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Atheist vs Agnostic - What’s the Difference?

Updated on March 22, 2012
Could a teapot like this one be orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars?
Could a teapot like this one be orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars? | Source

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.

Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley | Source

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.

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."

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell | Source

Russell's Teapot

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:

  1. A belief system or worldview
  2. A narrative or symbolic tradition
  3. A sense of morality or ethics derived from the belief system
  4. 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.


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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Very well reasoned and well written hub. I voted it up.

    • Blawger profile image

      Bahin Ameri 5 years ago from California

      Great hub! Thank you for clearing up the common misconception that all atheists totally reject religion and spirituality. Such pervasive misconceptions are the reason why many atheists avoid the subject of religion and rarely admit their views.

    • scottcgruber profile image

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Sustainable Sue: in the Pew survey, UUs are lumped in with the "Other Faiths" category, and are only 0.3% of the sample. So they don't skew the stats all that much, but for the "other faiths" category as a whole, nonbelief and strong uncertainty are at 9% each.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

    • f_hruz profile image

      f_hruz 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      Another very good hub - thanks, Scott!

      The big dividing line is not so much the question, is there a god or how [un]likely is it for such a thing to exist, but the question, how relevant can a god really be in the objective process of observation and study of nature and a clear understanding of reality.

      It's quite understandable, that the scientific community has little use for first inventing a creator and only than try to understand nature through the eyes of that man-made religious object in order to comprehend what nature is really all about to satisfy some creationist mythology or intelligent design dogma.

      While a simple dividing line of what is real/rational and what is not, can be practical, the ones who require some help answering this question, may enjoy the information found at the following web site ...

      Franto in Toronto

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 5 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      I wonder how many people define themselves as atheist or agnostic because the Christian/Hebrew description of God is so unbelievable? "All That Is" or "Great Spirit" or "Higher Self" may be a term they feel more comfortable with, all of which indicate some power that is more expansive, loving, and compassionate (not to mention creative, knowledgeable, and powerful) than we normally see ourselves to be.

      I also note that Unitarian Universalism is not a religion covered in your list which, if it were, would totally skew those statistics. Most UUs attend church to be with like-minded individuals who don't obsess over the existence or non-existence of God, but rather focus on walking their talk.

    • profile image

      jenubouka 5 years ago

      Wow, the detailed meaning of both seems more work than just believing in something per say. The tea pot theory was awesome and very interesting. I think this article serves great purpose of stating the proven findings among each entity. I have wondered the difference between the two and if they could agree on some kind of base line...Awesome.