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Atheism and Agnosticism: What’s the difference?

Here is a post explaining the differences between the principles of Atheism and Agnosticism.  Staks did a fine job in laying it out there to hopefully clear up any misunderstandings in the differences between the two.

by: Staks Rosch

– Atheist: Lack of belief in a deity. This is derived from the prefix “a” meaning “lack of” or “no” and the word “theist” meaning belief in a deity.

– Agnostic: Lack of knowledge in a deity. Again, this is derived from the prefix “a” meaning “lack of” or “no” and the word “gnostic” meaning “knowledge.” The context provided the deity aspect but it is certainly possible to be agnostic about the weather or any number of other things.

There seems to be some question about the terms “atheism” and “agnostism” so it is time to discuss it. The definitions are listed above, but they are not mutually exclusive terms as many people (particularly Christians), seem to think. Atheism concerns belief while being agnostic is a claim about knowledge.

This may get a little complicated, but let me try to explain it. I don’t know if there is a purple house on Oak Street, so I might lack the belief that there is. That doesn’t mean that I disbelieve that there is a purple house on Oak Street necessarily, but it could mean that too. However, if someone showed me a picture of a purple house on Oak Street, then I would have knowledge of the purple house and would almost certainly believe that there is in fact a purple house on Oak Street. By that same reasoning, if I said that I don’t have any reason to believe that there is a purple house on Oak Street, that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is no purple house on Oak Street. It also doesn’t mean that I believe there must be a blue house on Oak. In other words, atheism is a lack of belief in a deity, but it is not a disbelief in a deity necessarily and it is not necessarily a belief in something else either. It can be, but that is not a requirement of the set of people who lack the belief.

There are atheist religions such as Secular Humanists, The Brights, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc. Believe it or not, I have even met an atheist Christian (I don’t understand it either so don’t ask) and there are also a number atheist Jews that I have met. I might even be considered one of them. But that has to do in part with the Hebrew heritage and traditions and less to do with the Jewish religion. But when someone claims to be an atheist, they are not talking about a belief that they hold, but rather a belief that they don’t hold. Unless it is modified or married to some other belief, the term “atheist” is not about the person’s beliefs but rather the person’s lack of belief in a particular being or beings.

If someone were to tell me that there was a man named David living in Israel, I could say that I lack the knowledge of such a person, but I still believe it to be true. David after all is a pretty common Jewish name and it is pretty likely that there is a man named David living in a country full of Jews. This is an example of belief without knowledge. And if I were at a magic show and the Magician sawed a girl in half right in front of me, I could say that I have knowledge (in that I saw it happen right in front of my eyes) but I still don’t believe that it happened. One could argue that I know it was a trick and that is additional knowledge but I can’t really say that I “know” it as much as I can say that I don’t believe it was real based on other factors.

My point here is that knowledge and belief are two separate things and so it is entirely logical to be both an agnostic and an atheist at the same time. I also want to again clarify that atheist does not necessarily mean an active disbelief in a god just a rejection of a belief in a god. Personally, I will make the claim that particular Gods do not exist. I am reasonably certain that Thor, Zeus, and Yahweh are made up fictional characters. But that isn’t to say that I am not open to the idea of some vague higher power entity. But currently, I see no knowledge to suggest that such a vague higher power entity exists, so I lack that belief. Show me evidence for the purple house on Oak Street and I would probably believe it, but I am reasonably certain that there isn’t an Igloo on Oak Street (especially not during these summer months if we are both talking about the same Oak Street in Pennsylvania). I have no knowledge of that Igloo and I also have no belief in that Igloo.