What are you?

Of course, the particular pair of dichotomies in the figure below does not capture the full spectrum of beliefs. I, for example, do not believe in any gods because they are a totally unnecessary, evidence-free hypothesis. I am as certain of their non-existence as I am of the non-existence of Santa Claus. But where does that fit?



  1. Acolyte of Sagan says

    But where does that fit?

    In the same category as me, I suspect.
    I’d suggest ‘Evidence based Atheist': I don’t believe in gods but am open to empirical evidence for them (I just won’t be holding my breath waiting for it).

    Too wordy?

  2. doublereed says

    I’ve seen this thing, but I don’t like it because it’s just not what people mean by the words. Denotation does not matter as much as connotation. As long as everyone is talking the same language, words can mean whatever you want. Honestly, I see nothing wrong with:

    Athiest – There is no god.
    Agnostic – There may or may not be a god.
    Theist – There is a god.

    And you can throw “probably”s in there if you want. But this is what everyone seems to mean, and I don’t understand why this isn’t sufficient. Though practically speaking, I have yet to meet an agnostic whose beliefs are sufficiently different from atheism other than saying something irrelevant like “I don’t hate religion.”

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I don’t believe the question (are there gods?) is even worth asking. Does that make me an apatheist?

  4. doublereed says

    And also, as a Bayesian, I disagree that there is a difference between believing in something and being “sure” about it. It’s just not how we parse things. I always think playing this kind of word game encourages us to compartmentalize irrational beliefs.

    Saying “I believe in God but I’m not sure he exists,” is honestly a pretty bizarre thing to say, when you think about it. The only reason this makes sense to us is that people want to act rational but they also have the identity ‘theist.’ The statement doesn’t actually make sense though.

  5. mnb0 says

    “Evidence based Atheist’”
    As naturalistic evidence for any supernatural entity is impossible by defintion I go for gnostic atheism, but only since I have read Herman Philips’s God in the Age of Science less than a year ago.
    Key point: an immaterial entity like a god (if he/she/it were material we could do scientific research on he/she/it) does not have any means available to interact with our material reality.
    So I’m a 7 on the scale of Dawkins.

  6. Bruce says

    In the dualisms of the original cartoon, the biggest problem word is not agnostic or atheist, but the word “know”.
    To a mathematician and to a devout religious person, the word “know” denotes and connotes absolute certainty due to what their community accepts as total proof. (Please pardon my including mathematicians here, in order to generalize that category.)

    However, for people who deal with the real world (e.g., scientists), we never say that facts are “proven”, but only that they appear to be well supported by all available evidence, or something like that. So nothing in science can ever be proven, including gravity or E=mc2. The laws (observations) and theories (explanations) of the real world can always in principle be modified with further data.

    Of course, if you are talking with normal people (e.g., in a court of law), it would be contempt of court to say that one cannot “know” anything with certainty. There, it is expected, understood, and required to speak in slightly imprecise terms, such that we are all expected to make what sounds like an absolute statement that we know that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.

    So, as I never deal in pure math or religion any more, I never use the first definition in my life. But I jump between the second and third definitions depending on the context. This is true even though the third definition sounds very much like (yet is different from) the first definition involving absolute certainty.

    I think that the discussions in which the original cartoon would come up should fall into that third category. So I think most of us are gnostic atheists in the practical sense, just as we wouldn’t say that the tooth fairy might be real. It might, but almost nobody sane would ever say that.

    But it is offensive to me to equate our sense of the gnostic with that of the theist. We understand that when we say we “know” there’s no god, we are rounding off. But absolutists of math or religion believe they should never have to round off, and believe that their views are virtually totally correct.

    In other words, when we say we “know” something, we are not wanting to be arrogant, but merely succinct. But when they say they know something, they feel the thinking is finished on that topic.

