Atheism vs. Agnosticism

When I was in church as a teenager, the pastor started a series of sermons and bible study lessons called Back to Basics, where he would teach the basic topics of the Lutheran faith. It was a good way to incorporate new members while getting everyone on the same page when it came to more complicated details of their beliefs. Borrowing from this idea, I’d like to do the same thing with this blog; I’ve covered a lot of atheism-related topics so far, like objective morality, Pascal’s Wager, and the paradoxes of prayer and free will. There are a lot of other topics, though, that I’ve only briefly touched on in other posts, but I’d like to spend some time going into more detail on them. The first topic in my Atheist Back to Basics series is going to be that of agnosticism and atheism.

It seems that most people who have done any research on atheism and related topics already know how an atheist differs (or doesn’t differ) from an agnostic. When I read apologetics books, the authors are usually about fifty-fifty on whether or not they really understand what the words actually mean (but when apologists are wrong, they’re generally very wrong).

More commonly, I see the words atheist and agnostic confused with one another by people who identify as one or the other but don’t really spend that much time researching their technical definitions. It’s generally accepted in this case that an atheist more intensely disbelieves, or hates, God, or religion, or what have you. I remember seeing a TV show many years ago in which a character told someone that she and her daughter are atheists, but the daughter cut in to specify, “You’re an atheist, mom; I’m just an agnostic,” as if to show that she’s not quite as guilty of unbelief as her mom is. I find that agnostics usually find it necessary to point this out because “We just can’t know for certain whether or not a god exists. And I certainly don’t know; therefore, I’m agnostic.”

This is perfectly good logic. As a matter of fact, I’m an agnostic. I’d even bet that you are one, too, even if you’re a Christian theist, or you’ve been a convinced atheist all your life. Why? Because my agnostic quote was right. We can’t know. God is unprovable. You can’t prove he exists, but you can’t prove he doesn’t. And no atheist should be trying to claim otherwise.

Does this mean I’m a fifty-fifty agnostic? We can’t know if God exists, so it’s a useless point to try to find out? Obviously not. It’s always a good, and often fascinating, practice to try to get all of your beliefs as close to the truth as possible. In this regard, I believe that agnosticism is stagnant. It means you haven’t really tried to reach the answer, because I’d bet that if you had, you would have been swayed at least a bit one way or another. And since everyone is agnostic because no one knows for sure, whichever way your beliefs sway could determine whether you are a theist or an atheist (and I know there are other options such as deist or pantheist but I’m simplifying it here because I believe that these two could be put under the umbrella of theist).

dawkins_scaleWhen I was moving away from pure agnosticism as a teenager and towards atheism in college, I tried to compartmentalize my belief by imagining it as a spectrum: maybe now I’m 75% atheist but 25% agnostic. (This was back before I knew any good rebuttals to the argument for morality or the Kalam cosmological argument or fine-tuning.) I think this is mostly a semantic issue, but I would say that no spectrum or percentages are really necessary. This is partly because I think the Dawkins scale works just fine, but mostly because atheism and agnosticism aren’t mutually exclusive. (Note: you will have a very hard time finding any atheist who claims to be a 7 on this scale; almost every atheist I’ve met, and even Dawkins, per his admission when introducing the scale, is between 6 and 7, most people being 6.9.)

If you clicked on this post because you just wanted a final answer to your question of “How are atheism and agnosticism different!?” I must apologize because I’ve probably gone into more detail than you were really expecting. But here’s your answer: atheism is just a disbelief in a god or gods. It’s what you get when someone says, “Hey dude, God exists,” and you respond with, “Err, I don’t quite believe that thing you just said there…” Congratulations, you’re an atheist! Agnosticism, on the other hand, deals with knowledge and whether or not you know for sure whether or not there is a god. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe that you can know; therefore, everyone is an agnostic, even if you think you are positive that God exists.

If you want to know more about atheism and agnosticism, I highly recommend Chapter 2 of Dawkins’ The God Delusion that deals with this in more depth without getting too technical. The section “The Poverty of Agnosticism” starts, in my hardcover edition, on page 46.

