Commentary  Atheists, theists, and gnostics, oh my!

The need for useful terminology for discussing atheism

There’s a popular idea that being an atheist involves sharing the exact ideas of all non-believers, a notion I would argue is extremely misguided. Since atheism is a personal philosophical position, there are a wide variety of approaches to the subject.
The first question to consider when looking at these approaches is the issue of religion at childbirth. Can you be born an atheist? Without the ability to have communicated to them the idea of God, can a newborn nevertheless hold belief in such?

In a nutshell, no. Atheism, as I’ve argued in other pieces published here (“Beyond a reasonable doubt,” Page 15, December 1, 2010”), is primarily a negative state; without some sort of positive proof suggesting that the case is otherwise, we by default assume that there is no God. Those that cannot consider new evidence to the contrary must be atheists, even if they do not self-identify as such. Animals are a good example here. Since they can’t process an idea as complex as God, they’re atheists. Sorry, Fido.

Such is what is called “implicit atheism.” From there, one makes the leap to rejecting God, and becomes an explicit atheist. But wait, there’s more! It gets complicated from here, though, so you might want a larger coffee.

Picture a graph with two axes: gnosticism vs. agnosticism, and theism vs. atheism. Gnosticism, for our purposes, is the belief that there is an absolute knowledge, so that one can say definitely that something is or is not true. So, in this case, somebody on the far “gnostic” side of our graph would argue that the statement “There is a God” can be proven to be 100 per cent valid or invalid; somebody on the far “agnostic” side, would argue that the same statement can never be proven to any degree of accuracy because it’s impossible to know. Theism vs. atheism is the debate over a god like power: a theist would say “There is a God” and an atheist says otherwise. Somebody between the two would say “maybe there’s a God.”

Is this the definitive way of charting people’s religious positions? Of course not. But it provides a helpful mental image when trying to discuss people’s views. A “strong theist” – let’s say the Pope – will be found at the maximum poles of gnosticism and theism: there is absolutely a God. Whether it exists and can be known is completely beyond doubt. A “strong atheist” hangs around the maximums of gnosticism and atheism, lifting weights and giving nasty looks at those on the theism side: there is absolutely not a God; its non-existence can and will someday be indisputably proven.

Meanwhile, in the quieter parts of the graph, we find at themaximum theism and agnosticism poles the “weak theist,” mowing his lawn. The “weak theist” believes that there is a God, even if it’s impossible to be absolutely certain of this, and acts accordingly. Cleaning his glasses at atheism and agnosticism we have the “weak atheist,” who feels that there’s no way to know for sure, but figures that, well, there’s probably no God. Everybody else falls somewhere between the four poles.

This examination just brushes the surfaces of the different philosophies regarding a god or omnipotent power. Thus, one shouldn’t be quick to assume an exact agreement of beliefs among atheists.

One Less God is a twice-monthly column on atheist communities and philosophy. Harmon Moon is a U2 History student and VP External of the McGill Freethought Association. He can be reached at