The Belief Landscape

Amazingly, it seems like every day, people are becoming less informed, rather than more, about the issues surrounding their beliefs (or lack thereof). Just today, in a half a dozen messages I saw on forums, mailing lists, etc, people were erroneously defining 'deist', 'theist', 'atheist', 'agnostic', and 'gnostic'. Believers or not, no one seems to have a grip on the definitions of the terms they throw around. One commenter quipped that people were "Humpty-Dumptying" their words, to mean precisely and exactly whatever they wanted them to mean at that moment.

The one that really gets my goat, though, is the incredibly common misunderstanding that atheism and agnosticism are more and less extreme meanings for the same thing. The fact is, the gnostic/agnostic dichotomy is a completely different dimension of belief from the theist/atheist dichotomy, and it's perfectly possible to be an agnostic theist, a gnostic atheist, and so on. 'Theism' refers to the belief that a god exists. The *lack* of this belief is 'atheism'. Gnosticism refers to the belief that you can, and do, *know* that your answer is correct, based only on your internal thought processes. The *lack* of this belief is agnosticism.

To illustrate the point, I've whipped up a quick infographic. This is just a first draft, but it should make the point. Click on the image to view a larger version. As always, I welcome comments:

About the Author

Despite a decade of Catholic school, I have never been a believer. I guess I was just born without the gene! Nevertheless, I've always tried to explore others' ideas and practices, on the theory that just because you can't use one part of a product, it doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing away.
I spent over a decade traveling the world, and I've lived in both Europe and the US. I've read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran. I've studied engineering, yoga, martial arts, shooting sports, and ballroom dancing. What I've discovered is that a) spirituality is just a spooky sounding word for any of a number of methods for learning about yourself and your mind, and b) whatever word you use, doing so is the single most important thing in learning to be happy.
My blog, The Passionate Rationalist ( is dedicated to my thoughts both on gaining self-knowledge and using your mind to eliminate misunderstanding and delusion.