General Question

Ivan's avatar

Can we clear up the definitions of the words "atheism" and "agnosticism"?

Asked by Ivan (13479points) July 10th, 2009

Any suggestions on how to better word this question are encouraged.

My understanding of the words:


The simple lack of belief in a god. If your answer to the question, “Is there a god?”, is anything other than “yes”, you are an atheist. The root ‘theos’ means “god”, and the prefix ‘a-’ means “without”. Hence, an atheist is someone who is “without a god”. If you do not have a belief in a god, you are an atheist regardless of what else you believe. An atheist may be utterly certain that there is no god; an atheist may simply disbelieve in all of the proposed gods; an atheist may simply be someone who’s never thought about the existence of a god. Atheism in and of itself is not a belief; it is a lack of a belief. Atheists may in fact believe things in relation to gods, but atheism at its core is simply the lack of belief in a god.


The position that the existence of a god is unknown or unknowable. If you cannot make a claim of absolute certainty about the existence of god (either way), you are an agnostic. Someone who deeply believes in a god but still concedes that they cannot know for certain is an agnostic. Someone who claims that the existence of a god is by its very nature unknowable is an agnostic. An atheist who believes in no gods yet concedes that it cannot be known for certain whether one exists is an agnostic.

Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. One cannot be just an agnostic, nor can one be just an atheist. Everyone, by the very definitions of the words, is either an agnostic or a gnostic. Everyone, by the very definitions of the words, is either an atheist or a theist.

If you disagree with any parts of these definitions, please, by all means, explain your contentions here.

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60 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

It’s complicated. I call myself an atheist because I never think of God or look to God for an answer, or help, or as an explanation for the universe etc.

I am willing to say that maybe there is a God, I don’t know for 100% sure, so I guess that is more like an agnostic, but when I say this I just say it, because mostly I am saying that I am not trying to convince you that God doesn’t exist, you can believe what you want. Moreover, people define God so many different ways that I might believe what you believe, we would have to discuss it.

Fyrius's avatar

So religious views are situated on a two-dimensional plane, with (a)theism on one axis and (a)gnosticism on the other one?
Or maybe they’re two one-dimensional lines between theism and atheism; one for gnostics, the other for agnostics. I suppose it wouldn’t be far-fetched to consider (a)gnosticism a binary quality.

Well, I think that sounds about right.

Rsam's avatar

atheism = no god.
agnosticism = maybe a god. who knows?

im an atheist because i find no more reason to believe in a god than i do invisible 8 winged fairies being responsible for keeping the sky up at night, and have trouble understanding why other people dont see god the same way.

Ivan's avatar


So it sounds like you are both an agnostic and an atheist. Again, the two terms are not mutually exclusive.


I never meant to condense religious beliefs into a black-and-white binary representation, but in the same sense that you either own a minivan or you don’t, you either believe in a god or you don’t.


I disagree with those definitions. Atheism isn’t belief that no gods exist, it is the lack of belief that a god exists. That’s an important distinction. An agnostic is not someone who just isn’t sure, an agnostic is someone who doesn’t claim to know whether a god exists.

btko's avatar

I like the question.

To me, atheism is as much a belief system as theism. Atheism is the doctrine and belief that there is no god; which is a very distinct belief. It’s more than there mere absence of god in ones life.

Agnosticism is the belief that the existence or non-existence of a god is unknowable, and in extension just as plausible as it is implausible.

I disagree with you that a person can be both because a person can’t be at once open to the possibility of a god and at the same time believe god does not exist.

Rsam's avatar

@ivan yr cutting hairs too closely. if there is a “lack of belief that a god exists” then to that person, there is obviously no god.

however @btko to assert that not believing in something is the same thing as believing in something (“Atheism is the doctrine and belief that there is no god”) is fiddling with the definitions of belief and unbelief into a largely unreconcilable circle.
and to put it strongly and plainly atheism is not a belief system whatsoever i have no “system” of unbelief in the same way im sure you dont have a system of unbelief towards santa claus, the easter bunny, gremlins, or the boogyman.

Ivan's avatar


“Atheism is the doctrine and belief that there is no god; which is a very distinct belief.”

Not to sound rude, but I don’t know where this notion came from, nor do I know why so many people believe it. It’s quite simply false. Some atheists may in fact distinctly believe that there is no god, but that is not what atheism is, in and of itself. Atheism, by its purest definition, is simply the lack of belief in a god. Atheism, at its heart, is in no way a doctrine or a belief. It is a lack of a belief. Again, atheists may in fact have beliefs, but that is not the definition of atheism

I also disagree that agnosticism leads to the conclusion that a god’s existence is “just as plausible as it is implausible.” Personally, I do not claim to know that there are no gods, but I do not believe in any gods. That makes me an agnostic and an atheist.

brettvdb's avatar

According to Wikipedia:

Atheism can be either the rejection of theism, or the assertion that deities do not exist. In the broadest sense, it is the absence of belief in the existence of deities.

Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of deities, spiritual beings, or even ultimate reality — is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently impossible to prove or disprove and hence unknowable.

I think that the belief in god is inherently impossible to prove (apparently making me an agnostic), and I also reject theism and don’t believe in any type of deity (apparently making me an atheist.)

confusing stuff!

JLeslie's avatar

@Ivan I beleive I am an atheist, that is how I identify myself by my deifinition of God. I think we just have to accept how each individual identifies themselves.

If someone said to me I think God is the realty that all life is connected at the simplest level. That all living things are made up of DNA ATCG in different combinations so scientifically we are all one, plants, animals, humans, etc. Personally, I like knowing this, the “oneness” with all living things, but that is not my definition of God. God can be anything it seems.

Ivan's avatar


I agree with those definitions, and I think mine are essentially the same.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Agnostic: There might be a god, there might not be a god but there’s no way to know for sure.
Athiest: There is no god.

cookieman's avatar

Looks good to me.

I think @The_Compassionate_Heretic boils it down nicely.

Ivan's avatar

I don’t.

Agnostic: I don’t know if there is a god.
Atheist: I don’t believe that there is a god.

sap82's avatar

Thanks for clearing that up. I was having a real hard time trying to understand just how much of a…well on second thought you do act really…I guess you are intitled to your own…wait, never mind. You just think you are cool.

cookieman's avatar

@Ivan: Fair enough – but I’m sure some atheists would say it more conclusively.

SirBailey's avatar

I always thought an Atheist believed there is no God, an Agnostic believed there was no God as far as he is concerned, but other people believed in a God so for them, there was.

Ivan's avatar


Yes, of course, I’m not denying that. But I am talking about the definition of the word “atheism” in its broadest sense.


Some atheists might believe that there is no God, but atheism at its heart is not a belief; it is a lack of a belief. Agnosticism doesn’t have anything to do with belief, it pertains to knowledge.

cyn's avatar

you believe there’s not a god…..

benjaminlevi's avatar

“Someone who deeply believes in a god but still concedes that they cannot know for certain is an agnostic.” -you

The way I see it, were we to draw a Venn diagram of theism, atheism and agnosticism, then atheism and theism would not overlap (but would together include everything) and agnosticism would overlap on both sides.
(Now I reread your original post I see your pretty much covered this at the end of what you said)

sap82's avatar

Further still, I don’t need to know the technical definition or where the word came from. It doesn’t make you anymore special.

Ivan's avatar


Some might, but atheism is the lack of belief in a god. There’s a difference.


I completely agree with that representation.


Are you just going to try to make fun of me all day?

EmpressPixie's avatar

I basically agree with your definitions—I’ve always considered myself an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe in god, but I also don’t think anyone can know for sure.

btko's avatar

@Ivan and @Rsam

Atheism isn’t just some abstract term to describe the lacking of belief in a deity—it is a very active disbelief in a deity. It is a belief system, plain and simple.

Thammuz's avatar

Which leads to the four groups: Gnostic Theist, Gnostic Atheist, Agnostic Theist and Agnostic Atheist.

If that is your point (the last part “One cannot be just an agnostic, nor can one be just an atheist.” is a bit fuzzy, if you could clarify) then I agree.

cyn's avatar

@Ivan may i know the difference…..

Ivan's avatar


“Atheism isn’t just some abstract term to describe the lacking of belief in a deity”

Yes it is. I don’t know where you’ve gotten this other concept stuck in your head.


Yes, that is what I meant.


Sure. If I come up to you and say that I believe in the god of toothpicks and asked you if you also believed, you would probably say no. You lack a belief in my toothpick god. You don’t have that belief. It’s simply something that you don’t have. However, you don’t actively believe that no toothpick god exists. Furthermore, lacking a belief in the gods that people have proposed does not mean that you actively believe that absolutely no gods exist.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

I am just an Atheist. I believe in everything that is and I do not believe in things that are not. Gods are not.

