Saturday, June 28, 2008

Is an Atheist the same as an Agnostic?

By Josh Williamson

Without a doubt everyone would agree that words have meanings, however, people sometimes wish to change word meanings in order to advance their cause or reach their own end. This is clearly displayed of late by atheists who wish to re-define terms, and make agnostics and atheists one big happy family.

However, if one was to take the time to study Etymology one would soon discover that these two different words have two different meanings, and apply to two different groups of people.

Atheist has its root in the Greek, and if one takes the time to look at the source you would soon find some rather interesting facts. Let's break down the word and see what the true meaning is…

a = no theos = god

Putting them both together we have: atheos, which translated means "godless"[1], and "someone who denies the existence of god"[2]. Even the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy agrees with this definition, as it states 'atheism' as "the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God".[3]

Like 'atheist', 'agnostic' also has its root in the Greek language. As before, we will once again break down the Greek root word, and examine its meaning.

a = no gnosis = knowledge

Now, let us put them both together, and in the Greek we have the word: agnosia, which when translated means "ignorance"[4] and "One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism."[5]

One soon sees that if we look at the meaning of the word, and atheist cannot by definition be an agnostic, and vice versa. An atheist is one who makes an absolute statement claiming that "there is no god", whereas, and agnostic says that the "don't know if there is a god".

The atheist position is one that is in defendable as to make an absolute statement along the lines of "there is no god" requires absolute knowledge. Since no one has 'all knowledge' we cannot make absolute claims along the line of 'there is no god', as in the knowledge one is yet to come across there could be ample evidence for the existence of God.

Therefore the one claiming 'atheism' cannot logically speaking be an 'atheist' as they are yet to posses all knowledge. Rather, they are an agnostic. As they 'don't know if God exists'.

  1. [1] Wesley J. Peschabacher, ‘The New Analytical Greek Lexicon’, Hendrickson Publishers (2006): 8
  2. [2] "Atheist." WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. 22 Jun. 2008.
  3. [3] "Atheism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 28 Jun. 2008.
  4. [4] Wesley J. Peschabacher, ‘The New Analytical Greek Lexicon’, Hendrickson Publishers (2006): 4
  5. [5] "Agnostic." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 22 Jun. 2008.


  1. I find it interesting that the supposed "intellectual" position to take on the issue is that of the "agnostic". Or as you might say in Latin, "ignoramus" :)

    "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools..."(Romans 1:20-22)

  2. Lol, in the same page as the link is the definition from websters of atheist stating:-

    "The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being"

    I think that "or" is rather important. Of course, if you wish to take some selective definition, that is your business, it is outdated though.

    As previously stated it doesnt matter. These are just names used to describe some people, their definitions change over time as all language does to some extent.

    Although a person may describe themselves as an athiest under the Webster definition, would you then only apply the Princeton one? Putting words into people's mouths when they describe themself is a foolish course of pseudo-scholarship.

    A person can have no belief in God and no knowledge of God at the same time, Do you deny that? or do you think we can only not believe in things that we have knowledge of? better yet, do you think it is wise to believe in something that you have no knowledge of? That is your position, good luck defending it.

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  4. Another criticism that I ought to level, having re-read your article again is that there is a logical fallacy therein.

    You have provided the definition of atheism by conjoining the word "theos" with "a". While I cannot deny your understanding of the prefix, I think it is misleading to think the definition of theos is not molested by the addition of ism/ist. That is, while theos does mean God, theist is a "believer in God".

    Princeton Universtiry gives the definition of "theist" as:-

    1. one who believes in the existence of a god or gods

    Accordingly, by your same rule - atheist would be "one who does not believe in the existence of a god or gods". That is, an atheist is any person not within the class of people described as theists - this is the meaning of "a". Like, agnostic or abnormal - just like the logic that you seek to use.

    Hence the previous definition which you found of:-

    1. someone who denies the existence of god"

    is simple an illogical fallacy. Of course, websters etc do take this into account.

