A recent survey on religion caused a stir when it revealed that many Americans lack some basic knowledge about their own religious faiths. Another provocative finding indicated both atheists and agnostics are surprisingly knowledgable about a variety of religions.
This prompts us to address a commonly-asked question: What is the difference between someone who defines themselves as “atheist” and a professed “agnostic?”
There is a key distinction. An atheist doesn’t believe in a god or divine being. The word originates with the Greek atheos, which is built from the roots a- “without” + theos “a god”.
(You may also be interested in our explanation of what “amen,” one of the key words of faith and prayer, literally means. The answer is here.)
However, an agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in a god or religious doctrine. Agnostics assert that it’s impossible for human beings to know anything about how the universe was created and if divine beings exist.
Agnosticism was coined by biologist T.H. Huxley and comes from the Greek agnostos, which means “unknown or unknowable.”
To complicate matters, atheists and agnostics are often confused with theists and deists.
A theist is the opposite of an atheist. Theists believe in the existence of a god or gods.
(One place where science and spirituality intersect is the concept of the “God Particle.” Learn what that means, here.)
Like a theist, a deist believes in God. But a deist believes that while God created the universe, natural laws determine how the universe plays out.
Deists are often connected to Isaac Newton’s Clockwork Universe theory, where the universe is compared to a clock that has been wound up and set in motion by God but is governed by the laws of science.
Are there any questions of religion or spirituality you would like us to define or explore? Let us know.