CMaz's avatar

One doe not believe in a God.
One believes in a God on their own terms.

cyndyh's avatar

I’m an atheist. I just lack a belief in one more proposed god than most christians. :^>

Jack79's avatar

The question has been discussed several times here on fluther, and on one occasion someone provided a useful link which I don’t seem to find. For me Atheism is actually a belief in that there isn’t a god (ie it’s not that you don’t believe there is, but you actually believe there isn’t). And yes, agnosticism is basically knowing that you don’t/can’t know. But in reality anyone who is not 100% convinced either way is an agnostic (this includes me). You may think there is a god, or you may think there isn’t, but in both cases you’d be an agnostic if you can’t be sure.

cyndyh's avatar

@Jack79 : Both the “don’t believe” and the “believe not” are forms of atheism.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Agnostic here. It’s impossible to know whether or not any kind of god exists. That said, I also think it’s highly unlikely that one does exist – at least a being that I would be willing to call a god. That said, if undeniable proof existed that the Biblical god existed, I would choose to not believe in him, because I think, to put it lightly, that our personalities would clash…

augustlan's avatar

This is why I always identify as an agnostic with atheist leanings.

Ivan's avatar


“it’s not that you don’t believe there is, but you actually believe there isn’t”

That’s just not the case. Some atheists do in fact believe that there is no god, but that is not what atheism is.


It sounds like you are both agnostic atheists.

benjaminlevi's avatar

For sake of argument, lets assume that kittens have no religion and no sense of spirituality. They would have no belief in any gods, but they would not have a belief that there was no god. They would be atheists without a belief that there is no god.

(You can replace “kittens” with any person who has never been introduced to religion or the concept of gods)

JLeslie's avatar

@benjaminlevi I’m the kitten.

benjaminlevi's avatar

@JLeslie Nobody ever told you about Jebus?

Ivan's avatar


That’s a very good demonstration.

JLeslie's avatar

@benjaminlevi Not when I was a little girl. I learned about him much later. I remember being 16 or 17 when someone explained to someone I was with that the difference between Jews and Catholics, is that Catholics think he is the son of God, and Jews think he was another man who died on the cross, and for some reason his declaration of being the mesiah had a strong following. My sister said she didn’t really know much about Jesus and what he represented until her 20’s. So I learned about him as what other people believe I guess, but it was late in life even though their were Christians all around me.

When do you think most children, raised in Christianity, really understand about Jesus and God and Death?

benjaminlevi's avatar

@JLeslie Well I meant having no knowledge of the idea of “gods” in general. Did you know of the concept of gods?

@Ivan Thanks, maybe the tribes in the Amazon who supposedly have had no contact with the rest of the world would be more useful in the analogy, tho.

JLeslie's avatar

@benjaminlevi Not really. My parents are atheists so it was never really a part of my home. My mother loved the stories of the Greek Gods, and I knew some people believed in a God who could do whatever he wanted with you, and for Passover we ready stories that had God mentioned, and my parents used expression like “why is God punishing me” when things went wrong, but for the most part my upbringing was void of God.

Rsam's avatar

@btko “its a belief system plain and simple”——and so is your thinking apparently. great job on not addressing neither mine or Ivans points

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I’ll go with that.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

I’m an agnostic atheist. Which is the default position as far as I can tell. life is about choices, your results may vary I don’t believe in any of the 2,500 known gods of human history, but perhaps one exists out there that finds this whole discussion mildly interesting, if it is indeed even paying attention to a bunch of hairless monkeys with delusions of grandeur on a little blue planet located in the backwater portion of a medium sized galaxy, in a universe filled with many more much grander and larger galaxies.

The main gods and their subsequent religions of Earth should be viewed as mythos based on primitive peoples views of the world around them, and can be quite easily refuted with a bit of common sense or logic. Any god that can be easily refuted is likely no god worthy of my time.

Evelynism is/was an experiment in how easily it is to create a god and/or a religion that other people will follow. I’ve known people to follow it in a serious attempt to have a religion they could identify with. People believe in some of the weirdest things, gods are just one of many oddball subjects people will live and die for.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@Jack79 Why to you think that Atheism has to be a belief. I am certain that there are many gods that I have never heard of that somebody believes in. I don’t believe in them either. That does not mean that I believe that they do not exist. Since I am unaware of them at all.

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

I’ve always acknowledged atheists as those who don’t believe in any gods to the point of stating gods are impossible while agnostics don’t believe in gods but acknowledge they don’t know for certain all the answers to the unseen and yet unknown.

btko's avatar

@Rsam and @Ivan

Alright, I’ll clear it up for you.


Definition of Belief: From my Oxford Dictionary
1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigourous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.


Definition of Atheism: From my Oxford Dictionary.
the doctrine or belief that there is no God.


By the clear definitions above, atheism is a belief system because it is an opinion or conviction in the truth of God(s) not existing.

Ivan's avatar

How long did you hunt around until you found the one particular definition that you liked?

“a-” means without, “theos” means god. Atheism is “without god”, not “there is no god.”

