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Clarifying Terms Used in Discussions on Belief and Non-Belief

Updated on October 4, 2014

Definitions Assist in Understanding

Of late there have been many discussions on belief, or in fact on lack thereof belief. It seems to be that some of those involved do not have the full understanding of the terminology used in these debates, and often believe that a term means something completely different to what it actually means.

I'm hoping to clear this up here. I am more than happy for people to add terms they'd like clarified, and clarify further terms if I have covered. I am also more than happy to be told I am wrong, but you will need to bring your sources along with you (dictionaries etc).

Sources used include: Merriam-Webster Dictionary (MW), Collins Dictionary (C), Oxford Dictionary (O), Wikipedia (W), Religious Tolerance (RT), Atheism Wikia (AW)

Here goes:

(Note: Italicised has come directly from the dictionary. Non-italicised is paraphrased from the source or many sources)

Please note: this is ALWAYS be a work in progress!

Coexist...what a nice thought!
Coexist...what a nice thought! | Source

Atheism, Agnosticism, Theism, Gnosticism

Atheism: rejection of belief in God or gods. (MW, C, O) someone who does not accept, as true, claims that assert the existence of gods (AW)

Theist/Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods (MW)

Agnostic (Agnosticism): A person who holds that knowledge of a Supreme Being is impossible. (C), A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God. (O), one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god (MW)

Agnostic Atheist: a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact. (W)

Agnostic Theist: believes that one or more deities exist but claims that the existence or nonexistence of such is unknown or cannot be known (W)

Gnostic: Relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge (in relation to Religion) (O), Gnosticism addresses the issue of what one knows or claims to know. (AW),

Gnostic Atheist: believes that no god exists and claims to know that this belief is true (AW)

Gnostic Theist: believes a god exists and claims to know that this belief is true (AW)

Pantheism: a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe2: the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently; also : toleration of worship of all gods (as at certain periods of the Roman empire) (MW)

Secular Humanism: a non-theistically based philosophy which promotes humanity as the measure of all things. It had its roots in the rationalism of the 18th Century and the free thought movement of the 19th Century.

It is with explanation that terms that may seem to be contradictory in the beginning make sense. It may be that agnostic and atheist do not seem to fit together - one being that Gods don't exist, and the other being that Gods MAY exist. However, they are not mutually exclusive as defined above.

Dictionary! | Source


Buddhism: A non-theist religion - not worshiping a God/s. Buddha means "The awakened one or enlighted one", and there are believed to have been several 'enlightened ones" prior to the Buddha of note (Siddhartha Gautama) and will be many after. Therefore, Buddhist people do not worship "Buddha" but follow the teachings of the Buddha to achieve enlightenment. (W)

Christianity: an Abrahamic,monotheistic religion. Christianity is based on the life and oral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as in New Testament of their Holy Bible. Jesus is often referred to as the Messiah or Christ, and is believed to have been fully divine as well as fully human. He is considered the Son of God and the saviour of Mankind. (W)

There are NUMEROUS different denominations of Christianity however three major denominations are noted to have several different schools of thought branching from them - these three are:Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Catholicism. Schools of thought such as Methodist, Baptist etc come from these.There is also a Recreationist school of thought - this includes Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons (Latter Day Saints), Seventh Day Adventists and Christdelphians. Many disagree on who should be included and who shouldn't.

It's followers are referred to as "Christians" or by the title of the school of thought of Christianity of which the person is a follower such as "Baptist", "Catholic", "Mormon".

Islam: a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion. It's beliefs and teaching are contained in the Qur'an (Koran), a book considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God and by the teachings and example of Muhammad, who is considered to be the last prophet of God.

A follower of Islam is called a "Muslim" - spelled many different ways - Moslem, Moslim.

They also have different schools of thought - Suni, and Shia Muslims are the most well known, but other schools of thought include Sufi, Ahmaddiya, Ibadi, Madhavia and Non-denominational Muslims.


Wicca - A modern pagan religion, occasionally associated with "witchcraft".

Wicca is usually viewed as duotheistic - worshipping a god and goddess. However, beliefs range from hard polytheism to even monotheism. Wicca often involves the ritual practice of magic, though it is not always necessary.

The Wiccan Rede is as follows: an it harm none, do what ye will.

The Threefold Law: Wiccan's believe that anything you put out there - good or bad - will return to you threefold.

Cults, Groups "aligned with religion"

The ACTUAL definition of Cult, and the MODERN usage differ slightly but both will be included here to cover all bases. The Modern usage is also included under Actual but in italics.

- a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to it's rites or ceremonies
- a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing,person, ideal, etc.

Modern (also "actual")
- a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist,with members often living outside of conventional society under thedirection of a charismatic leader.

As you can see, the ACTUAL definition of Cult describes almost any religion, spiritual faith, cultural belief in the world. It is, however, usually used by believers of more "orthodox" religions to describe religions that are different to theirs, even those that fall under the same umbrella - for example, some Christians may feel that Mormonism is cult like.

Outside Groups (a few - there are too many to list)

KKK - A group of White Supremacists who in the "second KKK" were mostly Protestant. Well known for their intense and often violent or dealy hatred of African Americans, they have also been anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigration amongst other things.

Whilst they claim Protestantism, no religious leader has ever claimed to be Klan.

The KKK has been classed as a Hate Group. They are also not an accurate example of what a Protestant, or indeed a Christian, is. Therefore a judgement on religion in general should not be made on the actions of a "fringe" group.

Westboro Baptist Church - An independent Baptist Church, consisting mostly of the Phelps family and a few indoctrinated members not of the family. Originally started by the late Fred Phelps, it is located in Topeka, Kansas.

