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.



One comment on “The Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism

  1. As I understand it, the Christian philosophical argument that at the very least *makes room* for the existence of God sort of revolves around the problem of existence itself. What does it mean for something to “exist”? I think that any Christian (or Jew, or Muslim) worth his or her salt would say that God doesn’t exist in the way that we exist.

    This is all theoretical, but I would say that God COULD exist in the way that numbers “exist.” Does the number 2 “have being”? Yes and no, but certainly not in the way I do. Even trickier, does the number Zero exist? That which represents nothing at all…. is actually the basis of all mathematics, and an important part of a lot of stuff that is definitely real. And yet — take me to the number zero. Impossible.

    From there, I think it’s only about one step into Thomas Aquinas’ idea that God is the “grounds of existence.” I’m no pro on Aquinas, but I think he argues that God is not a being among other beings — not even the “highest being” — but that, properly speaking, God doesn’t actually “exist.” Rather, God is the source and grounding of all being, which is not exactly the same as being. Analogous to “Zero,” in some way. If you dig into Christian and Jewish “negative theology” and the mystics, you’ll find a lot of that there. I found it food for thought.

    If all that’s baffling, I don’t find it any more so than wrapping our head around what “existed” prior to 14 billion years ago, or what’s beyond the physical edge of the universe, or what sort of non-existence we were in before we were born. Those are mysteries, too. Do we dip in and out of existence and non-existence? Could God “exist” in that sense? Obviously that’s any kind of “proof” of God — I don’t think God can be proved, and even the better parts of the Bible is insistent that God is utter mystery, “my ways are not your ways,” all that. But even to use the verb “be” in relation to God I think can get really tricky.

    I know you try to distinguish between atheism as both a “lack of belief” and a belief itself, which I find refreshing — especially in light of all the fundamentalist atheism out there…. But anyway, I think a fallacy of atheist *practice* is that atheists tend toward the belief that humans can measure and define existence according to the capacity of the human brain, and that the way our brain is configured really does register absolute “reality.” (Theists can definitely be guilty of that as well, for sure, especially by color-by-number religious type, or those who think that all reality is contained in a sacred book. Even as a believer myself, I find that nonsense.)

    Completely aside from the existence or non-existence of “God,” though, I think that issue alone — the problem of the human brain — would keep me from an outright denial of God. The belief that pure science, simply as a method of inquiry, actually gets at “real reality” is very much a belief, a faith, probably even a dogma. It’s surely better than a total lack any science, but considering that the huge majority of scientific theories over the last thousand years have been shown up to be bogus — often laughable, dangerous and socially-conditioned — I wouldn’t put 100% of my money on current scientific theories.

    Also, I think that, at its best, religion is a form of science. When religion emphasizes seeking, not making categorical statements. I think that’s probably the real meaning of Jesus’ parable “If you have a faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.” I think he was emphasizing a form of un-knowing there, then the return to knowledge that follows. Not confidence, but the lack of confidence. Humility. Agnosticism, even.

    Great philosophical book about this. Tomáš Halik, “Night of the Confessor.”

    Apologies for this being longer than your post….


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