Understanding Atheism and Agnosticism: Why Humans Believe or Disbelieve

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There are two terms for nonreligious people or skeptics that are often confused: Atheism and agnosticism. Here’s a look at the differences in these terms and the beliefs associated with them.

Why do we believe or disbelieve?

Ultimately, belief in a god or gods is largely a matter of faith, although there are things people cite as proof. For example, the Bible is full of prophecies that have come true and can be verified through historical fact outside of the Bible.

In today’s world, we have become increasingly materialistic, and as a result, science has come into competition with religion. Science relies only on what can be seen and observed. This presents a problem for the God of the Bible, who exists in a supernatural realm, in some other dimension that we can’t presently observe or measure. But as new discoveries in physics start to point to things like parallel universes and multiple dimensions, it appears that, at some point, science and religion may collide.

Interestingly, some atheist anthropologists will reluctantly admit that there is hardly a tribe or group of people anywhere in the world that does not believe in a God or some type of higher power. It seems to be a natural tendency embedded in human beings to hold such beliefs, as if a natural instinct. That should alert us and we should be questioning why?

What is an agnostic?

An agnostic is a person who believes that a God or gods may or may not exist. This person claims neither faith nor disbelief.

English biologist, T.H. Huxley claims to have invented the word “agnostic,” in order “to denote people who, like [himself], confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence.”

The dictionary puts it this way: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.”

Wikipedia defines it as: the view that “human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.”

However, the latter two definitions aren’t quite accurate. Because some agnostics may believe that things happen but can’t be explained, and they are uncertain as to whether or not they actually are or can be proven true. In other words, an agnostic doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other. They are waiting for something that will either prove to them that a God or gods exists or does not. In the meantime, they are keeping an open mind, although their viewpoint tends to lean more towards God’s nonexistence.

What is an atheist?

“Atheism” means a lack of or a disbelief in the existence of God or gods. The word is a combination of “A” meaning “without” and “theism” meaning “a belief in the existence of a god or gods.”

Some, but not all, atheists also believe in naturalism and/or materialism. Many atheists believe only in science and what can be observed and proven as a repeatable fact.

For atheists the question of God has been answered beyond any doubt in their minds: There is no God.

Why is it important to understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism?

A number of polls show a decline in religion around the world. Much has been made of this and the claim has been exaggerated to a significant degree. In the United States what has declined is “religious affiliation.” and not so much religious belief.

What has risen is the so-called “nones,” those who don’t have a specific religious affiliation, i.e. Catholic or Protestant. This has been exaggerated to imply that “nones” means no religion at all, but that is not the case.

Studies by the Pew Research Center published in 2019 showed that the religiously unaffiliated increased by 10% from 16% in 2007 to 26% in 2018/2019.

What’s more important to pay attention to is that only 2% of Americans claimed to be atheist in the US in 2009, and that number only rose by 2% to 4% in 2018/2019. Only 3% of Americans claimed to be agnostic in 2009 and that rose to 5% in 2018/2019, also an increase of 2 percent.

In the 2019 Pew Research Center study of Americans and Christianity, 84% of the silent generation (1928-1945) identified as Christians, as did 76% of baby boomers (1946-1964), 67% of Generation X (1965-1980), and 49% of Millennials (1981-1996).

One thing that this study makes abundantly clear is that religious belief is declining in America among the younger population. Generation Z was not included in the study.