I would really love to know any suggestions you have for other things I can explain in my Back to Basics series! So far I’m considering writing on things like the burden of proof within atheism and some of the arguments for the existence of God, but I would really appreciate any other questions I can answer in the future.

35 Replies to “Atheism vs. Agnosticism”

  1. I know one thing, x-ians can tolerate an self identified agnostic, but they absolutely despise a self identified atheist. I have seen this firsthand through the years.

    I agree that even most believers are probably agnostic to some degree, but they can’t afford to let any of that show, for fear of the shunning. I have met many believers who said “what have I got to lose? If I’m right (in my belief) I get the heavenly rewards, if I’m wrong I’ll just die like everyone else” Pascals Wager, in for a penny in for a pound. One simple question renders PW mute, that is “Which god should I believe in, how do I know which one is the true god?”

    I can safely say I have been agnostic since I became aware of the god delusion. I tried to believe a few times, going to church, taking it all in, and leaving myself open to believe, I just could never get it to stick. So I agnostic -ed my way through life.

    When I decided to look into all of the noise about evolution, and became aware of all of the evidence supporting it, and did a good bit of research to understand its concepts and how it works… At some point the light bulb went off, have been atheist ever since. I suppose evolution and the internet both are of the devil 😉

    Somehow my atheist ass and my wife’s deism have managed to get along…

    My first visit here I think, I see a few of my well travelled friends, will hit the follow button. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I guess I would be a 6.9 too because we can’t know for sure, however, all evidence is definitely pointing in the “no God” direction. I try not to get too bogged down by these labels though. When people ask me what I believe it’s that your actions define, for a large part, how your life will be. Good actions generally lead to good things happening to you and bad ones to bad things. That being said: Shit does tend to happen… and there is no explanation for it. A-holes become rich and famous and live forever whilst genuinely good people live in general obscurity and die young. Is there a reason for this? No. It’s just life. Life isn’t meant to be fair, it just is. No matter how long you have here, the fact that you are here is so incredibly improbable, you might as well enjoy it and try to do some good. In the name of the Father or your father, the Son or your son or your Godamned self. Amen :).

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    1. Life is really chaotic and unfair .. but we perceive it unfair because we already have the notion of fairness (how do we know it’s dark if not by knowing light first). This was one of the arguments that CS Lewis used to defend the existence of God. So if we know that evil and chaos exist, doesn’t that mean that good and order also exist? Where does the notion of good and fairness come from? Did we invent it as part of our evolution to bring order to our chaotic existence and survive? These have been the questions in my mind . Not sure if it proves the existence of a higher being.

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  3. Since gnostic/agnostic is a claim about knowledge, and theist/atheist is a claim about belief, they aren’t mutually exclusive. While the Dawkins scale is useful, I think I prefer this grid instead:

    Most atheists I know, including me, would fall into the “agnostic atheist” category.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hmmm… Am still a bit confused about some details… I hope you won’t mind answering my questions.
    1) What exactly makes you as an individual an atheist ?
    2) Could you share the things you enjoy as an atheist ?

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    1. Alright, that doesn’t really relate to the post but if you must know… I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in god. The things I enjoy “as an atheist” are the same things I enjoy “as a person” because being an atheist doesn’t really affect my likes or my dislikes or my personality at large. But, as a person, I enjoy reading, writing, and spending time with my cats and my husband.

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  5. I really liked this and the responses. I strongly agree with what you said, but I am not a fan of Dawkins scale. I prefer to self ID as a ‘convinced atheist’ (per Hitch) and I say ‘there are no gods.’ When asked to prove it, I ask, “Which one.” It is not a position I would expect anyone else to take, but it is mine. And it is clear.
    I agree with agnostic being semi-meaningless because we all are incapable of 100% knowing.
    I also don’t like using the ‘-isms’ because unlike ‘Catholicism or Lutheranism’ they (atheism, etc.) are not religions/sects/denominations. But I have no other way to say it, either.
    If I have any ideas, I will let you know. But I like the concept of ‘basics’ and you did excellent with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A Hitchens fan, me too. Well, he said a lot of things about god’s existence and lack thereof. I’m sure I’ve heard him say, “god does not exist”. I never tire of hearing Hitchens speak. GROG

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  6. Thank you so much, your explanation is very clear & interesting. I personally think the difference between my Christian friends and I is although neither of us can prove God’s existence, they have faith in Him. Some days I feel closer to the Western “God”, while other days I feel a connection with other supernatural powers, but in general, I am a pure agnostic.

