Agnostic vs. atheist

An atheist lacks faith in God, believes there is no god, or lacks awareness of gods. An agnostic either believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a god or is noncommittal on the issue. The difference may seem small, but atheism and agnosticism are actually vastly different worldviews. 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.

Atheist is generally confined to this nonbelief-related sense, but agnostic has another definition—namely, one who is doubtful or noncommittal. It also serves as an adjective meaning doubtful or noncommittal. For example, these writers use agnostic in the sense unrelated to belief in God:

I’m agnostic on whether he should have resigned … [Washington Post]

The country has adopted an approach to economic management which is both pragmatic and ideologically agnostic … [Telegraph]

Atheists and agnostics are often lumped together as one group—namely, those who lack faith in 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. Some Buddhists, for example, are atheists, and there is a strong tradition of agnostic thought in Hinduism.

65 thoughts on “Agnostic vs. atheist”

  1. Just like agnostic means absence of knowledge, atheism means absence of theism. Atheism does not mean that one knows that god does not exist (that would be trying to prove a negative) it simply says that one lacks a belief in god, i.e. I don’t know that fairies don’t exist (I can’t prove the negative) but I do not possess a belief in fairies. The onus is on the person positing a belief. Atheism is not positing that there is no god, instead it is acknowledging an absence. A good defense of this definition is found in Atheism: A Case Against God.

    • I am sorry, but agnostic does NOT mean “absence of knowledge.” I am encountering this argument everywhere among other atheists, and we need to dispel this ignorance, because it only weakens our position, and that of our brothers and sisters who are not yet ready to commit to the intellectually honest position that without knowledge, it is DISbelief that is neutral and natural (e.g. we DON’T believe in fairies, because we’ve yet to be shown any evidence of them.)

      While atheist and theist are antonyms, agnostic and gnostic are NOT. Contrary to common misconception, “gnostic” does not mean knowledge, rather it refers back to gnosis, which means ESOTERIC knowledge of SPIRITUAL TRUTH. So agnostic really has nothing to do with gnostic, it’s simply a word that shares a common root.

      The “Grammarist” (whoever it is) is PARTIALLY correct that agnostic CAN imply one does not believe it possible to know whether there is a god; but that is only an implication, NOT a definition or a necessary usage. Agnostic is the NONCOMMITTAL POSITION to knowledge of and belief in gods, put simply.

      The “Grammarist” betrays his or her own worldview by claiming that atheism and agnosticism are, per se, also worldviews. That is a belief, not merely a definition, regardless of what dictionaries say.

      • We are a group of people who collectively write and edit this blog. We welcome feedback from readers like you and make changes based on feedback all the time. We’ve already made a couple of small changes to this post based on your responses, but we’re not clear on exactly what you’re suggesting.

        Most of the readers of this blog are people who are looking for quick answers to their questions on English grammar and usage, and we try to make our answers simple and straightforward. We try to summarize current usage standards without going too deeply into the etymology and the philosophy. There are other blogs for those topics (or there should be). This approach often gets us in trouble with readers who are much more knowledgeable than we are about some specific topics and don’t understand that we’re just trying to summarize how the words are used by people (we recently had to delete an entire comment thread on the difference between “theater” and “theatre” because it got too abusive). We do have some old posts that are a little more opinionated than they should be, but we’ve been gradually weeding them out. Our hope is that posts like this should be completely uncolored by the views of the people behind this blog.

        Our question for you: How should we define these words and differentiate between them? We’d like to acknowledge the complexity of these issues while providing our users the simplest answers we can. Imagine you’re a high school student writing an essay, or, for example, an Iranian college student writing application letters for grad schools in the U.S., and you’re unclear on the difference between the words “atheist” and “agnostic,” so you go to Google and find this page. Readers like this aren’t interested in the philosophy at the moment. They just want to be told the difference between the words.

        So, if you’re following up on this, we’re genuinely interested in your suggestions.

  2. The argument about what atheist means and what an atheist is goes back to the earliest uses of the word in the Age of Enlightenment.

    What is noteworthy is that, from the start as it is today, it has been CHRISTIANS who have held firmly–DOGMATICALLY–to the notion that atheism is a BELIEF in the nonexistence of God. Only in the last several decades has that definition been expanded to include all gods, as Christians have generally gotten to the point of at least recognizing that there ARE other gods throughout the world, although the vast majority of them still take the simple, plebeian standpoint that “MY god is the REAL God!” And thus their insistence that to simply lack a belief in their god is to STAND IN OPPOSITION TO GOD.

