BY: Gregory Dearth
It can be difficult to understand the meanings of deep terms. The best way to gain such an understanding is often to visualize actual connections between terms. I would encourage you to grab a small piece of paper and try the thought experiment below. Once you have completed it you will understand clearly the relationship of several terms.
It ultimately comes down to usage. For example, agnostic is often incorrectly equated to atheist and some simply equate agnostic to ‘undecided’. But there is indeed a correct ‘official’ usage for these terms and one that has been agreed upon. One has to understand how they relate to knowledge and belief and how these two things are not the same thing.
Knowledge is (or should tend to be) objective true explanations supported by evidence and direct experience lacking contradictions. Beliefs are based on our perceptions, our assessments of reality, which may lack any objective verification and may only seem to be true to ourselves. Beliefs may also contain contradictions (though we should strive to eliminate beliefs that do). If our beliefs are true, and have justification based on evidence, they become knowledge. But if we do not yet have reasonable certainty of a subject, we only consider those assessments as beliefs.
Gnostic and agnostic refer to what you claim know. Theism and atheism refers to what you claim to believe. The two terms are then connected to define what you know about your beliefs.
An agnostic atheist is likely the most common. They reject belief in god claims (typically due to a lack of evidence) but they do not claim to know for a fact that absolutely no gods can exist.
A gnostic atheist would be equivalent to a ‘strong atheist’ or an ‘a-deist’ (a term proposed by the late Christopher Hitchens). They do not believe in god claims and claim to know that no gods, in fact, exist. This position is likely less common than the agnostic atheists, though to a certain extent we are all gnostic atheists regarding at least some gods, like the ones that throw lightning bolts, or make the thunder sound. But if we maintain that a god could exist, though we withhold belief based on a lack of evidence, we should be placed in the category of agnostic atheist.
A gnostic theist is one who believes that not only a god exists, but that they have the correct knowledge of that god’s nature. That is, they believe their version of god is correct. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims fall into this category. There is no doubt in their minds as to their god’s true nature. They consider it knowledge, a true justified belief (hopefully and preferably logically justified and supported by evidence).
An agnostic theist is the most reasonable theist position. They believe that god exists but are uncertain as to the nature of that god. They are easy to talk to an speculate with as they often do not abide a particular dogma and are less resistant to having their mind changed. They might even be regarded as rational if they did not still maintain belief in something that lacks evidence.
Now, these four combinations are not really categories as they are labels for the four quadrants defined by two perpendicular lines or axes. Imagine a line going from left to right. On the left we will place the term atheist and on the far right we will place the term theist. Now imagine a vertical line that crosses this axis. At the very top we will place the label gnostic and at the bottom we will place the term agnostic. Thus you end up with a common x-y coordinate system where the negative x value is atheist and the negative y value is agnostic. The positive x value is theist and the positive y value is gnostic.
People rarely maintain a position of belief and knowledge that is at one of the four extreme ends of the two axis. That is, hardly any of us are actually just one of the four types on every god claim. But we can be classified as predominantly one of these four. Just as most people reject most god claims, as people tend to maintain belief in one god or no gods, we are all gnostic atheists to some degree. But if we do maintain the illogical position of belief that a god exists, we have to be to the right of the vertical line. We are at least a theist to some degree. But if we reject belief in god claims, while also knowing for a fact some gods do not exist, we are to the left of the vertical line as we are certainly atheists, but are in the bottom left quadrant of agnostic atheism.