Atheism and Agnosticism: What’s the difference?


Here is a post explaining the differences between the principles of Atheism and Agnosticism.  Staks did a fine job in laying it out there to hopefully clear up any misunderstandings in the differences between the two.

by: Staks Rosch

- Atheist: Lack of belief in a deity. This is derived from the prefix “a” meaning “lack of” or “no” and the word “theist” meaning belief in a deity.

- Agnostic: Lack of knowledge in a deity. Again, this is derived from the prefix “a” meaning “lack of” or “no” and the word “gnostic” meaning “knowledge.” The context provided the deity aspect but it is certainly possible to be agnostic about the weather or any number of other things.

There seems to be some question about the terms “atheism” and “agnostism” so it is time to discuss it. The definitions are listed above, but they are not mutually exclusive terms as many people (particularly Christians), seem to think. Atheism concerns belief while being agnostic is a claim about knowledge.

This may get a little complicated, but let me try to explain it. I don’t know if there is a purple house on Oak Street, so I might lack the belief that there is. That doesn’t mean that I disbelieve that there is a purple house on Oak Street necessarily, but it could mean that too. However, if someone showed me a picture of a purple house on Oak Street, then I would have knowledge of the purple house and would almost certainly believe that there is in fact a purple house on Oak Street. By that same reasoning, if I said that I don’t have any reason to believe that there is a purple house on Oak Street, that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is no purple house on Oak Street. It also doesn’t mean that I believe there must be a blue house on Oak. In other words, atheism is a lack of belief in a deity, but it is not a disbelief in a deity necessarily and it is not necessarily a belief in something else either. It can be, but that is not a requirement of the set of people who lack the belief.

There are atheist religions such as Secular Humanists, The Brights, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc. Believe it or not, I have even met an atheist Christian (I don’t understand it either so don’t ask) and there are also a number atheist Jews that I have met. I might even be considered one of them. But that has to do in part with the Hebrew heritage and traditions and less to do with the Jewish religion. But when someone claims to be an atheist, they are not talking about a belief that they hold, but rather a belief that they don’t hold. Unless it is modified or married to some other belief, the term “atheist” is not about the person’s beliefs but rather the person’s lack of belief in a particular being or beings.

If someone were to tell me that there was a man named David living in Israel, I could say that I lack the knowledge of such a person, but I still believe it to be true. David after all is a pretty common Jewish name and it is pretty likely that there is a man named David living in a country full of Jews. This is an example of belief without knowledge. And if I were at a magic show and the Magician sawed a girl in half right in front of me, I could say that I have knowledge (in that I saw it happen right in front of my eyes) but I still don’t believe that it happened. One could argue that I know it was a trick and that is additional knowledge but I can’t really say that I “know” it as much as I can say that I don’t believe it was real based on other factors.

My point here is that knowledge and belief are two separate things and so it is entirely logical to be both an agnostic and an atheist at the same time. I also want to again clarify that atheist does not necessarily mean an active disbelief in a god just a rejection of a belief in a god. Personally, I will make the claim that particular Gods do not exist. I am reasonably certain that Thor, Zeus, and Yahweh are made up fictional characters. But that isn’t to say that I am not open to the idea of some vague higher power entity. But currently, I see no knowledge to suggest that such a vague higher power entity exists, so I lack that belief. Show me evidence for the purple house on Oak Street and I would probably believe it, but I am reasonably certain that there isn’t an Igloo on Oak Street (especially not during these summer months if we are both talking about the same Oak Street in Pennsylvania). I have no knowledge of that Igloo and I also have no belief in that Igloo.

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About Lyn May

Designer, engineer, producer; I haven't really decided yet. Maybe I'll keep it that way - it's much easier to be undecided any way. I love graphic design, writing, photography, video production, animation, playing guitar, singing, engineering and pretty much any other medium that allows me to express my self artistically/logically.

Posted on May 10, 2011, in Atheism, Lifestyle, World and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. A very good post. You’re right though, technically I can’t prove that God exists. However, for me I believe that God(and or more) exists because I have had experiences that(to me) can only be a connection with the universe. Have you ever had a out of context Time/Space event happen to you(psychic, I hate that word)? Have you ever had a precognitive dream? These are my personal truths that no one can shake or disavow. If people can examine and listen and write down their dreams for awhile, they may see things differently. Like you though in some respects, I don’t believe in magic, I just believe that we don’t understand yet.