  7. Sandy Small says

    I have no problem identifying myself as a gnostic atheist; every time this issue of belief/gnosticism comes up, it seems to degenerate into picking over definitional nonsense in very fine detail. While I can’t claim bulletetproof, 100% certainty about the existence of the supernatural, it is so absurd, so contrary to observable reality and simple logic, so utterly unconvincing that I’m entirely comfortable asserting my stance as knowledge. The infinitesimally meager chance that I might be mistaken is frankly not even worth devoting the time to consider.

    In short–of course there aren’t any gods, what are you, kidding?

  8. R Johnston says

    Nope, at least not if the definition is going to in any significant way overlap with people’s general ideas of types of entities that would be classified as gods if they existed. That’s why I’m with PZ on this one:

    The question “Is there a god?” is a bad question. It’s incoherent and undefined; “god” is a perpetually plastic concept that promoters twist to evade evaluation. If the whole question is nebulous noise, how can any answer be acceptable? The only way to win is by not playing the game.

  9. tuibguy says

    That’s what I call myself. The question of god(s)’s existence is no longer all that interesting to me. Far more interesting is the effect of religion on people and society.

  10. Irreverend Bastard says

    You just conflated belief with knowledge, a favourite with the religious. According to you, there are only 3 possibilities:

    1. I’m an atheist (there is no god). That always leads directly to the demand that I immediately prove that there is no god, which is both theoretically and practically impossible, therefore I have to admit that there might be a god. One point to the religious.
    2. I’m an agnostic (there may or may not be a god). I just admitted that there might be a god. One point to the religious.
    3. I’m a theist (there is a god). Two points to the religious.

    You completely omit my position: There might well be a god somewhere, but I just don’t believe in any. I have an absence of belief, but that does not mean that I believe in absence. This is very problematical for the religious, who insist that some kind of belief is mandatory.

    Belief is optional. I don’t believe in a total absence of gods, but I don’t believe in the existence of any gods, either. I don’t believe in science, I trust science, and if I didn’t, I could test everything that science claims. I don’t believe in evolution, I understand how evolution works.

    The problem is that we’re not talking the same language. The religious very much seem to use different definitions of words than the non-religious. A debate between theists and atheists usually deteriorates into a series of non-overlapping monologues. There’s no dialogue, because they don’t speak the same language.


  11. Nick Gotts says

    Yes. A god is an extremely powerful supernatural being. Something is supernatural if it has mind-like qualities, such as intentions, that are not dependent on the physical world.

  12. flex says

    So, what I’m seeing is that Atheist’s have beards and theist’s don’t?

    Although theist’s might sport snazzy mustaches.

    And women are not involved in the question at all, or maybe they are simply not as vocal about it.

    While I understand the cartoonist’s point, and it has been made a number of times in a number of ways. So I find the method used to convey his point to be interesting. I assume that the cartoonist was not necessarily aware of what he was doing, but used the default images which entered his mind to convey the message.

    And no, I am not mentioning this in order to shift the topic. This is a side issue which I thought was interesting enough to comment on, but I’m not going to debate it here. Only point it out.

  13. colnago80 says

    I take the same position as Richard Dawkins. The existence of god is a scientific proposition which must be supported by evidence. So far, no credible scientific evidence for the existence of god has been found. Therefore, it is legitimate to conclude that god does not exist, albeit with the proviso that, should such evidence be found, at that point, one must reassess his/her position.

    PZ Myers disagrees with this position and takes the position that scientific evidence for the existence of god is an oxymoron and, by the very definition of god cannot exist.

    So the question is, what might constitute evidence for the existence of god? The Hebrew Bible makes a claim in the Book of Joshua that the sun stood still in the sky for a day. According to the laws of physics, this is impossible because of the consequences of which no evidence exists. It such evidence is eventually found (e.g. mention of such an event in the writings of other civilizations that were existence at the time and which can be shown to be independent), then, either the laws of physics are significantly incomplete or the intervention of an all powerful deity is required.

  14. doublereed says

    Why are you repeating what I said back to me? Yes, I said there are only 3 possibilities…

    Saying that “there might be a God” is a simply a lack of understanding about so-called “absolute certainty.” There is no such thing, and there is no practical value in absolute certainty, so saying “there is a possibility of God’s existence” is a completely meaningless statement. I don’t think that’s a point in the religious’ favor.

