People often think atheists and agnostics are interchangeable terms, but really they mean two very different things. Knowing the difference between the two may not make much of a difference in our every day Christian walks, but it can make a difference when we have conversations with one or the other.
What is an Atheist?
An atheist is one who denies the existence of God, but atheism has varying degrees. Some atheists not only believe God does not exist, but they believe that no gods exists at all. The Strong Atheist believes there is no God or gods and that they cannot exist, period. However, a weak atheist takes the stance that there may be a God or gods that exist, but he or she does not actually believe in them. Atheism is, in itself, a belief system. It can almost be called a faith in a lack of a god. Many atheists question why God would allow such bad things to happen in the world, and they use the evils that surround us as proof that there is no higher being guiding our movements and our lives.
What is an Agnostic?
While an atheist does not believe God exists, an agnostic believes that it's impossible to know if God exists. Some have a belief that there is some sort of God out there, but does not adhere to the One True God as most Christians do. Others just maintain a skepticism about God. The term was created by Thomas H. Huxley, who was a 19th-century British scientist who believed his agnosticism was a method. He believed that accepting God as real meant proving his existence. Agnosticism can be likened to science. There is proof needed to believe something to be true. While they may agree with atheists and question why a god would not allow bad things to happen in the world, the agnostic often remains open waiting for proof.
Does It Really Matter?
In both the case of atheists and agnostics, there is a clear lack of belief. So does it really matter what a person calls himself/herself? From a simplistic standpoint, we can just say they don't believe, so that's how we approach a theological discussion with them. It's not that simple. Agnostics don't really like to be considered atheists, and vice versa. Strong atheists often believe that Agnosticism is just a subset of atheism, and they don't necessarily agree with the belief.
In another way, what they believe does not impact moral choices. Some Christians believe that atheists and agnostics cannot live moral lives, because they don't believe in God. But in fact, many atheists and agnostics live very moral lives. While God guides all of our decisions, and we rely on His moral compass, atheists and agnostics use more social norms to make good choices.
Knowing the difference also matters when atheists and agnostics get into deeper discussions, especially in the area of faith. Just like we have reasons to choose our Christian faith, atheists and agnostics also have reasons for choosing not to believe. Knowing the difference can help us understand their rejection of God. It helps us know the person better, and it allows us to have honest discussions about why we made the choices we do.
Are These Beliefs Permanent?
The idea that once someone believes in something they believe throughout their lives is false. We watch Christians walk away from Jesus every day. It is a sad truth of belief systems that we sometimes face things that make us turn away from something we hold dear. Just as Christians walk away from their faith, atheists and agnostics also can change their minds about their beliefs. We need to allow God to move in ways that make a difference. Remember, God gives us all free will to choose Him. That also means some will not choose God.