Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic

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.

final1Now 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:

final3These 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 agnosticand theist
and two less common positions: atheist gnostic and theist agnostic
and we can change the graph to reflect that:
final41In 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.


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

final6It’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?

final7Note: 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.

• This item was first published by the Freethinker on September 25, 2009

130 responses to “Atheist, Gnostic, Theist, Agnostic”

  1. Julia Babou Robert says:

    (Sorry if there are some mistakes, I am french and my english is not perfect) :

    This is actually SAD that we feel the NEED to clarify our positions about god(s). Seriously, this is about one’s belief. Some believe in god(s) ? Wether they are certain on not, good for them. Some do not ? Wether thay are certain or not, good for them too. Some don’t give a f*** ? Let them be.

    The fact that we need to clarify shows that, to some people (lots of people) religion has became so important that you have to make your opinion public, to know how to define your case, and to be prepared for arguing and defend your opinion.

    Well I am pretty sure it is a matter of culture 😉 but to me, religious belief or absence of it does not have to interfere in the public sphere, it regards your feelings : you can keep it at home. Of course it is necessary, if you want to educate your mind, to know the meaning of agnostic, atheist, etc. But for the “Where do you stand ?” question, well, my feeling is :

    I don’t want to know, I don’t need to.
    I have been trying to define where I stand, seriously, and the fact is that I don’t know exactly WHAT I believe or not, and I am perfectly cool with that, because I don’t give to religion such importance, and it is not linked to my political views.

  2. Dawn says:

    I’m not sure I understand where a deist would fall on this list…and what about panendeists? or panthiests? I get the last two confused. I ask because while I identify as agnostic or deist, I really believe that what some people consider “God” is actually just the universe, nature, the essence of life. Sometimes I go toward the deist view and think there was a creator, although not an actual deity, and nothing you can pray to or whatever, but mostly I identify either as a complete agnostic or the above-mentioned pantheist type. 🙂 I guess I should just forget labels. I mainly just do not agree with any of the revealed religions.

  3. […] never heard of term ‘gnostic’ bfore! atheist, gnostic, theist, agnostic […]

  4. jerome says:

    I think you shouldn’t have cut the square to a diamond because I think I’m at the bottom left of the square. I know that a God exists but I feel I don’t believe in him.

  5. Amy Mansell says:

    FAR OUT MAN. You guys need to get out more often

  6. John Hunt says:

    theist, atheist, gnostic, agnostic.

    Peter Brietbart’s bold and entertaining, “…attempt to clarify and classify these words, so that their rogue meanings no longer confuse and muddle religious debate.” is, sadly, deeply flawed and does exactly the opposite (as reflected in many of the responses).

    Peter’s opening paragraphs revealed his own muddled thinking. No wonder he has many headaches! Apparently, his informing of someone that he is an atheist generates (‘too many times’) the response, “Oh, but how could you know that God doesn’t exist? You’re taking a faith position!” Instead of allowing himself to be embroiled in irrelevant controversy, his simple answer, as I am sure he realises, should have been, “Atheist simply means I disbelieve in the existence of god—it does not mean I claim that god does not exist.” Even though Peter might believe that god does not exist, by merely informing someone that he is an atheist he is not claiming that fact. Simple; end of story, no headaches. (In fact, of course, none of Peter’s four terms makes the claim of god’s non-existence.)

    Moving on to the rest of Peter’s presentation, there are a number of issues which do not fare well under scrutiny.

    1. The prefix ‘a’ is from the Greek, meaning ‘not’. Thus a word can automatically generate its own converse which together form a closed pair. In trying to mix two closed pairs, which are inevitably mutually exclusive, Peter is attempting the impossible. Think of it this way;
    take a list of any such pairs, for example, theist/atheist, typical/atypical, on/off, gnostic/ agnostic, symmetrical/asymmetrical, dead/alive and try to mix any one with another. It is immediately obvious that closed pairs, by definition, in any combination, cannot be combined and are meaningless.

    2. Peter’s graphs and text show and claim degrees of certainty; but that is impossible. Certainty is absolute—either you’re pregnant or you ain’t, babe! And the same principle applies to theist and gnostic. This leads me to mention that any suggestion of using ‘probability’ in place of ‘certainty’ is also doomed. For anyone to claim to have a 29% probability of believing in god (leaving a 71% probability of not believing in god) is clearly absurd! (NB A probability of 100% means ‘certainly’ and a probability of 0% means ‘certainly not’.)

    3. Presuming cognisance of the concept of god as a supernatural object, it follows that, regardless of their belief or otherwise in the existence of god, anyone may be an agnostic. By definition it does not conflict with that of theism or that of atheism and can therefore coexist, separately, with either. It is irrelevant and meaningless, for example, to ‘insert’ oneself as an ‘I-don’t-know-whether-I-believe-in-god-or-not’ ditherer, between theist and atheist. (By default the don’t-know is not a theist and must be an atheist.)