    I omit your position because I think it’s the exact same thing as “There is no god.” If you’d like I could make it less definitive and say “There probably is no god,” but I don’t see a significant difference between the two statements. Certainly no signficant difference in how either of those two people lives their life.

    Absence of belief is the same thing as belief in absence. If you use Bayesian Reasoning and Bayes’ Theorem, you will find that absence of evidence is the same thing as evidence of absence. Statistically, they are the same. Absence of proof is not proof of absence, but it is certainly evidence. And belief is simply the measure of your personal and subjective evidence.

    I’m an atheist, by the way. I am not religious.

  15. says

    I am as certain of their non-existence as I am of the non-existence of Santa Claus. But where does that fit?

    I guess it depends on how certain you are that Santa-Clause can’t exist. If you’d allow for the possibility that you might be wrong about Santa (for all we know, a Santa is being constructed as we speak using alien bio-engineering and time warp technology), you’re technically still agnostic about Santa. But I think the discomfort comes from the fact that the thestic/atheistic axis is a real dichotomy – you either believe in one or more gods or you don’t – while the gnostic/agnostic axis is a full spectrum of degrees of certainty. There isn’t really a clearly defined cut-off point where you turn from one into the other.

  16. doublereed says

    Just because you admit that you do not have absolute certainty is not a point against you. On the contrary, it means you are able to recognize your own limits. It makes you rational. Some people might consider that statement “agnosticism” but I don’t think it is.

    Absolute Certainty does not exist and has zero practicality. I am perfectly willing to say that I know God does not exist. Because no one ever implies Absolute Certainty with the word “know.” I know the Statue of Liberty is green, but there’s a faint possibility it’s been painted since I last saw it. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you can’t possibly be wrong. It’s just a strong belief in something.

    I’m not interested in tricking you into “getting points” in the conversation. I’m just going to ask you: Do you think God exists? Would you be willing to say “I know God does not exist,” taking into the account of some faint possibility that you are wrong?

  17. says

    either the laws of physics are significantly incomplete or the intervention of an all powerful deity is required.

    If an all-powerful deity existed, the laws of physics would also be incomplete, because we have no way to describe such a thing within our current understanding of physics. And no, an all-powerful deity is not required for what you describe. Since the earth only has a finite amount of rotational energy, it would only take a finite amount of effort to take it all away (and restore it later). Sure, it’d be a very impressive feat, that we wouldn’t know how to pull off, but it’s still finite, and therefore doesn’t require an infinite power.

    Which I take as the point that PZ Myers makes: no finite amount of miracles (no matter how strong your evidence for them) can ever be evidence for an all-powerful being. All it can be is evidence for a sufficiently powerful being to perform (or fake) the miracles.

  18. mnb0 says

    “Please pardon my including mathematicians here”
    Sorry, no. Since Euclides every mathematician knows that the validity of any concludion can’t be higher than the validity of the axioms. They also know that attributing absolute truth to these axioms never is justified.

    “in a court of law”
    That’s why there is “beyond reasonable doubt” – this implies no absolute certainty. This is also why cases can be reopened.
    But yeah, I dare to say that there is no god beyond reasonable doubt.

    So religion remains. Many theists grand revelation absolute certainty.

  19. mnb0 says

    As Herman Philipse concludes: Theism is not a meaningful theory. Imo gods fall in the same category as square circles.

    “that are not dependent on the physical world”
    Like I wrote above this definition makes it impossible for that being to interact with that physical world.

  20. colnago80 says

    The problem is that stopping the earth’s t suddenly would subject it to all manner of catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, massive tidal waves, etc.There is no evidence that any such catastrophes occurred. This is in addition to stopping its revolution around the Sun in order to keep the latter in the same position for a day. If this happened, the earth would immediately plunge into the sun with the removal of centrifugal acceleration.

