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Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism

Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism

What is Atheism?

The word “Atheism” is derived from the Greek “Theos” – “God” – while the “-ism” is an English suffix denoting an action, in this case, belief. The “A”, in the beginning, is to state an opposite stance. Thus in its original form, the word means “not believing in god”.

Atheism is in a broad sense the unbelief in god or the belief that there is no god. Unfortunately, it is not that simple since many different views have developed within atheism. The two main divisions within atheism are often called “gnostic atheism” and “agnostic theism”. The first stating that they definitely know there is no god and can prove it, the latter will state that they can’t prove it with certainty, but there is most likely no god.

Atheism can also be viewed through the spectrum of theistic probability, as proposed by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. This spectrum gives seven levels of belief, from Strong Theist (I do not doubt the existence of God) to Strong Atheist (I do not doubt the non-existence of god). Right in the middle of this spectrum, at number four, lies what Dawkins describe as Pure Agnosticism (God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable).

It is commonly believed that an atheist would not waver from their belief and hold an extremist view. This, however, is not true as a whole, as many atheists do encourage dialogue between different views.

What is Agnosticism?

The word “Agnostic” is derived from the Greek “Gnosis” – “to know” – and the “A” is to state the opposite. Thus in its original form, the word means “not knowing” or “unknowable”.

The word “Agnosticism” was first introduced in 1876 by Thomas Henry Huxley. During a meeting of Britain’s Metaphysical Society, Huxley defined it as follow: “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.”

Agnosticism does not judge whether there is a god or not, and follow the belief that one can never know the world beyond sense and experience, or the “real world”.  They make sure to say that they do not know if god exists or not. It is summarised in the statement “it is unknown or unknowable if there is a god.”

In that sense is agnosticism more closely related to a methodology of belief than a belief system. It has more to do with the “how” a person believes that with the “what” a person believes.

Agnosticism is often criticised as being fence-sitters not willing to take a definite stance. This derives from a misunderstanding of agnosticism since agnosticism takes a firm stand on the view that we as people cannot have knowledge beyond the physical realm and therefore cannot make any definite assumptions about the existence of god.

Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism

Similarities between Atheism and Agnosticism

Both atheism and agnosticism deal with the question of the existence of god. It is due to this similarity that they are often confused or understood synonymously.  However, this is about the extent of similarities unless one wants to mention that both views are shunned by religious groups.

Differences between Atheism and Agnosticism:

It is a common misperception that agnostics are by default atheist. This is however not accurate since there are agnostic theists that do believe in the existence of god, even though they cannot prove it. So what are some of the other differences that distinguish the two belief systems from one another?

  1. Atheism does not believe in any god. Agnosticism does not claim to know whether any god does or doesn’t exist.
  2. Atheism (gnostic atheists more specifically) would often state that the lack of proof for god is enough proof that god does not exist. Agnosticism does not determine the existence or non-existence of god through proof but merely states that we cannot know and therefore god can or cannot exist.
  3. The two can be classified differently. Atheism is a belief system or world-view but inherently has to do with a belief system. Agnosticism is a theory of knowledge that supplements different belief systems.
  4. The approach to each one also differs. Atheism is based on what a person does or doesn’t believe, and has to do with the “what” they believe. Agnosticism cares about what a person does or doesn’t know, and has to do with the “how” they believe.
  5. The stance of the two are not completely in opposition to one another but merely different in form. Atheism is extreme in the sense that it claims there is no god, while agnosticism is neutral by not claiming one way or the other.
  6. Atheism is often credited with strong convictions, and will not change their view even after proof from other views. Agnosticism will give other views and arguments the benefit of the doubt.
  7. The view of an afterlife is a strong difference between the two views. Atheism claims that we as people are here now without a greater purpose, and after death there is nothing. Agnosticism would follow the same view as with the existence of god, by saying we just can’t have the knowledge and it might be possible that there is life after death, but it is just as unlikely.
  8. These views have opposing critique of one another. Atheism would criticise agnosticism for being insubstantial and not taking a firm stand. On the other hand, agnosticism would criticise atheism for being too divisive and extreme.
  9. It must be said that an agnostic can be an atheist, but an atheist cannot be an agnostic. Since atheism denies any existence of god, they cannot take up the belief of a possible god as with agnosticism.

Atheism Vs. Agnosticism: (Comparison Table)

Atheism VERSUS Agnosticism

Summary of Atheism Vs. Agnosticism

These two terms have come to be so closely related that it is often misunderstood as the same. In fact, the two views are greatly misunderstood and are their many misconceptions about atheism and agnosticism in their own right. To understand the differences completely, one would have to have a better understanding of the views in their own form.

These two views cannot be seen as the same, and in practice are they completely different. Although there are similarities, and aspects that relate to one another, they can under no circumstance be used synonymously.


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References :


[0]Page, Brittany and Douglas J Navarick. “The Three Shades of Atheism: How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God.” Skeptic 22.2 (2017): 50-54.

[1]Palmer, Michael. Title:Atheism for Beginners: A Coursebook for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2013.

[2]Rhoades, Ron. Answering the Objections of Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2006.

[3]Schurman, Jacob G. Agnosticism and Religion. Norwood: Norwood Press, 1896.

[4]Thompson, Sherwood. Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

[5]Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/65/Theological_positions_-_alt_version.svg/500px-Theological_positions_-_alt_version.svg.png

[6]Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/da/Atheism.svg/528px-Atheism.svg.png

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