Agnostic vs Atheist
If you are familiar with the study of religion and its impact on society and culture, you may have encountered the terms atheist and agnostic. You might also be wondering the difference between agnostic vs atheist.
You may have learned that neither of these are religions themselves but are instead frameworks through which individuals interact with religion and the belief in God that motivates most mainstream spiritual practices.
Because of the personal and emotionally charged nature of the subject misconceptions on atheists and agnostics abound. Today we will take a comprehensive look at the features of atheism and agnosticism, and what differences and variations define the two thought systems.
Here’s the short answer:
Atheists doubt the existence of a god.
Agnostics doubt that humans can make a conclusive statement about the existence of a god.
Agnosticism: the absence of knowledge of a god’s existence
Atheism: the absence of theist belief
And here is the long answer:
Agnostic vs Atheist a Spectrum
Atheism and agnosticism can coexist because they are both dealing with different modalities of thought and belief.
Here is a spectrum of agnostic vs atheist:
Gnostic Atheist: do not believe in a god and also believe that they know there are no gods. Also referred to as hard atheists, who are comfortable purporting conclusively that there are no gods.
Agnostic Atheist: doesn’t personally believe in a god but also claims no conclusive knowledge of whether a god or multiple gods exist.
Agnostic Theist: understands that they have no conclusive knowledge of any god’s existence but believe there could be a god.
Gnostic Theist: one who believes in a god and claims conclusive knowledge of that god or gods’ existence.
This spectrum illustrates that everyone comes to the question of the existence of a god from their own personal framework. Now let’s learn about atheism and agnosticism in more detail!
Are Atheism and Agnosticism Religions?
Atheism and agnosticism are not religious practices nor are they religious affiliations. They are perspectives on the existence of a god or gods. Neither atheism or agnosticism can be considered movements or religious modalities of thought.
Atheism is not a practice or an affiliation, it merely indicates a non-belief in any god.
A common misconception about atheists is that they are dogmatic or necessarily philosophically motivated. In the basest terms, all that is required to label oneself an atheist is the lack of belief in a god.
Atheism is a label one can attach to one’s outlook on religion and the existence of a god but does not require a subscription to any set of beliefs or practices. Atheism is not anti-religion, or oppositional in nature, but is instead a lens of thought through which to view the question of whether or not a god exists. Atheists need not be volatile or hostile toward religion. Atheism does not indicate intolerance toward religious practices of individuals who live in accordance with a belief in a god.
Atheism is not necessarily guided by a school of thought or a deeper philosophical premise. Atheism is unusual in this way because it can be a source of passionate inquiry for those so inclined but can also appeal to more detached adherents. It is an umbrella term that does not make conclusions about those that fall under its banner, apart from the one shared belief that a god or gods do not exist.
Agnosticism is not a theist practice but is a position of non-positionality.
An agnostic, on the other hand, does not purport to know conclusively whether any god exists or not. Agnostics are unwilling to make a final statement about the existence of a god in our universe. Agnostics are making a simple, observational statement with their beliefs. A god may exist or may not, and either way, I do not have enough raw data to form a final opinion on the matter.
Agnostics may be non-committal or generally indifferent to the idea of whether a god exists or not. But they may also be passionate and inquisitive, in search of a more profound understanding. A common misconception is that agnosticism indicates indifference and this is a gross generalization. Agnostics can be fascinated by questions of faith and may dedicate significant portions of time to speculating on God’s existence.
Ultimately, many agnostics are motivated to affiliate with this stance due to their yearning for evidence-driven inquiry and their underlying belief that a conclusive answer on whether a god exists or not is in vain.
Agnostic vs Atheist Motivations
A philosophical examination of atheism and agnosticism reveals that they are driven by different motivators.
Atheism is based on belief, rather than fact or knowledge. Atheists do not claim to make any factual assertions about what they know or observe. They are motivated merely by what they believe, which is a lack of belief in the existence of a god.
