Atheist and Agnostic Beliefs Defined and Contrasted
Atheist Belief Defined
According to Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) Atheism is the doctrine or belief that there is no God. Because of this absolute disbelief in god there were few avowed atheists until the 19th century when it was believed that science and religion were in conflict. And the 20th century has seen a rise in the number of atheists.
The word Atheism is derived from theism meaning a belief in god with the "a" meaning the negation of theism--that is no belief in god. The word was actually first used as an insult against anyone in conflict with the established religion. Indeed the term "theist" used to imply a singular personal god meaning that anyone from a polytheist to a Buddhist would have been considered an atheist. Now, however, the acceptance of any spiritual concepts excludes you from the ranks of atheists.
Atheism has also been classified as positive or negative in philosophical circles. By these definitions a positive atheist is someone who explicitly affirms there is no god, whereas a negative atheist is any non-theist and would include agnostics.
Agnostic Belief Defined
The word agnostic is derived from the Greek word "gnosis" used to mean spiritual knowledge with "a" meaning the negation of spiritual knowledge. An agnostic, then, is defined by Dictionary.com as a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. In other words an agnostic is a person who believes that we can not know or do not know whether or not there is a god.
An agnostic is often thought of as not committing to any beliefs. However, an agnostic can have faith in a god and still maintain that we can not know whether or not said god exists. These people then would be termed agnostic theists. There are also those who believe that we can not know if god exists and believe that he does not exist. These people would be termed agnostic atheists.
Agnostic views can also be termed as strong or weak. Strong agnostics believe that due to our nature we are unable to know the answers to spiritual questions of god's existence. Weak agnostics, on the other hand, believe that we do not currently know whether god exists but that it is possible we may know in the future.
Atheist and Agnostic Beliefs Contrasted
At its simplest atheism is a belief about god, where as agnosticism is a belief about the knowledge of god. This then would be why atheism is often thought of as a religion--because it deals with belief in god where as agnosticism is thought of as a non commitment to religious beliefs.
Most atheists would not, however, consider their belief a religion. Nor do they follow a set of religious practices. Many atheists do, however, follow philosophies such as humanism and naturalism.
Agnostics, on the other hand, can embrace a variety of religious practices as agnostic theists or non at all as agnostic atheists. Agnosticism, then, does not imply a belief or lack of belief in religious matters. Instead it is a belief about our ability to know the truth of religious matters.