Every time l look up the meanings of the two words agnostic and atheist in the dictionary l become more confused. For me, both refer to someone who doesn’t believe in God. Is there a simple, straightforward definition for these two words?
In the interests of simplicity which you specifically asked for, I should first like to preserve here a member's excellent comment which clearly brings out the difference in meaning:
To simplify: when asked if there is a God, a theist says "yes", an atheist says "no", and an agnostic says "I don't know". – Mark
My own answer:
This is a solid question well worth asking here and useful for many present and future readers. In addition to the excellent earlier answer by Cookie Monster, may I add this very specific note given by Merriam-Webster Dictionary online regarding the difference between the two terms:
[extract] atheist refers to someone who believes that there is no god (or gods), and agnostic refers to someone who doesn’t know whether there is a god, or even if such a thing is knowable.
Source page: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agnosticism (scroll down towards the middle of that page to read.)
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines atheism as
a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
Whereas agnostic is defined by the same, highly respected dictionary as
a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (such 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
This note on that same page goes on to describe the different origins of the words, which in turn explains their different meanings:
[full note] How agnostic differs from atheist:
Many people are interested in distinguishing between the words agnostic and atheist. The difference is quite simple: atheist refers to someone who believes that there is no god (or gods), and agnostic refers to someone who doesn’t know whether there is a god, or even if such a thing is knowable. This distinction can be troublesome to remember, but examining the origins of the two words can help.
Agnostic first appeared in 1869, (possibly coined by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley), and was formed from the Greek agnōstos (meaning "unknown, unknowable"). Atheist came to English from the French athéisme. Although both words share a prefix (which is probably the source of much of the confusion) the main body of each word is quite different. Agnostic shares part of its history with words such as prognosticate and prognosis, words which have something to do with knowledge or knowing something. Atheist shares roots with words such as theology and theism, which generally have something to do with God.
I would further explain the difference in meaning based on two major factors:
(1) Approach to belief:
Unlike atheists, who do not believe in the existence of any deities, an agnostic person only takes the (more moderate) position that the reality of the existence of a Supreme Being is not known to them or essentially unknowable, which in theory is a neutral position, though non-religious in practice. In addition, atheism can itself be classified as 'hard' and 'soft' atheism depending on how strongly the disbelief in the existence of gods is asserted:
Negative atheism, also called weak atheism and soft atheism, is any type of atheism where a person does not believe in the existence of any deities but does not explicitly assert that there are none. Positive atheism, also called strong atheism and hard atheism, is the form of atheism that additionally asserts that no deities exist.
In fact some users had noted in comments here that agnosticism is simply a form of 'soft' atheism. In any case agnostic people are still very different from the religious community of 'believers' in that it is not really possible for them to believe in a divine power if they don't know whether or not it actually exists! In short, as you have rightly understood, both atheists and agnostics are functionally non-believers compared to the religious community.
(2) Attitude to religion:
Agnostics generally do not criticize religion or oppose other people's religious belief/ practices. Moreover, many agnostics are actually open to the possibility of the existence of some form of divinity, as already pointed out by @Cookie Monster, and they are often willing to be convinced by a truly compelling personal experience, although such a spiritual experience of divinity may or may not occur. Whereas many an atheist person actively believes that gods do not exist, and many (if not all) atheists consider that religion is not good for society, which in practice can become anti-religion or anti-theist. The biggest and most influential atheist political movement openly hostile to religion has been Marxist–Leninist atheism.
However, as noted in a very pertinent comment by user 1006a,
Atheists aren't a homogeneous group, and being actively anti-religion is not a universal trait. Also, (...) some agnostics are rather more decided (...) believing that things like what happens to human consciousness after death and whether there is any Divinity is definitely unknowable, rather than just being undecided so far and open to persuasion.
In short, there is definite internal variation within the groups 'atheist' and 'agnostic' and the ideas or actions of individuals do not necessarily represent the most typical meanings of the terms as used in modern English.
