Comment: Non-theist, Anti-theist and Agnostic

The meaning of atheism creates disputes even amongst atheists. The two most popular definitions are (1) disbelief in god(s) and (2) rejection of the existence of god(s). It’s rightfully argued, I think, the second meaning really needs a more specific concept or definition of god to deny. So if we are talking about the classical definition of the Christian god, then someone can reasonably argue rejection based on the logical incoherence of the collection of omni…’s that their god is supposed to be. For good measure also throw in the problem of evil.

Steven Schafersman argues that an someone can hold both of these definitions of atheism at the same time. Non-belief against all gods, non-theist as he calls it, and rejection against a specific definition of a god, anti-theist. For that matter the same person could also believe that god(s) or any supernatural presence(s) are by definition unknowable to physical creatures like humans. Check out Steven’s article – its’ good reading.


Alex McCullie

Article: Atheism and Agnosticism – meanings

pdf: Atheism and Agnosticism (right-click to save)

Typically atheism and agnosticism are seen as alternate positions of disbelief in a god. The atheist is perceived as taking the harder line of absolute rejection whereas the agnostic has a more diffident position of uncertainty. Even today agnosticism is probably seen as a more socially acceptable and reflective view.

Amongst atheist communities the meanings of atheism and agnosticism cause considerable debate and angst about which, if any, truly reflect people’s positions. Many dislike the term atheist as a “belief in opposition” and seek alternatives like non-theist, naturalist, physicalist or materialist, free thinker, humanist and non-believer, even though some can have quite different meanings.

Atheism and agnosticism have very different etymologies. Atheism is literally without (“a”) gods (“theos”) from Greek and has a long history of use. Socrates was accused of atheism for not worshipping the gods of Athens. Early Christians were similarly accused by their opponents in Roman Empire. Atheism was usually used as a derogatory term for not believing in the accusers’ gods and not total rejection. Even though agnosticism uses a method of construction – without (“a”) knowledge of the divine (“gnosticism”), it was only coined publicly in1869. Prof Thomas H Huxley, an English biologist, was concerned like many others with the definitive nature of atheism and felt that agnosticism was a more reasoned stance.

Most dictionaries provide two similar but distinct meanings for atheism – a disbelief in god and a denial of the existence of god. For example,
•    Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.

Many writers refer to these positions as weak or passive (“disbelief”) and strong or active (“rejection”). Despite seemingly similar these positions are quite different. Imagine arguing either of these stances with a believer. Holding a weak atheist position requires you to refute any arguments seeking to prove the existence of god. This is similar to not believing in any number of ideas like unicorns, ghosts and Iraqi WMD. The believer has the responsibility to convince. The fact that billions of people believe in a god or gods does not constitute a proof.

Alternatively, supporting strong atheism requires that you refute proofs of god’s existence and, more importantly, prove that god doesn’t exist. Unfortunately as no definitive proof exists one way or the other, this strong position seems ultimately impossible to support. There is a slight wrinkle here, though. A strong atheist could reasonably ask “what do you mean by god?” There are many arguments around the apparent contradictory nature of some conceptions of god, such as the presence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving god with the freewill and existence of evil.

Many of today’s strong atheists prefer to talk about probability rather than certainty of the non-existence of god. Richard Dawkins makes this point in “God Delusion” by describing god’s existence as highly improbable.

Instead of separating atheism and agnosticism I prefer to talk about the belief in existence of god (metaphysics) and claimed knowledge available (epistemology). So a strong atheist would have no belief in god and would also believe that we have certain knowledge of that. The weak atheist would have the same belief but make no claims about knowledge. The typical non-believing agnostic would also not believe in god but have doubts about whether or not it is ultimately unknowable.


Craig, E. 2005, The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London.

Flynn, T. 2007, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, New York

Martin, M. 2007, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Benedict, G. 2008, The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths, Watkins Publishing, London

© 2008 Alex McCullie

Course: Atheism (at CAE) – July 2008 Melbourne, Australia

On Monday 28 July I’ll be running a 5 night public course – introduction to Atheism & Agnosticism – as part of the lifestyles department at Council of Adult Education, Melbourne, Victoria.

Enter the world of atheism and agnosticism with related ideas of secularism, theism, materialism – old and new. How atheism relates to morality, meaning of life, happiness, science, spirituality and death. Each week bring a specific profile of atheist thinkers.

Enrol by phone

Telephone enrolments can only be accepted if you have one of the following credit cards:

  • Mastercard
  • Visa

Phone 9652 0611

8.30am to 6pm Monday to Thursday
8.30am to 5pm Friday

Please have your credit card number, card holder’s name and expiry date ready. It will also assist us if you have your student number ready – if you have participated in a previous course, you will find your student number on your class receipt.

Class details

5 sessions:
Mondays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 28/07/08 to 25/08/08

Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne

Fee: $139.00 - Code: DNS22801


Session 1

What is atheism? Starting with a broad introduction to atheism and agnosticism, including historical perspectives, we also look at related concepts of theism, religion, faith, secularism and materialism. The first profile is ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BCE), one of atomists who believed that the universe consisted on an infinite number of atoms forming matter without any supernatural intervention.

Session 2

Does science and, in particular, evolutionary theory support today’s atheism? How was our world view changed with the publishing of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859? Tonight’s profile is Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), friend of Denis Diderot and David Hume, who was an atheist writer and philosopher during the French Enlightenment.

Session 3

How do atheists see the world without gods? We examine two world views – naturalism and secular humanism. The profile is atheist Robert Ingersoll, a famous and popular orator in the late 19th century US.

Session 4

Can there be a Godless morality? We look at morality, death and personal meaning in a world without God. Simone de Beauvoir, wife of Jean-Paul Sartre, was a highly influential 20th Century writer and philosopher as well as the intellectual precursor to the feminist movement.

Session 5

Where is atheism today? We look at population distributions. Do the successful publications of atheist books mean an increase in acceptance? Or, are there other more serious challenges? What does future hold? Richard Dawkins, British biologist, recently authored God Delusion, a best seller in many countries. He is an outspoken and controversial atheist who regularly attacks religious belief. Dawkins is our final profile.

Alex McCullie