Sample Compare and Contrast Essay: Difference of Agnosticism and Atheism

Research PaperReligion
Feb 2, 2022

Religious beliefs have been a part of society since the establishment of civilization and remain an integral aspect of culture . Christianity teaches the value of forgiveness; Islam focuses on the significance of physical and mental health; Buddhism reflects on the idea of purity and spirituality; and Jewish religion emphasizes their God’s ownership of the human body (Estrada et al., 2019). Despite the value of religion , the diverse perspective of humans led to the coinage of the concepts of atheism and agnosticism. Individuals utilize these terms to describe viewpoints that do not align with theism or the belief in a god or gods. However, it is easy to confuse atheism and agnosticism with one another due to their relationship with theism. While there are differences between the concepts, atheism refers to the lack of belief in a god while agnosticism refers to an uncertain stance regarding the existence or non-existence of a god.

Atheism and Agnosticism in Relation to Theism

Atheism and agnosticism are concepts that are related to the belief or non-belief in a god or gods. Individuals tend to define atheism and agnosticism in reference to theism (Draper). As theism is the belief in a god, it serves as the foundation for ideologies that either reject or question its thesis. Atheism directly relates to theism as an opposition to the idea. It argues that there is no god or gods and that religious beliefs have no merit. For agnosticism, it questions theism’s answer to the existence of god. The concept involves consideration of the existence of god and a conclusion that the answer is uncertain (Draper). Theism plays an integral role in the definition of both concepts as it is the basis for the refutation and uncertain perspective of atheism and agnosticism.

How Atheism and Agnosticism Adress the Question: “Does God Exist?”

One of the simpler ways to distinguish atheism and agnosticism is their answer to the question of a god’s existence. According to Draper, atheism answers the question with a firm “no” while agnosticism responds with “I do not know”. These answers illustrate the basic concepts of atheism and agnosticism through simple statements. As atheism answers the question with a “no”, it acts as a propositional denial of a god’s existence while “I do not know” portrays agnosticism’s characterization of the uncertainty and unknowability of a god (Malik).  Atheism's response to the question is a promotion of its denial of god’s existence but also acts as a consensus for the different types of atheism. Alternatively, the agnostic answer illustrates the uncertain point of view which can often lean on atheism or theism, depending on an individual.

Atheism and Agnosticism are not Belief Systems

While individuals define atheism and agnosticism in relation to theism they are not belief systems. This is a common misconception since both concepts are closely related to the belief system of theism. However, it is important to understand that atheism is the lack of belief in a god while agnosticism is a theory of knowledge (“What is the Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism”). Atheism opposes the proposition of a god’s existence and acts as a negation of theism (Draper). This negation can involve the denial or rejection of religious systems which further supports the idea that atheism is not a belief system. Additionally, atheists tend to have varying opinions regarding religion and the existence of a god. Some can be aggressive towards religious beliefs while others accept the superstitious tendencies of religious individuals. These different views can often lead to contradictions between two atheists. For example, a pro-god atheist appreciates the importance of religion while an unfriendly atheist may aggressively act against religion and be hostile towards the church.

For agnosticism, the concept acts as a theory of knowledge in which an individual understands that they cannot prove nor disprove the existence of a god. Agnosticism, similar to atheism, does not have an organized system where individuals follow a set of rules or beliefs. Instead, the concept refers to a neutral point of view concerning religious beliefs. According to Draper, agnostics do not claim a truth but utilize logic and existing knowledge to form the thesis that no one can prove nor disprove the existence of a god. This statement further implies that agnosticism is not a belief system but an educated conclusion to a god’s existence.

Types of Agnostics and Atheists

Since atheism and agnosticism are not belief systems, atheists and agnostics can develop different ideas while still identifying as such. Individuals can define the different ideas of atheists through the following types: positive atheism, negative atheism, New Atheism, friendly atheism, unfriendly atheism, indifferent atheism, pro-god atheism, and anti-god atheism (Draper). While all these types deny the existence of a god, they have different approaches regarding the topic. Anti-god and new atheism promotes an active and aggressive negation of religion while friendly and indifferent atheism condones religious practices. Alternatively, agnosticism does not have many types. Ucl.org described an agnostic theist as an individual that believes in a god but understands that they cannot support their claim while an agnostic atheist denies the existence of a god but also acknowledges that no evidence can support their proposition. While both concepts utilize the term “agnostic”, they align more with theism and atheism than agnosticism. From this, individuals may argue that agnosticism has no subtypes as it mainly refers to the uncertain perspective towards religion.

