My question is about the presence of God in people`s lives. If we reject the form of God as a supernatural being with forces of punishing people, or providing them with afterlife rewards, are we closer to the atheism or agnosticism? At last, how close are atheism and agnosticism?


9 Answers 9


It's easy to conceive of a God that doesn't punish people and doesn't directly interfere with whatever afterlife they may or may not have. Rejecting one idea of God is neither atheism nor agnosticism. Many people who are not atheists or agnostics reject the idea of Zeus or Odin, after all.

As far as how close atheism and agnosticism are, it depends on the definitions you're using, since I haven't seen consensus on them. Atheism is sometimes considered to be the belief that there is no God, and sometimes a state of not believing in God (i.e., not being a theist). In the second sense, agnostics would be atheists, but not in the first sense.


One deals with faith, the other with knowledge

Using the definition of atheism as presented by modern atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, atheism is the rejection of theism, and theism in turn is: faith-based arguments and/or doctrine.

I prefer to use this definition because to define "theism" / "atheism" as "the (lack of) belief in a god" runs into the problem of defining what a "god" is, and what "belief in" that supposed god entails. It also encounters problems when we are dealing with non-deistic religions or religions were the supposed "god" is quite clearly human, such as Shinto and Buddhism.

But no matter if you accept Hitchens's / Fry's definition, or if you use the fuzzy traditional definition, we find that theism and atheism deals with faith, that is to say belief without evidence.

Agnosticism on the other hand deals with knowledge.

Agnosticism is: to assume that the divine/supernatural is not, or cannot be, known.

This means that the two are not connected. This is especially clear with Stephen Fry's argument above — which was made by other atheists such as Hitchens and Bertrand Russel as well — since it demonstrates even knowing the existence of a god and its will does not mean that they accept the faith-based argument/doctrine; they will/would not follow the claimed will of a god on the mere premise that the god existed.

In other words you be can an...

  • Agnostic atheist: "Since we do not know the will of the divine we should not form our morals and ethics based on any assumptions of a divine will"

  • Non-agnostic atheist: "I know that the Emperor of Japan exists and is considered a god, but I reject their proclamations"

  • Agnostic theist: "I do not know if the divine exists but I find faith-based arguments such as sacred texts and the proclamations of holy authorities compelling and therefore think they should be the foundation of our ethics and morality"

  • Non-agnostic theist: "Since God/Allah/the Dalai Lama/the Great Leader exists/existed we should comply with their will"


Atheism and agnosticism answer two separate questions and are not mutually exclusive.

Atheism is the stance on belief and agnosticism is the stance on knowledge.

  • Notice the root of both words:
    • a-theist - "not belief"
    • a-gnostic - "not knowledge"

If one is asked the question:

Do you believe in X god?

Answering "no" makes you an atheist in respect to X god.

If one is asked:

Do you know X god exists?

Responding by saying "I don't know" would make you an agnostic with respect to X god.

It is thus possible to be an agnostic atheist, disbelieving in all gods, but not asserting that gods cannot exist. Likewise, it is possible to be a gnostic theist, and dogmatically insist that a god does exist, both through one's belief and perceived knowledge. There are also gnostic atheists and agnostic theists as well.


Welcome, Fred! It's easy to get some of these terms confused. Here are practical distillations of Wiktionary's definitions:

Atheism is ONE'S OWN lack of belief in deity OR belief in no deity.

Agnosticism is ONE'S OWN lack of belief in deity AND lack of belief in no deity -- "I don't know".

Theism is ONE'S OWN belief in deity.

Antiatheism is opposition (generally hostile) to OTHERS' atheistic beliefs.

Antiagnosticism is opposition (generally hostile) to OTHERS' agnostic beliefs.

Antitheism is opposition (generally hostile) to OTHERS' theistic beliefs.


The rejection of belief in deity is anti-theism. If you rejected a position which claimed knowledge of or belief in "God as a supernatural being with forces of punishing people, or providing them with afterlife rewards" then your rejection woul be "anti" that position.

How close are atheism and agnosticism?

Per the morphology of the term, atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in deity. The position makes no knowledge claim, it is merely the lack of belief in a specific thing: deity.

Likewise, agnosticism is a lack of knowledge regarding deity. Agnosticism claims ignorance where deity is concerned.

