Atheism 101: Atheism vs. Agnosticism


While all of the non-theisms get confused by believers, none are as regularly confused as agnosticism is. Many people believe that agnosticism is just a lighter form of atheism, and others believe that all atheists should actually call themselves agnostics. These misconceptions hurt atheists.
So what is agnosticism? The term ‘agnosticism’ was initially coined by Thomas Huxley while he was at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He was upset with the way atheists conducted themselves and believed the to be as irrational as theists. He defined agnosticism as those who believed that the question of whether gods existed was unsolved and insolvable. However, the word agnostic is much older than Huxley’s first use of it. Agnostic is a Greek word that comes from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge. Agnostic can be literally translated as meaning “not knowledge.” Some translate it as “without knowledge,” which is cleaner for the purposes of English. Somebody who is agnostic about religion is without knowledge about religion.
Today, the term agnostic is often used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against the existence of gods is inconclusive. People who call themselves agnostic are undecided about whether or not gods exist. Many people believe that agnosticism is a midway point between atheism and theism, but this is not the case. Theists believe that gods exist, but atheists believe that there are no gods. Theists also only hold beliefs about specific gods, or types of gods. Atheists believe that no gods exist. As such, while atheism and theism are opposites, they are not perfect opposites. They also don’t really contain an in-between. You are either an atheist or you are a theist. You either believe that gods exist or you don’t. Agnosticism is not in between these two because agnosticism doesn’t deal with belief. Agnosticism deals with knowledge. An agnostic is not strictly interested in gods either. They are more concerned with the idea that you cannot know something without suitable evidence.
The opposite of an agnostic would be a gnostic. People who are gnostic (Not to be confused with the Gnostics) are people who believe they can know facts about things. Today, that generally applies to gods. A gnostic is someone who knows whether or not gods exist. If someone says “I know there is a God,” they are a gnostic. If someone says “I know there are no gods,” they are also a gnostic. If they were to say “I believe that God exists, but I don’t know for sure,” they are an agnostic. And if they say “I don’t know if gods exist, but I don’t believe they do,”they too are an agnostic. The first and third person are theists, the second and fourth are atheists. Agnosticism is yet another layer piled on top of both theists and atheists. In fact, agnosticism has been said to be the reason why one is theist or atheist. I don’t entirely accept that, but, since agnosticism comes from a place of knowledge, I understand why someone would accept that idea. This gives four kinds of belief-holding (sentient) entities in the world:

Agnosticism-Atheism
There are thought to be different kinds of agnosticism. Some call the belief that we cannot know whether gods exist “strict agnosticism.” They call the belief that we merely do not know yet “empirical agnosticism.” I don’t quite see the point in these two qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, we either know if gods exist or we don’t. I would say that we can’t know whether we can know whether gods exist, because, if we could, then we would know whether or not gods exist. So the argument about whether we can know is futile and brings about unnecessary arguments. But some care more about our ability to know whether gods exist than I do, and who am I to destroy their fun?
It’s also important to understand why people call themselves what they call themselves. I’m an agnostic atheist because I don’t believe that gods exist, but I also don’t know for sure. I call myself an atheist when asked for multiple reasons. First, it would be silly to assume that the person asking me what I believe is interested in knowing whether or not I know gods exist. Answering “I’m an agnostic” when somebody asks me “what do you believe?” is basically answering the question “What god, if any, do you believe in?” with “I don’t know whether gods exist.” It’s answering a question that wasn’t asked. But saying “I’m an atheist” does answer the question. Another reason why I don’t say I’m an agnostic is because it gives people the wrong idea. If I say “I’m an agnostic,” the person I’m talking to may assume that I’m a theist who simply doesn’t know what god I believe in, or they may believe that I’m looking for the right god to believe in. And the third reason that I don’t tell people that I’m an agnostic is because of the stigma associated with being an atheist. By saying “I’m an agnostic,” I’m avoiding the title of atheist, a title that I know is mine, and allowing atheists to continue to be stigmatized. By wearing the title “atheist” people learn what an atheist truly looks like, and they realize that atheists aren’t crazy people who are out to destroy religion. Those are my reasons for not telling people that I’m an agnostic. Other people have their own reasons for either using agnostic as their title or avoiding it. As such, remember that words are slippery, and language isn’t exact. Be careful of assuming what someone else’s beliefs or positions are simply based on whether they call themself an atheist or an agnostic. Don’t assume that a person uses agnosticism to mean what is called “weak atheism,” or that they use atheism to mean “strong atheism.”

http://infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/intro.html

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18 responses to “Atheism 101: Atheism vs. Agnosticism

  • James

    The praise in my previous comment notwithstanding, your remarks about “strict agnosticism” versus “empirical agnosticism” led me to consider another potential difficulty with–or perhaps simply a qualification of–part(s) of the essay. You write:

    “Some call the belief that we cannot know whether gods exist “strict agnosticism.” They call the belief that we merely do not know yet “empirical agnosticism.” I don’t quite see the point in these two qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, we either know if gods exist or we don’t. I would say that we can’t know whether we can know whether gods exist, because, if we could, then we would know whether or not gods exist. So the argument about whether we can know is futile…”

    First, I would say that this distinction is more about these persons’ metaphysical and (especially) epistemological commitments generally than about those commitments with regard to deities in particular. One position–the strict agnostic–holds that it is possible for something to be, by definition, unknowable. To the empiricist (like myself), this is a very strange blend of epistemological, metaphysical, and ontological commitments, such that we accept that something could (and might) exist the possible existence of which we are aware, but for which it is in principle impossible to gather sufficient evidence to justify accepting a positive proposition about its existence.

