What’s the difference between agnostic & atheist?

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What is the difference between agnostic and atheist? I hear these terms used quite a bit, but I have to be honest, I’m not entirely clear on the difference. ┬áCan you tell me what makes an agnostic, and what makes an atheist?

  1. Freedom of choice

    The United States was a country founded on the idea of freedom, including the freedom of religion — freedom to practice the religion of your choice and worship the god(s) of your choice, even if that meant none at all.

    While the “none of the above” option wasn’t particularly common in early US history, as time moves along so do beliefs, opinions, and knowledge, and so the agnostics and atheists have become more vocal and numerous in the last 100 years or so.

    Of course, without some definition and perspective, these are just words — so let’s take a look at some definitions.

    By the book

    According to dictionary.com, an agnostic is defined as:

    A person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

    In short, not a person who actively does not believe in a god or higher power, but feels that the existence of God(s) can neither be proven nor disproven. They are people who believe that, as the late Carl Sagan so eloquently put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    On the other hand, dictionary.com defines an atheist as:

    A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    An atheist, then, straight up absolutely does not believe in God(s), no ambiguousness or waiting for evidence — not that the truth is unknowable, but that the truth is, God doesn’t exist.

    More than semantics

    The difference between the two may seem like a lot of hair-splitting to most, but among these two groups the division can be almost as large as the gap between atheists and believers.

    One could consider that the agnostic view is slightly more “scientific,” in the sense that existence can neither be definitively proven nor disproven using the scientific method.

    On the other hand, one could argue that the atheists’ point is — as there is a scientific explanation for the formation of the universe, galaxy, stars, planets, and life — that God(s) doesn’t exist — because science explains everything.

    In short

    Agnostic: Neither believes nor disbelieves; a skeptic.

    Atheist: Does not believe in a higher power, period, end of story.

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