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Atheist and Agnostic Beliefs Defined and Contrasted

Updated on October 1, 2008

Atheist Belief Defined

According to 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 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.


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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 6 years ago

      Well, that explains one thing. I have been wrongly called "agnostic" by a Catholic friend because I don't believe in fundamentalist religion, but I do believe in spiritual creation. I have a spiritual belief therefore I can't be agnostic.

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      gobangla 6 years ago

      Very interesting! I have heard of agnostic theism and agnostic atheism before but had no idea what they meant.

    • ponchovilla profile image

      ponchovilla 6 years ago from Sweden

      Great write! Clear and concise. I was going to write this hub myself but you clearly beat me to it. I'll move on to something else.

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      Gary Billingsley 7 years ago

      Salvation doesn't come from religion, or any name on a church, salvation only comes from Jesus. He freely shed his blood at Calvery to pay the horrible price for sin, and yes we all have sinned, but since he paid the price for us, we can repent to Him and He will forgive us, no matter what we did. No one enters heaven except through Jesus, theres no other way to be saved, no one else but Jesus can wash away sin. ask Him today, into your life and heart. He loves you, and wants to forgive you. We aren't promised another day, so don't wait. Hell is eternal torment, and the only escape is redemption through Christ.

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      Painfulknowledge 7 years ago

      I've never truly considered what realm I would be in. Be it agnostic,atheist or whatever.What I did notice is that there is a whole lot of mention about religion in these articles and I don't believe in religion. Yes I have read the Bible, I've read many of books. In the Bible I read a lot of mention of relationship, in the beginning with all the genealogy, thru the New Testament and Paul's relationship with the church. Not a whole lot about "RELIGION".

    • Joy M profile image

      Joy M 7 years ago from Sumner, Washington


      According to first hand accounts Jesus did claim to be the son of God. We can trust the accounts to be accurate because there are older copies that were preserved with which our newer versions can be compared.

      Yes, it is true that many people have used Christianity as a means to extorte money or gain political power. People intent on using or abusing others have over the years used every excuse available. It is unfortunate but should not keep us from looking at religious beliefs.

      It is also true that others have claimed to be prophets or sent by God. But have any others had the impact over time and place the Jesus of Nazareth has had upon this world?

    • profile image

      Jose 7 years ago

      Interesting comments that truly appriciate since every opinion expresses every life experience. I consider myself agnostic, but most people might think of me as an athiest since I believe that idea of god is more than anything a necessity rather than just an epiphany. First of all one needs to believe that God is almighty, perfect and good. For a believer it is unconceivable to concider that God could be evil. Consider what I am saying a blasphemy if makes feel better about yourself, and stop reading since I am not making sence. However, if you are not stubborn enough to give logic a chance or why not a hypothesis, which implies assumptions rather than affirmations.

      Let's consider that morals are just simply ideals created by men to coexist with one another. On the other side is god who created us for his own amusement; who sees how stupit we are since we create rules that we are vulnerable to violate. Christianity an idea not created by Jesus of Nazareth but by the romans who made him son of God, Zeus, not quite Jahovah. Jesus never said that he was the son of God, but many Christians like to believe so. Being Christian had excused them to kill many Jewish and Muslims throught the centuries. Christianity is more than a religion a political movemente that redeem people with power, not forgiveness.

      You don't need to believe some pediphilic prist or a promiscuous preacher to tell you what is right or what is wrong. Anyhow, they are just there to take your money if there wasn't money there wouldn't be so many trying to convince you that I am a blasphemer. However, I haven't acused any god, but present a hypothesis, "what if," that's it.

      I don't believe in any man who tells me who is god or what is he. Perhaps, the idea isn't currupted, but how we know what was really written so many centuries ago. Just trying to go thirty years ago and there isn't want who really know what happened with the Kennedy brothers, but people could be sure what happened two thousand years ago. Did he really raice from death? Is he really the son of god?

      If we the believers knew a little more history, we would know that there were many messiah stories, separated by decades, even centuries. Osiri seems to be the most ancient, but there could be more that may come to light...

    • profile image

      lydia 7 years ago

      I'm definetly not involved with organized religion, its been molded by too many people for too long. I had an out of body exp. 30+ years ago, when I died I felt extreme peace I could even talk to myself and view my surroundings and was ready until I thought of my 1 yr old daughter and yelled out about her then many different voices spoke to me and told me things to prepare me for return and poof I was back.

      Were they deities, angels, are they under a "GOD"? All I know is there is something after life. I've considered myself an agnostic because I'm unsure of the one "GOD" part. All I know is when my time comes again I'll be ready to go with a clean consience that I did right for my fellow man and the earth and its creatures.

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      BrittanyVonSchvliesser 7 years ago

      @Missionary: of course we can't just poof into the world.but you also gotta think,if god made us ,then who made god??I'm an ex-Christian (of the baptist sect.) and every preacher's answer was verbatim,"oh,er,well....he was just always there"..and me,being the over-thinker that I am, started to think logically at about age 9 over the origin of myself and others-the planet too.I honestly don't know what I am,and quite frankly I don't care at this point.but as for you saying pretty much "be scared into Christianity,because if there were a chance of redemption and to go to heaven,then you'll be in the safe".that whole p.o.v. Is nothing but bullshit.if there were a god,I assume he would be humbled over the skepticism of his existence.I went from being Christian-to Buddhist-and I'm agnostic-atheist now,and I'm only 16.I pity those that never find a religion that best suites them to their needs and moral mother thinks I'm Christian-and my step-mom thinks I'm Buddhist.I used to be one of those over-analytical people who believed that if hell's on earth,then it can't get any worse,but I woke up.reality opened myind to think that life is beautiful an precious and bittersweet in every a matter of fact,religion (Christianity,to be specific) has ruined some good friends life into making poor friend Jake (Jesus,an inside joke nickname) was an alcoholic who has a tad bit anger issues,became an over-night Christian and gradually started going to church more and more.soon,he found himself being ridiculed at work by his ignorant co-workers that were of the samehe was going to school by day and working by night in the electricians brotherhood and was in his 4th year of school,almost a journeymen,with only one more year to go faith(hypocrites) for having his own interpretation for the religion.but he stopped drinking-for a little while.he would not adhere to the apiritual stubbornness of his family or his co-workers,when all-in-all,religion shouldn't have been discussed on the job site.he then quit his job because his nose was stuck in the air at any other he works at sonic,flipping burgers for less than half the money,but double the truly is saddening,but he was so against the religion,but in my opinion,it sent him off to a worse path.