    The God as generally portrayed by religions and people is frequently short-sighted projected versions of mankind. When we ponder the way things are we can look at some things and just say that doesn’t make sense and I’ll never believe that. We may not be completely right but we know that we are not completely wrong.

    My blog is called SpiritualThemes at http://www.informationforager.wordpress.com and I try to find earnest and sincere answers for life’s questions. Still, I am mostly alone in this until I look on the internet. Sorry if I’ve been to forward or arrogant, I’m just trying to find some truth.

    There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural.
    Edgar Mitchell
    Apollo 14 Astronaut

  2. It’s very strange to me that this is needed, but it certainly is. Atheist has become like “vegetarian” a word people use to appear irreligious rather that a word people use to describe their beleifs. I’ve actually had two or three coversations at work lately with people who said “Yeah, I’m an atheist, but there got to be SOMETHING out there”. So you’re a theist? “A what…?”

  3. Actually, and it’s funny that you mention it, the freethinking community is having this very debate right now.

    Atheist: not, theistic. If I don’t golf, does that make me an anti-golfer, or an “agolfer”? No. I just don’t care one way or the other about this boring sport.

    The advocates for change argue that instead of describing oneself with what you are not; how about describing yourself with what you are. They say that the word, atheist, is rather archaic. That it simply does not align itself with modern freethinkers. That religion is becoming more and more a thing of the past. So a stance in the opposition of it, today, is rather silly.

    I currently align myself with the word, atheist, for the same reasons I did when I called myself a Christian. I didn’t realize there was anything else. As I educate myself, I find that there are many options and forms of belief systems.

    Do we need a belief system? That is the million-dollar question now isn’t it?

  4. Lynn
    No offense, but my take on atheists is that they have made themselves their own God. Usually atheists are exrtremely bright and as such tend to be arrogant.

    I too am extremely bright and realize that as I view the world around me, that there had to be a God to make all of this, that it was not some cosmic random accident. There is way too much intelligent design.

    John

  5. …can’t help to put my 2 cents… :)
    I have been born, raised, confirmed, and continue to attend a Lutheran Church all my adult life…
    been married to my late Catholic Husband…
    and as I was growing up in CATHOLIC Poland the mixes did not fare well…
    to say the least…
    don’t take me wrong…
    I do have the utmost respect for the religious ceremonies, and the church gatherings…
    …I remember early on, in one of my religion classes the Pastor said:
    if your enemy hit you, don’t get angry..turn your other cheek!….
    WHAT???!!!!
    are you nuts??!! I wanted to yell….

    as I grew older and observed the people in church (mostly old ladies)..going to church to exchange the latest news from the village…
    I was SURE I DO NOT WANT TO BE PART OF IT!!!!!
    …throughout the years I like going to church…
    I check the decorations…participate in activities…it is a “social circle” for me ….none different from my “sewing club” meetings on Thursday evenings…
    there is NO ONE !!!!!!
    to tell me what I shall do or not…and threatened me with punishment…

    so the question is:
    DO I BELIEVE?….
    …YES!!!!
    I find a church a sacret place as I find places I have visited with my Family…as old photos of my Parents…or my Daughter…as a Theater I went to with my Husband…
    or find a note written by my husband some almost 4o years ago…
    I believe in human discency…and I believe in doing my best for my Family, for my Community, for my Country…
    I believe to end my day knowing I did my best…
    no praying in the world will do my job, pay my bills,vacuum the house
    or cook dinner…
    …if I don’t move my butt no God, Buddha, Allah will do it for me…

    and that is my rant!

  6. Well, I don’t go to church to socialize, and I don’t like it when I go to mass and it sounds like the marketplace. A lot of people do use their Sundays to catch up on the week with others-but I think that’s for AFTER church, not before.