The word 'Atheist' is based on the Greek theos which means god in English.
Likewise, the word 'Agnostic' is based on the Greek gnosis which
translates as knowledge.
In both cases the prefix 'a' means 'not', or 'without', as in the words 'amoral' (without morals) or 'apolitical' (not interested or involved in politics).
So an atheist is someone who is 'without god' - they do not believe in a god.
Meanwhile an agnostic is 'without knowledge' of god. Someone who identifies as agnostic generally believes either that we cannot know for certain if a god exists, or that such information is irrelevant.
People often link a sentence like “I don’t know whether there is a God or not.” to agnosticism and “I don’t believe there is a God.” to atheism. But this is wrong.
Many people think that there is a spectrum which goes from theism (belief in a God) to agnosticism (does not know whether there is a God) to atheism (lack of belief in a God). This, however, is incorrect. Better take a look at this picture:
Actually, the coordinate system below is correct. Let me explain you why that is with the help of another figure.
- Gnosticism means that I think that I am certain about knowing something.
- Agnosticism means that I think that I am uncertain about knowing something.
The vertical line, thus, represents how certain we feel when looking at a question. The bottom (gnosticism) represents 100% certainty, the top (agnosticism) represents 0% certainty. I do not have to pick one or the other. I can pick any point along the vertical axis.
The other terms are theism/deism and atheism.
- Theism means that I believe that there is a God – and that God is, for example, the God from the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita etc.
- Deism means that I believe that there is a God – but I don’t know what God. I just say that there is a divine being, but I don’t claim that the Torah, Bible, etc. is correct and an exact description of that divine being.
- Atheism means that I do not believe that there is a God.
How strong is your belief? It does not have to be 100% (theism/deism) or 0% (atheism). You can also pick any point you like along the vertical axis!
If you are, for example, in the first quadrant (agnostic atheism), you say that you do not know whether there is a God or not, but you believe that there is no God.
These quadrants and the names for them are rough classifications and none of them may fit for you. If you say that you are 50% certain that there is a God and your belief is 50% strong, you are in the middle of the coordinate system and not in any of the quadrants.
Remember: You can also go along the lines!
An agnostic, loosely speaking, is someone whose answer to the question whether there is God is "I don't know." Atheism, on the other hand, is a much stronger position in that respect. Atheists deny the very existence of God, gods or any other supernatural entity for that matter. And to that end, they use logical arguments to substantiate their position. So, in very simple words:
Agnostics, practically speaking, are people who are, at the very least, open to the possibility that there might be a god (some people might disagree with me here), but it's just that to them it's a moot question because according to their principles the existence of God is unknowable.
Atheists in general are closed to the possibility that there might be a god.
In reality, of course, the situation is a lot blurrier when it comes to agnosticism and atheism. Some people call themselves "soft atheists" which means that they will believe in God if presented with strong enough evidence. Hard atheists say that there can be no evidence for God as described in holy books because the concept of God, in their opinion, is just a product of human culture. Some agnostics maintain the position that it's even not possible to find out whether or not God exists because these things simply cannot be known.
To sum things up, I'm going to quote the prominent American atheist Matt Dillahunty's short and sweet description of atheism: "Atheism is a single position on a single question: the answer to the question whether God exists so far is a resounding no because of a lack of sufficient evidence for his existence."
Is there a simple, straightforward definition for these two words?
No. Both words have become muddled through recent use, and what it means to one person varies heavily from the next. For evidence, see the huge number of disagreeing answers above, as well as the comment discussions on some of them.
There seems to be a strong divide, especially between people who describe themselves as either agnostic, atheist, or both and people who don't. I have seen all of the answers above used as the "correct" answer in discussions without ever seeing agreement between two parties at the end.