    • profile image

      Diamond Dave 7 years ago

      Seems to me there are alot of lost people responding to this thread. Let me explain it to you the way I had it explained to me. No matter what you believe, even if you are a scientist, the world was started somehow and someway. Even if it was a speck of dust or a tiny atom, remember this, that atom or speck of dust had to be created by something greater, a higher spirit. This is what we call God.

    • Joy M profile image

      Joy M 8 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      Magx01, I believe what Marc was trying to say is that he gets great joy and satisfaction through his relationship with God and finds it sad that others can not also enjoy this - just like some people when married wish to set up all their friends because it's sad that they are still single and missing the joys of marriage.

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      Marc 8 years ago

      One can believe in God by faith. Faith is the key. Personally, I don't care what Noah did or who lived in a fish. What matters most to me is forgiveness for my sins. That only comes through Jesus Christ.

      Agnostics, how can believe in God but not be sure if he exists. That isn't true faith. That would be like me saying that I belive the sky is blue, yet it might not be...

      Atheists, you don't believe that there is any God. What a sad life you must live. To live in God's creation, yet too blind to see it and too hardened and bitter to feel him tugging at your heart.

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      Jeff 8 years ago

      one cant believe in god because the bible says that a man lived in a fish for several weeks and that one man grabbed 2 of every animal in the world. atheism and agnosticism is called common sense.

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      Kelli 8 years ago

      How can one not believe in God when you experience the miracle of a child being born and the beauty of the world, such as mountains, rainbows,etc GOD is real people.

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      Joi  8 years ago

      This was well put and I have a similar post but it doesn't go so deep. i just put my own personal issues and no facts. I agree wholeheartedly. I believe there is a God but i accept that there may or may not be one. i also do not believe in religion at all. I see through that. I understand that religions main purpose is social control.

    • profile image

      missionary 8 years ago

      I also agree this is very imforative as well. However, just like Jesus Lover, I suggest that you try to find out the word of the Lord. You should ask yourself questions. Why are you here? You can't just poof into the world, or the womb. There is a way you got here and this is God. You might say, God doesn't exist. Well think about it! How did the earth get here? Well maybe a powerful explosion happened. Well how did the explosion happen? Well for you agnostic believers, this would be a hard question for you to answer. Well it's the Lord who makes everything happen. As a true christian believe in the Lord so you can go to heaven!

    • profile image

      jesus believer 8 years ago

      This was very imformative. But, if you're going to read about agnostic people, read about the christians too!

    • profile image

      jesus believer 8 years ago

      This was very imformative. But, if you're going to read about agnostic people, read about the christians too!

    • Joy M profile image

      Joy M 8 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      San, the article has nothing to do with atheist or agnostic beliefs.

    • profile image

      san 8 years ago

    • fatfist profile image

      fatfist 8 years ago

      Good work. I'm glad you nailed down the definition of an atheist correctly.

      Most everybody else states an atheist is someone who lacks belief in a god. Lacking belief is not a property of an atheist, just like "lacking a car" is not a property of a person. This is using notterism - attempting to say what something is, by saying what it is not. Makes no sense and is total gibberish!

      An atheist is someone who believes there is no god.

      The primary predicate of that sentence is positive and describes what an atheist (the subject) is.

    • profile image

      Ameer H. 8 years ago

      This was awesome! Very enlightening :) Has anyone ever considered coincidence as a religion, or originator of the world? I personally follow my own extended agnostic athiest beliefs. That the world was created by sheer concidence and it was a coincidence that the ideas of god and religion came in. Religions are essentially guidelines. The belief in god is purely authentic. i can still be a good person with out laws and written morals to hold me back. then again i cant be certain about god or my state of mind without any presence of religion in the world so...back to square one. Think about it :)

    • profile image

      Ameer H. 8 years ago

      This was awesome! Very enlightening :) Has anyone ever considered coincidence as a religion, or originator of the world? I personally follow my own extended agnostic athiest beliefs. That the world was created by sheer concidence and it was a coincidence that the ideas of god and religion came in. Religions are essentially guidelines. The belief in god is purely authentic. i can still be a good person with out laws and written morals to hold me back. then again i cant be certain about god or my state of mind without any presence of religion in the world so...back to square one. Think about it :)

    • profile image

      brad hart 8 years ago

      The real problem with thinking of Atheism as a religion is you would have to apply that sort of thinking across the board. If denying the existence of god is a religion, then so is denying the existence of elves. It is complete complete silliness to think of it as a religion.

    • Joy M profile image

      Joy M 9 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      Glad I could help.

    • AEvans profile image

      Julianna 9 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      Clearly defined and interesting information as that clarifies to me the definition of Atheism and being Agnostic, I sincerely appreciate this article, :)

    • Kika Rose profile image

      Kika Rose 9 years ago from Minnesota

      BEAUTIFUL hub! This is extremely informative and very well written! 10/10! Thank you so much for this contribution to intelligence! ^_^


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