    It is true that there are a lot of cultural Christians, who grew up that way and just are Christian because they were brought up that way. I was one of those. I was raised an Evangelical, in a non-denom church, which joined the United Church of Christ. My parents promptly extracted us from THAT church and we suddenly became Presbyterian. It turned out we joined the other Presbyterian church, the liberal one, and as I went away to college, my parents and sister became Baptist. During those years I had the feeling that none of them was ‘right’, and just became a theist-knowing there was a God, not knowing which flavor was the true flavor. My attending Catholic schools didn’t help much, as the kids in the class were monsters and some of the priest/teachers had too many obvious flaws. I spent the most of my adult life believing in God, but worshipping Him the way I wanted to. Meaning I called on him when I was in trouble, and paid lip service the rest of the time.
    Several years ago, I discovered my life had no meaning and I began searching-in all the wrong places, with various vices to be found in this age of the internet. Didn’t find what I was looking for. At a particular point in my marriage, my wife was looking for a way out, because of me, and I gave it one more chance-I went to talk to a priest. After our talk, I was so excited because I had just been hit upside of the head with a 2×4 with the truth. The priest advised me to read Matthew 5-7 over and over again, and to meditate on it, and to come back and see him. That was the turning point in my life and my marriage, when we both opened our whole lives up to God and put Him first-ahead of everything else.
    God does demand our attention, but he will not jump up and down and force himself on you. But when you prayerfully ask him in, it can be a life-changing experience. I’m not a prosperity gospel type of person, but I can tell you that the more I give to God, I get back much, much more.
    So yes, Johanna, you must turn the other cheek. But then, if your assailant actually hits you in the other cheek, I think you’re within your rights to deck him…:)

  7. Interesting post. It does raise one question though. If an Atheist is someone who just lacks belief in a deity (doesn’t know if there’s a purple house on Oak Street), what would you call someone who firmly believes there is no deity (to use your example, someone who looks at the data and comes to believe that no one would ever build a purple house on Oak Street)?

    This is the view of Stephen Hawking (and, in pop culture, Brian on Family Guy). Not that lack belief in a deity, but that they feel with certainty that there can’t be a deity. Would this make them antitheists?

  8. What you’ve described, I believe, IS atheism. Of course each person is different with varying degrees of theistic belief. I think Richard Dawkins said it best in his book “The God Delusion.” He describes a chart of 7 levels of belief. The first is an absolute belief in a creator/god. The seventh is an absolute disbelief. He says that he is roughly a 6.9. While he’s pretty certain there is no god or gods, how could he be 100%? You know?

    I am an atheist, probably a 6 to 6.9 as well. I have no reason to believe there is a purple house on oak street. End of story. The ownness is on the Christians to prove there is a purple house on Oak Street. Not the atheists. This is where the Christians are wrong. Each and every Christian I’ve debated in the past says, “Can you prove there isn’t a god?” Well, no. Just the same that I can’t prove that Unicorns do not exist. Along with pixies, elves, dragons and the holy Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    What do you consider yourself?

  9. Actually despite becoming popular, a lot of the words used here are wrong and contribute to poor understanding of the ideas.

    For instance, A doest mean “Lack of” and Atheism does not mean “Lack of belief in a god”. It does assert a rejection. A means “No” as in “Without”, and assumes a rejection.

    I also find it odd that the Atheist community also calls itself the Freethinking Community. Why should I accept that Freethought and Atheism are mutual inclusive? Why does one have to be an Atheist (or Agnostic if you include them) to be a Freethinker? Why can’t one beleive in a god and still be a Free Thinker?

    Further, if Freethought is limited to Atheism and Agnosticism, then it is not Truly Free, is it? As you have imposed limits on what is and is not acceptable in Freethought, the term becomes Oxymoronic. The very definition of the word rejects this.

    Besides, I have known too many Atheists, many who call themselves Free Thinkers, who simply blindly follow the other “Freethinkers”. Why should I accept that Atheism and Free Thought are the same thing? Or even related?

    Which brings up another interesting problem: Why should I accept that you or other Atheists have no Religion? That may sound daft, I mean, you are an Atheist., Atheism is the opposite of Religion, Right? Well, not really. Being an Atheist only means you reject belief in gods, it does not mean you reject Religion. Religion is not another word for Theism. Religion is simply a Philosophical Understanding of the world we live in, and I contend that even the Non-Religious Philosophies that serve as Alternates to Religion, like Secular Humanism or Objectivism, are both actually Religions in their own Right. Why would I see them as different?

    As for the debate in the “Freethought” community, its daft too.

    Just call yourselves Atheists, and furthermore, call yourselves what you re, Religious. Say you are Secular Humanists, or what you are.

    In closing, and my Final Observation, you think Thor, Zeus, and God are all equally Fictional. But may this be less because of Logic and Evidence and more because of personal Bias?

    I never did buy hat Atheists derive all their beliefs from sheer Logic, and it does seem many simply want God to not be real.

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