Any combination of the two positions re: belief or knowledge is plausible: atheism, theism, gnosticism, agnosticism.

If someone who identifies as an atheist is having a meaningful dialogue about deity, it can be said that they believe in deity inasmuch as they are engaged in that meaningful dialogue. Keep in mind the distinction between the position and the person.

Lastly, faith is such that no knowledge is required - whether faith in deity, or faith that the sun will set over the western horizon as usual.

  • @MichaelK you have mis-read the question and my answer. The same way agnosticism is ignorance (lack of knowledge) re: deity, atheism is lack of belief in deity - this is simply etymological and morphological fact. Atheism is not the "reject[ion of] belief and faith-based argument." That may be part of identifying as an atheist, but again - atheism is simply the lack of belief in deity.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 18:49
  • You are technically correct; there could be a person that has never been exposed to other people's belief, nor the imperative to believe, and thus never been given the opportunity to reject belief. But I dare say that the number of people to which this applies is very small.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 18:54
  • @MichaelK in addition to distinguishing atheism from an atheist, I recommend you distinguish "lack of belief" from "lack of belief in deity."
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 19:04
  • Lack of religious belief, lack of religious faith.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 19:52

Logical priority of the concept of God

Agnosticism and atheism can only arise after questions are answered or assumptions made about the nature of God. That nature is too big a challenge to take up properly here. Philosophers tend to regard God, if there is a God, as a perfect being. Whether there could be a perfect being who none the less was not God is an issue I cannot deal with here. 'Perfection' encompasses, I take it, omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.

These remarks are not adequate but they do make the essential point that you cannot be an agnostic or an atheist about God unless you attribute some nature to God. I settle for 'perfection'.

There's another blind spot in the concept of God. Both deism and theism assume God's perfection - omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. Theism adds the extra elements of a being who or which created the universe, intervenes in human affairs and in some manner or means communicates with us. Deism in contrast assumes a God who or which created the universe but has no concern with the universe after its creation. Both are concepts worth discussing but I assume that agnosticism and atheism centre on theism.

I infer this from your theistic, non-deistic, language : you talk of God as a supernatural being with forces of punishing people, or providing them with afterlife rewards. This is certainly the concept of a God who intervenes in human affairs, and why intervenes (why not ?) in the form of punishment and reward ?


I take this to be the position, at least typically and in ordinary philosophical usage, that

It looks ... as though there is some reason to believe that God exists (in the form, say, of one of the classical arguments for God's existence); but it also looks as though there is [equal] evidence that God does not exist (in the form of the ... argument from evil); and whenever there is [such] evidence that a given proposition, p, is true and {such equal] evidence that it is false, [agnosticism is the supension of] judgement with respect to p. (Clement Dore, 'Agnosticism', Religious Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec. 1982), pp. 503-507: 503. Text amended)

So the central point about agnosticism is that it is a suspension of judgement on grounds of (what is taken to be) equal evidence for and against the existence of God. The evidence may be different for different people but the differentia, the distinguishing mark, of agnosticism is suspension of judgement on the grounds of equal evidence for and against. Call this completely impartial agnosticism. (You'll see why below.)


Let's now take account of a taxonomy which Richard Dawkins introduces. This is not to endorse it; it will merely help fix ideas :

Fundamental to Dawkins' argument for atheism is his taxonomy of positions on the problem of God. Dawkins is careful to draw distinctions on a scale between "strong theism" ("100 percent probability of God"); "de facto theism" ("very high probability but short of 100 per cent"); "agnostic but leaning towards theism" ("higher than 50 per cent but not very high"); "completely impartial agnosticism" ("exactly 50 per cent"); "agnostic but leaning towards atheism" ("lower than 50 per cent but not very low"); "de facto atheism" ("very low probability, but short of zero"); and "strong atheism". (J. Angelo Corlett, 'Dawkins' Godless Delusion', International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jun., 2009), pp. 125-138: 127; R. Dawkins, Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. New York: Houghton Miff : 50-1.)

Terminological finesse and the Greek 'α'

Dawkins' taxonomy is useful but it lacks finesse and sidesteps an ambiguity in the use of 'atheism'. It is also too strong. An atheist need not claim that s/he knows there is no God; it is sufficient that s/he *believes' there is no God. This is the 'too strong' bit. Now for the etymology.

