Theist, Atheist, or Agnostic — Is That All?

This isn’t about religion, it’s about the way we talk about religion. Words are the mind’s tools. If we don’t have the right words, we can’t do a proper job of thinking.

The word “agnosticism” is useful because it helps to deal with the false dichotomy that would otherwise exist — at least linguistically — between the options of theism and atheism. In Wikipedia’s article on Agnosticism, we’re told that Thomas Huxley coined the word in 1869.

Although the word may be new, the general idea to which it applies has been drifting around for millennia. Agnosticism is said to be the view that the truth of certain claims — especially claims about the existence or non-existence of deities — is unknown or unknowable. As expected, Richard Dawkins has spoken lucidly on the subject, and Wikipedia mentions that here.

Huxley’s word is useful, not only for religion but also for other metaphysical claims. Nevertheless, we think it’s insufficient because there are more positions than merely belief, unbelief, and undecided. Many issues offer a continuum of possibilities. We’ve previously discussed this in connection with The Creation-Evolution Continuum.

Maybe philosophers have already created a vast literature that covers our topic today, but we’re unaware of it. Therefore, we’re working this out on our own. The problem we’re having is that Huxley’s coining of the word “agnostic” didn’t really help that much. Yes, he seems to have solved the false dichotomy problem, but the three positions we’re given (theist, atheist, and agnostic) create a false trichotomy. If we understand agnosticism correctly, it’s some kind of philosophical waiting room that must inevitably lead to one of two doors — theism or atheism.

The agnostic is usually described as one who can’t make up his mind. The reasons for his indecision may vary (not enough evidence, doubts about this or that dogma, paradoxes like the problem of evil, etc.), but the unspoken assumption is that if he somehow could make up his mind, then he will choose either theism or atheism.

This means, at least to us, that the middle position of agnosticism doesn’t solve any problems. It still leaves the whole business as a dichotomy, with those who are undecided occupying the limbo labeled agnosticism. It’s as if the vocabulary were created by theists, and is designed to convey a “for us or against us” mentality. But is that all there is?

We think there are more options available. What we have in mind is an individual who is not at all interested in theology. He’s probably very much aware of it and the disputes involved, but he’s not concerned enough to choose one path or the other. What’s the word for that person? He’s not a denier, or a doubter, or any kind of detractor. What he’s really saying is: “You people are all boring; I’m outta here!”

Although there are numerous adjectives to describe the condition of being unconcerned or uninterested, there is no noun for such a person, and we need one. The need is not just in the field of theology, but for many other areas as well. Consider a trivial example — baseball. There are fans who follow the game, and they usually favor one team or the other. But there is no word for a person who stays away from the stadium because he couldn’t care less which team wins, and he has what he thinks are better things to do with his time.

We’ve spent time looking for a word that would fit the “aware but unconcerned” person, the person who knows about the issue but who has no enthusiasm for it. We haven’t found a word that works because everything we find fits into a “friend or foe” mentality. The closest, conceptually, are words like “civilian,” or “noncombatant,” but even those words imply that although one isn’t an active participant, he probably does have a side that he favors.

Continuing with the sports analogy, and assuming one isn’t a team owner or player, it’s not unreasonable if he doesn’t care whether the Tennessee Toads defeat the Kansas Kangaroos in today’s big game. He’s not hostile to the sport, he doesn’t deny its existence, he doesn’t haunt the stadium and harangue the people buying tickets. He’s just not a fan.

What do we call such a person? The concept of agnosticism doesn’t apply, because one who literally doesn’t care about the game isn’t even thinking about which team to choose. His choice is that he won’t participate in any way because he’s unconcerned about the game. What’s the word for such a person? “Civilian” doesn’t begin to do the job. Why is our language so impoverished?

You might think of the non-fan’s attitude as the Alfred E. Neuman position. He’s saying: “What, me worry?” But that’s not it either. Newman is regarded as a bit of a dolt, whereas our uninvolved person may not be a dolt at all. Indeed, he may be the wisest of all.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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34 responses to “Theist, Atheist, or Agnostic — Is That All?

  1. I think the word disinterested fits your description very well, but unfortunately it is an adjective and not a noun.

  2. or perhaps dispassionate?

  3. As you note, zaerion, those are adjectives. I found many of them. But no nouns.

  4. Perhaps apathetic is close, but it’s hard to make a noun out of it. Apathetist, maybe?

  5. And that’s the main issue, I suppose. Trying to either turn an adjective into a noun, or making up a new word.

  6. OK, so we take the noun form of the word, disinterest, and make it something catchy!

    I’ve got nothing.

  7. Ed says: “Perhaps apathetic is close, but it’s hard to make a noun out of it.”

    No, that’s not the idea. The person who says: “You’re all nuts!” isn’t apathetic. As for creating new words, it’s a hopeless task. Only those with towering reputations can do it with any success. As for the rest of us, it’s not worth the effort.