Agnostics, however, are driven by knowledge and not merely belief. In a practical sense, agnostics are taking a step back from the question and making a less belief-based assertion on the existence of a god. What agnostics are truly saying is that belief aside, they are not positioned to make a conclusive judgment based on the knowledge and observations available to them.
Agnostic vs Atheist Beliefs
Atheists do not believe in the existence of a god.
An atheist does not believe in God. Not just the capital G god but any gods at all. Atheists do not believe in the concept of God, and they reject the proposition that a god exists in our universe or any other.
Agnostics do not make a conclusive statement on the existence of a god.
Agnostics are generally not committed to the existence or non-existence of a god due to the lack of conclusive knowledge available to them.
Some agnostics are genuinely on the fence, or indifferent, but some do veer to one side of the spectrum on the scale of belief. Some agnostics do believe that a god may exist, but they do not have the observational knowledge available to them to make an accurate statement or to inform an unwavering belief.
Agnostic vs Atheist Core Differences
Atheism is about belief.
Atheism is more belief driven than agnosticism whereas agnosticism is not motivated by a belief driven perspective on god’s existence. Atheism is not about trying to prove a negative premise, that a god does not exist, but posits merely that one does not believe in the existence of a god.
Critics of atheism posit that they are not able to claim tangible, experiential knowledge or data points to disprove the existence of a god. Atheists would make the same claim about the faithful. Many observers argue that religion and belief cannot be intellectualized and that it is a highly personal arena that cannot be examined using the same tools that other natural phenomena are treated with. Atheists are suggesting a personal belief in the absence of a god in the universe but are generally not making a final claim (except gnostic atheists, or hard atheists).
Atheism is not about being right or wrong. Again, this touches on the common misconception that atheists are all scientifically motivated and are utilizing critical thinking capacities to motivate their opinions. Atheists are in most cases not posing assertions or making evidence-based claims, and so the burden of discovery does not fall on them. The scientific method and science-based explorations on the question of God are not mutually exclusive with atheism. Being an atheist does not entail a given belief in evolution nor does it signal an absence of morality or a failure to comply with moral principles.
Atheism has been linked misguidedly to skepticism. Skepticism is a frame through which one views reality and is a process and proof based mode of inquiry. Skeptics would arguably believe in a god if given more proof, and so are more closely linked to agnostics than atheists. Atheists are not seeking proof nor are they necessarily on a journey to change their beliefs. Atheism is conclusive for many who consider themselves atheists.
Agnosticism is about knowledge.
Agnosticism, on the other hand, is about the scope of human knowledge and places limitations on human perception and understanding. It invites the possibility that humans cannot have untapped knowledge into the inner workings of the universe. The doubt that humans can possess complete and final knowledge of the universe and the question of a god’s existence is foundational to Agnosticism.
Agnosticism is not incompatible with religion. It signifies doubt that humans can make a final statement on the existence of god but it does not preclude subscription to religious ideology. There are streams of agnostic thought in Buddhism and Hinduism, wherein individuals affiliate with religious thought but maintain a degree of skepticism about the limits of human knowledge and whether a complete understanding of God’s nature can ever be reached.
Agnosticism is closely affiliated with humanism, the belief that natural phenomena can be explained through scientific practices and critical thinking. However, many agnostics remain skeptical that the supernatural phenomena of God can even be explained by scientific reductionism. Atheists can appreciate that the premise ‘God exists’ is an unfalsifiable claim and that no conclusive proof exists either way. Agnosticism comes from the frame of belief that because we cannot reasonably test the hypothesis of God’s existence that the question itself is unknowable. Some agnostics would say that the question is redundant because it is wholly unanswerable.
Agnostic vs Atheist Conclusion
To wrap up our comparison today, atheism is the absence of a belief in god while agnosticism is the belief that a final conclusion on the existence of a god cannot be made. Agnosticism and Atheism are not incompatible and can coexist because they are not opposing perspectives, but are rather different lenses through which to view the question of whether a god or gods exist.
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