    But as I said, this nonsensical definition has been disputed from the moment nonbelievers began to peek their heads out from under the mountainous covers of terrorism and oppression and take on the words and smears that had been used for centuries to excuse their persecution. “Atheist” was number one.

    “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.” -Baron d’Holbach, 1772

    d’Holbach was one of the French Materialists, the very first openly atheistic social movement of the Age of Enlightenment. Right from the beginning, as soon as atheists claimed the word for their own, they challenged the stereotype intended to be inherently implied by its use: to be an atheist includes having no IDEA of gods!

    The irony is, our definition makes imminent sense.

    “Atheist: 1570s, from Fr. athéiste (16c.), from Gk. atheos ‘without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly,’ from a- ‘without’ + theos ‘a god’ (see Thea).” (Source: Etymology Online Dictionary.)

    So from its own parts, we see that “a-theist” simply means “without a god.” THIS is the definition those TO WHOM THE WORD APPLIES have insisted it includes all along.

    But of course, the irony does not stop there. Notice the rest of the etymology? From the Greek *atheos* meaning “denying the gods.” To the ancient Greeks, insisting that there was only ONE god WAS to “deny the GODS,” plural. SO JUST VENTURE A GUESS WHO THE FIRST “ATHEISTS” WERE?

    • Joe clearly understands that CAPS LOCK is how one ‘shouts’ on the Internet, and yet chooses to do so anyway. As with many atheists, he appears to be far more dogmatic and angry than are the Christians he accuses.

      He has a harder time with etymology, however– he doesn’t seem to understand how words come to be. After quoting the Etymology Online Dictionary’s description of the roots of ‘atheist’, he then goes on to apparently misunderstand it for his own purposes.

      The word first appeared in 16th Century France, according to the etymology, and was coined from the Greek ‘theos’, meaning god or gods, with the negatory prefix ‘a’, thus meaning without god. Fine, that makes sense: the early post-Reformation atheists tended to be well educated, and thus familiar with the tradition in science, medicine, and the law of coining new words from Greek.

      Joe, however, takes the interesting step of believing that if a word could be coined from the Greek it must be in common usage in Greek, and better yet, must have been in common usage by ancient Greeks! Only thus could he have come up with the idea that the word was used by ancient Greeks in reference to monotheists (if, indeed, they knew of any)– thus making the wicked Christians THE FIRST “ATHEISTS”!

      Um… no, Joe. First, the etymological entry you cite says Greek, not Ancient Greek; curiously enough, there were living, breathing people still speaking Greek in the 16th Century when ‘athéiste’ was first used in France. For that matter, there are even a whole bunch of them alive and well today (Greece is full of them, as are some neighborhoods in Brooklyn!)– no one has to go back to the 4th Century BC(E) to find a speaker of Greek.

      So, I shall venture a guess as to who the first “atheists” were… they were 17th Century atheists, who chose on philosophical grounds to deny the existence of Christian God– the only one they knew or cared about.

      Joe, if you really want to convince anyone of your point of view, you need to do your homework better, and you really need to stop shouting at us. Read Voltaire– he was able to argue your side intelligently and philosophically. [I think he was wrong, but still worth the read!]

      [Sorry about ignoring the CAPS LOCK key– I have a sore throat, and don’t want to scream.]

      • All that knowledge and still a “devout” theist. That illustrates the difference between knowledge and intelligence better than any of these Disqus ‘essays’ you could type.

        • Are you saying, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that belief in God is evidence of a lack of intelligence? Do you perhaps wish to elaborate, by demonstrating that historically no intelligent person has believed, nor any believer been intelligent?

          A difficult argument to prove, Buffy, but I look forward to your attempt.

          • Don’t be ridiculous. I know several religious people that are fairly intelligent (despite their unfounded beliefs) just in my own life alone.

            I will say, however, that there is no sane, intelligent religious person today that does not ignore a lack of evidence (consciously or otherwise) to maintain the illusion of purpose in his or her life.

          • Bobby, do you know of Pascal’s wager?
            It would be difficult to find someone more intelligent– He posited this: That it is necessary for the wise man to choose to believe in God, because, should he be proved right and God does exist, he mighteverlasting life for his belief, but should he be wrong and there is no God, then he has lost relatively little.

          • Really? Pascal’s wager?

            Pascal’s wager is often invoked as a “playing the odds” argument, suggesting that you’re ‘spiritually safer’ by hedging your bets on this particular god.

            But that’s not accounting for the thousands of other gods that could potentially exist. Or the fact that an omniscient god like YHWH would instantly see through such a silly attempt at deceiving an all-powerful deity if he existed.