    If we interpret this as simply the extension of the general position that it is impossible to know anything for certain, then it isn’t problematic, but then it’s also trivial to define any particular position in this way as if it is somehow meaningful. If we interpret persons’ holding this view as applying strictly to this issue, and not in general, it appears to lead either down the “you just have to believe/have faith” road or, as you have suggested, to futility. We might ask, “Okay, aside from the fact that you’re high and find this entertaining, why are you bringing this up?”

    Regardless of how we interpret the position however, it does not follow that “if we could” know “whether we can know whether gods exist” then “we would know whether or not gods exist.” For example, Einstein presumably believed his own theory of relativity (or at least believed something very much like it was true) AND knew that we could have empirical evidence supporting it (i.e., loosely, believed we could know whether it was true), but he did not have that empirical evidence and hence did not, in that sense, know. It so happens that it was not only possible, in principle to know, but also practically within reach, just not at the very moment Einstein proposed his theory (and not, strictly speaking, even after the first “confirmatory” experiments were conducted)*. So, we can know that it is, in principle and even in practice, possible to know something but that it is currently, and perhaps indefinitely, out of our reach. Or, we could, as empiricists are wont to do, withhold judgment about whether it is possible to know and simply comment on whether we currently know or even know how to investigate.

    *See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tests_of_general_relativity.

    By now, it must seem a non sequitur, but all this thinking about clarifying the empiricist side of this distinction led me to think more carefully about your atheist/theist–gnostic/agnostic table, which is useful heuristic for your essay. It is not clear to me that the domain divides up so cleanly in such a “binary” way and I suspect you either already know this or would agree if you thought much about it. The table implies that one is either an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist, but it is quite possible, I assure you, to simply be agnostic about the entire question. In other words, I could believe that we don’t currently have sufficient evidence to decide and have no commitment to either belief about gods. There are people who don’t know and, at least in the absence of reasonable evidence, don’t care.

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  • James

    This is a nice essay on the topic, and a very clean way of laying out the “landscape”. I offer the following observations with a view to pushing you toward minor clarifications (a point with which I actually think you started, but lost somewhere in the journey from the beginning to the end of the essay).

    First, the easy one. You state, “Theists also only hold beliefs about specific gods, or types of gods.” This is not, strictly speaking, true. Certainly some theists, perhaps even most, hold beliefs about particular gods or types of gods. Those that do however, are, again, strictly speaking, a particular type of theist and, as such, are properly classified as (or understood to be) monotheists, polytheists, deists, pantheists, etc.

    Second, early in the essay, you write, “Theists believe that gods exist, but atheists believe that there are no gods.” Shortly thereafter, you write, “You are either an atheist or you are a theist. You either believe that gods exist or you don’t.” This statement about atheists is ambiguous, but this is not problematic until (a) you later acknowledge that “a-” can reasonably be translated at “no” or as “without” and apply this to gnosis to point out that a reasonable understanding of “agnostic” is “without knowledge” and (b) still later state, “This gives four kinds of belief-holding (sentient) entities in the world” and then sub-label the Atheist side of your table “Lack belief in a god or gods.” This gives one the impression that you might be viewing the “a-” in “atheist” in the same way you are viewing the “a-” in “agnostic” but applying to “belief in” rather than “gods.” In any case, you have now given us the following three definitions of atheist which have subtle but important differences:

    (A) Atheists believe that there are no gods.
    (B) Atheists don’t believe in gods.
    (C) Atheists lack belief in gods.

    B is ambiguous and can be reasonably interpreted as A or C. But while A is a positive believe that there are no gods, C is a negative claim, asserting an absence of belief in gods that is not incompatible with a simultaneous absence of belief that there are no gods. One may simply have no belief about gods at all. I interpret you to mean A, which is probably the generally accepted, and most useful, use of the term. I only raise these observations because the essay otherwise does such a nice job of making the issue clear that it would be a shame to allow this ambiguity to slip in.

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  • mitchteemley

    Interesting overview. Occupied more or less all of the above postions at one point or another in my trajectory toward unexpected faith.

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  • landzek

    If i might offer: the idea of agnosticism is that the possibility that god or God exists is equal to the possibility of It not existing. That is a precise way of putting it.