  8. Tomato Addict

    You could be talking about me. I don’t consider myself an atheist but I’m barely religious. I recently identified myself on my G+ profile as RASH.

    Righteously Agnostic (I don’t know what God is thinking, and you don’t know what God is thinking either.)
    Skeptical (I am, and the acronym is funnier with an “S” in it)
    Humanist (being nice to others is a good core value)

  9. We can always try to construct something from Latin. The verb “to care” is curo, curare. Curator comes from that. “Noncurance” would then be a lack of concern, and one who has that attitude is a “noncurantist.”

  10. If we don’t have the right words, we can’t do a proper job of thinking.

    No matter how discredited, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis just doesn’t die…

    I for one see no reason for any words but “theist” and “atheist”–all those who are not theists are atheists, logically speaking. “Atheist” includes agnostics and our beloved Curmudgeon.

  11. Gabe says: “No matter how discredited, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis just doesn’t die…”

    I’m not relying on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I’m just saying that it’s useful to have a word handy. Even without a word, I’m still able to express what I’m thinking, but it would be useful to have a word for the concept. It’s clumsy to deploy a whole paragraph to express the idea.

  12. I still think there’s a need for distinction. In my mind, there is a difference between not believing in God and believing that God doesn’t exist; It’s a very fine line, to be sure.

    I rather like Richard Dawkins’ scale of 1 to 7 and, right now, I would place myself at 5. I can’t yet bring myself to say there is no God, perhaps a result of my Catholic upbringing.

  13. In my mind, there is a difference between not believing in God and believing that God doesn’t exist

    You’re right, there is a difference, but both are not theists; they are literally atheists.

    To go to SC’s sports analogy; someone asks me if I’m a fan of the Yankees and I say “no”. I am not a fan. I could hate the Yankees, I could be indifferent to them, I could be a Mets fan, I could hate baseball altogether, but all of those are “not Yankees fans”. They are not all equivalent, except for being “not Yankees fans”.

    It’s the same with all the flavors of atheists. Other than not being theists they may little in common, but they are still all atheists.

  14. That makes sense; If you boil it all down, there are only two groups. I think the distinctions make things more descriptive. There are all different kinds of christian groups (Methodist, Baptist, 7th-Day Adventist, etc.) and while they are all still theist, having a different word for them helps us to narrow down what they believe as opposed to just knowing that they believe in God. I think the same can apply to atheist types as well. Even though I am an atheist, I call myself agnostic to more closely define my feelings and beliefs on the matter.

  15. Retired Prof

    I admire the term “apatheist” (which I have seen several times in the past couple of years but can’t document at the moment) for someone not interested in the question of whether a deity exists or not.

    I coined the term “apathete” for the opposite of a zealot, but it’s not specifically tied to theology. Nobody else has picked it up, as far as I know.

  16. Ceteris Paribus

    An unknown author proposed that it is possible to counter the fundamentalist charge that atheism is, in fact, itself a distinct flavor of religion. Thus the fundamentalist claims there is no room for any atheist to argue against religion.

    The rebuttal is simply “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby”.

    So to avoid the “agnostic/atheist” dichotomy, I simply nominate the term “nonphilatelist” as being sufficiently broad to cover either label.

  17. Just to add to the confusion and rancor, I’ll point out that the popular usage of agnostic refers to one whose mind isn’t made up, while the technical definition is one who considers the answer unknowable — a theological Gödel Statement, so to speak.

    And just to throw another turd in the punch-bowl, atheist literally means “without theism” — one who does not even think about theology comes to mind. One who opposes theism would be an anti-theist.

    And finally, Ayn Rand opined that agnostics were just people who refused to draw a conclusion. For her, it was a binary question. She has a point: existence is an exclusive state — you either exist, or you don’t. Someone at some point in time may not know the answer to the question, but that is due to a lack of data, not because the answer is unknowable in principle — which is the agnostic position.

    This might explain one reason Rand hated Schrodinger’s cat….

  18. I’m a little late here and most of my thoughts have been covered. I agree with Gabriel that there are no other words needed than theist or atheist.

    I don’t think we need another word for those who don’t care about religion, just like we don’t need one for those who don’t care about baseball. It’s easy to not care as long as religion or baseball don’t interfere with your life, but as soon as they do, we tend to care.

    I think the real problem is the distateful connotation “atheist” has garnered–from theists, of course. However, “nontheist” might be a bit more palatable to some people. I believe the word can be turned around with time. The more often it is used in a positive connotation, the more relaxed people will be about it.

  19. Lynn Wilhelm says:

    I don’t think we need another word for those who don’t care about religion, just like we don’t need one for those who don’t care about baseball.

    But I’m proud to call myself a baseball noncurantist.

    I think the real problem is the distateful connotation “atheist” has garnered–from theists, of course. However, “nontheist” might be a bit more palatable to some people.

    That does sound better, for now, but the forces of stupid can pervert any word. Look what they’ve done with “Darwin” and “evolution.”

