Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? As with most words, the answer lies in the etymological origins of the words.

Atheist stems, through atheism, from the French word athéisme, which pertains to a lack of belief in God, or in any deity. (Here, the antonymic a- is linked to theism, which means “belief in God” or “belief in gods.”) An agnostic, by contrast, is one who does not know, and perhaps believes it is impossible to know, whether God or gods exist. (Here, the antonymic a- is linked to gnostic, meaning “one who knows,” ultimately from the Greek term gignōskein, meaning “to know.”) Agnostic has also developed a nonreligious sense of “nonspecific” or “nonaligned,” as when referring to software that operates regardless of which platform of hardware on which it is installed.

The central element in atheist is also seen in theology (“study of religion”) and theocracy (“rule by religion”) and is the basis of the name Theodore, which means “god-given,” and the root of agnostic is also seen in gnostic (which refers, when capitalized, to a school of philosophy) and diagnosis and prognosis.

A related term is apostate, which denotes someone who renounces a belief; the term can also refer to defection from or abandonment of a political or social group; the origin of the term is the Greek word aphistasthai, which means “revolt.” (The condition of being an apostate is called apostasy.)

Other words pertaining to a lack of belief (or of the “correct” belief) include gentile, heathen, and pagan. Gentile stems from the Latin root gens, meaning “nation,” and refers to someone not of the Jewish faith, a non-Mormon, or a nonbeliever in general. (Gentile is cognate with gentle, which literally means “civilized.”) Heathen, likely ultimately from Gothic, in English came to mean someone living outside of civilization (from heath, meaning “uncultivated land”) and therefore outside the religion of the civilization, with a connotation of inferiority.

Pagan is popularly thought to have derived from the same sense (from the Latin term paganus, meaning “rustic (person)”), but it probably stems from another meaning of the term, Roman military slang for civilians and clumsy recruits equivalent to the nautical slur landlubber. (An obsolete cognate is paynim, used by Christians during the Crusades in Europe to refer to a follower of Islam.)

Then there is infidel, which specifically refers to one who holds religious beliefs different from what is regarded as the true religion (the term, from Latin, means “unfaithful”—or, more accurately, “not of the faithful”—and is related to fidelity) and the term giaour, rarely used in English, which is ultimately from Persian by way of French and refers to one who is not Islamic.

An idolater, meanwhile, is one who worships idols (or the “wrong” idols); the word is also used in a secular sense to refer to someone who uncritically reveres a person undeserving of the adulation. (The practice of an idolater is idolatry, and the adjectival form is idolatrous.)

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1 Response to “Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates”

  • Richard Wheeler

    Great article. I know the line has to be drawn — many more words could be covered — but I think it needs one more word.

    ‘Heretic’ differs from ‘apostate’, from the writer’s perspective, in that a heretic introduces false teachings (‘heresies’) and is either a false member of the religion or draws people away to another religion. An apostate, in contrast, departs from vital teachings of the religion and may seem to have started out as a true member.

    To most people, ‘pagan’ has come to refer to the European religions that preceded Christianity. Because some of those who have revived such religions claim the term for themselves, a writer should dig a little deeper and use a more specific term, if applicable.

    The Biblical writers gave ‘idolatry’ a broader meaning. An idol is anything that receives an inordinately high priority. Thus, one can commit idolatry with money, physical pleasure, career, study, or recreation.

    A follow-up article could collect terms that indicate agreement with a religion, starting with ‘orthodox’.

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