Re: Definitions of "Theist," "Atheist," and "Agnostic"

In article <d4c4a5f3-534c-4fa7-b33d-6003b843bcfb@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>,
Berkeley Brett <RoyalOui@xxxxxxxxx> wrote:
I think we need a word for a "believing agnostic".

The closest word I know is "fideist". Apologies for my not having read the
other 11 responders, but a scan of their posts did not match this word.
Google fideism standford encyclopedia philosophy and you'll find Pascal whom
you mention listed with Kierkegaard, Wm James, and Wittgenstein as fideists.
But Martin Gardner in his /Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener/ expounding
fideism leans more on Immanuel Kant and Miguel de Unamuno. And's
series "Faith has its Reasons"
traces it all the way to Tertullian and Luther---see item 17, "By Faith Alone".

An agnostic is one who holds that the existence of a being such as God
(or of a supernatural or Divine realm) is ultimately unknowable.

In practice, people who identify themselves as "agnostic" are usually
atheists -- though they maintain the existence of God cannot be known,
they proceed to live as if there is no such being.

See the essay just now by TV's Alan Alda (who is now a PBS science spokesman)
in response to the "/Edge/ 2008 Annual Question", clarifying the distinction:
I read that sacred composer John Rutter has had a similar progression, can't
trace it right now. Culturally, however, agnostics are said to add
"and I don't care" to their "I don't know".

[...Pascal's Wager---it wasn't central to Pascal's belief]

I think the terms "theist" and "atheist" admit of more and less
restrictive definitions:


theist: there is a God*, and this can reasonably be known

Theist also contrasts with "Deist", a believer in an impersonal God.

atheist: there is no God*, and this can reasonably be known


theist: it seems more likely than not that there is a God*, though
there is uncertainty on the matter.

atheist: it seems more likely than not that there is no God*, though
there is uncertainty on the matter.

Richard Dawkins in /The God Delusion/ p50ff has a 7-step scale of
probability in approaching "The God Hypothesis". However, I've argued
that a probabilistic framework has ontological content only for assertions
that are local to one causally-connected region of space, such as many in
quantum mechanics. Thus his framework has no content beyond "wagering".

Now, the "less restrictive definitions" given above are fully
compatible with agnosticism. Indeed, they would seem to *require*

Dawkins labels this 3-4-5 on his scale.

Yet, the theistic-agnostic, if he or she describes him or herself AS
an agnostic, is likely to be interpreted to mean that he or she is an
atheist-in-practice. And this would be mistaken.

I think there is a need for a word to describe such a theistic-
agnostic person -- a "believing agnostic" -- and perhaps one of our
language-savvy readers could propose one. A word would be better than
a phrase here, and preferably one with no more syllables than
"atheist" or "agnostic". Perhaps one of the more etymological in our
midst could sculpt the ideal term that could gain widespread acceptance...

I've narrowed it a little further than the standard definition of "fideist".
My gamut of "grounds for credence", with Truth at the top as the goal, runs:

Proof [which Go"del showed falls short of Truth even in simple math]
K1: Reproducible Knowledge (i.e., "hard science")
K2: Experiential Knowledge (interfaces with K1 via the "Problem of Induction")
K3: Modeling (interfaces with K1 via Occam's Razor)
Emotion (Gardner and the items treat this too)

The standard definitions of fideism seem to deny all possible knowledge of
God, but I think K2 and K3 are possible---indeed I think I've had a taste
of them. So I reject only "Proof" and "K1"---if I could redefine the term,
I'd define a fideist as "someone who does not rely on God as a scientific
hypothesis." Practical ramifications: I never promise someone he/she will
"experience God today", I avert things on the slope toward "snake-handling",
I reject Dawkins' and Victor Stenger's framework, and when Alister McGrath
(in /The Dawkins Delusion/) criticizes the Intelligent Design /enterprise/
/for/ "trying to prove the existence of God" I'm right there with him, despite
my being a Christian in the same math field as William Dembski who agrees with
ID at the level of cosmology. My "MORE RESTRICTED DEFINITION" of "fideism"
may even be compatible with Catholic teaching, 1998's Fides-et-Ratio and all;
indeed it may be "just another rediscovery of Orthodoxy" a-la Chesterton.
Hence I tried making up words "anapodeixist" or "adeixist" with Greek roots
meaning "non-proof", "non-empirical-demo", but the former got a nose-wrinkle
from my wife while the latter sounds too much like "atheist" :-).

Hope that helps---I just found this new thread as the 4th hit for the Google
search "believing agnostic" in quotes---for a short time I used that term
before I discovered "fideist", and I meant "anti-Gnostic" anyway. As several
sources point out, I Cor. 1 (following Romans) puts it all really clearly.

---Ken Regan

Dr. Kenneth W. Regan Associate Professor
Computer Science and Engineering, Univ. at Buffalo (Opinions not < SUNYaB)
201 Bell Hall, Box # 602000 Tel.: (716) 645-3180 x114
Buffalo, NY 14260-2000 USA regan@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx