignostic atheist. Whether I’m agnostic or gnostic about the existence of god(s) depends on how you define “god”.

    The way I see it, gods as they are sometimes defined just can’t logically exist and so I feel pretty confident saying they don’t exist. However, there might be other beings out there that other people would definite as “gods”. I don’t know for certain they don’t exist, and heck, some people have thought that mere mortals are “gods” — in which case, I can’t argue against the existence so much as the definition.

    In any case, I don’t see much use in “gods” whose existence you can’t prove or disprove, so in regards to them I’m an apathetic agnostic atheist. Or, to put it simple, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

  10. Hello The Mike.

    I had a quick go at placing your position:

    Is that what you meant?

  11. thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!

    I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to explain this to theists and atheists alike. Theism and atheism respect belief, and Gnosticism and Agnoticism respect knowledge.

    … it is my practical *belief* that are of us are agnostics (in that we don’t presently have knowledge of God), and those who believe otherwise are deluded ;-)

  12. I think it would be a better idea to simply clarify gnostic and agnostic. Lets just limit the concept of “knowledge” to knowledge we currently have. With the knowledge we currently have, we can’t know for sure whether or not any gods exist (due to lack of evidence).

    If you want to throw “and all future knowledge” into it… well yeah. Then you’re just getting into “what ifs”. What if the sky turns green and god floats down on a cloud and cures all amputees while shooting unicorns out his ass? Then obviously people would say they’d believe in him.

    That hasn’t happened though. I think the whole idea here is to stick to what we do have knowledge of, and whether or not that knowledge allows for the existence of a god, or it doesn’t.

  13. Then we’d have “the problem of good,” wouldn’t we?

  14. Atheist/Agnostic here.
    I would argue against the Abrahamic theist position by saying that ancient, pre-scientific peoples who lived on a dust mote in a vast universe were probably, and in many cases demonstrably, wrong about most of what they believed to be true. So thinking they got something as nebulous as the god question right is a bit of an intellectual stretch.

    To be both fair and humble, I’ve got to turn a similar argument on myself: what can this particular dust mote dweller, in this present age of relative ignorance, know about life, the universe, and everything? My answer is that there may yet be some sort of undiscovered god(s) lurking about in the cosmos, or that better evidence than old books and numinous feelings for some current religion may someday come to light, but so far I don’t have any good evidence-based reasons to believe in these things, and faith is no substitute for knowledge; it’s far too unreliable.

    Put more succinctly: I don’t know whether or not there are any gods, but I don’t believe in them in spite of that fact. (expressed in a humble or supercilious tone, depending on the audience)

  15. One slight problem with this is that “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” also refer to certain rather specifc religious doctrines (see The Gnostic Gospels)

  16. This is a pretty good graph for a quick stab at the issue.

    However, I disagree with the idea that “Someone who does not know what they think yet cannot be placed on the graph.” Someone who isn’t sure is still without a belief in a god. Since I view the definition of atheist as “someone who is without a belief in god” then anyone without belief in god falls into the category. At least I feel that anyone who isn’t sure cant believe, so must be in the other section. So, you could place them center left on the graph, right on the horizontal axis.

    I also feel that the chart is a bit confusing because there are (at least?) 2 types of Agnosticism. Strict and Empirical. Strict Agnostics fall on the extremes of the top half of your chart (whether theists or atheists) whereas Empirical Agnostics fall on the Gnostic half, due to the fact that you’ve defined Gnostic as “can know” instead of “do know”.

  17. Why do we sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” when we are already there?

  18. I don’t beleive in a f***ing god will that do!

  19. What an excellent post by Peter Brietbart, his chart illustrates the definitions quite well. As most of us atheists know when debating with theists, you have to debate semantics first as theists are rather fond of changing word definitions to suit their argument.

  20. This agnostic atheist commends your most excellent post.

  21. I’m an atheist of the basest kind. I just barely believe all of you guys exist. Even my own image in the mirror doesn’t look like me. Perhaps belief is tied closely to trust. The terminally religious probably never had an actual experience with angels or whatever. But they trusted their mother, father, pastor, whatever, who would never lie to them. Thus is dangerous gullibility passed through generations.

  22. An excellent diagram, the only problem is that “gnostic” has a whole raft of meanings of it’s own beyond “we can know whether God exists or not”

    While “Agnostic” does mean “we can’t know”, I’m not sure that the opposite works… “Gnostic” can mean all sorts of things. I only mention it because if you wander around saying “you are gnostic” people will imagine you mean all sorts of things and you will get more headaches and more arguments about definitions…

Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic.

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