Difference between revisions of "Definitions of Atheist and Agnostic"

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Revision as of 18:52, 15 July 2008

Introduction

Various people use terms such as "atheist" and "agnostic" differently hence they are often difficult to define.

Atheism usually means not to believe in God. This can be a mere lack of belief. It can also be a positive belief that He does not exist.

Agnostic usually means an individual is not sure whether God exists or not.

Perhaps because of the historical risk of being accused of heresy, apostasy or other theological "crimes", those who do not believe in God have not been eager to clarify their positions.

Alternative definitions

Atheism

The term atheism is often used to mean disbelief in God's existence. For example, "John Doe says that God does not exist."

The same term is also used in as an umbrella term which combines or includes both the atheist position and the agnostic position. "Mary Roe says that she doesn't believe in God." This can mean either that she completely denies God's existence, or that she simply is unsure whether He exists or not.

The imprecision of the umbrella term leads to many long and pointless debates where advocates argue at cross purposes because the do not agree on the meaning of terms.

Agnosticism

Some writers use the term agnostic in the general sense of being undecided. For example, "Smith isn't sure whether God exists or not." Others add to this a specific reason for being undecided, which elevates the position to the following argument:

  1. Jones sees no way to prove or disprove God's existence
  2. Therefore, Jones is undecided.

Interestingly, the lack of a satisfactory proof is interpreted two different ways. Weak atheism uses this as grounds for disbelief. Agnosticism uses this is grounds for refusing to commit one way or another.

"Agnostic" is also sometimes used to denote undecidedness on any matter, not just the existence of God.

Preferences

Sometimes an atheist (i.e., a disbeliever) may prefer to describe himself as an agnostic to avoid giving offense or to avoid receiving adverse treatment. While this may be useful in social situations, it can lead to difficulties when describing someone's precise position.

Conclusion

There is a difference between saying I do not know and saying I do not believe and saying It is false.

The usage of agnosticism varies between saying, "God may or may not exist"; "There is no way to know whether God exists or not"; and "I do not believe in God".

All usages of atheism are consistent with saying, "God does not exist." However, the statement, "I do not believe in God" can be described either as atheism or agnosticism.

See also