Let me use Benjamin’s example. Is my dog an atheist?

Thammuz's avatar

@btko Wikipedia doesn’t agree
Furhtermore it doesn’t really matter, just as “transcendental” is used in shitloads of different ways from one philosopher to another “atheist” has been used for a couple of millennia, it has covered all various shades of the concept at one time or the other. (Epicurus, Lucretius, they both lived at the time of ancient Rome, both atheists. They didn’t believe in the Gods of their people and Lucretio specifically said religion was “superstitio”)

Ivan's avatar

I think I’ve figured out what btko did. OED doesn’t have an online edition from what I can tell, but Websters does. They have two listings for atheism:

A. A disbelief in the existence of deity.
B. The doctrine that there is no deity.

I’m sure the OED definition is similar, and btko has merely ignored the first definition and picked the second. You see, someone who follows a doctrine that there is no deity is, in fact, and atheist. But he is not an theist because he follows this doctrine. No, he is an atheist because he lacks a belief in a deity.

This is why the person who simply doesn’t think about god and the person who vehemently believes that no gods exist are both atheists.

Rsam's avatar

@Ivan @btko

this is getting pretty silly but i do like pointing out frauds. there is an online OED, it just happens to be a paid service my university has been kind enough to provide, and it states the following:

atheism : Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness.

Atheist: 1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God. 2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man. B. attrib. as adj. Atheistic, impious.

maybe btko’s edition is old, dumb, or made up. but mine’s online and can be double checked with the print version. i’d give a link but that’s be useless for everyone who doesnt have an account.

regardless. the emphasis is clearly disbelief, and certainly not “belief system”——you’re still making that part up all on your own.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@btko So you believe that the dictionary is the all knowing god of language. Atheism is not a belief. There is no evidence for a god. There is no need to believe that. All Atheism is is an acknowledgment of what is observed.

Critter38's avatar

My answer depends on the question.

I am agnostic with regards to the possible existence of any supernatural deity. I am an atheist with regards to my lack of belief in any deity. So complete agreement with your summation Ivan.

I think there is a strong incentive for those of faith to try to define atheism as a faith based belief, rather than a lack of belief. By so doing they can shift the goal posts of the argument to the issue of whether we all have faith in what we believe (not the issue), from whether we have good evidence for what we believe (the issue).

Atheism is not a belief system, it is the lack of a belief in deities.

Critter38's avatar

Ta muchly :)

mattbrowne's avatar

I like your definition of atheism and it contains both flavors of atheism, the dogmatic and the non-dogmatic one. Dogmatic atheism is sometimes also called atheist fundamentalism. I like to call non-dogmatic atheism enlightened atheism. Followers typically acknowledge the value of spirituality and are able to separate this from the issue whether a god exists or not.

Regarding agnosticism I would rephrase it like this

“A belief about the existence of a god is not present. If you cannot make a claim of absolute certainty about the existence of god (either way), you can be a non-dogmatic theist, a non-dogmatic atheist or an agnostic. Someone who deeply believes in a god but still concedes that they cannot know for certain is a non-dogmatic theist or an agnostic. Someone who claims that the existence of a god is by its very nature unknowable from a scientific point of view is a non-dogmatic theist, a non-dogmatic atheist or an agnostic. An atheist who believes in no gods yet concedes that it cannot be known for certain whether one exists is a non-dogmatic atheist an agnostic.

Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. Likewise agnosticism and theism are not mutually exclusive.”

Ishkabible's avatar

I think what you say makes sense. Although, it seems to disagree with people who go by Huxlian agnosticism.

kritiper's avatar

Atheists don’t believe in “god,” or any god(s). Agnostics can’t rule out the existence of any god. (Which makes them Theists.)

kritiper's avatar

You have the definitions of the words based upon the origins of the words down pat but the meanings may have changed a bit since the beginning.

Atheist: (1551) one who believes there is no deity.
Atheism: (1546) 1. archaic: ungodliness, wickedness 2a ; a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
agnostic: (1869) 1. a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god. 2 : a person unwilling to commit to an opinion about something.
also: agnostic (1873) 1 : of, relating to, or being an agnostic or the beliefs of agnostics 2 : noncommittal, undogmatic

(Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. 2011)

Atheism – The doctrine that there is no God; disbelief in the existence of God (or of gods); also, godlessness of life.
Atheist – One who denies, or disbelieves in, the existence of God; also, a godless person.
Agnostic – One who holds that the ultimate cause (God) and the essential nature of things are unknown or unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience
(The Century Dictionary, 1946 edition.)

So the answer to your question depends on who you ask and what/who their references are.

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