Agnostic and Atheist

Religious folks tend to use the words “agnostic” and “atheist” somewhat differently than the way that irreligious folks do. This can create misunderstandings, when they and irreligious people try to discuss their theological stances with each other.

These are just generalizations, of course. You can find plenty of people on both sides who use the words in other ways than I describe here, including individual, idiosyncratic ways. However, I see many religious and irreligious people use these words as follows:

Religious people tend to use the word “atheist” to mean someone who feels certain in her / his belief that no gods exist. Related to this, they tend to use the word “agnostic” to mean someone on the fence, unsure whether any gods exist.

Used this way, “atheist” is at one extreme end of the “belief in god/s” spectrum, and “agnostic” is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. From this view, you’re either one or the other; if you aren’t sure, then you’re not really an atheist.

Irreligious people tend to use the word “atheist” as a straight etymological construction of a-theist — someone without theism, i.e., someone without any beliefs in the existence of any gods. Likewise, irreligious people tend to use the word “agnostic” as a straight etymological construction of a-gnostic — someone without knowledge, i.e., someone who doesn’t know whether any gods exist. (Or, to put it a bit differently, since nobody actually knows with certainty, despite claims to the contrary: someone who recognizes that s/he doesn’t know whether any gods exist.)

Used this way, the two words are on two entirely different spectrums — one about belief (or lack thereof), and the other about knowledge (or lack thereof). From this view, you can be both an agnostic and an atheist. They’re not mutually exclusive. For example, I’m both an agnostic and an atheist: I don’t know for certain whether any gods exist — so I’m an agnostic — and I have no beliefs in any gods — so I’m an atheist. Most irreligious people I know would say they are both.

Some of you might want to interject here about what the dictionary says the words mean. I’m not going to go there. This post is about helping people understand what others are saying to them, not about urging adherence to dictionary definitions.

I must also note here that some folks have trouble distinguishing between “I don’t believe” (i.e., I have an absence of belief in the existence of any gods), and “I disbelieve” (i.e., I have a presence of belief in the nonexistence of gods). They’ll often insist that not believing is really disbelieving. Most self-proclaimed atheists do not actively believe that no gods exist (though many think that the existence of gods is unlikely), but that’s often what religious people think they’re actually saying.

For those who don’t see the difference between “I don’t believe” and “I disbelieve,” imagine we’re talking about items in my refrigerator. Do you, Dear Reader, believe that I have buttermilk in my fridge, right now as you’re reading this? Probably not. I haven’t said that I do and I haven’t said that I don’t. Nor have you looked in my refrigerator. You are simply without the necessary information for a sensible opinion about whether there’s buttermilk in my fridge, and so most of you probably have no belief. Does that lack of belief mean you have an active disbelief, a feeling of certainty that I have no buttermilk in my refrigerator? Again, probably not, because you are still without the necessary information. Just like your lack of belief that I have buttermilk in my refrigerator does not equate to disbelief that I have buttermilk in there, one’s lack of belief in any gods does not necessarily equate to disbelief in all gods.

So when people start using words like “atheist” or “agnostic,” or when they start talking about not believing in God, don’t assume you know what each other means. Just ask. It might lead to better understanding, and more productive conversations.


4 thoughts on “Agnostic and Atheist”

  1. As a writer and thinker, I often consider the usefulness of definitions. When I read your definitions of atheist and agnostic for irreligious people, I am immediately struck by certain practical concerns. The first is that for irreligious people there doesn’t seem to be a word for people who “believe” that god does not exist. The second is that the words agnostic (no knowledge of god) and atheist (no belief in gods) seem to be mostly synonymous.

    An empiricist might argue that all human beings are agnostic, because there is no way to have verifiable knowledge of god. An atheist presumably has no knowledge of god, so presumably all atheists would be agnostics. An agnostic would presumably be an atheist because without knowledge of god, what can one believe in?

  2. Brian,

    “…there doesn’t seem to be a term for people who ‘believe’ that god does not exist.”

    There are popular terms for this. Perhaps I should’ve mentioned them in the article. I apologize for not doing so. They’re most popularly called “strong atheists” or “positive atheists,” and occasionally called “hard atheists.”

    However, one possible source of confusion about these terms is that they’re sometimes used to refer to all gods (i.e., “He’s a strong atheist” would mean he’s someone who believes all gods do not exist), and sometimes used in particular contexts to refer to specific gods (i.e., “He’s a strong atheist about Yahweh” would mean he’s someone who believes Yahweh does not exist).

    “…the words agnostic (no knowledge of god) and atheist (no belief in gods) seem to be mostly synonymous.”

    Do you then also think the word “knowledge” is mostly synonymous with the word “belief,” and are you immediately struck with a practical concern about usage of those terms?

  3. I’m not making any general statement about the relationship between belief and knowledge. I am making a specific statement about the distinction being make between the word “atheist” and the word “agnostic”. The religious interpretation of the two words indicates a clear difference between the two words. So when you talk about an atheist using that definition you know that you are talking about someone whose beliefs are different than an agnostic. Whereas the irreligious definition of the terms doesn’t seem to make any functional distinction between the two words. One has to do with knowledge of god, the other has to do with belief in god or gods; but it is hard for me to see how one describes a belief or philosophy different from the other. Every atheist would be an agnostic, and every agnostic would be an atheist. So what practical distinction is being made? What is the function of these two terms by that definition? What does one convey that the other does not? Perhaps, if you gave me an example of someone who is an agnostic but not an atheist, that would help, but I can’t see it. Someone who doesn’t have knowledge of god, presumably cannot believe in god, and vice versa. So an agnostic and an atheist would always be the same thing, no?

  4. Brian, I would have thought a writer could read between the lines a bit better. The example he made of agnostic athiest was in relation to himself. Using the definitions provided, you should be able to construct the other three possibilities. I’ll do it for you.

    Agnostic athiest: most common of irreligious people, they lack a belief in a god, but understand they can’t possibly know for sure.

    Gnostic athiest: someone who claims to be 100% certain there are no gods

    Agnostic thiest: someone who believes there is a god but understands they can’t possibly be certain.

    Gnostic thiest: this is most common of religious folk, someone who claims they know that a god exists.

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