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What's the difference between Agnosticism and Atheism?

  1. Sep 16, 2003 #1
    So what's the difference between Agnosticism and Atheism, if any? Doesn't Agnosticism pretty much claim it all, by saying it doesn't know? If so, then why does the Atheist need to reiterate the same thing? Or, is it more of a matter of claiming (emphasizing) that God doesn't exist?

    Well? ...
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2003
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  3. Sep 16, 2003 #2
    agnosticism is just, "I don't know; undecided; insufficient evidence to prove or disprove god." Atheism is "Nope, there is no god, no heaven, no hell, just the real world, right now, and," usually, "just how science describes it."

    Atheists have absolute beliefs, but many people call themselves call themselves atheists when truly they're agnostic and in doubt.
  4. Sep 16, 2003 #3


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    I think that even if atheism does not imply a disbelief in God, it nonetheless carries a negative connotation towards the concept of God, whereas agnosticism is utterly neutral. I can't speak for anyone else, but these are the connotations I get from these words. Perhaps that is what bothers me about the term 'atheism.' An atheist can always claim that his/her stance does not entail disbelief in God, but by simple virtue of the fact that this is indeed a prominent alternate meaning of the word, 'atheism' still has a loaded connotation to it-- a tacit communication that "even though I don't categorically deny the existence of God, the idea is still basically so much meaningless drivel to me." In other words, "I might as well go ahead and disbelieve in God outright anyway." Of course, this belies any superficial claim of a truly neutral position on the matter.

    Once again-- these are my connotations, and I can only speak for how I myself interpret these words. And I'm not saying that everyone who calls him/herself an atheist rather than an agnostic is using the word preferentially due to this connotation. But I would not be at all surprised if there were many atheists who do use the word for precisely this reason. I would also not be shocked if I were not the only one who sees these particular hidden nuances in these words.
  5. Sep 16, 2003 #4


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    There are two definitions in place here.

    The common mental definition, which is more often used by theists, is that atheists are people who believe in the non-existence of god, and agnostics those who stand on the fence. Or sit if they are particularly comfortable there...

    But the definition used by most (self-professed) atheists is different. An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in god. And really though, the second definition has the dictionary and the greek origins of the word on it's side. (Hence the usual anti-absolutist theist argument is really a strawman.)


    This then divides into two. Weak atheism is atheism that simply denies belief. Strong atheism is that which denies the existence of god in a positive sense. So in general, weak atheism can be pretty close to agnosticism.

    But there can be some differences. An agnostic can make the statement that God is unknowable, for example.

    Gale: science doesn't disprove god, and doesn't try to. That is irrelevant. One can be an atheist, and still believe in ghosts etc... Atheism is restricted to the god hypothesis.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2003
  6. Sep 16, 2003 #5
    Haha, I had been thinking that this would have made for a good poll but then realized no matter what options you presented some wouldn't fit the description.

    Here is the legal definition according to Black's Law Dictionary;

    Atheist. One who does not believe in the existence of a God.

    Folks, this describes a lack of belief.

    "I am an atheist because there is no evidence for the existence of God. That should be all that needs to be said about it: no evidence, no belief." -Dan Barker

    And just to make my thoughts as nice and sparkling clear as I possibly can, I do not mean by that quote only that science can produce no evidence. I also mean that looking within my own subjective self I can find none either. No evidence, no belief.
  7. Sep 16, 2003 #6


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    Please do not paint such a black and white picture. The definition of atheism includes both disbelief AND outright denial in the existence of God. Thus, atheism can mean either one, depending on how someone chooses to use it. Neither one is inherently more correct or valid than the other.
  8. Sep 16, 2003 #7
    Why not, after all you were the one painting the black and white picture in the thread which likely caused Iacchus to start this one. I was merely trying to point out that your take on the definition of the word atheism was not accurate.
    Now, I did not leave out anything, that was all there was to be found for the definition. I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but this is an accepted legal definition of that word, and it also supports what I'd been trying to tell you despite your not being convinced by my argument.

    Nice to see your stance has softened somewhat. :smile:
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 16, 2003
  9. Sep 16, 2003 #8
    But why would one say that if one doesn't believe there's not enough evidence to support it? Which, is pretty much what the Atheist would say.

    Whereas if you could furnish the evidence, who would be more inclined to accept it first, if at all? Would an Agnostic accept it first or, is the criteria pretty much the same as that which an Atheist would accept? Or, do Atheists just come right out and flat reject the possibility? If so, then that would be the true definition of an Atheist wouldn't it? (as opposed to an Agnostic).
  10. Sep 16, 2003 #9
    An open minded person who was honest with him/herself would be the one who’d accept it. I believe the questions asked show you are only wanting to accept one meaning for a definition of either word.
  11. Sep 16, 2003 #10
    weak and strong atheist? disbelef and belief in non-existince? all the same thing i think. To an atheist there is no god. period. An agnostic is everyone else, well except believers... but then what's the difference between an agnostic and a weak believer?