To throw out a wild guess, the upvotes on this question are likely to relate to the split between religious and non-religious persons on this site. As a non-religious person, I'd more likely upvote Nemgathos, while the religious people I've talked to would likely upvote English Student, as most I've talked with use the words that way.
However, to strengthen the point further, Scott mentioned in the comments that in his experience, non-religious are also more likely to use English Student's definition.
I've found that the only reasonable conclusion is that you can't know what the word "atheist" or "agnostic" means to someone without asking them the question directly.
This is especially important because many of the people who actually use these words to describe themselves don't use English Student´s definition, which means that you'll be getting the wrong ideas if you don't ask people what they mean with these words.
Average people often conflate the terms atheist and agnostic, implying that they are mutually exclusive, when they are actually not. Like your question implies, the meaning of the terms have become muddied recently.
Agnosticism speaks to someone's claim of knowledge to a particular subject...
Agnosticism, (from Greek agnōstos, “unknowable”), strictly speaking, the doctrine that humans cannot know of the existence of anything beyond the phenomena of their experience.
...while atheism speaks to someone's degree of belief in a particular subject.
Belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.
An atheist is simply someone who does not accept the proposition: a (specific) god exists.
In the case of belief in a god, agnosticism and atheism are binary positions. You either accept the existence of a specific god or you don't. You either claim to know that god exists/doesn't exist or you don't. So this leads to four basic permutations of these stances:
1) Agnostic Theist - A person accepts the existence of a specific god but doesn't claim to have knowledge of their existence.
2) Agnostic Atheist - A person does not accept the existence of a specific god and doesn't claim to know that god does not exist.
3) Gnostic Theist - A person accepts the existence of a specific god and claims to have knowledge that god exists.
4) Gnostic Atheist - A person does not accept the existence of a specific god and also claims to know that god does not exist.
When someone calls him/herself an agnostic, they can often be implying that are an agnostic atheist, and when someone calls him/herself an atheist, they usually mean they are a gnostic atheist. In reality, they are both atheists because they do not accept the proposition that a god exists. The key difference is their degree of knowledge.
While the other answers sufficiently cover Atheist vs. Agnostic in regards to religion, which seems to be the core focus of the question, I would like to add that "Agnostic" has another common meaning, definition 7 on Dictionary.com, relating most often to "platform agnostic software". This is an example of the fact that Agnostic also shows up in non-religious contexts; "platform agnostic software" does not mean "Software only for platforms that are unsure about the existence of god(s)".
On the other hand, I have never known "Atheist" to have uses that don't relate to religion.
Both Cookie Monster's and English Student's answers are very well put forward, but they seem to have forgotten the OP's initial request for simplicity. In a nutshell, this is how I would explain it to someone who has only a minute to spare.
- An atheist will say there is no proof that any god exists.
- An agnostic will say they don't know if God exists because they are waiting for that proof.
The flip answer I always use is:
An atheist is convinced there are no gods.
An agnostic doesn't know, and likely doesn't care.
While its a subtle difference, it can be really important in practice. Many Atheists are just as into proselytizing their unbelief as a stereotypical Evangelical Christian is their belief. It isn't hard at all to find Atheists who insist that not only are they logically right, but any other position is morally wrong.
Agnostics on the other hand quite often aren't even interested in discussing the topic, because they really don't care. Its very rare to find one that aggressively wants to convert you to their position of uncertainty. The best link I know for this kind of thought is the Church of the Apathetic Agnostic
There are those that see agnosticism as only a way-station, an intermediate step for those still trying to decide whether to believe in God (or a god or gods) or to absolutely believe in no gods exist at all. Agnosticism is seen as a refuge for those who cannot make up their minds.
What this site seeks to illustrate is that agnosticism in itself is a legitimate end position with respect to religious belief. We do not know because we cannot know. The ultimate truth about the existence of a Supreme Being is unknowable. Recognizing this, we can free ourselves from a fruitless search and indeed, no longer care about answering the question.