    As you see, either someone is within a class or they are outside of it. They are "something" or the are not "something". Agnosticism doesnt fill that middle ground. Accordingly, they believe in God or they are atheists - just like all agnostics.

    I feel like an english teacher lol. This is going to be fun ;)

  5. I had to do an edit above - at least it looks like you have a lot of people looking at the blog ;0.

  6. Here is another link to modern definitions of atheism

    We know that theists wish that atheism was belief that there is no god. If thats your strawman - fine - its till not in conformity with the modern English language.

  7. I still maintain that an Atheist is one who doesn't believe in God. Whereas an Agnostic doesn't know if there is a God. From what I have seen Atheists just seem to want to re-define words.

    But what ever way you go, the definition of whether your an atheist or agnostic does not really matter. The issue at hand is there is ample evidence for the existence of God, and this blog will endeavor to show that. Which I am sure is something you look forward to.

  8. PS - As many of you will not be aware, Josh Williamson stated on Saturday night that "Dingoes are native Australian dogs". I submit that in the Australian Museums publication "Dingoes in Australia - Their origin and impact" it is noted that:-

    "Dingoes were transported from mainland Asia, through South-East Asia to Australia and other parts of the Pacific by Asian seafarers throughout their voyages over the last 5,000 years. Dingos arrived in Australia around 3,500–4,000 years ago, quickly spreading to all parts of the Australian mainland and offshore islands, save for Tasmania"

    The discussion arose from my simple query:-

    Why is it that, after the flood, marsupials traveled to Australia and became the dominant reproduction type?

    Surely, the migration of species to Australia could not have solely been determined by the ability to carry live young in a pouch. Of course, evolution has no qualms in explaining the simple reason for such gathering of species with the same reproductive processes.

  9. ""Dingoes were transported from mainland Asia, through South-East Asia to Australia and other parts of the Pacific by Asian seafarers throughout their voyages over the last 5,000 years. Dingos arrived in Australia around 3,500–4,000 years ago, quickly spreading to all parts of the Australian mainland and offshore islands, save for Tasmania"

    I stand corrected, thanks Alex :-)

  10. I know this all happened a million years ago, but I have been reading back, and was very pleased to see you begin with the ol' "atheists don't exist" premise.

    I'm glad we can agree on the idea that nobody has absolute knowledge of all things. So that means that you cannot say that Invisible Pink Unicorns do not exist. Being A-unicornist is an indefensible position.

    I know I'm being silly, but I hope this has shown you a flaw in your thinking. Being devoid of absolute knowledge does not preclude you making a judgment about what you believe, based on evidence or absence of evidence.

    I may say that Invisible Pink Unicorns exist, and you, though you do not possess absolute knowledge, are able to refute this claim, based on your own incredulity, or in a more sophisticated manner, by using evidence against IPU, or evidence for another mode.

    This is what makes atheism defensible- we do not need absolute knowledge to say that Mithras or Thor are not the rulers of the universe - in fact, neither do you. You have discredited Thor using the bible or other elements of Christian thinking; we have discredited Thor and Bhudda and Jesus and etc ad infinitum, using other lines of thought and evidence.
    Josh said - I still maintain that an Atheist is one who doesn't believe in God. Whereas an Agnostic doesn't know if there is a God.
    That is correct. But not believing in something is NOT akin to denying that the god/s exist.
    If you define your god/s, we can discuss evidence for or against, and then atheists often take up a stance of denying that (A specific god) exists. If you persist in being vague, then of course we cannot absolutely agree that god (as perhaps, a concept) does not exist, but then again, by that logic, so do faeries and the Flying Spagetti Monster and Invisible Pink Unicorns... etc ad nauseam.

  11. Agnosticism and Atheism are as alike as Christianity and Buddhism - so trivializing what you may see as semantics is either intellectually dishonest, or ignorant. Believing that there is no god or being 'godless' is in no way the same as thinking that human beings do not have the capacity to know or understand if or how a higher being could exist. From the point of view of an Agnostic, Atheists and Theists are more similar to each other than Atheists and Agnostics because they have strong beliefs about the existence of a god, while agnostics don’t see the debate as even relevant.


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