Why Words Matter: Theism – Atheism – Agnosticism

I am a firm believer in building understanding about the world we live in, and in actively seeking to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

I also believe that the truest path to understanding lies in the exchange of ideas and perspectives with other humans. By talking to other people, we test our ideas and expand our understanding.

In that quest to understand…Words Matter…and that seems especially true when having conversations about god belief.

Let me walk through what I’ve come to understand about the words associated with god belief and why they matter.

Theism and atheism address belief. If you believe in a god or gods, you are a theist or perhaps a deist (a distinction that does not impact the theme of this brief essay). If you do not believe in a god or gods, then you are an atheist.

Agnosticism addresses knowledge. An agnostic is someone who holds the view that the existence of a god or gods is unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Someone can express a lack of knowledge but still hold a belief, as this graphic illustrates.

Why These Words Matter (belief vs. non-belief)

When we’re talking about about god belief, we need those conversations to be honest and productive.

A theist believes in god. An atheist does not believe in god. But it is common to hear religious apologists and others misrepresent the atheist position to suggest that an atheist believes that there is no god. This is a very important distinction because it turns disbelief into a belief or a positive assertion, which attempts to impose a burden of proof.

When someone makes an extraordinary claim like – a god exists – they assume a burden of proof. And as Carl Sagan once said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

But someone who chooses to not believe that extraordinary claim, does not assume any obligation to disprove it. This is the foundation of the Russell’s Teapot analogy.

Russell’s teapot is an analogy (involving a tiny china teapot moving in
an elliptical orbit around the sun), formulated by the philosopher
Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), to illustrate that the philosophic burden
of proof lies upon a person making empirically unfalsifiable claims,
rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others.


So when it comes to conversations about god belief, the meaning of atheism (disbelief) is critical.

Why These Words Matter (agnosticism)

Agnosticism is about knowledge. And knowledge and belief are not the same.

Broadly speaking, knowledge is objective truth while belief is subjective truth. Knowledge is that which is and can be shown to be true. It is universally true. Belief is an idea or concept which is held to be true by a person or people but cannot be shown to be true, and is not necessarily believed to be true by everyone or anyone else.

To be fair, the existence of god has never been shown to be true. It is an extraordinary claim for which there is no real evidence. God belief does not even come close to qualifying as an objective truth. It cannot be shown to be true. Anyone who says I know a god does or doesn’t exist is either confused or deluded.

So if we are to have productive conversations about god belief, we need to discard the term agnostic. When it comes to the existence of a god or gods, we are all agnostic.

by Doug Skeggs