In the context of religious and spiritual belief—or non-belief—there are two terms that often cause confusion: atheist and agnostic. But these terms do not mean the same thing. Read on to learn the distinction.
agnostic vs. atheist
There is a key distinction between these terms. An atheist doesn’t believe in the existence of a god or divine being. The word atheist originates with the Greek atheos, which is built from the roots a- (“without”) and theos (“a god”). Atheism is the doctrine or belief that there is no god.
In contrast, the word agnostic refers to a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in a god or religious doctrine. Agnostics assert that it’s impossible to know how the universe was created and whether or not divine beings exist.
The word agnostic was coined by biologist T.H. Huxley and comes from the Greek ágnōstos, which means “unknown or unknowable.” The doctrine is known as agnosticism.
Both atheist and agnostic can also be used as adjectives. The adjective atheistic is also used. And the word agnostic can also be used in a more general way outside the context of religion to describe stances that do not adhere to either side of an opinion, argument, etc.
theist vs. deist
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.
Deists are often connected to Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe theory, which compares the universe to a clock that has been wound up and set in motion by God but is governed by the laws of science.
Religious or not, you likely say goodbye on a daily basis. But were you aware of the word’s holy history?