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Atheism vs. Agnosticism: What do they mean?

The word "Agnostic" was coined by Thomas Huxley (aka Darwin's Bulldog, who defined it as without knowledge of god, whereas "Atheism" is defined as without belief in god.

This diagram says it well:

ldheinz 7 June 20

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I usually reply to these 'word meaning' posts, --- I was born godless, raised godless, still godless, - Call me whatever you want except too late for my dinner; and I never think about god questions till someone else brings it up and then I wish they hadn't as its totally gobbledegooky meaninglessnessing to me

jacpod Level 8 June 23, 2018

Someone tell me where I fit on this stupid graph.

I am undecided about the existence of a god. I do not have a percentage to offer. For me, 'god' is unknown.

"Atheist" addresses belief, while "Agnostic" addresses knowledge. If you are without belief, you're A-theist, and if you are without knowledge you are A-gnostic.


That still doesn't answer my question pertaining to this chart. Where do I fit on that?


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for me atheist is knowing no gods exists agnostic is still learning it


I've stopped using the term agnostic all together, it just started getting annoying. I'm also sick of people not understanding the burden of proof and equating being unconvinced about something to believing the opposite. On some definitions of the word, god is unknownable. How do they know that? Is that not assuming there is one and then making an observation of it? The term is useless to me as is the term spiritual.

The burden of proof works both ways.

@Ellatynemouth there is no burden of proof when you are the person that is unconvinced by a statement such as "a god exists." Only if the person says "no gods exist" or "a god exists" would have a burden of proof. In this case the person would have asserted the existence of something without providing any evidence, therefore their statement can be dismissed as there is no point in proving the non-existence of something that has not been proven to exist.


That's just word play sophistry. To be certain that something does not exist is equal to the opposite assertion.

My issue is with people who say "there is no god".


And we are also back to @themiddleway wrongly assuming that if you do not believe that theist claims are true, you are claiming that there are no gods. Just because you do not believe that something is true, does not mean you believe that it is false.
Like in court, you find the defendant guilty or not guilty. You are only addressing one prong of the argument. On the evidence I have been presented with, I find god/s not guilty of existing. Should sufficient evidence appear to convince me otherwise then I will change my verdict.

"And we are also back to @themiddleway wrongly assuming that if you do not believe that theist claims are true, you are claiming that there are no gods."

You must have me confused with someone else: I've not here, nor else where, argued for that point.

I have, on the other hand and as recently as this thread, argued that a theist not meeting their burden of proof on the claim "there are gods" doesn't mean that the claim "there are not gods" is valid; only that the theist failed to support their claim with evidence.

But please, do go on.
It's amusing when people single me out for no reason and get it all wrong. 😀😀😀


I hate to be the one stepping on the Easter eggs, but I do get a kick out of pissing on buildings with the lower case letter t on them. It's something you gotta ask yourself. To me. No there's no such thing as God. I've never believed or pretended it exist. I can only say so much at the time being, but there are people so fucked up mentally it's a shame. That's all I have to say. ?

Qiru Level 6 June 20, 2018

I would regard myself as an agnostic atheist.


I don't fit into that graph. I'm an agnostic.

I don't know if a god exists either way. I have no percentage to offer. This graph irritates me.

That's because you use definitions differently. Gnostic relates to knowledge, theist relates to belief. Different parts of the same question. What you know and what you believe are different things.
What do you believe? Do you believe the claims of theists that a god exists? If you don't believe their claims, you are an atheist. That doesn't mean you believe that no god exists. Gnosticism relates to knowledge - if you know that god/s does or doesn't exist, then you are a gnostic theist or atheist. If tou don't knoe that a god could or couldn't exist, then you are an agnostic theist/atheist.


Why's my guy got to be all turtle-neck hipster upstart?!


The upper-left is my inner scientist. The upper-right is my inner iconoclast. They actually get along quite well together. ?


Why are we STILL doing this?
It's nothing but semantics.

Semantics is all about word meanings. It's an important subject. If your meanings are well-defined, it leads to a lot of miscommunication and more time spent on clarification or unnecessary arguments. Just sayin'...?

I meamnt to write, "...NOT well defined..."

@Flyingsaucesir Doesn't matter. There will still be those who refuse to accept the actual meanings of words.


Agnostic Atheist


I am a gnostic atheist.