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  7. I’m leaning towards the idea that we are living in a simulation. Seems plausible the more I look into it. If this is true then we may be caught in a simulation loop. A simulation of a simulation of a simulation and on and on. There may be an original simulation creator, which you might call a god? But then, we are gods creating the next simulation. On the Dawkins scale that might put me at a 5? I prefer to keep my mind open on this topic.

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  8. I tend to go along with Neil’s comment. However, rather than say I’m “non-religious,” I generally describe myself as a “non-believer.” For me, it’s more descriptive in that I simply don’t accept the existence of any supernatural being.

    However, having said that, I do believe in what I call a Universal Presence. I cover this in my book more expansively, but essentially, I define it as being “infinite and uncreated…not limited by dimensions in any way…the manifestation of a power that cannot be defined…encompasses all time and space…and is everywhere and in every now. It is the mystery of our beingness.”

    A bit esoteric, perhaps, but it works for me. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Everyone familiar with my writing knows I call myself a spiritual atheist. That means I do not believe in the existence of any supernatural being who claims to have created the universe, or even just Earth. Nothing is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, aware of every flap of a butterfly’s wing, or the falling of every hair from my or your head. Therefore I am a 10 on your scale, there is no possibility that such a being or group of beings exist. No possibility whatever.
    But I also believe in life, and that life is ultimately never-ending. Physical life dominates on Earth, but spiritual life dominates in the cosmos, If one believes in an afterlife where our beingness remains intact, I find that preposterous. I find karma preposterous, there is no way to keep score of who did what or who deserves to be rewarded or punished for things done in a previous life, or previously in this life. But having said that, I do believe in reincarnation as a tool to help life better itself, but it is only the spirit that reincarnates, not the physical person or even the mental person. Basically, the spirit cannot die because it is already alive everywhere in the cosmos.
    It is, of course, impossible to put all that I do believe into a comment such as this, but I have tried to put my “basics” here. Nothing RULES this universe, but life pervades the cosmos.
    Thank you, CA, for the chance to to say life is eternal, but superbeings are non-existent. If I cannot be off the scale, then I am a 7.0. But your scale does not for me.

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  10. I’ve read that ‘agnostic’ was introduced because ‘atheist’ had too much negative baggage. Personally it doesn’t matter a tittle which one is used. As for Dawkin’s ranking, I believe I am definitely a 7. Argue all you want about the possibilities, but I am a nonbeliever in resurrection. Tyson the astro-guy in an interview said he didn’t like labels, but if he had to commit, he would say he is agnostic. I would like to ask him what he thinks his chances are of being resurrected! And with an afterlife! GROG

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  11. I’d be a 6.5—my position is there may be some cosmological force permeating the universe. It is most likely not god, but the universe itself, such as electricity in various forms and voltages. I don’t like the choice between god or no god…there are too many variables and options and exceptions to narrow it to two ways.

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    1. If there is a force of some sort that affects everyone, I like to think of it as our humanity. The force of mutual understanding, which we have only if we are free. Imagine all the generations that have gone before, and here we are. That is the miracle. If there is a God, it is the Sun. GROG

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      1. There are some ideas worth sharing. Deciding humanity is our connection whether proving it as some “meta-force” of a kind would be irrelevant. We’d share a commonality. Whatever the case it’s obviously up to us to make this work. Each individual has the tools to chart their own path and they do. Even in religion everyone picks and chooses the parts that work for them, because that’s how life works. Not the one size fits all big box religions

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        1. Jim, it’s not about good ideas or philosophies. For me it is about the reality of death, or the magical mystery tour via an eternal soul! Everything is natural and there is only one go at life, with no chaser. Straight up, chug-a-lug. GROG

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          1. I agree with you. I do like to discover insights in human behavior though. Personally I really have no spiritual desires but discussion really helps many of us find solutions. I would like to think some cosmic force will take my consciousness on tour of the universe in a galactic quest of discovery and parallel worlds. But, just ‘cause I think it’s a neat idea, don’t make it so.

