Atheism and Agnosticism

There is a common misconception about the definition of atheism. Many perceive an atheist as someone who believes that God does not exist (i.e. there’s no God.) — which is not necessarily true.

Let’s consider the term theist first. A theist is someone who believes in God. If you think of this particular belief (there’s a God) as a metaphysical entity=A, then A exists in the mind of a theist. While in an atheist’s mind that belief simply does not exist. This does not necessarily mean that an atheist believes that there’s no God.

There are two possible opposites of belief  (1) disbelief, and (2) absence of belief. The first one is active denial. While the second one is a mere passive position. Normally when one hears the term atheist, they think about the 1st position (i.e. disbelief in God). Position (1) is called active atheism, while (2) is referred as non-theism. Generally, (1) and (2) are lumped together and the combined category is tagged as atheism. But it’s important not to forget that an atheist (defined this way) can belong to either (1) active atheism, or (2) non-theism. Active theist affirms the non-existence of God, while a non-theist rejects theism. 

Another misconception is that agnosticism and atheism/theism are mutually exclusive.

While theism (or atheism) is about belief, agnosticism, on the other hand, is about knowledge. A person who knows for sure that God exists is a gnostic. And a person who doesn’t claim to know whether God exists or not is an agnostic.

Contrary to common understanding, a person can be both: a theist and an agnostic. A believer without claiming to know for sure if God exists or not is both. Similarly you can be an atheist as well as an agnostic. In fact, being an agnostic  can be a reason why someone is also an atheist (i.e. he lacks the belief, because he’s not sure.) 

On religious subjects, the only world religion that’s firmly agnostic – Buddhism – is of Indian origin. A particular school of thought in Buddhism, called Theravada, a predominant religion in Shri Lanka, is actually non-theist. In Hinduism too, the Carvaka philosophy of skepticism and materialism (also known as Lokayata), which originated in the 6th century, is classified as a nastika (i.e. atheist) system. Jainism also rejects the beliefs in a personal creator God.

Amartya Sen has explored the heterodoxy of Indian religious beliefs in his fascinating book The Argumentative Indian. I take the following passage from his book: The so-called ‘song of creation’ (or the ‘creation hymn’, as it is sometimes called) in the authoritative Vedas ends with the following radical doubts: 

Who really knows?

Who will here proclaim it?

Whence was it produced?

Whence is this creation?

The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.

Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen –

perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –

the one who looks down to it, in the highest heaven,

only he knows –

or perhaps he does not know.

[From Rigveda. English translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, in Rigveda: An Anthology.]


10 responses to “Atheism and Agnosticism

  1. I am married to an atheist, and he believes when you’re dead, you’re dead. Nothing after that, no rebirth, no heaven, no hell, no nothing. It doesn’t matter how you define it, it matters how an atheist perceives it. Right?

  2. vishal12

    Yes, how an atheist perceives it – that’s what ultimately matters to him/her. The saying “All happy families are happy in the same way, but all unhappy families are different in different way” could be applied to theists and atheists as well. People who believe in God don’t feel the need for any proof of His existence, his faith is enough. But there are probably many different reasons and rationalizations for being an atheist.

  3. “While in an atheist’s mind that belief simply does not exist. Note that this does not necessarily mean that an atheist believes that there’s no God”

    Aren’t you contradicting yourself here? If you consciously accept that a concept of God is non-existent for you then how can you believe that the God might be existing for others? Then either you are wrong or they are wrong. A person who is unsure of God’s existence (with his own limited knowledge about the world) is an agnostic not an atheist.

  4. vishal12


    I knew this post was going to be confusing – because the subject I was trying to tackle is complicated.

    An example might help. Let’s assume that we decide to call those folks who believe that mango tastes good as Mango-Lovers. And let’s say we decide to call all others as non-Mango-Lovers. Now, the non-Mango-Lovers group actually contains two different sub-groups: (1) those who has tasted Mango and doesn’t believe that Mango tastes good, and (2) those who had just never tasted Mango. In the minds of the first group, the *belief* that Mango doesn’t taste good exists. But in the minds of the second group, related belief just doesn’t exit. (they might not have seen Mango in their lives, or it might be that they just haven’t thought of tasting it – because they are busy enjoying other fruits!)

    Compare these two sub-groups the ones from my post: (1) non-belief, and (2) absence of belief.

    I think, the problem (of definitions) exists because we decided to divide the whole world into theist (Mango-Lovers) and non-theists (non-Mango-Lovers), while conveniently forgetting the fact that those who are not theists could be naturalists, darwinists etc. (i.e. busy enjoying fruits other than the mango).

    Does that help? If not, may be the following article can throw some more light:

  5. Well, this is all pretty subjective isn’t it? The Non- mango lovers (i.e. the first sub-group), they might not love the mangos but they for sure know that a mango exists and it has a particular taste in contrast to the other group who doesn’t “know” the taste of mangoes. If a person says that he/she has “realised” God sometime in their life , but still have their doubts(like the first sub-group) then that person cannot be an atheist, only an agnostic. But if a person is a deist like Einstein or a Darwinist or a naturalist, he should be called by those respective names instead of being confused with an atheist. Only a person who has rejected the presence of the supernatural can be called an atheist. If you believe that there is considerable room in your mind for doubt about the non-existence of a super power then shouldn’t you call yourself an agnostic?

  6. vishal12


    You say “Only a person who has rejected the presence of the supernatural can be called an atheist.”

    To me, this definition automatically makes all atheists irrational. I mean how could one be certain about the non-existence of something like the supernatural? How could one prove that something does NOT exit?

    My point #1 is that all atheists are not irrational. Let’s look at the definition from Wikipedia: Atheism, as an explicit position, can be either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. So you see, there are two sub-groups here (within atheists): the first sub-group, to me, is irrational. While the second one is a not.

    Point #2 is agnosticism and theism/atheism are NOT mutually exclusive categories. One can have considerable amount of doubt in his/her mind about the proof of God’s existence, but he/she can still (think that it’s beyond the grasp of human mind and) believe in God… i.e. an agnostic as well a theist. Similarly, one can be an agnostic as well as an atheist.

  7. Francis Bacon, the famous philosopher, has rightly said that a little knowledge of science makes man an atheist, but an in-depth study of science makes him a believer in God. Scientists today are eliminating models of God, but they are not eliminating God.

  8. Vishal

    Thanks for your comments Navedz.

    Science and religion works on totally different levels. Science is all about proofs & facts. While religion is based on faith which is beyond truth/fact/proof. And that’s where *my* problem with religion starts…

    Anyways, Francis Bacon actually said “”a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Philosophy, not science.

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