The Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism


A Facebook acquaintance of mine recently posted about his distinction between atheism and agnosticism. His main point was that atheism required faith to agree with the proposition that there is no god. Conversely, he defined agnosticism as being either without knowledge or without the possibility to attain knowledge about the existence of god. His definition of agnosticism is right, but his definition of atheism was completely off the mark. This post will correct this misunderstanding and reassert the traditional distinction between the two concepts. I hope to show that one can be an atheist, an agnostic, or both (like I am).

At their most basic, agnosticism is a position of knowledge (epistemology) while atheism is a position of belief (metaphysics). Agnosticism literally means “without knowledge,” and as such, almost all of us are agnostic about the claim of a god’s existence. I can say upfront that I am; I do not know with absolute certainty that god either exists or doesn’t exist. However, absolute certainly is (almost) impossible in relation to most claims about the world. I don’t know with absolute certainty that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, or gnomes inhabit my apartment, or if I’m sitting here right now typing this to you. As such, agnosticism is the default position when one doesn’t have knowledge of a claim and most skeptics (myself included) agree with this view.

Contrarily, atheism is a position of belief, whether or not you agree with a proposition. When addressing belief in a god, there are only two possible conclusions: the acceptance or rejection of a claim. Because of this logical distinction, a person can come to a conclusion without any knowledge that substantiates it. For example, one can believe that a pink unicorn exists with the feeling of absolute certainty, but that doesn’t change whether or not one has knowledge of its existence. In regards to god claims, atheists and theists can accept or reject this belief, but that doesn’t change the ability to attain knowledge regarding its existence. Therefore, one can be an agnostic atheist (reject the god claim based on a lack of evidence or knowledge) or a gnostic atheist (reject the god claim based on an affirmative belief of evidence or knowledge). Theists can do just the same.

Inimical to popular usage, agnosticism is not a “half-way house” between belief and unbelief. Rather, it answers a completely different question. Agnosticism addresses what a person can know; atheism addresses what a person believes. Neither worldview requires faith, since faith is pretending to know something that you don’t. Most atheists arrive at non-belief because the evidence is either lacking or evidence disproves a specific version of the god claim outlined by religions such as Christianity and Islam. Atheism is a lack of belief, so when a believer makes a claim about something supernatural or theistic, it is on the theist to substantiate that belief. The atheist doesn’t have to prove that the theist is wrong; the theist has to prove that they’re right. Furthermore, when one concludes that they have no knowledge regarding a god (agnosticism), the reasonable default position of belief is atheism. The position that my friend presented as atheism is actually anti-theism or strong atheism, which positively asserts that there is no god. Most atheists who are intellectually honest do not take this position, since the burden of proof shifts to them and it doesn’t easily hold up to critical scrutiny.

My own personal position is agnostic atheism. I don’t know with absolute certainty if a god exists but I reject belief in god because the evidence for his/her/its existence is spurious at best, nonexistent at worst. When evidence for god is lacking, one should suspend judgment on knowledge (agnostic) and take the default position of belief (atheist). Regardless of how you feel about the label, if your answer to the question of belief in god is anything but “yes,” in my book you’re an atheist. If you prefer agnostic, that’s fine too, but it’s rather insulting to say that atheists are just as faith filled as theists. Just because you’re uncomfortable with the label doesn’t make it inapplicable.

Intellectual sparring aside, we atheists and agnostics should unite under our shared principles of freedom of conscience, critical examination of superstition, and a commitment to a secular, humanistic world. This squabbling is great for discussion and debate, but when it comes to taking on the charlatans, there’s more important issues at hand.

Fellow agnostic, comrade in arms, let’s fight against the harbingers of fear and ignorance. Let’s build a better world.


For more on this topic, I highly recommend the Iron Chariots Wikipedia page. It can be found here.


Iowa and the Rejection of the Establishment


Man, would I hate to be Jeb (!) Bush today. His Super PAC spent nearly $15 million in Iowa and he only received 2.8 percent of the vote. This means that, according to the Weekly Standard, he spent $2,884 per vote in the Iowa Caucus. This does not bode well for the establishment wing of the Republican Party, who is desperately trying to find someone who could potentially beat back both the ultra-conservative base and the presumptive Democratic nominee.

What does this say about Iowa all together?

Last night the politics of consensus were shattered, on both sides. The first place victory of Ted Cruz cements the possibility that the Republican Party could nominate its most divisive candidate since 1964. But then there’s Donald Trump, who is arguably more divisive that Cruz, and he placed second! Poor old Jeb placed sixth in Iowa, with the other establishment standard-bearers John Kasich and Chris Christie placing eighth and tenth, respectively. The only establishment pick that came close to Cruz and Trump, Marco Rubio, placed third. If the establishment wing of the party desires to win, they should encourage Bush, Kasich, and Christie to get out of the race and shift their energies to Rubio. But all bets are off on this one.

And then there’s the Democratic caucus, which is one of the closest races in Iowa history. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in a virtual tie, separated by only four delegate votes. Some precincts were so close that a literal coin toss relegated its votes to Clinton. It was an amazing showing for Senator Sanders, who a year ago polled in the single digits in Iowa. Sanders may not have had a clear electoral victory last night, but he sure had a political one. The momentum his campaign gained going into New Hampshire might lead to one of the most unexpected upsets in recent memory.

Such is presidential politics at the nadir of the Obama era. The establishment bearers (Bush, Rubio, and Clinton) either placed far behind the pack or came away with a squeaker of a win. Conversely, the victors of the night were the firebrands, the radicals, and the disestablishmentarians (Cruz, Trump, Sanders). While Iowa isn’t always the best gauge on who will be the nominee (remember, Huckabee won in 2008 and Santorum won in 2012), it did provide a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois the momentum to pull off one of the most influential political candidacies in American history. In other words, Iowa matters.

Yet, what came of the young Senator’s idea of a new era of bipartisanship, pragmatism, and consensus building? It never really happened. Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency, successful in many areas of policy and politics, resulted in the country being more divided, ideologically rigid, and gridlocked.

But to blame all of this on Obama would be absurd, since George W. Bush ran on the same type of platform and dealt with the same frustrations. Rather, it speaks to the fact that Americans want an ideologically motivated president. They are tired of the politics of conciliation and want a candidate who is steadfast about their ideals. If they didn’t, the candidacies of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders never would have gotten off the ground.

From my reading of this race and the Iowa caucus, Obama’s notion of a post-ideology America has bitten the dust, at least for now.