    4. Bearing in mind the declared intention of Peter’s article, his introduction of the combined labels, atheist agnostic, theist gnostic, atheist gnostic and theist agnostic only compounds the difficulties encountered by some folk. For those (and for the rest of us!) I suggest you abandon Peter’s added complexities and simply learn the definitions of the four words under discussion and treat them as two separate closed pairs. You will see the light—halleluiah!

    theist: one who believes in the existence of God;
    atheist: one who disbelieves in the existence of God;
    gnostic: one who claims having knowledge, especially spiritual;
    agnostic: one who believes that we know nothing of things beyond material phenomena, that a creator, creative cause and an unseen world are things unknown or unknowable.

  7. Jon Peterson says:

    I contend that a person’s position on the graph is not dependent on the specific belief system being discussed.

    Theism, after all “… in the broadest sense is the belief that at least one deity exists.” (Wikipeda – cited to Oxford and Merriam Webster dictionaries)

    Thus, regardless of the religion being discussed, a Christian will remain a Theist. They may not subscribe to Buddhist teachings, but they remain a Theist even when denying those beliefs.

    I do love the famous quote (“I contend to you that we are both atheists…”), but at the same time, it has never been more than opinion. The fact is that Theists are not — and can not — simultaneously be atheists, in any respect. The terms are utterly contradictory.

  8. […] I am an agnostic atheist (yes, one can be both at the same time. For a better understanding, read:  I believe that one should live life to the fullest extent possible and as they see fit.  Now, […]

  9. Bob says:

    I’m just Atheist. Any one has a problem, I walk away quickly and lock the closest door, release the hounds, and laugh when they pray not to get attacked. And yes, it’s leagal where i live

  10. Joseph says:

    Atheism is a belief that subscribes to the positive assertion “There is no God” Agnosticism is the neutral assertion “There is no eveidence for a belief in God” Agnosticism is often referred to as ‘weak atheism’ in that it is atheism that does not make the positive assertion that god does not exist, only that there is no reason to believe in god. Atheism is a positive assertion that there is no god, this entire paper is very misguided, primarily because it does no define atheism correctly, atheism is contrasted from agnosticism by a positive assertion of the non-existance of god. Agnosticism is the lack of knowledge for gods existance, hence ther term agnostic (without knowledge).
    And the term ‘God’ is a term which means many thing to many people. As with any meaningful discussion you have to define the inportant terms cleasrly. Anytime I assert my atheism I make it clear that by ‘God’ I am referring to the Omniscient, Omnibenevolent, Omnipotent, Omnipresent God of western theism. It is this God about which I make the positive assertion that God does not exist. This definition of God entails some very interesting and unavoidable logical contradictions. With respect to other sorts of Gods I am essentially agnostic, but typically the term God for many people does mean that ‘most perfect being’ that is free of evil and has power over all things, since if it wasn’t perfect in every way, why even call it God, or worship it at all.

  11. […] certain. If you want more information on the gnostic/agnostic – theist/atheist confrontation, here’s a awesome site. Now whereas many might wonder, why do I criticize theists, if I’m not sure. It’s simple […]

  12. bezboznik says:

    This is uber MOЯONic. FÜĆК all you ЯETAЯDz for falling for this xtian propaganda whose purpose is dilute the meaning of the word “atheist.”

    Atheist is boolean. PERIOD. śhıtheads

  13. Nouman says:

    This is very well laid out. Thanks for the work you put into this. Also, the last commenter is an idiot.

  14. Jason Wright. says:

    I understand accept and know that god is a notion that originates in the mind,gnostic atheism.

  15. e_space says:

    all this is very good if one has a description of ‘god’. unfortunately, this is probably the vaguest word in the dictionary, as everyone seems to have their own opinion about it. if one reflects about ‘god’ from the description that others have given, such as by xtians, muslims, etc, then at least there is a starting point for debate or categorization. using existing religious descriptors of ‘god’, i seem to be a gnostic atheist. however, in my world, ‘god’ is not a physical entity, but a higher level of consciousness that i believe is available to all with the desire to connect with it. once a connection is made however, a description of such will not be forthcoming as the experience is beyond words. in these terms, i do not seem to fit into a category provided, although the gnostic theist seems to come close. the only problem with this categorization is that one still cannot show or prove this to another, so we are left make unsubstantiated claims, such as i have just done. i believe we have a rosy future in the spirit world, but what the hell do i know?

  16. […] The Atheist Agnostic, The Theist Gnostic, The Atheist Gnostic, and The Theist Agnostic Peter Brietbart defines and schematizes distinctions between different kinds of atheists, theists, agnostics, and […]

  17. Adrian says:

    Uh, I’m a totally gnostic Atheist.

  18. Iain says:

    “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.”

