What Is An Atheist vs An Agnostic?

I was in a discussion about God the other day with a young person who considers himself and atheist. Early on in the discussion he stated that he didn’t know if God exists, but conceded that He might.

At the point where he revealed that he is an atheist, I suggested that he was agnostic rather than atheist because he didn’t know for sure one way or the other. He was adamant that he was atheist because an atheist is one who really doesn’t care one way or the other.

A bit more back and forth ensued, and he left the conversation “knowing” that he was right and I was wrong.


This got me to thinking that there may be others out there who might need some clarification…

From Webster:

Definition of atheist

:a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods :one who subscribes to or advocates atheism

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.



This entry was posted in Apologetics, Catechesis, My Own Stuff, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What Is An Atheist vs An Agnostic?

  1. Bill Kammerer says:

    Reblogged this on The Catholic Me….


  2. keithnoback says:

    I’m not sure that ignostic should be lumped in with agnostic.
    I am quite certain that when you say “God”, I don’t know what you are talking about (to paraphrase David Chalmers on “Separate Substances”).
    That’s very different than saying that I don’t know if God exists, which is a potentially subsequent discussion.


  3. It sounds like your friend was pretty mixed up, and it’s good that you looked it up instead of believing it unquestioningly. I didn’t read the definitions thoroughly because I’ve done a lot of that before, but it sounds like your friend is an agnostic atheist. It’s more of an “and” than an “or” considering one deals with belief and one deals with knowledge. I think everyone should say they’re agnostic because really, no one knows for sure even if they’re an atheist or a theist.


  4. David K says:

    Atheist is from the Greek word Atheos. 🙂


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