Theist, Agnostic, or Atheist?

After reading several blogs on religion I began to question what exactly the distinction is between theism, agnosticism, and atheism. The answer isn’t as easy as it seems. After putting some thought into it, I came up with a little chart to help illustrate the way it seems people define the three. I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts on it, and whether they agree or disagree.

From what I gather, agnosticism deals purely with knowledge—that is, what you can or can’t know for certain. As a result, it can be applied to both theism and atheism, since those are a matter of beliefs—more specifically the belief or disbelief of god(s). I think that most people tend to think of religion in terms of figure 1. It shows three basic groups, none of which overlap with each other. I am more inclined to lean towards figure 3. I think this quote is a good explanation of it:

Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.

It is possible for agnosticism to overlap with both theism, and atheism. It is also possible for people to rely solely on beliefs. That is why I think figure 3 is the most accurate. Any opinions?

**Edit** Here is an additional chart, meant to be sort of a correction to Figure 3 in the first one. The idea is that belief and knowledge are two different planes that intersect. I realize that these charts are a bit crude, but it’s the best I can do with MS Paint. Anyway, please check this one out as well, and as always input is appreciated.

***Edit Again***Thanks to the help of one of my friends, I have a well-polished final version of the chart😀 Eventually I’ll rewrite the distinctions to sum up the ideas everyone contributed. Here it is:

18 thoughts on “Theist, Agnostic, or Atheist?

  1. The problem with Figure 3 is that it gives the impression that atheism, agnosticism, and theism are all the same sort of thing lying along the same continuum. As you note above, though, agnosticism is about knowledge while a/theism are about beliefs – those are related, of course, but still their own separate continuums.

    It might be helpful to think about categorizing economic and political beliefs. Obviously economics and politics are related, but they are still separate. People can be conservative in one but liberal in the other – that’s why they aren’t plotted along the same continuum. Instead, they are depicted as two lines that intersect in the middle, creating a square grid. That’s simplistic, too, but it’s better than putting them along a single line.

    Agnosticism and a/theism are perhaps better depicted in a similar manner.

  2. I find the categorization quite pointless. We can go on subdividing theists and atheists into finer classes; it really doesn’t help in categorizing people into different classes. The faiths of individuals generally overlap in the strangest manners. Many even have their extremely personal notions of God. Some claim God to be truth, for instance.
    Agnosticism is a class pertaining to uncertainty. As soon as an agnost finds her/his answers, s/he is going to transform into either a believer or a non-believer. Therefore, I think agnosticism is a transitional state. This transition is even more short-lived in case of the subclasses like theist agnostics, etc.

  3. I agree with you on a few points arachnid, particularly about individual faiths overlapping in strange ways, but I disagree with the notion that agnosticism merely pertains to uncertainty. That’s sort of erroneously indicating that agnostics are stuck in-between believing, and non-beliving, which isn’t the case—Or at least that isn’t what I gather so far. Knowing something, and believing something are two completely different things. Since agnosticism is all about knowing I don’t think it’s just a transition.

    And, I don’t mean any of this in an offensive way at all. I’m glad to hear your comments!

  4. “Agnosticism is a class pertaining to uncertainty.”

    No, agnosticism is a category of the absence of knowledge. An person can be an agnostic and quite certain — certain that, for example, knowledge of gods is impossible for any human being. Other agnostics may be less certain — they will say that they don’t know if any gods exist or not, but won’t claim that it’s impossible to know.

    Because agnosticism is about knowledge, rather than certainty, it’s also incorrect to say that it is incompatible with being a believer or non-believer. Both belief and non-belief are compatible with a lack of knowledge. Then again, both are also compatible with a lack of certainty — it’s wrong to suggest that both believers and nonbelievers are “certain.”

  5. Austin, I included an updated charted that might be a little better. Any thoughts on it? I can’t link to it from here, but I edited it in at the bottom of the original post.

    And also, I’m curious as to how, if you’re the same Austin Cline from, you found my post so quickly🙂 You replied within an hour I wrote it. I wonder if has some type of hidden secret abilities like Google and can see everything.

  6. LaShawn,

    If you clicked the link in your post, it would show up in their stats as a referrer. Your WordPress blog stats has this feature also.

    Here’s how I see the breakdown:

    1. Believe in God as an absolute reality (theism)
    2. Choose to believe in God but acknowledge that it is without absolute certainty (agnosticism)
    3. Choose to not believe in God but without the certainty that there is no God (agnostic atheism)
    4. Believe absolutely that there is no God (atheism)

    I would also class ‘agnostic theist’ in a separate group than agnostics since agnostics tend to believe in a God as defined by a major religion but agnostic theist just believe in something out there.


  7. aA,

    Thanks for demystifying the referrer thing for me😉 I’m still kind of new to WordPress, and learning all of its features. Also, I’ll admit that your blog was one of the ones I came across, and made me question how theism, agnosticism, and atheism interrelate with one another. It was really nice hearing your input, and the title of your blog makes a lot more sense to me now.

    From religion courses in the past I was given the wrong impression that the different groups were always separate and didn’t interact with each other, but I’m glad to see now and learn how that isn’t the case.

  8. To La Shawn: Please do not worry about offending me. Your reply was pertinent to the topic in hand. I think you are right about distinguishing between knowing and believing.