            It pretty much instantly falls apart with even the tiniest bit of scrutiny.

          • Also, what you described is simply believing that your odds would be better if you were a believer, than they would be if you weren’t. That’s a far cry from actually believing it.

      • Caps lock can also be used and interpreted as emphasizing. It’s not always meant to be loud or negative. Have a BLESSED DAY. :)

  3. “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.”

    Not necessarily. Many of the philosophers who hold this position are saying that theists haven’t come up with a coherent enough concept of “god” for the question of the existence of god(s) to be a sensible subject of discussion. In a sense, it is a more radical position than that of atheists.

    I would be agnostic (in this radical sense) about many proposed concepts
    of “god”, and atheist about others. For those where I am an atheist, the claim
    that god exists is aposteriori – and so I cannot be absolutely sure that it is
    false – but there is no more reason to accept that it is true than the claim
    that Russell’s Teapot exists. Where I am an agnostic, I am absolutely sure that
    the theists are wrong. Where I am an atheist, I am only as sure as I am that
    there will be a dawn tomorrow.

    • Agnostics don’t want to waste their time attempting to explain something in which science has no preference. Atheist in the end rely on their own decisions, which are not truly based on science. That makes them not that much different than theists. They are two sides of the same coin.

      • I don’t understand why you have made your post a reply to mine, when you seem to have ignored everything that I said, and just stated your own opinion in the same way that you might have done if yours had been the first comment.

  4. PLEASE! search for> it’s all romboutistic – watch all romboutistics > ”the shiva doctrine” a vision on the universe about abstract and concrete. it may help!

  5. An important clarification of these two terms is that they are neither mutually exclusive nor different points on some belief scale. There is belief and there is knowability. Atheism and Theism are about whether or not one has a belief in a god. Agnosticism and Gnosticism are about whether or not one believes knowledge of god is knowable. Therefore, a person is always a combination of these two components. An agnostic atheist is one who, while not believing there is a god also acknowledges that they don’t think it is something we can ever know for sure one way or another. One can be an agnostic theist, believing in god but not being sure it is provably knowable. An agnostic is not simply an almost-atheist, which unfortunately is the popularized use of the term.

  6. Vastly different?

    Thomas Huxley’s 19th century agnosticism:

    “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.”

    George H Smith promoting broad explicit atheism, in the 1960s:

    “Critical atheism presents itself in various forms. It is often expressed by the statement, “I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being.” This profession of non-belief often derives from the failure of theism to provide sufficient evidence in its favor. Faced with a lack of evidence, this explicit atheist sees no reason whatsoever for believing in a supernatural being.”

  7. A simplistic way but easy way to remember: the words.

    “a-” latin for the opposite of when used in front of a word (ex thing “a-moral”)

    “a-theist” is a BELIEF that God definitely does not exist. (No question)
    It is a belief. It also takes faith on the part of the believer when challenged by things that are not explained easily by this worldview. Opposite (‘a-‘) of ‘theism’: belief in a creator-god.

    “a-gnostic” is a “not-knowing” whether or not God does exist. It is not a declared ‘yes’; also not a declared ‘no’. It is a declared inability to know at this time. The Opposite (‘a-‘) of ‘gnostism’: knowing. (lit. ‘not knowing’ not having the knowledge on the question of God.)

    • …also a-theists are the douches that you find most often as rabid evangelist trolls surfing online blogs… who arrogantly and condescendingly look for opportunities to make themselves feel smart (though it usually is not true – evident by their argument techniques and critical thinking skills) by ridiculing Christians and Christianity.

      Agnostics can co-exist with Christians without a personal drive to insult them. A-theists seem to have a drive to PROVE there is no God to anyone who believes something different than their own BELIEF. (Which is just as difficult as PROVING when one is unwilling to ‘believe’ there is one.) They are the inquisitors of No God.

      For example, Evolution is not PROOF of no God yet atheists try to claim it
      is so… yet they have no founding faith ‘doctrine’ of truth to consult. (ie Christians have the bible.) They usually say “science” proves. But actually science ‘proves’ as much atheism as theism. Both take faith to connect AFTER science. (where an agnostic says, science answers the question without faith being needed – THEN we’ll know.)

