Last modified on September 3, 2019, at 14:44

Definitions of Atheist and Agnostic

Portrait of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789) was an early advocate of atheism in Europe.

Atheism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and other philosophy reference works, is the denial of the existence of God.[1] Paul Edwards, who was a prominent atheist and editor of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defined an atheist as "a person who maintains that there is no God." [2] See also: Definition of atheism. This traditional definition of atheism is also called strong atheism or positive atheism.

The Webster-Merriam dictionary defines the contemporary definition of atheism in two ways: "1) a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods 2) a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods."[3] Oxford English Dictionies defines atheism as "Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods."[4]

Beginning in the latter portion of the 20th century and continuing beyond, many agnostics/atheists have argued that the definition of atheism should be defined as a mere lack of belief in God or gods.[5][6] This newer definition of atheism is called weak atheism. See: Purpose of redefining atheism

Attempts to Dilute the Definition of Atheism

See also: Attempts to dilute the definition of atheism and Atheists doubting the validity of atheism

Charles Bradlaugh, in 1876, proposed that atheism does not assert "there is no God," and by doing so he diluted the traditional definition of atheism. Since 1979, many atheists have followed Bradlaugh's thinking further and stated that atheism is merely a lack of belief in any god.[7][8] The motive for such a shift in meaning appears to be to an attempt to shift the burden of proof regarding the existence of God to the theism side.[7]

In the article, Is Atheism Presumptuous?, atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder, a founder of Internet Infidels which owns and operates the Secular Web (the Secular Web is a website focused on promoting atheism, agnostics and skeptics on the internet), states that "I agree (with Copan) that anyone who claims, "God does not exist," must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, "God exists."[7] In short, the attempt to redefine atheism is merely an attempt to make no assertions so no facts need be offered.[7] The attempt to redefine atheism, however, is not in accordance with the standard definitions of atheism that encyclopedias of philosophy employ which is that atheism is a denial of the existence of God or gods.[2][5][6][9][10]

Various issues

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.

Agnosticism is, in weaker forms, an affirmation of ignorance regarding the existence of God, and in stronger forms, the assertion that God's existence is not capable of being known (unknowable).

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


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.

Atheism is a religion

See: Atheism is a religion


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.


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.


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

External links


  1. Multiple references:
  2. 2.0 2.1 Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.
  3. Atheism, Webster-Merriam dictionary
  4. Atheism, Oxford online dictionary
  5. 5.0 5.1 Day, Donn R. (2007). "Atheism - etymology".
  6. 6.0 6.1 Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3
  8. Positive Atheism's Big List of Charles Bradlaugh Quotations
  9. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philisophy - Atheism and Agnosticism
  10. Is Atheism More Rational? by Creation Ministries International