• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Varieties of (Non)Belief

Filed under Belief


NOTE: Today we share a guest post from one of our non-theist commenters, Paul Rimmer.

Does the world need another article on how to define atheism? Does Strange Notions? These questions had to open the article, in part because there have already been several different Strange Notions articles on how to define atheists, including the most recent article about self-identified atheists who believe in God.

Yet here I am, talking about how to define the terms “atheist”, “theist”, and “agnostic”, in an article that may look at the end like a religiously oriented Cosmopolitan quiz. I write this article anyway, because I believe that there is a good reason for so many articles on this topic.

I don’t think the lines that divide Catholics and atheists are the same lines for every Catholic and every atheist, because Catholicism and atheism are very diverse perspectives, and because it’s not all about belief. If you disagree, if you think the dividing line is all about belief, then read only the next section of this article ("If It’s All About Belief..."). Please skip the rest of the article.

If, however, you agree with me that there are more dimensions to the dividing lines between Catholicism and atheism, you are encouraged read the entire article. You are also encouraged to leave comments. I promise to read them and to adjust my views based on reasonable and convincing argument. As far as this article is concerned, charity is for people, not for ideas. Don’t insult my parentage, but please be as harsh as you will to my ideas. If my ideas are any good, they will stand the heat.

Why should you listen to me? After all, I’m a scientist and not a theologian. I suspect, though, that scientists, rather than theologians, would succeed with this sort of task. A large part of science is categorizing things. The judgment of the reader will determine whether this scientist is any good at categorizing people.

For the purposes of this article, there will be only one deity to consider: The Christian God as described by the Nicene Creed. This is admittedly a vast over-simplification. I will offer some concluding remarks about how the labels introduced here can be broadened in order to account for alternative religions and belief-systems, such as Islam or Buddhism.

If It’s All About Belief...

If you think that atheism vs. theism is completely and simply about belief, I won’t fight you on that. Such a fight would likely fail to advance the discussion, even if I were to successfully convince you that there are more dimensions to the question of God’s existence than simply believing or not. What I will do is provide what I think to be the best ways to define atheism, theism, and agnosticism, if the discussion is all about belief. This system has the advantage of being accepted by most atheists and several theists.

In this system, there are two dimensions regarding belief. First is the presence of the belief itself. If I ask you whether you believe that God exists, do you say “yes” or “no”? If you say “yes” then you are a theist. If you say “no” then you are an atheist. That’s it. If you can’t say either “yes” or “no”, then you can come up with a new colorful term for your position, such as igtheist.

The second dimension is the level of confidence in that belief. If you are certain that your belief is correct, then you are a gnostic. If you are uncertain about whether your belief is correct, then you are an agnostic. Thus there are four options:

  1. Gnostic Theist: You believe that God exists and are certain in your belief.
  2. Agnostic Theist: You believe that God exists but are uncertain in your belief.
  3. Agnostic Atheist: You believe that God does not exist but are uncertain in your belief.
  4. Gnostic Atheist: You believe that God does not exist and are certain in your belief.

If you think that the only or at least the key division between theism and atheism is along the lines of belief, then this is the system for you. Even if you agree with me that there are more (and maybe more important) dimensions to the issue, you should still find out where you fit in this system, because one of the big advantages of labels is convenience, and as I said, most atheists and several theists know and use this convention for applying the labels atheist, theist, and agnostic.

But Maybe It's Not All About Belief

I am going to propose to you now that belief isn’t the only issue, and, even more, that it isn’t the most important. Certainly belief is one important dividing issue between atheists and theists, and it may be the most obvious, but as I listen to various atheists and theists talk about their beliefs, I see signs of other dimensions, other divisions between atheists and theists, and also interesting similarities between the two groups. Most theists I know and count as friends would have more in common with Richard Dawkins than with Bill O’Reilly on the question of truth (see this video, for example). The important dimensions to the question of God’s existence are three, as I count them:

1. Do you believe that God exists?
This is an obvious point of division.

2. Do you want God to exist?
In other words, would you prefer to live in a world where there was an all-powerful, fatherly God who loves us unconditionally and who sent his son to die for us? Do you want to live in a world where you may be held accountable, even eternally accountable, for your beliefs and actions?

3. Do you live as though God existed?
The knowledge that God loves and cares for you, and wants you to enjoy his presence for all eternity, and expects you to live a life in obedience to his authority will entail a way of life that is noticeably and radically distinct from the way many people in the world, including many people who would be theists under the beliefs-only definition, presently live their lives. Now, maybe a die-hard atheist will live a life consistent with the existence of the Christian God. Why not? Maybe she lives this life because of a self-consistent ethics that has nothing to do with God. It just so happens to involve actions that are more-or-less aligned to actions performed by practicing theists. That’s all that’s required. I will say that most atheists I know live lives that closely approximate the ideal Christian life.