      So because they have no founding ‘faith documents’ douche atheists more often than not try to PROVE their faith by ‘disproving’ the bible – a document from ANOTHER faith. They try to punch holes in its declarations to PROVE that belief in God takes faith. eh… which is something the bible states over and over again without their help. (Not to smart these atheist evangelists.) So instead they are not proving their own faith – rather – they spend most of their time trying to disprove (unsuccessfully) another – and claiming sources which also do not ‘prove’ their own faith of atheism. lol

      But Agnostics have no driving need to PROVE that ‘knowledge’ sufficiently exist to say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nea’ on the subject of God. Agnostics tend to be more reasonable in discussions as long as you demarcate what is faith and scientifically provable fact in your own statements about your disposition.

      • Atheist do not attempt to prove anything. Atheist simply insist that the burden of proof is on those who claim that a proposition is true. If I were to tell you there is an invisible flying spaghetti monster that controls every human’s level of happiness, you would not believe me without some form of proof (nor should you). Atheist take the same position. If and when atheists poke holes in other people’s belief’s (like the bible), it is merely to invalidate what theist hold up as “proof” of the existence of god. Atheist don’t point to evolution as proof that there is no god, they point to it as invalidating the “intelligent design” argument that there is a god.

          • Crap Cutter, you may want to actually get the definitions of atheist and agnostic correct before you act smugly, since this is the grammarist after all. You may also want to read someone’s entire argument instead of only the first sentence before you dismiss them. You may actually learn something if you take the time to read things in their entirety. An atheist is not, in your own words, “a BELIEF that God definitely does not exist. (No question)”. Atheism is a lack of belief in God, but there’s no certainty carried with it. One can be an agnostic atheist, that is they don’t believe in God, but they contend there is no way to know one way or the other with certainty.

          • “Atheist do not attempt to prove anything.” Their first sentence….is

            …EVERY self proclaimed atheist online that I see blogging is 99.9% a narcissist TROLL by their own comments. They are continually trying to yes “PROVE” something… many of them spend most of their energy trying to PROVE Christianity is stupid, wrong, or blah blah blah. Right down to the false nativity. (e.g. why do they need a ‘nativity’ at all if it is from Christianity? The point is to disprove and mock another religion besides theirs.) Oh yes, do they spend much of their energy trying to prove/disprove…MUCH.

            Just like you. You cannot tolerate my opinion and are compelled to try to prove how smart you are and how wrong my comment was…

            Well, sorry. My comment about their first sentence… that the claim is false to reality. Is VERY accurate in my experience. Yet you will try very hard to have the last word on it – despite this truth. The problem for you is that no one gives a Sh:t nor are they even reading this from this point forward including me. So enjoy…

          • Here, I fixed it. Now maybe you can read and react to my entire comment, instead of my first sentence. I make a subtle, but important distinction that should clear up any confusion you have about atheists. (Executive summary: Atheist demand evidence for any proposition and therefore discount propositions that lack evidence, e.g. god. When atheist do show the logical fallacies in established religions, this is for the purpose of counteracting what theist believe is evidence for the existence of god, e.g. using evolution to counteract creationism.):

            “Atheist do not attempt to prove anything; atheist simply insist that the burden of proof is on those who claim that a proposition is true. If I were to tell you there is an invisible flying spaghetti monster that controls every human’s level of happiness, you would not believe me without some form of proof (nor should you). Atheist take the same position. If and when atheists poke holes in other people’s belief’s (like the bible), it is merely to invalidate what theist hold up as “proof” of the existence of god. Atheist don’t point to evolution as proof that there is no god, they point to it as invalidating the ‘intelligent design’ argument that there is a god.”

            Also, I can point you toward true atheists and not simply internet trolls, so that you can react to the ideas they put forward and not to the “narcissist TROLLS” that dominate the internet comment boards.

          • You have no credibility at all. While there are some evangelical atheists, most know they can’t prove a negative, in this case, the non-existence of God. However, atheists have rejected the existence of God based on their life experience and the absence of a shred of compelling proof for one’s existence. I’m persuaded we live in a godless universe. I know better than to try and prove that to people who believe in God. Christian hypocrisy, like yours, isn’t doing your side any favors, by the way.

          • “No credibility” you claim. Strange because you have no idea who I am… Again with this “blind faith” of yours in your own assumptions. Guess you do have faith… in your evident astounding powers of critical thinking.

          • Well, since you paid me such a nice compliment, that I have astounding powers of critical thinking, (you’re not the first to say so, but it’s always nice to hear), I have to thank you before ignoring you forever.

          • You’ve created a narrative in which you are immune from critique based on ad hominem attacks as well extrapolating generalizations from anecdotal evidence to the entirety of atheists. Amazing Kip is exactly correct to my mind.

          • At least you make it obvious when you’ve run out of evidence for your desperate belief in an invisible deity.