No, there is not a simple and straightforward definition of those two words.
As can be seen by the many contradictory answers, there are several different interpretations of what the two words "really" mean. For example, there are those who say "atheists lack belief in a god", and that agnostic means something completely separate from this. In contrast, there are others who say "atheists believe there are no gods", and that agnosticism is the only rational position.
However, despite any amount of effort to give precise meanings to these terms, people will still use them as they understand the words. In fact, it is a controversial topic in general about whether English should be defined prescriptively or descriptively. Many people will say that, regardless of what the dictionary says, a word should mean what those who use it actually mean. For example, consider the phrase
"I literally died laughing!"
If I were using the word 'literally' as it is 'properly' defined, you would have to assume I am dead. However, as you can probably tell, I'm not. In this case, the word 'literally' can be interpreted descriptively to mean I'm 'stressing or emphasising the point'.
Applying this to the difference between 'atheism' and 'agnosticism', we see that the only way to know what someone really means when they use these words is to ask them. Dictionaries, stack exchange, chat forums, etc. are, by the nature of the English language unable to provide a definitive response.
Personally, I used to call myself an atheist. One day though, I saw the definition of agnosticism and decided that I was actually an agnostic. Fast forward a year later, and I started getting interested in religious topics. On more research, I learnt the differences in the two terms, and once again decided I was actually an atheist.
The key point here, is that I went through calling myself both without changing my actual beliefs. Another important point is that I called myself these without knowing (or at least understanding) their definitions. It would be unreasonable to expect anyone who doesn't enjoy debating religion to know either.
My rule of thumb is that, if a person introduces themselves as an 'agnostic' (and doesn't elaborate further), I assume they are what some might call a 'soft atheist'. To me, both 'agnostic' and 'soft atheist' mean 'atheist', because I prefer the prescriptive definition of the terms. However, I cannot be sure of what they really mean until they explain it better.
If you make no distinction between the words "believe" and "know," if you have never understood why "faith" and "grace" are such important words in Christianity, then you will miss the distinction between "agnostic" and "atheist." Neither believes in the divine, but for different reasons. The atheist does not believe in the divine because he is convinced that the divine is a lie. The agnostic does not believe in the divine because he is not convinced that the divine is a truth. It is the difference between certainty and lack of certainty.
The devout Christian says that Christianity is certainly right and Judaism is certainly wrong.
The devout Jew says that Christianity is certainly wrong and Judaism is certainly right.
The atheist says Christianity and Judaism are both certainly wrong.
The agnostic says that Christianity may be right or Judaism may be right or both may be wrong.
There are almost as many definitions of the word "atheism" as there are atheists, and speaking as someone who considers himself an atheist, almost all dictionary definitions miss the mark somewhat. The most inclusive definition of atheism is simply "lacks belief in God or gods." Definitions such as "actively denies the existence of God" excludes people like myself who don't believe, but at the same time don't feel we can say with certainty that God doesn't exist.
The way I learned the term, agnosticism is not merely a weaker form of atheism - it is the position that the nature of God, including the question of His existence, is unknowable. This is a statement of knowledge (or lack thereof), whereas atheism is a statement of belief (or lack thereof).
It is possible to be both atheist and agnostic at the same time: I cannot know anything about the nature of God, therefore I choose not to believe in God.
It is also possible to be both theist and agnostic: I cannot know anything about the nature of God, and I choose to believe in God anyway (because that's what faith is all about).
And the other combinations are possible as well - you can claim you know that God doesn't exist and that's why you don't believe, or you can claim that you know God does exist and that's why you believe.
Atheists fall into three broad categories:
- I don't believe in God because I am not convinced that God exists;
- I don't believe in God because I am convinced that God does not exist;
- I don't believe in God because organized religion has done awful and evil things in the past.
The one thing that we have in common is that we don't believe - why we don't believe, and how our lack of belief is manifested, falls all over the map.