Although present usage in general is not answerable to etymology, there is enough appeal to etymology in present debates (not least on PSE) for reference to it to be unavoidable. At the root of the matter is the Greek prefix, 'α'. This covers and includes both 'without' or 'lacking' and 'not'. Really? Yes, really: and it matters. Etymologically an atheist can be a person who is merely without a belief in God; they may never have heard of God and have no equivalent concept. Call this negative atheism. It does not appear to be philosophically interesting.

In contrast someone may believe that there is no God - that God does not exist. Call such belief positive atheism. A positive atheist has heard of God all right : the concept of God has not escaped them but they will have no truck with it. Nothing instantiates it. God no more exists than the square circle does or the gryphon of ancient mythology. This is the positive atheist's position.

It's clear that Dawkins has positive atheism in mind when he identifies it with the position that 'I know [believe] there is no God'. This take on atheism is philosophically interesting.


The agnosticism I described above is, as I said, completely impartial agnosticism ("exactly 50 per cent"). This is not compatible with positive atheism as Dawkins defines it : "I know [believe] there is no God". But agnostic but leaning towards [positive] atheism ("lower than 50 per cent but not very low") is compatible with [positive] atheism. It grants that the probability of there being a God is lower than the probability of there not being one. This is closer to [positive] atheism than to strong theism or to de facto theism.


How many ways can we get the number 4 for example? Here are some: ◘ 1+1+1+1 ◘ 2 to the power of 2 ◘ the imaginary numbers ◘ ...

So, regarding the concept of "god"/"goddess"//"God"/"Goddess"//"whatever" we have many "antecedents" that could leads to it simply because of the nature of our brain. The Theist position says one set of things, the Deist position says another set of things, the Atheist position says one set of things... in the end of the recursive (through language signifier) we might come to the conclusion that we do not know YET. If that is the case Agnostic could be the most rational heuristic...

After all we could think that time reversal invariance could be negative... ☺ In the same way not everything that nature gives to us is good not everything that tradition gives to us is good, meditate on the picture... enter image description here

  • 1
    And yet tradition is a part of nature.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 16:41
  • So accurate your comment. Sometimes I wonder if this step of this level of conscience that lead us to be able to transfer information through culture (tradition included) plus the "digitization possibilities" could a "similar" break that happened from non-organic to organic. What do you think @Mr.Kennedy?
    – KwanzaKymi
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 5:41

To me it is simple, if you believe in a supernatural deity you are a theist. If you do not believe in a deity you are an a-theist.

An agnostic might say they don't know if there is a god or not. But knowing has nothing to do with it because no one can know if there is a deity. Thus it boils down to a belief and you either believe or you don't. So agnosticism, to me, is atheism.


If we believe in god to any degree, regardless of the nature of that belief, we are in contradiction of the only tenet of atheism, which is that no such being exists. We are simultaneously in contradiction of the only tenet of agnosticism, which is having a belief regarding the matter in the first place. Such a belief, as you describe it, would theoretically not put you any "closer" towards either camp as it would still be in direct violation of their only respective principles.

This is the most direct answer that comes to mind without a clearer definition of "close".

That being said- I think it'd be helpful to note what camp this brings you into the domain of, and that is Deism, which is a subtype of theism. Defined as

belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe. The term is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.

"Intervention" is often considered to include the direct rewards/blessings and punishments (including afterlife)

  • ...argument to edit just based on being accurate given the common case, if so, how do we know it's the common case? Legitimately curious. Lastly, does the spirit of the answer rest on your interpretation of the nature of the labels and their assignment in this case? Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 23:48
  • Thank you for taking the time to answer. Unfortunately Id still have to ask a few questions before I'd consider editing. Does the answer rest on the nature of tenets then? Is a tenet always explicitly passed down by an authoritative body (i.e. organised religion) or can they be perceived to exist? If not, why? If so, I'll have to refer to my previous, unanswered question, It seems that your technical criticism depends on the assumption that nobody says "I want to be an atheist" and then seeks out becoming one by converting their beliefs such that they meet the requirements. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 9:57
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 9:58
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 6:03
  • Chats not working for me as I said. The discussion was over, in what way did this help? Though I appreciate your attempt to, I just want to understand the rationale behind the decision as I'm becoming frustrated with this platform and these kinds of technically correct but practically unnecessary decisions, I want to at least understand more clearly why these kinds of actions are taken. Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 13:28

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