Agnostics claim either that it is not possible to have absolute or certain knowledge of God or gods; or, alternatively, that while individual certainty may be possible, they personally have no knowledge of a supreme being.
Atheists have a position that either affirms the nonexistence of gods or rejects theism. When defined more broadly, atheism is the absence of belief in deities, alternatively called nontheism. Although atheists are commonly assumed to be irreligious, some religions, such as Buddhism, have been characterized as atheistic because of their lack of belief in a personal god.
What Do Agnostics and Atheists Believe?
Atheists do not believe in god(s) or religious doctrines. They do not believe an afterlife, whether positive or negative, is at all likely based on available evidence. Prayer is seen as unhelpful, even if well-meaning, with atheists believing humans are responsible for their own well-being (or destruction). Some go further and actively dislike theism, believing that religion has a net negative effect on humanity. People in this group are sometimes called anti-theists.
Agnostics have a vaguer sense of (dis)belief, feeling uncertain about the existence or nonexistence of god(s). While some agnostics believe that they are personally uncertain, others believe it is impossible for anyone to prove or disprove the existence of God. Apathetic agnostics believe the question of the existence of God is irrelevant and unimportant.
Occasionally, atheists and agnostics butt heads over their chosen labels, with atheists criticizing the agnostic label as being too wishy-washy and agnostics criticizing the atheist label for being too divisive in a world filled with religious people.
Many, though not all, atheists and agnostics consider themselves skeptics, freethinkers, and secular humanists, and tend to reject spiritual or pseudoscientific explanations for what they view as scientifically explainable phenomena. However, though they may often shun spiritual explanations, 82% say they still experience spiritual moments where they feel a deep connection to nature and the planet.
Political views vary among agnostics and atheists, but a majority are Democratic-leaning independents who are strong supporters of the separation between church and state. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, 65% of unaffiliated voters voted for Barack Obama, compared to 27% who voted for Mitt Romney.
Spectrum of (Dis)Belief
Agnosticism and atheism are often viewed in terms of how "weak" or "strong," "soft" or "hard," they are — as in, how strong one's convictions are about the issues in question. Richard Dawkins, a famous and controversial evolutionary biologist and atheist, expounded upon this concept, creating a seven-point scale regarding belief in his bestselling book, The God Delusion. This scale is meant to show that belief runs on a spectrum, that many religious people are not fundamentalists (a one on the scale), and that many non-religious people are not "strong" atheists (a seven on the scale). Dawkins' scale is reprinted below:
- Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."
- De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. "I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
- Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
- Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. "God’s existence and nonexistence are exactly equiprobable."
- Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical."
- De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
- Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."
Dawkins has stated he is a "6.9" on the scale.
Who Are Agnostics and Atheists?
About 16% of the world's population is unaffiliated with a religious faith. Countries with large nonreligious population include China, the Czech Republic, France, Iceland, and Australia.
Depending on polling questions, 15-20% of Americans are nonreligious, and over 30% do not regularly attend religious services or feel religion is very important (whether they otherwise identify with a religion or not). Just over one third of all Americans under 30 consider themselves nonreligious. Among scientists, these numbers increase dramatically, with around 50% being nonreligious. The "nones" are somewhat more likely to be young, male, educated, white, and unmarried. They are also more likely to live in the West.
While the rise of the nones is significant, relatively few among the unaffiliated choose to adopt a specific label for their disbelief or disinterest. Nearly 20% of Americans said they were unaffiliated in 2012, but only 3.3% called themselves agnostic, and even fewer, 2.4%, called themselves atheist. The majority of unaffiliated people, 13.9%, identify as "nothing in particular."
How Religions View Disbelief
Religious texts usually have an unfavorable view of nonbelievers. The New and Old Testaments of the Bible advise believers to "be merciful to those who doubt," while also calling nonbelievers "corrupt" and their "deeds" vile. In Revelation, nonbelievers are grouped in with murderers, the "sexually immoral," sorcerers, and liars, all of whom will be sent to hell. The Qur'an is similarly aggressive toward those who do not believe, saying nonbelievers will face punishment, that they should not be befriended, and that they are destined for hell.
With the world's largest religions sometimes opposed to disbelief, it has often been dangerous for nonreligious people to openly discuss their skepticism and disbelief, particularly of a dominant religion. This is especially true in nations with apostasy and blasphemy laws that make disbelief or alternative belief illegal and punishable by fines, time in prison, or even death. As recently as 2012, there were seven countries in the world where, by law, atheists had fewer rights, could be imprisoned, or could be executed.
Such laws (and similar cultural norms) are sometimes enforced. For example, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been publicly whipped for the cyber crime of "insulting Islam" on his website ("Free Saudi Liberals") and for "disobeying his father." He may yet be beheaded. Similarly, in Bangladesh, an atheist blogger was "hacked to death with machetes" for his pro-secular writing.
Along with Muslims, the unaffiliated — in particular, atheists — are the most distrusted, if sizable, minority in the U.S. Polls have consistently shown that atheists are viewed more negatively than religious people, LGBT members, and racial minorities. Most recently, Pew Research released surveys on how various religious and political groups viewed atheists. In most all cases, a majority of all religious groups disliked atheists, and conservatives overwhelmingly said they would be "unhappy" if an immediate family member married an atheist.