@themiddleway I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. I enjoy your perspective but when you split hairs over agnostic vs atheist I believe you’re arguing against “gnostic atheism,” as shown here, correct? I think it would be helpful if you acknowledged the distinction because speaking as though agnostic and atheist are mutually exclusive is fairly misleading.

Also curious where you place yourself on this scale: agnostic atheist, or agnostic theist? Or is there a third/moderate option?

I just had a lengthy dialogue with @introverted and if you'll forgive me, I'll cut and paste some of what I said there as a seed to any future conversation between us.

The gist of my view is that I find this designation as erroneous for I see atheism as an ontological position about existence, not a epistemological position about what we know.

Gnostic = knowledge
Agnostic = without knowledge

Theism = belief in god(s)
Atheism = without belief in god(s)

I've always found this delineation to be an atheist strawman.
After all, theism to the theist is not "a belief in gods", an epistemological position, it's "my god(s) exist", an ontological one. Thus a-theism, in contra to theism, should be "no god(s) exist", an ontological position, not "no belief in gods", an epistemological one.

I've always thought the better delineation is

Gnostic = knowledge
Agnostic = without knowledge

Pistic = belief
Apistic = without belief

And then you can apply this to god(s), goblins, or string theory as you like consistently making epistemological claims, not ontological claims.

And then, if you want to go a step further and make ontological claims, claims about reality and existence, claims that gods do or don't exists, then you'd be a theist or atheist; if you want to claim that goblins do or don't exist, then you be a goblinis or agoblinist; that strings ala string theory exist, you'd be a stringest or astringest.

But this way, your epistemological knowledge and belief claims about gods goblins and strings is divorced from your ontological claims on the same.

Introverted said: "You use a different definition for theism than the dictionary definitions I quoted earlier. "
I replied:

Indeed I do.
I abide by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and they support my usage of the terms theist and atheist. Dictionaries are not the appropriate source to discuss these matters. They are a good starting off point but are often wrong. For example, the Merriam Webster definition of Atheism defines it as "a strong disbelief in god(s)", which is clearly wrong since disbelief means "inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real." and we both can agree that is not an atheistic stance.

In comparison, here is the opening paragraph of what the SEP has to say on the subject:

If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).

Introverted said: "Even your definition of "pistic" differs from the Oxford definition."
I replied:

Pistic is the greek word for belief and gnostic is the greek word for knowledge. It is in that context that I presented pistic as I throughly explained in my introduction to that word.

Again we see that a reliance on dictionaries greatly limits the ability to discuss matters of philosophy and theology, as the discussion of gods surely is.

Taking the designation as offered, here are my individual thoughts on the quotes and why they sound horribly inconsistent to me:

Agnostic Atheist or theist: I find the agnostic designation to be erroneously used. Being agnostic is not a "I might be wrong" designation, it's a "I don't know" designation. So when a person says "I don't know (agnostic) but I believe (atheist or theist)", to me that is a declaration of faith, of belief without evidence; to me it sounds like wanting your cake and eating it to by saying "I believe but I might be wrong" so either way I'm right for if gods exist or don't, I'm covered! If we were to take the agnostic as "I don't know" then to me it's clear that belief either way is unjustified. Thus the way these sentences are presented put the cart before the horse. If you were to put the horse first "I don't know" then you'd see that the cart would be "I can't believe either way" not "I believe one way or the other.

Gnostic atheist or theist: It is these cases that showcase to me the deficiency in taking atheist or theim as a belief claim. . After all, if you know something then you obviously also believe in something. It makes not sense to claim that you know the sun is a star but you don't believe it is a star, for example. Thus, in this case, being gnostic only means that you know or don't know that your claim is true, in this case about gods, and to "force" atheism or theism to be belief claims just to fit this model is a trying to fit a square peg into a round hole since, as with agnosticim, if you put gnostic stance "I know" then it's also clear that "you believe".

So to me, the agnostic atheist and theist are not useful: if you are agnostic, you don't also get to be atheist or theist. But the gnostic theist and atheist are useful, just not as above: the gnostic theist has knowledge that gods exist; the gnostic atheist has knowledge that they don't. In this manner, agnostic and gnostic are all used as epistemology. In comparison, a (call them) pure atheist claims that gods don't exists independent of our knowledge or belief while the pure theist claims that gods do exist, independent of our knowledge or belief, and thus this reflects ontology not epsitemology.