    To Austin Cline: “agnosticism is a category of the absence of knowledge” . . . do you not agree that lack of knowledge results in uncertainty?

  9. LaShawn: Every so often I check for who’s linking to my site and happened to come across your post in a relatively timely fashion.

    As to the chart, I think it’s better than a simple one-dimensional line, but I still wonder if something is missing. My unease may simply be a consequence of not looking at the difference in this manner, though, so I wouldn’t place too much importance on it.

    Then again… this particular structure seems to suggest belief and knowledge are opposites, which they aren’t. If it doesn’t suggest that, though, then there doesn’t appear to be a distinction between the presence and the absence of knowledge. I can read a separation between the presence and absence of belief by going from left to right, but what about the presence and absence of knowledge? Where are “gnostic” theists and atheists?

    agnosticatheist: Although most adherents of major religions would not count themselves as agnostic theists, some would. The medieval Jewish theologian Maimonedes, for example, is often categorized as an agnostic.

    arachnid: No, a lack of knowledge does not necessarily result in a lack of uncertainty. Some agnostics, as I described above, have a great deal of certainty. If knowledge is a “justified, true belief,” then a person can be certain of something that cannot be described as “knowledge.” A person can also be uncertain about something that does qualify as “knowledge.” Even if an agnostic is uncertain, and that uncertainty is a consequence of their agnosticism, the fact still remains that agnosticism as a class that is about the absence of knowledge, regardless of whether any uncertainty results or not. Agnosticism is not a transitional state — for some, it is the destination. Some are even certain of this.

  10. atheis, I think you’re misinterpreting this article completely. We’re not saying that atheism is belief, but lack of belief in any diety. What we were trying to do was make a clear distinction between atheism and agnosticism. It all boiled down to atheism is what we do not believe, whereas agnosticism is what we do not know.

  11. I feel that this is rather simple. I see it as a spectrum with agnosticism in the center(of course, as I am agnostic, ha) and theism and atheism on either side. Atheists have an enormous amount of certainty, which is in my opinion unfounded, that there is no god. this implies they have another theory for creation(the big bang and such, i don’t pretend to know much about the big bang, but i don’t find what i DO know very compelling). however, many feel that they have ample evidence to claim there is certainly no god(they can prove this no better than Christians can prove he DOES exist). This fuels my belief that VERY few people are true atheists, because they must accept that gods are a small possibility. true atheist are just bitter assholes, and everyone else who calls themselves atheist just doesn’t want to explain what an agnostic is……….sorry for ranting……..

  12. I think it is a mistake to place gnosticism in the “knowledge” category, as you did in your last edit. I much preferred your second edit, which placed knowledge and belief in separate planes. As an spiritual agnostic, I rely on science to prove what is and is not. Anything that science is unable to explain, I leave to spirituality and faith (though not the religious kind). Gnosticism is tied much more closely with organized religious movements, namely early Christian teachings. I believe, therefore, that gnosticism is not compatible with atheism as your third chart would imply. In my opinion, gnosticism falls in the “belief” plane along with theism and atheism, intersecting with theism, but not near to atheism and not intersecting with or near to agnosticism. From an agnostic point of view, gnosticism is basically theism, except that the gnostic deity is imperfect, whereas the theistic human is imperfect.

  13. I find topic very interesting and I often discuss this with my friends. I must be an agnostic atheist, after reading your posts through. We can not prove the existence of A God or serveral gods, but neither can we prove that they exist. The fact is, in all this discussion/debating between people, that is “The Real Proof”. And i am not talking about “you were born, that is proof of god” but as in “Look to your left/right, there is a door”. You can feel and see that door. Anyone who would disagree with the existence of that door, would be out of his mind. Since I am stating that I am agnostic atheist it’s because of many clues/evidence pointing towards the non-existence of one or more gods. For Example; since humans began writing, a little over 2300 different god-figures has been dated. I also use to compare religions and think “why should this relgion be more right than the other one?”. Ofcourse you can always identify with some teachings of the religions, but I am pointing towards the fact that some relgions state that there is 1 god and others state that there is more than one. But then again, in the end, I or anyone else cannot prove that there is no god. Also to thing is that the human mind is designed to fill out gaps. This means, that we are are always looking for “something”. It is very hard for us to accept “nothing” because we cannot imagine “nothing”. Everyone is used to be surrounded by form, which we identify with. It is also crucial to remember what the word “existence” means; It origins from latin and basicly means “to stand forward” and as in the the dictionary “to have being or reality”. Therefor, when people refer to god/gods as an existence they refer to “something” which is thereby form. Many have never thought of fact that “something” cannot exist without “nothing”. This “nothing” would remain intact as “not form” if “something(-everything)” was destroyed. Some even call this “nothing” god, which i can relate to. That is why I tend to go the atheistic way and why I say “nothing”=god, but i still do not deny the “existence” of gods/a god, because I can never know, before solid proof of a higher exsistence is found. This proof would eliminate the “nothingness” and replace it. But since we all have different beliefs of god/gods and not just a single opinion of what is right; I find it hard to believe in higher “existences”. In the end no one is right and no one is wrong, which means that in someway we should stop wondering about this and stop manifesting our beliefs. This is described by some as mental freedom. Indeed that is hard a hard thing do, because the origin of “something” is so interesting (typically the human mind).

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