    And when i said atheist tend to believe in science, well, my bad, that was my personal bias against atheists there. I meant that as a dig in a way that you didn't catch, i didn't mean it as you saw it.
  12. Sep 16, 2003 #11
    I was just wondering if it had to do with the confirmation that God doesn't exist, or whether or not it allowed for the possibility that God does exist, in which case the Atheist indeed becomes the Agnostic. Which is pretty much what Gale17 was saying as well I think. :wink:
  13. Sep 17, 2003 #12
    Gale, This is categorically untrue. Though it is taken, in common venacular to be the definitions, it isn't the one most atheists use, nor is it the only definition used in dictionaries.

    Agnostics are those that hold the philosophical position that there is no way to show if god exists or doesn't exist. The terms was coined by a professor Huxley in the 1950's, if memory serves.

    An atheist is one who holds no belief in god(s). They may or may not hold and active belief that there is no god. The terms used to differentiate the two are strong and weak atheists. A strong atheist falls into the definition you used. Most atheists are weak atheists.
    I have no belief that their is no god, but hold no belief in god, therefore am a weak atheist.
  14. Sep 17, 2003 #13
    Accurate definitions are the keystone to good communications. Since most people are theists, they tend to see the situation as either believing there is or believing there is not a god. This is painting a tri-state condition into two boxes, hence inaccurate.

    The single definition, lack of belief in god(s) encompass those that believe there is no god, since they would also lack a belief in god(s). While common usage does tend to drive dictionary definitions, in this case it tends to pose a point of miscommunication, especially since the term agnostic carries much more baggage than most people realize.

    As to your earlier supposition, that athiests are, at least to a small degree, anti-god. I think this is a view that is driven by the more over-the-top atheists. Atheists do come under a lot of attack for their lack of belief - much more so than most belief structures. There is the human tendency to strike back when attacked, thus some atheists verbally attack theists. If unmolested, I doubt any but a very small number of atheists would attack theist's beliefs.

    I don't believe in Santa Claus, nor do I vilify those who do, yet there would be a stronger tendency to want to if most people did believe in Santa Claus and tended to ostracize and insult those that didn't.
  15. Sep 17, 2003 #14
    NO. They are not the same thing at all. If I hold no belief that the earth was visited by aliens, that doesn't mean I hold the positive view that they haven't. I've seen no credible evidence that we've been visited, but by the same token I've seen no evidence to support a belief that we haven't.

    This is important to most atheist for a very important reason. Many of us tend to see a number of different types of beliefs (not just religious), where the believers have extremely little or very poor evidence to believe what they believe. So the criteria for accepting something as true is quite important. There is little criteria to accept a belief that there is no god, hence why it's important to make the distinction.

    Agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God is impossible.

    It usually states nothing about the beliefs of the individual, though by the original term, coined by Huxley, it included the lack of belief in god(s), so also fell under the definition of atheist.
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2003
  16. Sep 17, 2003 #15
    The terms atheist and agnostic are not mutually exclusive positions. The latter is a philosophical position concerning what is 'knowable', while the former concerns a lack of belief in gods.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  17. Sep 17, 2003 #16
    I think you should check your definition. Atheists lack belief in deities. Agnostics are open to the idea. The two ideas can, in fact, blend together. Anti-theists have a belief in the non-existance of gods.
  18. Sep 17, 2003 #17
    I think the matter can be separated into two categories; those who believe in a god or gods, and those who do not. For me, this boils down to two words;

    Theism: Belief in a deity.
    A-Theism: Without theism.

    Belief, and No belief

    Within the ranks of believers the strength or conviction of belief can range from weak to strong, but belief in god(s) is a belief in god(s) nevertheless. Likewise with nonbelievers there will be a varying range of conviction, but to not have belief in god(s) is to not have belief in god(s).

    A-Gnostic: Without ‘knowledge’ (in this case, of a deity)

    To have a believe in a god(s) necessarily implies that there must be some ‘knowledge of god’ going on. If you don’t have any such knowledge then how can you be a believer in god(s)? Looking at it this way indicates clearly to which camp agnosticism belongs. The word ‘agnostic’ is a fairly recent term in the history of humankind, and it can be applied to more situations than just the one about a deity. I am convinced that long before that word came into being there existed people who did not believe in god, and that is another reason why I place primacy on the word atheism, instead of agnosticism. I suppose ‘nonbeliever’, or ‘non-theist’ would be appropriate, but I think atheist works just fine, too.