Or you could adopt the scheme I present above and claim that you are gnostic or agnostic about gods (you know or don't know) or pistic or apistic about gods (you belief or don't believe) without using theism or atheism (gods exist or don't exist).

@TheMiddleWay depends on how you view evidence. If there is no evidence of a crime, no-matter someone's claim, then no crime is in existence. If there is no evidence of a god, no-matter someone's claim, then no god is in existence.
The more precise the claim the easier it is to dismiss when the evidence you would expect is not present. Absence of evidence to a claim is evidence the claim is false.
But... evidence may yet be forthcoming. The case is closed however until the presentation of new evidence.
So I am an Agnostic Atheist because I have an absence of belief that this crime/god exists but I can't dismiss it absolutely. However at this point I am no longer investigating.
For clarity I have to acknowledge that this crime/god may exist but I am following the evidence, or lack of and acting according.

" If there is no evidence of a crime, no-matter someone's claim, then no crime is in existence."
Therein lay the danger of conflating epistemology, what is or can be known, with ontology, what is real or exists.

Your position is one of "absence of evidence is evidence of absence". If a crime is committed, say murder, and there is no evidence of it, the crime has still been committed, it's just there is no evidence available. But the person who got murdered is still dead even if there is no evidence of a crime and someone still killed them even if there is no evidence of whom. You would be agnostic about the crime because of the lack of evidence but then to claim that a crime was committed or not (read: that you are theist or atheist) would be unsupported by the evidence.

"Absence of evidence to a claim is evidence the claim is false."
Only when there is reasonable expectation of that evidence being available. Prayer is a good example. I can state "If I pray, I can walk on water". Well, that claim in and of itself is easily tested: you can pray and then walk on water and see what happens.
But on other claims, such as "if I pray, I'll go to heaven" are not testable and thus the lack of evidence in this case cannot be interpreted as the claim being false, merely unstable.
Thus, in terms of gods existence, if I pray and CAN"T walk on water, all that I have proved is that prayer doesn't lead to walking on water... it is unjustified to then extrapolate this to mean the god(s) don't exist.

"So I am an Agnostic Atheist because I have an absence of belief that this crime/god exists but I can't dismiss it absolutely. "
Then as I said above, as I see it, the atheist designation conflicts with that agnostic designation for you are claiming to lean one way (atheism), and not the other (theism), despite not having any surety of evidence to lean you that way as opposed to the other (agnostic).
If you want to take the stance that the absence of evidence is evidence that gods don't exist, if you want to take the failure of prayer to allow you to walk on water as evidence that gods don't exist, then you would not longer be agnostic for you would have evidence, prayer doesn't work, that informs your atheism.
In short, if you aren't sure, then it's unjustified in my eyes to make a claim either way because as I see it, making a claim either way will only serve to ruin your objectivity and make you more prone to bias your view of evidence one way or the other.
For example, if I were an "agnostic string theorist" I would be making the claim that I don't know if string theory is valid or not but I believe that it is. As a scientist, this would bias my investigation the same as if I was an "agnostic a-string theorist" and claimed I dont' know if string theory is true or not but I believe it isn't. The more scientific approach, again IMO, is to just be agnostic, "I don't know if string theory is true or not" and give equal weight to arguments, experiments, and evidence that it's true as those that it's not.

It actually is clear and gives me another cause to complain.
When people say "I'm atheist because god(s) don't exist" and I ask them for evidence, they will often (as in VERY often) cite evidence against the JudeoChristianIslamic god.
When I then ask them the obvious followup "While that may be true about those god(s) what about all others"
And I often get a variation of "I don't need to prove all others" or "Proving that one god is enough" or "I'm not claiming all gods aren't real, just this one"... all of which, to me, sound logically fallicious for the logic 101 reason that you can't make Universal claims solely based on Particular evidence... just because one swan is black doesn't mean all swans are black...that sort of thing.

Of course my favorite is "What, do you expect me to take a stance on all 5000 gods out there? That is absurd!" which amuses me for yeah, if you want to claim "all swans are black" you better make sure that you've checked EVERY swan, not just those that are in your backyard as it were.

