On Belief and Knowledge
(I wrote this as a companion piece to a longer, and admittedly somewhat rambling
and abstruse, essay My Worldview)
What does it mean to be a believer or a non-believer? If religion is a matter of faith, that begs the
question - faith in what?
On matters of belief, there are only two basic possibilities:
Atheism - Lack of belief in
Theism - Any belief in a deity;
includes a great variety of opinion or understanding, such as mono-theism, poly-theism, pan-theism, deism*, etc.
On matters of religious knowledge, there are at least five positions I know of:
Anti-theism - The position
that a deity/deities do not or cannot exist; the position that the existence of a divine being can be disproved (sometimes
called “strong” or “positive atheism”).
Agnosticism - Literally, no
knowledge of God; the position that a deity/deities (or the supernatural in general) cannot be either rationally proved nor
disproved. Sometimes this is called “weak” or “negative atheism.”
Agnosticism allows for the possibility of the existence of a deity/deities, but is skeptical
of it. In colloquial reference, an agnostic is someone who is
not sure what they believe, but doubts that there is a God unless they find direct evidence or have some personal revelation.
Gnosis - In Greek this is
firsthand knowledge of a deity/deities. Gnosis is a conclusion arrived at through experience rather than intellect (via
intuition or the senses, e.g. having a vision of God). Gnosis can be a personal experience (me and the deity
meet) or trans-personal (a peak experience outside an egoic
frame of reference).
Theory - In Greek “theoria” refers to rational speculation, also called “dianoia” and “dialectic.” In religion this is an
understanding of a deity/deities through intellectual means (except in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in which theoria
refers to divine experience and is more like gnosis). Theory is important in theology, which is an academic
field that attempts to logically study or prove the existence/nature of God (not to be confused with philosophy
of religion, where a starting premise such as “God exists” would itself need
to be qualified). Theoretical theology is often grounded in sacred scripture, but provides details and commentaries
that go beyond a literal reading of scripture.
Faith - The position that a deity/deities exist(s), one
which does not depend upon proof grounded in theory or gnosis; a strong belief justifies certainty. Faith is usually based
on text-based creeds, assertions from religious authorities, and an emotional conviction.
I occupy the seemingly impossible position of being both an atheist and theist. This needs some explaining!
With respect to belief in a deity/deities as a specific being(s) or substance, I’m an
But there’s what Frithjof Schuon called “Beyond-Being.” As Heidegger and Tillich explained it, Being itself is not a being, but the essence of being(s).
In Hermeticism, this is called “the All.” The All is
not a personal God who lives in the universe. Nor is the All a master deity who exists independent of time-space; one
who creates the universe, wills it into existence, and controls it. It’s
the universe itself, as well as the sense of the numinous.
This excludes just about every other version of theism that I know of. If deities exist in any sense,
they are symbols of the Divine – signifiers and memes – not substantial entities.
When it comes to means of knowledge, the categories are not as exclusive as that of belief.
For example, one can be an atheist agnostic, or a monotheist agnostic. Thus, it’s not that
one can only be, say, a monotheist with faith or atheist. A belief can be based several factors.
What is my belief based upon? To put it another way, what approach to religious belief do I take?
Agnosticism does not quite fit, although supernatural beings cannot actually be disproved
(there's simply a lack of good evidence for purported miracles and magical beings in our universe). I agree with non-theistic
arguments from philosophy and science, I theorize based on my own experiences, and I have faith that my positions are
correct, even though I know I could be wrong.
* Deism is technically not the same as Theism in the sense that it is not belief in a personal
God. However, it does hold that at one point a deity was involved in setting the universe into motion, so it cannot be classified
as a form atheism, unless by this one means denial of a personal God that still plays an active role in the manifest realm. A
personal God is one that we can have a meaningful relationship with. Deism, on the other hand, is only belief in God as a
logical necessity (as in Aristotle's Unmoved Mover) but does not contradict the natural laws of the universe as
they currently operate.
Further Reading: http://atheism.about.com