These three dimensions leave us eight options, for which I apply various labels already in existence, although I may be using these terms in a manner that somewhat departs from convention. Where possible, I will also provide the name of a prominent philosopher or theologian who seems to fit the particular label. This is the Cosmo Quiz portion of the article, and when you the reader disagree with my assessment, either of the terms used or philosophers assigned, please let me know in the comments.

Satisfied Theist: This is someone who believes that God exists, wishes that God existed, and lives as though God exists. This is the simple Catholic life, portrayed well by many common parishioners and by the present Pope Francis.

Apatheist: Someone who believes that God exists and wishes that God existed, but doesn’t live as though God exists—what the Catechism of the Catholic Church labels “practical atheists” (CCC 2128). These are people for whom religion has no real affect on their public life or on their activity outside of maybe some ritual observance. God is like a sports mascot and religion their sports team. I won’t dare to name anyone who fits this label, although I imagine many Christians do. This is, however, the ideal form of religion as envisioned by Daniel Dennett.

Reluctant Theist: This is someone who believes God exists and lives as though God exists, but she wishes God didn’t exist. Maybe she wishes God were different. She may struggle with divine hiddenness and the problem of evil, not as evidence against God’s existence but as strong arguments against God’s goodness and loving-kindness. A good and loving God would not allow for childhood leukemia and would reveal Himself to those whom He loves, like any kind father. I would tentatively assign Oscar Wilde this label.

Agnostic: Someone who wants God to exist and lives as though God exists, but doesn’t think God exists. People who don’t think God exists may want God to exist and live pretty-much the same way whether God exists or not. Massimo Pigliucci seems to be an agnostic in this sense.

Misotheist: This rare position includes someone who believes God exists but wishes He didn’t, and who doesn’t live as though God existed. This is someone who is opposed to God. The easiest example would be Lucifer. An example closer to home would be Arthur Schopenhauer.

Pessimist: Someone who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t live as though God existed, but wishes He did. The pessimist tends to live out in the bitter cold winds of truth instead of the enclosed and suffocating warmth provided by pious illusion. I would think Bertrand Russell to be a pessimist in this sense.

Atheist: Someone who lives as though God exists, although she doesn’t believe in God and hopes that she’s right. Many people who hold this view can seem God-intoxicated, and anti-theistic, opposed not to God but to theism itself, because theism supports an immoral God. This apparent obsession is often, as I discern, a result of strong moral intuition. It is in fact the atheist’s right moral sense that leads her to deny God’s existence. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are prime examples of atheists.

Nihilist: This person doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t want God, and doesn’t live like God exists. In my opinion, this is at its very heart a hopeless position, but maybe I lack the imagination to see how it would work out. My strong opinion may be due to the fact that I have no friends and know of no philosophers who actually hold to this position. Nietzsche is thought to deserve this label, although I suspect this is a misunderstanding of his philosophy. The closest actual example might be Ayn Rand, a hopeless philosopher if ever there was one.

I speculate that the former way of labeling positions on God, based only on belief, seems a very Protestant way of doing things. Protestants traditionally emphasize faith alone above the other cardinal virtues of hope and love. Giving a place for hope and love seems to be a more universal, or Catholic, approach to the question of theism and atheism. Also, no one is bound to use my terms, although I think that the traditional usage of most of these labels is at least reasonably well approximated by my new descriptions

As promised, I will now show by a single example how these labels can be generalized in order to encapsulate other religions, or at least other theistic religions. Someone might, for example, be a theist with respect to the Christian God, but a nihilist with respect to the Muslim God. She would, in other words, derive her hope and purpose of life from her Christian beliefs, and derive no hope or guidance from Islamic beliefs, except where the two beliefs overlap.

A strong note of warning: Whatever system of labels you accept, respect what other people want to be called. If someone wants to be called an atheist or an agnostic, or doesn’t want labels altogether, respect their choice and abide by it, at least when talking to them.

I will end this article by emphasizing the great overlap between many theists and many atheists, and it is on the most important of all the virtues, that of love. I was a member of the Christian Graduate Student Alliance at Ohio State University, and was also closely involved with the Secular Student Alliance there, a group of atheists and agnostics that had among their number not a few who denied the historicity of Jesus. The Secular Student Alliance at OSU became involved with a Lutheran Church on a trip to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and worked alongside Christians of various denominations to provide relief to fellow humans. This is in my mind a rich picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said that his true disciples would be known by their love. How interesting, how strangely beautiful, that maybe some of Christ’s truest disciples alive today are not convinced that he even existed.
(Image credit: Kill ADJ)

Paul Rimmer

Written by

Paul Rimmer is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. He investigates chemical tracers of lightning on exoplanets and what that chemistry might reveal about the origin of life on Earth. He received his BS in Physics from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and his PhD in Physics from The Ohio State University. He is interested in the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics on the existence and nature of God, and on improving the tone and quality of that dialogue on both sides. Paul is an ex-Catholic.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.