  20. Both atheists and theists care about the issue/question, think it is important, and take a firm unequivocal position. Then there are those who don’t care, who take no position, and who personally think the issue is not worth expending much, if any, time and effort on.

    One can like baseball (or stamp collecting), dislike it and think it is a waste of time or worse, or not care about it at all.

    If agnostic is insufficiently descriptive, as someone else pointed out apatheist may be a better word.

    And if it is asserted one must be either a theist or an atheist, is a deist a theist or an atheist?

  21. I used to call myself an atheist.
    Then I adopted the somewhat dated label of “free thinker.”
    But these days I have settled on “post-religious” because it hopefully suggests that we are entering an era in which religion will ultimately be cast aside, along with other outdated notions like devine rights of kings, slavery, witchcraft, etc.

  22. Let me revise/qualify my usage of “deist”. I was more specifically referring to Spinoza’s God.

    A bit of quick research via Wiki, FWIW, indicates a deist is generally considered a theist and that Spinoza’s position is considered atheist by many theists.

    However, Einstein conception od God was Spinoza’s God and Einstein on occasion referred to “God” with little or no qualification.

    One other thought on the assertion this is a binary proposition. In computer science and RDMS technology there is the concept of “null”. “Null” has no value. It is nether true or false. It indicates the value is indeterminant, unknown, or inapplicable.

  23. I would definitely consider a deist a theist (as opposed to atheist!)

    Realist, I do like “post-religious” as a label. However, atheist would still apply.

    I still don’t think there are people who take no position on religion (or baseball) when it affects their life. Try to put religion in the schools or to encourage baseball fans to leave work would affect both students and coworkers. Watch them start caring then.

    For myself, baseball becomes important to me when I’m caught in traffic or can’t find a parking place on game day. I have to do something different and that affects my life. Want to build a baseball stadium in my neighborhood? Life changes either because I profit on the land prices or because I have to deal with drunken fans. Good or bad, it becomes important and I’m probably not apathetic about that subject, at least during the time it affects me.

  24. Lynn, I agree that “post-religious” more or less implies atheist. But I find that the word atheist has a lot of emotional baggage. For example, many people equate atheist with communist (however irrational that may be). The phrase “godless communism” still lingers in the brains of some of us older folks who grew up during the Cold War. Being a new term (I believe) “post-religious” has no similar baggage. Plus, it implies that anyone who is still religious is behind the times… like someone who still believes in witchcraft or a flat earth.

  25. Advocating and supporting separation of church and state does not require taking a position as a theist or an atheist or anything else.

    Many theists (possibly most in the US), agnostics, free thinkers, apatheists, atheists, etc. can agree on this.

  26. RetiredSciGuy

    Lynn said she was late here, so I’m later yet. As I was reading your post, SC, the term “realist” occurred to me, and that was before I saw the posts from Realist1948.

    I agree with Tomato Addict’s philosophy, but the problem with using “RASH” as a descriptive noun is that it is already a word in wide use, and none of its current meanings are very positive. I don’t think I’d like to call myself a rash, or a rash individual.

    I don’t mind calling myself an agnostic, even though it too carries negative connotations, and others may define the word differently from the way I choose to define it.

    However, if I call myself a realist, it conveys the positive truth of my belief in reality. No need to explain the yet unknowable; no need for heaven/hell reward/punishment constructs; just a desire to know and understand the nature of reality. And isn’t that what science is all about?

    No need to make a religion out of it; it’s not a religious belief. In fact, it’s not a belief at all. It’s an understanding.

  27. The terms atheist, deist, theist, agnostic have no value for me.

    I am an “apexist” —- one who has developed the knowledge and emotional courage to rise above the petty bickerings of those who would polarize and limit our mental capacities with obsolete concepts from our primitive past. All should be discarded.

  28. I like the term apatheist. There may be a god or gods. Or maybe not. Either way, my actions are going to speak for themselves and I’m not going to spend a lot of time fretting over what extra things I have to do or believe to get to heaven.

  29. Thanks for that, eric. I didn’t know the word existed. Now I can forget about noncurance.

  30. RetiredSciGuy

    After reading Wikipedia’s definition of “apatheist” at the link provided by Eric, I agree that it provides the nuance you were looking for, Curmy.

    Maybe “realist” was too broad a term, after all.

  31. I’m an agnostic atheist. I’m agnostic because I have no knowledge of a god (a*gnosis). I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in god (a*theist, and belief is a sub-component of knowledge).

    They are not mutually exclusive terms.

  32. Isn’t “secularist” the word you are looking for? Of course, I recognize that it can’t be used in other contexts, such as baseball.

  33. Mark Joseph asks: “Isn’t secularist the word you are looking for?”

    No, that suggests non-theism, and I was looking for a word that says: “I don’t care.”

  34. RetiredSciGuy

    Agnostic-Apatheist: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”