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            1. Jim, I don’t know where you are in life. A few years ago I was introduced to my past, insights into my behavior. It has a lot to do with early childhood development and nurturing. So much depends on how parents teach their kids to handle stress, and of being aware, situationally and emotionally. This also determines how, in most cases, a child acquires the delusion of a heavenly father. GROG

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            2. I was indoctrinated heavily as a child and after fifty years I walked away. I’m 55 now and never really struggled the way many have. I burned all my religious shit in a family bon fire and never regretted a moment for it. For the first time in my life I had my own thought. The things I had said and thought were a hijacked mind. Hijacked by ideas and persuasion. Now, every apologetic thought I had delved for so long is a switch flip. Virtually every line and every scripture is a contradiction, and I value my integrity more than to hang on to something out of sunken costs.

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            3. I was lucky in that respect. My Mormon parents were not very active. I did get baptized at 8 , but only briefly involved only when in the USAF. After that nothing. This grog thing only got started after I was 80. GROG

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            4. Church was my entire existence from before I can remember. Always asked to do more and more. Six days a week for many, many years. Really no time to peek outside the box. Then came my Panama experiences, and alone without any outside influences I saw the repertoire for what it really was. I love the jungle. The real one.

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            5. Panama? I know nothing about the jungle except for books and movies. One was about a magical bird in Brazil, I think. Then there was the Mosquito Coast. Book was not bad, but the movie sucked.
              Busy with church, that is what they want, to keep you busy so you don’t have time to sin. Just give all of your time, money and mind to the church. GROG

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            6. I homesteaded with my wife and kids on the azuero península about an hour from Pedasi. After a a few years we built a traditional home and now share time here and there. I love it. My last post I think has a pic at the end of my little one and I. She grew up there. Quite a kid!

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  12. Words used in ordinary language don’t get their meaning from technical definitions. They get their meaning from the way that people use those words. And, as used in our Christian dominated society, “atheism” has many negative connotations and people see it as implying anti-Christian. So my preferred term is “non-religious”. Overall, reactions to “agnostic” are more reasonable than reactions to “atheist”.

    I actually like the term “apatheist”, because I am apathetic on whether there is a god. But many people are unfamiliar with that term.

    If asked, I usually say that I am non-religious. But I don’t take offense if people use some of the other terms.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. However, words in subject specific discussions do often get their meaning from technical definitions – and in philosophy, atheism is most often the proposition that God/gods do not exist, rather than the mere lack of belief in God/gods. (See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on atheism, for example.) And in discussions about whether or not God exists, that is the definition that is of interest.
      Which is why CA so frequently comes across apologists using the “wrong” definition of atheism. It isn’t wrong, it’s simply being used in a sense that isn’t the usual one, for her.

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  13. Re ““We just can’t know for certain whether or not a god exists. And I certainly don’t know; therefore, I’m agnostic.”” I have seen this statement many times and it is bewildering and not a good basis for a definition, which is why I prefer Dawkins’ “50-50” take. “Can’t know for certain?” What can we know “for certain? All scientific knowledge is provisional and it is by far the largest pool of knowledge we have.

    The idea of 100% certain is quite bogus. If we use as a standard of certainty that is something is as certain as “the sun will come up tomorrow,” then we are about as certain as we can be about anything. On that basis I am “certain” that supernatural beings like gods and angels, etc. do not exist.

    The Basics of Atheism is a good topic and I wish you luck with that. Much can be said but I am afraid it already has been. Atheists are the most spoken about group of unmentionables as has ever existed.

    Oh, you might want to point out that before Christianity was adopted as one of the state religions of Rome, Christians were considered atheists, as they refused to worship the appropriate gods. I still believe that the phrase “I believe in god” is a password or code that simply states “You can trust me.” because it has no real meaning. It seems that few people have the same conception of what a god is and that the number of concepts is huge. Maybe people should say “I believe in a god” or “I believe in my god (Ask me for details!),” to be more specific.

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