  21. says

    The problem is that stopping the earth’s t suddenly would subject it to all manner of catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, massive tidal waves, etc.

    Not if you stop the rotation of the earth and everything else on it at the same time. Depending on how stopping the earth might work, it might actually be easier to affect everything at once, rather than just the earth itself. And presumably, a sufficiently powerful entity could repair unintended damage, alter memories where needed, etc.

    This is in addition to stopping its revolution around the Sun in order to keep the latter in the same position for a day.

    Actually, all you need to do is slow the earth’s rotation to one rotation a year, instead of stopping it completely. That way, the same side of the earth would face at the sun, like the same side of the moon faces earth. No problems with earth falling into the sun either.

    But you’re not responding at all to my main point at all: even if you could show with rock-solid evidence that this is what actually happened, it would still not be evidence for an infinitely powerful being. Impressive as they are, these feats would still be finite. The rotational energy of earth and everything on it is finite, and therefore only a finite power is needed to change it. All you’d have is evidence for a ridiculously powerful entity, not for an all-powerful one. I suppose if we would find evidence of such an entity, many would call it God, or a god, but it’s not evidence that it’s all-powerful. The evidence would just set a lower limit on its power, it doesn’t tell you anything about the upper limit.

  22. troll says

    It depends on which gods we’re talking about. When it comes to Yahweh, Allah, etc, I’m a firm gnostic atheist. I know for certain that those gods do not exist, as the specific claims made by their holy texts have been sufficiently falsified. But if we’re talking about deism, animism, etc, I fall into agnostic atheism; I see no reason to believe that such things are true, but those beliefs can’t really be falsified the way the authoritarian, interventionist gods of monotheism can be.

  23. says

    I, for example, do not believe in any gods because they are a totally unnecessary, evidence-free hypothesis. I am as certain of their non-existence as I am of the non-existence of Santa Claus. But where does that fit?

    Top right. Not sure why it’s a question. I mean, you’re not looking smug and you have a better rationale then that listed, but it’s a position of some certainty.

  24. colnago80 says

    Since god seems to be incapable of putting the wood to the devil, maybe he’s not all powerful, just very, very powerful.

    By the way, what laws of physics could possibly involve stopping the rotation of the oceans which are liquid and thus stop tidal waves?

  25. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I hate this chart with a fiery passion.

    As far as I can tell from reading the works of published atheists and agnostics from the whole history of modern atheism, going back about 300 years, they all hold the same position. This includes d’Holbach and Meslier, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Huxley, Russell, Sagan, and all of the rest.

    They all hold that the evidence is strongly against any god which created the world 6000 years ago, or who caused a global flood, etc.

    Almost(?) all hold that you should remain strictly undecided about the idea of a completely untestable deist god, and some will say furthermore that such an idea is meaningless (such as the logical positivists and people of related philosophies).

    They proportion their belief for and belief against in accordance with the evidence.

    The difference between famous published self-identified atheists and agnostics is: 1- how confrontational they want to be, and 2- the subtleties of the definitions of terms which they favor (including “agnostic”, “atheist”, and “god”).

    There is some disagreement as to the quality of evidence we have against miracles in general, but there is a surprising amount of agreement on these basic positions.

    The categorization of gnostic atheist and agnostic atheist simply has no bearing on the real world. It is not an accurate and useful categorization.

  26. says

    Since god seems to be incapable of putting the wood to the devil, maybe he’s not all powerful, just very, very powerful.

    Actually, you don’t know if he’s incapable, or unwilling (or absent). But I’m glad you’re finally acknowledging that an all-powerful being isn’t the only alternative.

    By the way, what laws of physics could possibly involve stopping the rotation of the oceans which are liquid and thus stop tidal waves?

    What physics do you know that could stop the earth from rotating, but only works on rock and not on water? Seems like a pointless question, since we’re talking about imaginary forces. Why not imagine a force that works on rock and water both? In fact, we don’t even have to imagine very hard, as we know of such a force already: gravity. What’s more, gravity from the moon is actually already slowing down the earth’s rotation as we speak.

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