@TheMiddleWay im not too up on philosophy. But I think it is reasonable to dismiss a murder claim where there is no evidence of it having happened.
No body, blood stain, weapon, missing person report etc. Seriously! Im not agnostic about this im saying show me the evidence.
As for prayer. Good example. Surely you've heard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Well. No evidence of god at present makes it safe to dismiss these extraordinary claims. Doesn't mean evidence won't turn up later, but at this point I think it unlikely.
As for bias, I'm claiming I don't know for certain. I'm stating that clearly. I don't know. So I'm agnostic. However I have to act as though one of two positions are correct. In this case the evidence says no god. So I'm also Atheist. Being atheist isn't a belief, it's the absence of belief. I am capable of not believing in something but not knowing for certain. Evidence helps direct my thinking, but experience and knowledge keep me grounded in the fact that no matter my skills at investigating I can still be wrong. Knowing you can be wrong doesn't give you belief in god or allow you to dismiss god as stupidity. Not entirely.
When asked to identify religious affiliation I state Atheist. But I am still agnostic as well.
As for string theory, what you know and understand shapes your beliefs. Simply using the scientific method will help you to contributing to proving string theory or move away from your belief that string theory is true. Your may be unable to overcome your bias that the evidence goes against your beliefs, but because of the scientific method others can overcome it for you. That's why science progresses even if individuals dont. Belief in your work can drive you to succeed. In science failure is still success.

"But I think it is reasonable to dismiss a murder claim where there is no evidence of it having happened."
Remember: not guilty is not the same as innocent. If I accuse you of murder and there is no evidence of murder, the courts don't find you innocent, they find you not guilty. That is to say you may have committed the crime, the murder may have occurred, but there is not enough evidence to claim you are guilty of it and thus "not guilty".

"No body, blood stain, weapon, missing person report etc. "
But still no body knows where the person is. It's correct it might not be murder... the person went off the grid and told no one... but it could also be an example of "the perfect crime". Without actually having the person there, we can't find you innocent but the best we can do is find you "not guilty"... until we find a body, one way or the other, and have that or other actual evidence.

"However I have to act as though one of two positions are correct. In this case the evidence says no god. So I'm also Atheist."
But then I would put forward you can't be agnostic as well. If the evidence says "no god" then you are no longer "without knowledge" as you'd be as an atheist. That was one of the points I made above about, in my view, people misusing agnostic to justify a shadow of doubt they may have about their atheism when it doesn't mean that at all... it means "you don't know", you have no evidence, there is no way to determine which way... and that to me makes being an "atheist" (I have evidence of no gods) and an "agnostic" (I don't have evidence for or against god) at the same time an oxymoron as one stands in contradiction to the other.

So I agree with you: as an atheist, you should act as if there are no gods around. And as an Atheist, you don't have to be 100% sure that gods don't exist... that's just you acting on the evidence that you have at hand and you can't be held accountable for bad evidence, missing evidence, or future evidence.
You can be an Atheist and still be wrong.
But I put for the idea that you can't also be an agnostic for then you wouldn't be obligated to act as if there are no gods... sometimes you may act as if there are gods, as a way to test that view or because pragmatically you deem it necessary (such as confronting terminal illness)... sometimes you may act as if there are not gods, as a way to test that view or because pragmatically you deem it necessary (as in practicing science).

"Simply using the scientific method will help you to contributing to proving string theory or move away from your belief that string theory is true"
I've been a physicist for a long time and I know that the scientific method is still managed by humans and thus can still be affected by human bias. It's not to be put up on the pedal of objectivity for it's still humans, with all our faults, and bias, and errors, that have to perform the method. 😉

I consider myself an agnostic atheist, as I see no evidence for any god, therefore I have no belief in any god, subject to reevaluation if any evidence shows up.

Also, I see an anti-theist as someone who believes that religion is harmful and therefore should go away for the betterment of humanity. How that happens is yet another question.

@TheMiddleWay with this theoretical murder, I agree with you. Not guilty. There is not enough evidence of a crime to sentence someone.

Being an Atheist isn't saying I have evidence of no gods it's saying the evidence for gods you are providing is insufficient for me to believe your outlandish claims. I'm not making a claim at all.

These 2 positions are essentially the same but on 2 different claims. I don't have to know the answer absolutely to dismiss them.

I did once act as though god was real. At some point, despite my thoughts and actions, the outcome slowly convinced me that god wasn't real. I don't feel the need to randomly act religious at times to test that. I've done that phase already.

Humanity is flawed. Nothing we touch will ever be perfect despite our best intentions. Maybe I misunderstand the scientific method but from the perspective of this non-scientist, we have still progressed and continue to progress. There have been and will continue to be missteps along the way though.

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