3 AM Philosophy

Atheism and Bad Epistemological Images: (Why Agnostic Atheist in the weak case is nonsensical)

It seems you can’t go a day when someone mentions either the word ‘belief’ or ‘knowledge’ that someone else isn’t going to flex their expert YouTube university education and post an image relating the entire extent of the depths of which they have ever dived into epistemology or philosophy…an image of an extremely jejune way of understanding of ‘Gnostic’, ‘Agnostic, ‘Theist, and ‘Atheist’. Sigh.

Let’s start with one of the common one I see most often:

This is so awfully wrong it almost makes my eyes bleed just from looking at it. But let’s dive in to what makes this puerile way of understanding atheism and theism so very wrong.

First the way “Gnostic” is defined here. Gnostic refers to a 1st or 2nd century philosophy of a group that believed that they had divine knowledge that was revealed to them and hidden from the less enlightened. But assuming arguendo it is used as an epistemic modifier. Gnostic would not be “it is possible to be 100% certain” as that is not Gnostic, that is having “epistemic certainty” or in terms of Descartians would like “Cartesian certainty”.

A more proper understanding of “Gnostic” in this schema would be the propositional attitude of more than just belief, but of “I know”.  Neither belief NOR knowledge requires certainty to hold a propositional attitude of either “I believe p” or “I know p”. However, if you claim knowledge to know p, then you are also saying you believe p. Knowledge requires belief.

Gnostic theist: I not only believe there is a God, I “KNOW” there is a God.
(But “I know p is not claiming certainty of p, just strong conviction which satisfies some theory of knowledge).

Second, ‘Agnostic’ being as “it is not possible to be 100% certain”. Once again, agnostism has nothing to do with certainty. An agnostic says “I do not assign a truth value to the proposition of theism that it is TRUE (affirmed) nor do I assign a truth value of FALSE (Rejected)”. There is nothing about agnosticism that entails any degree of being certain.

Third, ‘Atheist’ being “lack of belief in a God”. This of course assumes one is using a sensu lato or colloquial definition from usually a descriptive dictionary. If one is using a sensu stricto or sensu strictissimo definition most often commonly found in philosophy then the definition would be the rejection of theism, or the assigning of FALSE to the proposition of theism. (In classical logic R(Ф) := ¬A(Ф) meaning that rejection is defined to be not accepting the proposition or asserting that the proposition is false. (this is different than the colloquial meaning of rejection which only means not to accept, but doesn’t imply acceptance of any negation. (Ex: If I am interviewing two people for a job, and I reject candidate A it does not mean I accept candidate B…but in classical logic if I reject A I assert ~A).

Fourth, ‘Agnostic atheist’. This probably the least properly understood phrase I run into. As Matt Dillahunty explains to Anthony Magabosco the phase “agnostic atheist” is nonsensical from an epistemic viewpoint:

Agnostic Atheism: Does it make sense?

(I thank Ozy for crediting me in his video description)

The reason as Matt clearly explains is because knowledge is a subset of belief. This can be expressed as Kp ⊆ Bp or how I like to write it metalogically as Kp ⊨ Bp (Knowing p entails believing p). So since Kp requires Bp, it follows that if you to not believe p or believe not p (remember lack of belief atheist hold to ~Bp and not to Bp or B~p and this image even has atheism in the “weak”  or “negative” case) you can not then many any modification about “knowing” one way or the other about p. I relate this as you can not epistemically modify a non-doxastic “position” or if you do not  first have a position of belief, it is nonsensical then to try modify a non-position with an epistemic modification of “agnostic”. (See my other blogs for explanation of terms).

Assuming arguendo: If atheism is defined in the weak case, and you are “agnostic atheist”….what exactly are you being agnostic about? Your lack of belief? If you say it deals with not knowing if God does not exist, then you have an equivocation problem as that would only make sense if you believe their are no Gods first…”I don’t know if there are Gods, I believe there are no Gods”. That is rational and coherent. However, in the weak case it would be “I don’t know if I lack a belief in Gods? That does not make sense.

I should note that if one does accept atheism as positive atheism (The belief or assertion that their are no Gods) then “agnostic atheist” is not nonsensical, but it is superfluous:

Atheist (positive): I believe that there are no Gods, but I am not making it a knowledge claim.
Agnostic Atheist: I believe that there are no Gods, but I am not making it a knowledge claim.

Adding the adjective “agnostic” here doesn’t actually modify anything.

Same with “agnostic theist”:

Theist: I believe that there is at least one God, but I am not making it a knowledge claim.
Agnostic Theist: I believe that there is at least one God, but I am not making it a knowledge claim.

They mean the exact same thing.

Fifth, “agnostic atheist”. If atheism is merely held to be a lack of belief (weak atheism) then it is again nonsensical to say you know p, but lack a belief in p as knowledge is a subset of belief. You can not say know p is true without also believing p is true.

A good rule of thumb when engaging on this particular topic is if you see someone comment this image or see someone comment “agnosticism is about knowledge!” I can pretty much assure you that the person you are dealing with knows as much about epistemology and philosophy as a flat Earther does about physics.

I will try to address different problems in the more colorful image I used as the featured image later.

This is how beliefs/knowledge should be viewed. Landscape and single-axial:

(Dr. Malpass from his UseofReason blog)









  1. HisRoyalScraggliness

    > be Steve McRae
    > totally Not An Atheist
    > h̶i̶j̶a̶c̶k̶ borrow argument about definition of atheism from humble Canadian philosophy vlogger and proclaim it to be absolute unquestionable truth
    > obsessively make threads and blog posts every few weeks about topic to reinforce own belief that I’m not an atheist
    > condescendingly talk down to anyone who disagrees
    > realize I’ve spent so much time arguing about definition of atheism that I haven’t shaved in two months
    > r̶e̶c̶o̶n̶s̶i̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶w̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶I̶’̶m̶ ̶d̶o̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶l̶i̶f̶e̶ start yet another 100+ comment argument about lacktheism because why not

  2. Contractions of Fate

    I don’t agree that there is any such thing as “hard” or “soft” atheism, just as there is no such thing as “micro-” and “macro-“evolution. Atheists beliueve that there are no gods, and so necessarily do not believe that there are any gods.

    1. Contractions of Fate

      No, I meant that “hard” and “soft” atheism are made-up “American Atheist” (and ACA/TAE) terms for actual atheism, just like micro and macro-evolution are made up American Creationist terms for actual evolution.

      I am a British Atheist, so unlike “American Atheists” and their agnostic redefination of atheism, I never had the baggage of being ostracised by family and friends, and my education didn’t suffer from 200 years of no schools and covered wagons, nor the infiltration of politics by the religious lunatics we kicked out in 1640.

      When I was doing my Genetics and Microbiology degree in the early 1980s I bought the book “Evolution” by Dobzhansky, Ayala, Stebbins and Valentine, and the words “microevolution” and “macroevolution” appear nowhere in its 572 pages. It does talk about trans-specific evolution, whjch I think is what American Creationists mean by macroevolution, but they think it means a beetle giving birth to a mouse.

      I was 4 hours late to your live stream, and it’s still running, so I think maybe you need some sleep, Steve!


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