Well known for their protest activities at the funerals of soldiers, children killed in school shootings, activities involving those whose activities they disagree with, they came to the attention of the world after protesting the funeral of Matthew Shephard - a young man killed in an anti-gay hate crime. They protest homosexuality, Catholicism, other religions, and the race of the President of the USA

They have been classed as a hate group, and one of the founding members once acknowledged in a documentary that they were doing their job spreading "Gods hate". Baptists have come out to distance themselves from this group - denying that they are Baptist at all.

Again - do not judge a religion on the nastiest of it's apparent adherents.

ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State (also Al Qaeda etc)ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State is the current Islamic extremist group (Al Qaeda being the previous) causing havoc around the world. It claims religious authority over all Muslims worldwide, and aims to bring all Islamic states under it's political control - that being, placing them all under Sharia Law. Recently it has come under media attention for the beheading of foreign national journalists.

ISIS has been classed as a terrorist group, and is not an accurate example of Muslim peoples or Islam itself.

Not Limited to Religious/Athest/Agnostic Discussions

Hypocrisy: The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.(O), the behavior of people who do things that they tell other people not to do : behavior that does not agree with what someone claims to believe or feel (MW), The practice professing standards, beliefs, etc contrary to one's real character or actual behaviour (C).

Again - please let me know if there are any other terms needing clarification!

Did that clear up anything for you?

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    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      My wife has called herself a mystical humanist.

      When I lived in Moscow, Idaho, I met a variety of pagans, not just Wiccan, but I have forgotten how they described their stances. Looking back at old Facebook posts, I see that one man used the term BioRegional Animism.

    • Austinstar profile image


      3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Good reference hub. I have noticed that none of the people that really NEED to see this hub have bothered to check it out, though. Whatever. They are saved in their ignorance.

    • jlpark profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Aime!. I was the same re: Agnostic Atheist...until I looked it up and thought.."Hey that's me!". Then I saw the discussions of people denying that the two could be mixed together, hence the hub!.

    • Aime F profile image


      3 years ago from Trudeauland (it's like Disneyland but hotter)

      Good hub! You did a nice job of summarizing everything concisely. I'm glad the terms agnostic atheist/agnostic theist are becoming more well-known. I didn't know about them until recently myself, and I found it was nice to have a label as I had never really known if I identified as an atheist or agnostic.

    • jlpark profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks DJ.

      It was because I noticed people were confused about the terms, and I didn't really know a definite definition of some of them, that I thought of the hub.

      People were confused as to how an agnostic atheist could be, when they knew of 'agnostic' and 'atheist" separately as they relate to religion, but not combined...and agnostic had always been my term of choice....I discovered whilst researching for this hub, it didn't explain me as well as I everyone's learnt something too!

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 

      3 years ago

      Given that there are so many faiths, beliefs and dominations, you have provided a very good brief on many of these terms.

      I was unclear on Theist/Theism; Agnostic/Gnostic, Pantheism/Secular Humanism. And, you did give a concise definition.

      I particularly like the 'coexist' bumper sticker.

      Thank you for this hub. Nicely done, Jacque.


    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 

      3 years ago

      Good that you are back home. Take care.

    • jlpark profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from New Zealand

      The 'school of thought' is better wording than 'branches'. So I'll change that bit.

      Thank you for giving yr info - it is helpful. Journey so far has been safe, thanks!

    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 

      3 years ago

      Hi jlpark so kind of you. Thanks for your response. To be honest i never intended any change in your hub rather i thought of putting things before you as i know, that's it. I believe everyone has his own right to present things as long as it does hurt the sentiments. Your hub is good in the sense it present info from your angle. Thanks again for the response. Praying for your journey to be comfortabel and safe.

    • jlpark profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from New Zealand

      M abdullah - thanks for your info. I'm not able to change anything on the hub at this minute (am currently travelling) but will look into it as soon as I can once we get home.

      Branches were the only word I could think of at the time - Christianity is similar in that they are all Christian but may be a slightly different school of thought. I will change them all to schools of thought.

      Re the Ibadi etc - there are always 'schools of thought' that other 'schools of thought' don't agree with or feel that they represent Islam or Christianity. For example - many Christians believe that Mormons aren't Christian, but they are.

      I will look into it and change things whenever I can.

    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 

      3 years ago

      Hi jlpark, nice hub with basic informations about different religions. It serve as a ready reference. Thanks for the share. Would like to clarify few things about Islam (1) We Muslim believe that Islam is the religion of first human on earth, there by it get updated and reached to the respective regions and generations. Now its in Final shape, so its nor Abrahimic relgion but religion of all the prophets and messengers. You can refer 42 chapter of the Quran verse 13, here the origin of religion has been described. (2) In Islam there are no branches, a person remains a muslim if he stays within Islamic principles if not he is not a muslim, so there are no branches. Sunni is a school of thought not a branch. Whereas ahmadiya, ibadi etc in no way represent Islam.

    • jlpark profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from New Zealand

      SAQIB - the hub isn't designed to be in depth - only to convey simple concepts so that people have some understanding of the terms used. Thanks for you visit.,

      Jodah - that was the very reason I wrote it - some had confused me when first mentioned. Thanks for the visit and vote

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks jlpark, that cleared up a few things I wasn't sure of especially regarding atheists and agnostics and all the different combinations. You are right when you say a lot of people enter into these discussions without being aware of the correct meaning of the terms. Voted up.

    • SAQIB6608 profile image


      3 years ago from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN

      ISIS has been classed as a terrorist group, and is not an accurate example of Muslim peoples or Islam itself.

      I agree 100 %

      I was actually interested about Islam. Only read about Islam in detail. Rest a cursory look.

      Nothing very new in the article. Simple concepts.


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