    I like this essay but i feel it is almost meaningless. Since there are two things that can verify belief: what one says or does. One can say ‘i am a..’ Or ‘i believe…’ But it merely identifies oneself to oneself as it does for another, but it really says nothing of what one ‘is’ or ‘believes’ beyond some sort of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in that the terms are identifying that person or anyone else. One cannot merely say ‘it is true’ without a bracketed corresponding (i believe). But the whole purpose of saying it as if it isnt a belief is to say that “i am” this or that against or in denial of that fact that the person really isnt what they say, but that they said it.

    Agnostic stems from a ‘swaying by faith’ that i ‘want to be’ this or that, ‘so i am’. Where the agnostic merely claims that what is claimed has equal possibility of being true as false.

    The argument of atheism can only hold any water at all against another person that claims atheism’s opposite, but both are merely assertions of a truth that faith is swaying the neutral possibility of knowing to a ‘righteous’ side, and this is known and asserted by the individual having an intuition of self evident truths.

    I have no reason to say whether i believe there is a god or not because we are dealing not with some ‘misguided’ beliefs, but with the behaviors that correspond with certain discourses. ‘Belief’ is just a trope for the purposes of dealing with people who cant seem to get along with other at certain interactional junctures

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Agnostics don’t generally believe that there is a 50-50 chance of gods existing. Some do, but that is not the norm. Most lean more one way or the other.

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      • landzek

        Then it is quite possible they are mislabeling themselves. :)). For have we not defined a polemic and its third: theism-agnostic-atheist ?

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        • hessianwithteeth

          As I said in the post: agnosticism isn’t in the middle of atheism and theism. Agnosticism has to do with knowledge. Atheism and theism has to do with belief. If you believe in gods, you are a theist, if you don’t you are an atheist. If you are 100% that gods exist, or that they don’t you are a gnostic. If you are less than 100%, including, but not limited to, 50%, you are an agnostic. You can be both a theist and an agnostic or an atheist and an agnostic. Some people just call themselves agnostic for various reasons, just like people just call themselves theists or atheists for various reasons.

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          • landzek

            Can you explain how a person is able to only partially believe? For example: Is your essay about what you only 72% believe?

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          • hessianwithteeth

            Allow me to slip in. The question of exact probabilities is an effectively impossible since we do not have all the available information. Of course we can talk about what information we do have, such as there are no event I currently am aware of that have be satisfactorily answered by some supernatural force. Everything we have be able to observe up until now either don’t have have an answer (we can talk about what constitutes a satisfactory answer, but grant me that for the moment) or has been explained by some naturalistic explanation.

            A satisfactory answer in my mind currently is one which has the several or all of the following. We understand the mechanisms, and means of how something comes about, we have some way to measure and/or observe the occurrence, and we are able to repeat said measurement and/or observation (in terms of miracle think watching for a super nova rather then doing an chemical experiment). The explanation allows for strong predictions, and the explanations often able to inform on other related problems.

            From that I think it’s safe to determine that given current evidence, god is more likely to not exist, though the actual value is not properly quantifiable.

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          • hessianwithteeth

            Again, belief is different from knowledge. I 100% believe that no gods exist, but I would say I 90% know that they don’t.

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          • landzek

            .. I would think an agnostic would not be concerned with whether or not God exists, precisely because he cannot he sure which is true of Gods existence. And he knows his unsurety cannot be swayed. ?

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          • hessianwithteeth

            You can believe something without knowing it. People can’t help but do this. And I would argue that we can’t know anything 100%. I’m and agnostic atheist. I’m agnostic because I’m not willing to say I know that there are no gods, and I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong, but I’m an atheist because the probabilities suggest that there are no gods, so I’ve based my belief around what I feel is the most likely case.

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          • landzek

            I understand what youre saying here, but it seems in your main essay you are making an argument for the veracity of atheism and such. Whereas ‘people just call’ seems to be putting the issue out of reach of the veracity of the identity they seem to imply.

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          • hessianwithteeth

            I’m not arguing for anything. I’m explaining what atheism is.

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      • landzek

        .. The agnostic idea is more that if there is an unbalancing factor that makes the existance of God plausible then its possibility is not negated by its counterpartial possibility. It is this that accounts for the fact that people have ‘irrational beliefs’, since in most cases one cannot appeal to their supposed ‘reason’ to convince them that they are wrong; just as i will not be able to convince a theist that they are incorrect and that there is no God, likewise i will not be able to convince a atheist that their ‘belief’ is incorrect, that there is a God. Thus it is nearly masturbation to assert some ‘prime agent’ or essential subject that belives or does not believe, regardless of how one defines belief.

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  • PG

    I should bookmark this for future reference. Its always so hard to explain that I am not an Atheist, but agnostic. And that there is a difference. Its like the argument of bisexuality. No one gets it. People struggle so hard to pick a side and when you say you dont have one, you’re shamed for being “confused”. I digress, but thank you for this.

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  • hellenmasido

    I have struggled alot explaining to friends my position as agnostic and thanks for making it so very clear. I shy away from identifying as an atheist for many reasons top of them being that many atheists I know are always bent on all reasons why god(s) do not exist. I find it to be a very futile argument and a waste of time and so I identify as apathetic too, towards the issue of god(s). Great post 🙂

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