    I think you’re just too lazy to extend this graph into the third dimension 😛

    I think there are lots of people who don’t know if we can know whether God exists or not. How would they determine what they can and can’t know?

  19. Will says:

    There’s a single fatal flaw in this illustration, and that lies in the definition of agnosticism:

    “We can’t know whether god exists or not.”

    Agnosticism is the method of not applying certainty where it is undue, this statement conflicts with that method by assigning a far too certain trait to the nature of god. A more correct statement would read:

    “I don’t know whether god exists or not.”

    In the case of the speaker, this is a true statement, not a presumptuous claim.

  20. prepare to become gnostic with this site

  21. Frosty says:

    You define atheist as “no belief in god”

    Therefore it’s impossible to be an “apathist”, anyone who fails to understand the ideas involved (small children and stupid people) as well as those who simply do not care are ALL atheists.

    The check for being an atheist is simple, do you believe in a god? If the answer is anything other than yes, you’re an atheist. There is no position in between or on the line, you either believe in a god or you dont.

    Otherwise a fairly well constructed article, nicely done.

  22. kaonashi says:

    What if one believed that it is POSSIBLE to know that god DOES exist, but that it is IMPOSSIBLE to know that god DOESN’T exist?

    If god does exist, then we may someday be able to prove it, but if god does not exist, then as it’s generally not possible to prove a negative, we may never know for certain.

  23. janda says:

    an Atheist is someone who does not believe in God because he is an ungrateful creature who always disputes, doubts,mocks,ridicules, conjecture ,argues,lies, misleads, deceive by the millions with their writings on the net.They are the worst of beast in the eyes of God.Happily would they deceive mankind but they cant deceive God and the Truth.If only they knew how they are blind,deaf and dumb to the Truth.If only they knew, how they are deluded all this while.Let them alone and their vain discourses and leave them to wander distracted on this world to and fro.Let the blind lead the blind .

    An Atheist is someone who is grateful and always have only one answer when he/she is asked about God and his/her believe that is “all that is good”.And then he/she sleeps go to bed with a peaceful mind.

  24. janda says:

    An atheist is someone who is ungrateful creature and disputes everything God has created and says “all that is doubtful”

    A theist is someone who is always thankful to God and says”all that is good”.

  25. Rey says:

    September 25th, 2009 at 5:21 pm
    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.

    According to your comment, you fit in the gnostic atheist category whether you believe it or not

  26. Hi Peter,

    THANK YOU for this excellent article. My thoughts on all this stuff are a bit different than what I have read before so I will lay them out here and see what you and others think. As you say, atheists do not believe in gods. Gods are thought of as superior beings. I do not believe in the idea that anyone can truly be superior nor inferior to anyone else. That is, I believe even though some of us are stronger, faster, etcetera, we are all equals. Thus, I reject the idea of a god or gods and therefore that is why I call myself an atheist. Now, armed with this new information thanks to you, I will consider myself a gnostic atheist.

    Thanks again!


    Randy W. Sandberg

  27. Annon says:

    This table can be used, but we should be aware of it’s assumptions. Theism and Atheism are very narrow definitions because they just deal with God. So if you are a spiritualist, the horizontal axis is meaningless.

    I personally would replace theist/atheist axis, with spiritual/spiritual

    Also, what if you are theist, but don’t hold to any conventional religion or dogma? Theists are always taken to be Christians or some other belonging to another major world religion.

    I’ve decided to reject all these labels completely. Don’t be pigeonholed.

  28. Kat says:

    I have to agree that any time religion comes up the first and most difficult part is agreeing on what the words mean.
    Although not everyone will be happy with it because of some reason or another, I think this is a useful starting point that most people can agree on(cause pictures make everything better).

  29. matt says:

    this is really good in principle.. the only problem i foresee is the definition of gnostic.. when i use the word gnostic i’m usually referring specifically to any pantheistic or esoteric type “enlightenment” religions.. whether its oriental, occult, or the secret doctrines of western occult organizations like rosicrucians, masons, OTO, golden dawn, gnostic “christians” (bad term since alot of christians consider these teachings to be damn near completely at odds with their beliefs or even in the extreme satanic or at least blasphemous), thelema, theosophy, and etc. i guess these dont come up much because discussion of them is obscure and riddled with conspiracy theory and potential alternative historical narratives that most people don’t want anything to do with. but in principle and based on what the terms really do or should mean at least linguistically, it is a pretty solid denotative paradigm. BTW Fun for gnostics/esotericists: this has clear correspondences to the YHWH/tetragramaton formula so if you wana get “closer to knowing about god” just relate the relative relationships (wow how redundant was that lol) in these 4 terms to the relationship of any other “spectral” paradigm or whatever (ex: 4 phases of matter/”elements” ) thing to another and you are now investing the works of the “grand architect” ;D (note: i’m not representing masonry here just borrowing a cool term)

  30. John says:

    What is an atheist?