I am asking this question because of this question from Islam.SE.

It seems that "unbeliever" can be used for a person "who does not believe" whereas "disbeliever" can be used for a person "who is presented and rejected". The prefix "dis" can be used for rejection (compared to the prefix "un" which can be used for "not" without rejection). So "disbelieve" seems to imply "making a conscious decision" to reject/dismiss something.

How correct is above explanation. Can someone explain in more detail what is, if any, the difference between those two words?

  • I am unfamiliar with 'disbeliever', it sounds like what was meant was 'unbeliever'. Of course M-W has it as well as the other on-line dictionaries, and they don't give an indication as to how common or recognized it is. It might be domain specific language, and so better to ask for clarification there.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 12:57
  • I haven't really heard either in common usage at all. I would assume otherwise that both are simply synonyms for "non-believer". That said, the word "disbelief" is much more familiar to me, however I have never considered it to have a meaning specific to having rejected an idea. I have however considered the word "unbelievable" to have that connotation. Personally, I would consider the three prefixes to be synonymous, and don't expect that any common reader would see the difference unless I specifically made the distinction at the beginning of my writing. Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 17:00

4 Answers 4


That seems a reasonable definition. Unbeliever or non-believer is someone who is outside the faith, either by choice or because they haven't been told. Disbeliever implies a deliberate and definite rejection of the belief.


This would be a reasonable definition in a scientific or generalised philosophical context, but unfortunately religion, where shades of meaning can be vital enough to cause wars, has developed specialised terms. A non-believer is simply somebody who does not share the faith under discussion. An unbeliever, as I understand it, is somebody who has had the chance to believe, but rejected it. An infidel is somebody who follows another faith; both these last two are disparaging, at best. ?Disbeliever is not in common use, because so much would depend on exactly what has been rejected. Rejecting a tradition peripheral to the religion might make you a reformer, unusual but orthodox or perhaps a member of a different sect or denomination; rejecting important dogma might make you a heretic (somebody calling himself a [Muslim, here] but actually not), and it is not objectively clear (at least in a linguistic context) which is which.

  • 1
    Disbeliever is not in common use Agreed. I've never heard of someone being labelled as a "disbeliever".
    – Bob
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 12:21
  • 1
    @Bob, it is used by translators of Quran. Arabic is more refined regarding these concepts, the difference between nonbeliever and disbeliever is important from Islamic perspective.
    – Kaveh
    Commented Aug 16, 2012 at 5:59

I consider myself a non-believer. In this I simply do not have a belief in whatever the object under consideration may be. In religious terms, I am an nonbeliever in God.

I consider this different from an unbeliever. In my philosophy, and unbeliever is the opposite of a believer. A believer has a positive believe in the existence, truth or validity of the object of belief. An unbeliever has a positive belief in the non-existence, non-truthfulness or invalidity of the object of belief.

I would equate an unbeliever with an atheist. However, in a needless act of splitting hairs, I do not view non-belief as the same as agnosticism. As the believer positively believes in the existence of, the athiest positively believes in the non-existence of, the agnostic postively believes in the inability know one way or the other. The non-believer just does not care and has no belief one way or the other.

Existentially, the existence or non-existence of the non-believed in object is irrelevant for the non-believer and does not matter, whether or true or false. The non-believer may find the arguments for or against belief interesting and even intellectually compelling, but inevitably these arguments are simply an exercise in analytical thinking and metaphysical inquiry. They aren't, however relevant, and so do not factor into subsequent decision making.

Believers and unbelievers will deliberately construct other elements of their philosophy and life's vocation from the belief they hold. For non-believers this is not necessary.

  • What about 'disbeliever'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 14:00

"Gnosis" comes from the Greek and means "knowledge." An agnostic is someone who "does-not-know". Though it is strongly connected with religion, it does not necessarily do so. "Gnosis" is "knowing", it is not "believing", but knowing for sure. So, an agnostic is not someone who does not believe, but someone who doesn't know. It is, of course, strongly connected to the people who claimed to know the secrets around Jesus Christ: the Gnostics. Gnosis is a mixture of early Christianity, Platonism and Egyptian religious beliefs. It emerged during the first two or three centuries in Alexandria and around Hermes Trismegistos.

  • Hello, Gerard, and welcome to English Language & Usage. Your response is interesting and well informed, but it doesn't directly address the specific words that the person who posted the question wants to be able to distinguish: unbeliever and disbeliever. Please consider adding a discussion of the difference(s) in meaning of those particular words to your answer.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 18:00

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