Understanding atheism and agnosticism

Kate Fechter / Washburn Review

The terms atheism and agnosticism are commonly confused by many in today’s society. For the first of many articles on religious beliefs, the two and their differences will be discussed.

The “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” describes atheism as “the denial of the existence of God.” The Romans used the term to describe those who had any religious belief other than their own.

“Agnostic means ‘without knowledge,'” said Brian Thomas, Washburn professor in the department of astronomy and physics. “Functionally, someone who is unsure of whether or not there is a god.”

Thomas has done a lot of research on the topics in his own personal pursuit of answers and refers to himself as a “religious naturalist.” This is essentially a belief that the natural world is all there is. He does enjoy the sense of community that comes with attending a church and attends Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka.

“Think of religious belief as a spectrum,” said Thomas. “On one end of the spectrum are extreme fundamentalist believers; like suicide bombers and less extreme, but still entrenched believers who don’t allow for disagreement. On the other end of the spectrum are militant atheists, who are like the fundamentalist believers only on the opposite side. Religious naturalism is a good general term to describe the end of the spectrum from hard core atheist to agnostic.”

Thomas explained the majority of people’s beliefs fall somewhere in between the two poles. Within atheism and agnosticism there are many variations as well.

The Web site religioustolerance.org describes the many types of agnosticism. There are Agnostic Theists who believe that there probably is a god but his existence cannot be proven. Agnostic Atheists believe that there is probably not a god but his complete non-existence cannot be proven. Empirical Agnostics believe a god may exist but little to nothing can be known about in what form. Finally, Agnostic Humanists are unsure about whether or not there is a god. However, to them the existence or non-existence of a god is irrelevant because they derive their morals and ethics from a secular source and would not change them either way.

The Web site also goes in depth about atheism. A strong atheist, also known as a positive atheist or hard atheist, believes that no deity could possibly exist. Weak atheists, also known as negative atheists, soft atheists or skeptical atheists believe that no deity exists because there is, in their opinion, no proof to the contrary. Apathetic atheists don’t believe in a god but aren’t really concerned either way.

In Topeka, there is a meetup.com group called the Atheist Community of Topeka or ACT. They hold gatherings for people with atheist or agnostic beliefs or questions about these beliefs. Many of their meetings are at the Celtic Fox downtown. Another group with many of the same members from meetup.com is the Recovering from Religion group. This group is for those who were at one time Christian or another faith and have now developed a non-theistic view.

“People may carry a label,” said Thomas. “But they may or may not fall into that label completely or at all depending on your understanding of that label.”

Some books Thomas recommends for those with questions are: “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” by Greg Epstein and “Sense and Goodness Without God,” by Richard Carrier. Thomas said Carrier, who was at Washburn earlier in the semester for the Resurrection Debate, is extensive and comprehensive in his book, covering everything from cosmology to ethics and many other things. He also recommends religiousnaturalism.org for information on naturalism.