Agnostic vs. Atheist – What’s the Difference?

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Atheists and agnostics are often lumped together as one group—namely, those who lack faith in God or a god. But it’s important to remember that these terms, especially agnostic, cover a broad spectrum of views. And the terms do not necessarily imply irreligion.

It is important to understand the terms used to signify a series of beliefs. In doing so, not only will you sound smarter, but you will also provide the respect of understanding another’s viewpoint – even if you disagree.

This type of knowledge is a tenant of actual debate or discussion of ideas that lead with logical and ethical approaches. After all, you would prefer your debater to do the same, wouldn’t you?

What’s the Difference Between Agnostic and Atheist?

httpsgrammarist.comusageagnostic atheist

An atheist lacks belief in God, believes there is no god, or is an absence of belief in gods. Agnostics have an alternative belief in that they either believe that it is impossible to know whether there is a god (even if they believe in the possibility) or is noncommittal on the issue. The difference may seem small, but atheism and agnosticism are actually vastly different worldviews.

An atheist is generally confined to a nonbelief-related sense, but agnostic has another definition—namely, one who is doubtful or noncommittal and believes that understanding the universe through study can provide answers.

To claim there is no point in trying to prove or disprove God’s existence (as many philosophers have done) is to acknowledge the limits of human perception. To take the bold stance that there definitely is no god (as a few philosophers have done) implies that human perception is not so limited and that we can make such claims about the universe.

These positions (as well as the position that God does exist) give rise to fundamentally disparate philosophies – and some interesting conversation.

How to Define Agnostic

An agnostic is defined through their conviction that it is impossible to discern how the universe was created or whether a divine being exists. Therefore they neither believe nor disbelieve religious doctrine or the existence of gods or God.

An agnostic can lean towards various beliefs also and be defined as an atheist or religious agnostic theist as well. This means they believe there is no higher power or God, or they believe there likely is a higher power or God, respectfully. Their studies are approached with an eye toward these convictions, although they often do not rule out the opposing idea completely.

Origin of Agnostic

The term was first used by the biologist T.H. Huxley through an adaptation of the Greek ágnōstos, meaning “unknown or unknowable.”

The word originated via the use of the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” A gnostic (one who practices Gnosticism or the study of what is known) is older than Christianity. Gnostics believe that the universe and salvation are only understood through study and various rites, religious and non-religious.

How to Define Atheist

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The definitions of atheists are defined by a lack of spiritual belief in that they do not believe in the existence of higher beings or God. An agnostic can be an atheist, but the difference is that an agnostic will continue to search for proof of their convictions. For an atheist, their belief is finite.

Origin of Atheist

Atheist comes from the Greek word atheos, meaning without a god. Theos, means “god,” -a means “without.” Together they translate as “ without god.” The idea spans as far back as the 5th century BC

Agnostic vs. Atheist: Quick Comparison Chart


Definition: Doesn’t believe in nor disbelieve in the existence of a higher deity.

Doctrine: Feels that the proof for or against a god has not been finalized, nor can it ever be.

Argument for God: Believes there is no proof.


Definition: Does not believe in God or a higher deity.

Doctrine: Believes there is no God and that those who have convinced themselves of one do so with no proof.

Argument for God: None exist.

Agnostic and Atheist Used as Adjectives

Like most nouns, both these words can also be used as an adjective to provide added detail to a sentence’s subject.

For example:

  • She applied her atheist beliefs to the curriculum, which forced a very different discussion.
  • His agnostic leanings forced him to research the topic even further.

Agnostic, in this sense, can also mean doubtful or noncommittal and is used in a sense that is unrelated to the definition as a noun.

For example:

  • The school financial budget team created a management approach that was pragmatically agnostic.

Let’s Review

Atheists do not have a belief in a higher power, while an agnostic believes it is impossible to know if there is one.

The differences may seem subtle but are actually quite profound overall and are based on very different belief systems. An agnostic can also be an atheist or theist but be open to the possibility of being wrong through their search for a finite answer.

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