    Exacerbating the situation is that many people do not understand that atheism is a negative statement, not a positive one, meaning that if I tell you I am an atheist all you can actually know about me from this statement is that I do not believe in a god or gods, and absolutely nothing more! On the other hand, a positive statement like “I am a Muslim” is much more telling. For instance you might then ask “Oh, I see you are a Theist and understand you do this or that, etc.).
    If someone says they are atheist they are merely telling you what they have no belief in, and you are not therefore entitled to extrapolate any further, saying something like “Oh, I see you are from Cleveland”, or even “Oh, I see you believe evidence exists which disproves god”. It would be premature without further inquiry to assume such things.

    "*Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief.* One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist. Atheism is sometimes defined as "the belief that there is no God of any kind," or the claim that a god cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism-- and are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. *Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief.* An atheist is not primarily a person who *believes* that a god does *not* exist, rather he does *not believe* in the existence of a god."
    -George Smith
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  19. Sep 17, 2003 #18


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    I understand the definition of 'atheist.' The issue in the other thread was that I wasn't convinced that many (NOT all!) atheistic beliefs are not more accurately depicted as agnostic, just as a parallelogram with 4 equal sides is a rectangle but is more accurately described as a square. But that's an entirely different issue.

    All I was saying in this thread was that 'atheist' can mean both one who disbelieves in God and one who denies God's existence, and that we should acknowledge both definitions. The legal definition semantically encapsulates both of these definitions but downplays one of them, whereas every other dictionary I've looked at has explicitly listed both interpretations. This may seem like a trivial difference but it's not. One definition includes both 'no set belief one way or the other' and 'explicit denial of God's existence' while the other one is limited to the latter.

    Since we're not in a courtroom and since to my knowledge Black's Law Dictionary is not the Official Dictionary of the English language, I simply suggest that we consider both definitions as valid.
  20. Sep 17, 2003 #19
    The common definition of 'atheist' is rather...idiotic, illogical, and no thinking person should pay it any mind. Let's take a look...

    From Merriam-Webster:
    "One who denies the existence of God"?? First off, the definition assumes the existance of a diety, and secondly, it apparently assumes the existance of the Christian mythological figure. As a definition, it begins on the wrong foot.
  21. Sep 17, 2003 #20


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    Oh, please. This definition does not "assume" anything. What it says is that an atheist, in this definition, is one who is posed the question "What do you think about the thing in religion called God?" and answers "I think that such a thing does not exist, except as a mythological figure." You don't have to assume that something exists in order to deny that it exists! That is one of the most ridiculous arguments I've ever heard!
  22. Sep 17, 2003 #21
    With all due respect, the issue in that other thread which prompted my post had nothing whatsoever to do with my wanting to engage you in arguing whether 'agnostic' might be a better suited word to use for some people. I posted strictly because you were portraying atheism as "belief in the non-existence of God", as can be clearly understood by reading your post at the top of this link;


    And all I have been trying to explain is that the root meaning of atheism is not "belief in the non-existence of God", but is more accurately understood as a lack of belief in god.

    LOL, that definition is not limited only to Black's, it was included in one of the sources that you used to support your assertion of atheism being a belief system, only you failed to include it (so I pointed it out).
  23. Sep 17, 2003 #22
    Actually, I find the concept of actively denying the existance of unproven ideas to be ridiculous, which is what this definition assumes. And, of course, I wonder why you got so heated about it...At the very least, this incorrect definition should read "one who denies the existance of deities". Funny, how some people see the word "God" as meaning their god when it suits them, and a generic god when that suits their argument better.
  24. Sep 17, 2003 #23
    But doesn't this put the Atheists in the same boat as the Agnostics? For by saying they don't believe in God, doesn't it also imply that they don't believe the knowledge exists either? It all sounds like a matter of disbelief to me?
  25. Sep 17, 2003 #24
    As has been stated over and over(having trouble reading??), lack of belief is not the same as disbelief, and Atheism and Agnosticism tend to overlap.
  26. Sep 17, 2003 #25


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    If you can believe an unproven idea is true, you can equally well believe that an unproven idea is false. Belief can exist independent of objective 'proof' either way.

    I wasn't so much 'heated' as I was dumbfounded at the logic of your argument (no offense). And in case I hadn't made myself clear, I have no belief in God or deities, nor any negative feelings whatsoever towards atheists (obviously). I am simply trying to state that 'atheism' has dictionary definitions indicating both disbelief in God (or deities ) and plain old outright denial of God/deities. Thus, while it might be incorrect in a certain context to use one meaning over the other, both meanings are equally valid pieces of the English language.
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