Approach towards Religion and Religious Practices

Atheists and agnostics greatly differ in their approach to religion. Atheism types, like New Atheism, tend to act as modern movements to critic religion and religious practices (Draper). Individuals like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris actively work to negate religion and oftentimes engage in arguments regarding issues between religion and science, such as evolution versus creation . Other atheism types, such as anti-god atheism and unfriendly atheism have a similar approach to religion. These atheism types describe religion as an offensive and unproductive part of society. They tend to promote the notion that society will progress further upon the eradication of religion. However, pro-god atheism and friendly atheism act in complete opposite to the previous atheism types. These types acknowledge the importance of religion to society and refrain from antagonizing or actively negating religious beliefs. With these, atheism acts as a set of views regarding religion with different approaches to the topic.

For agnostics, they approach religion and religious practices with uncertainty and educated opinions. As mentioned earlier, agnostics tend to utilize logic and proven knowledge to establish a conclusion to the question of a god’s existence. Furthermore, Draper stated that agnostics do not impose their ideas on others. They do not tell atheists that they are wrong nor do they argue that theists are misinformed. Instead, they acknowledge the uncertain characteristic of religion and convinced themselves that they cannot accurately answer the question. Agnostics tend to refrain from engaging in activities that require them to defend or deny religion or non-religion. Of course, there may be some exemption to this since agnosticism is not a belief system and individuals may establish their own ideas about the concept.

Regarding the Afterlife

The concept of life after death is significant in any religious belief but is also a topic of discussion for atheism and agnosticism. Atheism, as a negation of theism, promotes the opinion that there is no afterlife. Todd May, a philosopher and author, stated that he does not believe in the afterlife since he is an atheist but acknowledges that his opinion does not reflect the ideas of other atheists. Similarly, the philosopher Cornel West stated that humans will eventually become food for terrestrial worms (qtd. In Yancy). These statements illustrate the general opinion in atheism that the non-existence of a god implies that there is no afterlife. Concepts like “heaven”, “hell”, and “reincarnation” are mostly from religion and since atheism is the negation of theism, it also denies the concept of the afterlife. In Cornel West’s statement, the philosopher provided a description of the physical changes that a body goes through after death which some can consider an “afterlife”.

Alternatively, agnosticism retains its position of neutrality and uncertainty in the topic of the afterlife. Since agnostics are uncertain of the existence of god, they are also uncertain of the afterlife. However, an agnostic theist or agnostic atheist may have a different opinion regarding the topic. An agnostic theist may prefer the idea of life after death while an agnostic atheist may lean on the notion that there is no afterlife. There is also the factor of near-death experiences which tend to persuade agnostics and atheists to believe in an afterlife (Filippo). Agnostics and atheists that experience near-death events, such as a feeling of detachment to the physical world and seeing strange images, are likely to develop spirituality and even accept religion. Despite this, agnosticism will generally approach the afterlife with uncertainty similar to its response to the existence of god.

Conclusion

The difference between atheism and agnosticism is their stance on the existence of a god. Atheism denies the existence of the god, religious practices, and the afterlife. Agnosticism takes a neutral perspective that is uncertain of the existence of a god and the afterlife. Aside from these, atheism has many types that reflect the different beliefs of atheists regarding religion. Some antagonize religion while others condone its practice. Alternatively, most agnostics refrain from engaging in anti or pro-religion activities and choose to not actively express their opinions. Distinguishing these differences between atheism and agnosticism is important to better understand the contrasting beliefs in human society and establish a progressive and diverse culture.

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Works Cited

Draper, Paul. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=atheism-agnosticism . Accessed 31 January 2022.

San Filippo. “Religious Interpretations of Death, Afterlife, & NDEs”. Faculty Publications. January 2006. https://digitalcommons.nl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=faculty_publications. Accessed 1 February 2022.

Malik, Shoaib. “Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof”. Philosophy, vol. 94, no. 2, 20 April 2018. doi:10.1017/S0031819118000074. Accessed 31 January 2022.

Oppy, Graham. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Cambridge University Press, 31 May 2018. https://www.cambridge.org/core/elements/abs/atheism-and-agnosticism/C0D61CA2D386696A43294D440B7F9C11. Accessed 31 January 2022.

“What is the Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism”. Universal Life Church. 10 January 2020. https://www.ulc.org/ulc-blog/what-is-the-difference-between-atheism-and-agnosticism. Accessed 31 January 2022.

Weir, Kirsten. “What Do You Believe?”. American Psychological Association. 1 July 2020. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/believe#:~:text=Technically%2C%20an%20atheist%20is%20someone,know%20whether%20a%20god%20exists. Accessed 31 January 2022.

Yancy, George. “How Should an Atheist Think About Death?”. The New York Times. 20 October 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/opinion/philosophy-death-atheism.html. Accessed 1 February 2022.

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