Atheist vs Agnostic - What’s the Difference?
According to a 2011 survey from the Pew Research Center, 1.6% of Americans self-identify as atheist and 2.4% self-identify as agnostic. However, significant numbers of respondents who identify with a religion claim to either not believe in God or consider themselves uncertain - beliefs that are by definition atheistic and agnostic, respectively.
According to this survey of more than 35,000 Americans, 4% of orthodox Christians, 1% of Catholics and members of mainline churches, 5% of Muslims, and 10% of Jews do not believe in God. A further 5% of orthodox Christians, 4% of Catholics, 3% of mainline church members, 11% of Jews, and 1% of Evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Muslims consider themselves not too certain or not at all certain of God's existence. This discrepancy between self-identification and personal belief indicates that the actual number of atheists and agnostics is far higher than the statistics indicate by self-affiliation alone.
To better understand these poll results, we must first examine the concepts of agnosticism and atheism to see how they are traditionally defined, as well as examine the great variation in belief within each of these groups.
What is Agnosticism?
The term "agnostic" was coined by English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. Although it has come to represent a system of belief, in its original usage it was intended more as a method of skeptical inquiry. The word itself is a combination of the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge" with the prefix a- meaning "without."
In Huxley's philosophy, the term referred to a rejection of claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge, as these represent areas that are inherently unknowable. His use of "gnosis" was a specific reference to the early Christian usage of the term to mean "spiritual knowledge."
While the term agnostic is commonly used to mean "areligious," this is not an accurate assessment. In fact, religion and agnosticism can go hand-in-hand. In Hindu, ancient Greek, and even some Christian denominations, the idea that nothing can be absolutely known is an integral part of the canon.
There are several sub-categories of agnosticism, some of which hold rather opposing viewpoints. Agnostic theists and agnostic atheists, for example, agree that knowing with absolute certainty about the existence of any deity is impossible, but diverge in the area of belief. Similarly, strong and weak agnostics disagree about whether the knowledge of a diety is possible - strong agnostics argue that it is impossible to ever know the existence of a god, whereas weak agnostics allow for the possibility. Ignosticism is another category that focuses on the question - there has never been a coherent definition of what a deity is, therefore the question of its existence is meaningless.
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What is Atheism?
The roots of atheism date back quite a bit longer than agnosticism. The term atheos derives from ancient Greece circa 500 BCE, where it was used to refer to a nonbeliever in the Hellenic gods. After the founding of Christianity, it was used as a pejorative term by both Hellenists and early Christians to refer to each other groups, as acceptance of either these faiths demanded a rejection of the god(s) of the other. "Atheist" began to be used as a self-descriptive term during the Age of Enlightenment, when freethought and rational skepticism began to take root in Western society.
In a general sense, atheism is a rejection of the existence of all deities, often based on the lack of empirical evidence for their existence. It is not necessarily a rejection of religion or spirituality, however. Several faiths, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Pagan religions, do not feature a personified diety figure but still acknowledge supernatural entities.
Like agnosticism, atheism can be subdivided into sub categories. Generally, atheists can be classified as strong/positive atheists and weak/negative atheists. Strong or positive atheists explicitly reject the existence of any deity, whereas weak or negative atheists do not believe in a deity but do not explicitly deny their existence. By this definition, many agnostics could also be considered weak atheists, as would many individuals who consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious."
The difference between agnostics and atheists can perhaps best be described using analogy. Russell's Teapot is a concept created by British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
This thought experiment proposes the idea that there is a china teapot in an elliptical, heliocentric orbit somewhere between the Earth and Mars. It is too small to be viewed by telescopes and thus impossible to observe, thus the existence of this cosmic teapot is unprovable by empirical evidence.
A strong agnostic (or would that be agnosteac?) would argue that the existence of the teapot can not now and can never be proven, whereas a weak agnostic would counter that someday a telescope could be built that would be able to resolve a Near-Earth Object the size of a teapot A strong atheist (ateaist, perhaps?) would deny the existence of the teapot, whereas a weak atheist would simply not believe in its existence without making a definitive statement on its actual existence.
Are Atheism and Agnosticism Religions?
A common Internet argument between believers and non-believers, and even between atheists and agnostics with differences of opinion, is whether atheism and agnosticism themselves constitute a religion. The answer to this varies widely depending on one's personal definition of religion. Though the religions of the world all take different forms and have very different relationships with society, they can be generalized to have four main components:
- A belief system or worldview
- A narrative or symbolic tradition
- A sense of morality or ethics derived from the belief system
- Public rituals or shared community behavior
Broadly applying these, an argument could be made for either atheism or agnosticism being a religion. The belief system of both could best be described as "rational skepticism," they have a narrative tradition from 19th century philosophers to Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens, a sense of ethics based in empirical evidence and humanist secular values, and a growing community of skeptics and nonbelievers online and in the real world. Others would argue that these examples fall far short of the standard necessary to constitute a religion in the true sense, and even reject the notion of atheism or agnosticism as religion as part of an overall rejection of religion.
Atheists and agnostics may share some common values, but are in no way a monolithic group. These groups comprise a wide variety of worldviews and belief systems - ones that occasionally conflict with each other. Although exact statistics are difficult to obtain worldwide due to cultural biases, atheists and agnostics appear to be a growing force among the world's religions and belief systems.
Sources and Further Information
- Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?
Essay by Bertrand Russell
- Man's Place in Nature - Thomas H. Huxley - Google Books
Known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his impassioned defense of evolutionary theory, Huxley published this, his most famous book, just a few years after Darwin's The Origin of Species. Unlike Origin, this book focuses on human ancestry and offers a concis
- Is There A God?
Essay by Bertrand Russell, source of the teapot analogy.
- Church Statistics and Religious Affiliations - U.S. Religious Landscape Study
Learn more about U.S. religions affiliations and church statistics based on research from the U.S. Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Forum.