Picking apart Pascal’s Wager – Part 1
Last night I was chatting with a friend about religious belief, absence of belief, the differences between agnosticism, atheism, gnosticism and theism, and helping him determine his state of belief, along the lines of:
- Gnostic Theism: “I know that there definitely is a god(s).”
- Agnostic Theism: “I don’t know for certain, but ‘all this’ must have been created by someone or something.”
- Agnostic Atheism: “I don’t know for certain, but attributing a supernatural force to its origin is poor logic.”
- Gnostic Atheism: “I know that there definitely is no god(s).”
Looking at those four terms for a moment:
- Theism is the belief in at least one god. In Western society it nearly always refers to the god of Christianity and nearly all Western religious arguments are about this god, unless otherwise stipulated.
- Atheism prefixes the Greek a- (without) to theism, and means simply “without belief in at least one god.” It does not mean disbelief or refusal to believe; it is a position of neutrality: absence of belief. To place it in context: a baby is atheist until it is introduced to supernatural concepts at a later age; animals are atheist.
- Gnostic is from the Greek word gnosis and refers to knowledge about spiritual matters, and in this case absolute conviction. It generally discounts evidence and logical argument as it is not a position based on rational deduction and analysis, and usually has the Argument from Incredulity/Ignorance at its core.
- Agnostic was a term coined by Thomas Huxley to complement the term gnostic with the Greek a- (without) prefix, making it mean in this context “without absolute conviction.” It’s an intellectually honest position that recognises that there is insufficient evidence or knowledge to make a definitive conclusion for or against the existence of god(s).
My problem with the term atheism has generally been that it’s a term that defines itself as the opposite of another, or by the absence of something: without the term theism, the term atheism would not exist. An example might be the term slim (in the context of body weight) and me calling myself unslim (rather than overweight), or conversely fat using afat as its complement. Ultimately it’s just semantics, but defining oneself as the opposite of something is a topic worth addressing.
This article is continued in Part 2.