          • This is your comeback/answer to allegations about TROLLING atheists?! Via your posting, you make everything about them a self fulfilling prophecy. (Oh, wait, but it can’t be a “prophecy” because you can’t conceptualize anything you cant see feel touch or intellectually explain, right? No wonder you fell right into that…lol)

      • I’ll bet you know a handful of avowed atheists, at most, and yet you speak of all atheists as having uniform characteristics, all negative ones. You’re not a crap cutter at all. You’re a crap contributor, and now, my having found fault with your nasty rant, drum roll, please, you’ll declare me a “douche.” Ugliness like yours doesn’t draw people to Christ. If you’re Christian, I’ll take mine rare.

      • “… who arrogantly and condescendingly look for opportunities to make
        themselves feel smart (though it usually is not true – evident by their
        argument techniques and critical thinking skills) by ridiculing” Kind of describes your rant to a T.

        • Typical. You militaristic atheists can never take it the way you dish it out.

          If you can’t point to someone else to avoid being accountable for your own statements… then you finally go home.

          Hope this is goodbye…

          • You have successfully converted me to atheism. Thank you for so clearly demonstrating the godlessness of this world. But wait you say that doesn’t make sense. Well this makes about as much sense as you do.

          • Like I said, (recently ‘converted’ “hey theist” LMAO)… you can’t take it the way you dish it out. …crying, pouting, and name calling. Typical liberal. Don’t go away mad: Just go away.

          • Man irony is lost on you! I guess you miss the irony of calling me a crying pouting name calling person too. Oh well I really wasn’t expecting you to get it. If you represent religion it’s no surprise the fastest growing sector of religious belief is no religion. Anyhow lets discuss faith. It’s a noun defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something. As an atheist I have faith in my belief that god doesn’t exist. There is nothing to prove god does or doesn’t exist. So sue me for looking at the world and coming to the conclusion that your all seeing all knowing all powerful god is a complete contradiction. I’m pretty sure you’ll struggle with this but that’s your problem. You guys can’t even worship the same god and peacefully coexist so why would I expect you to tolerate my view? You are part of an archaic cosmological belief system that can’t deal with it’s decline into irrelevance. You will be a sad footnote in the history of mankind. So go bask in your deluded glow of self righteous superiority whilst history confines you to the dustbin of superstitious ridicule.

          • Ahh affected disdain, the standard reply of the those with nothing to offer. Come now surely someone of your supposed intellect can do better. Maybe it’s time to change your moniker to crap debater?

          • You do not apply the same standards to yourself. (my point that you missed.) Are you done typing yet or do you want to keep proving it again in another post. Let your own words condemn you to those (ie none) who read your comments here. The end. Goodnight. Thanks for playing. Moving on…

            …I’ve spoken to more intelligent atheists accountable to their own claims and also who do not lie about themselves like you do. Chow.

          • Your inability to address a single point I have put forward intrigues me. You are quick to belittle and dismiss yet you offer no reason or rationale for your words. Why is this so Crap Debator? Ohh and I look forward to your umpteenth final goodbye/dismissal lol.

            PS your crap debating makes you an ally of atheism….think about that . Well actually that’s unlikely given that you haven’t thought much about anything I’ve written.

          • No crap debater I am happy to keep replying so I can watch you continue to humiliate your self . Your pathetic answers demonstrate your inability to hold a decent debate whilst they also show you can’t let it go either. Very sad really. Oh well . I hold my bated breathe for your next clumsy attempt at wit.

          • Oh my crap debater you’ve continued with your dismal performance and slunk off without even an attempt to justify your position. I guess you’re not going away mad you’re just going away. Bye bye crap debater hope you find some backbone to your debating one day. Cheers From Hey Theist

          • @MrScissors:disqus & @heytheist:disqus this conversation was just too tempting to ignore! I’m always intrigued by slightly contentious discussions between two clearly intelligent and articulate people. Seems like it often comes down to semantics, as posited by CC’s response to @disqus_UHWQ17Kbmj:disqus. Anyway… Here’s my 2¢ worth… If there is something “bigger” than us – define it as you wish – I think our chances of understanding “it” are akin to an attempt at describing quantum physics to a petri dish full of amoebae. They are alive and conscious (aware of their surroundings – in the simplest sense of the word) and yet have a 0% chance of comprehending what we, as a higher evolved species, have come to accept as truth.

          • Brother…you seriously need to go back and take a look at your posts. You proved his point many times over. If you have something to say, consider…then deliver. Everyone of yours was react…react…react. You were well played my friend….well played indeed.

  8. Agnostic is more of a belief in nothing, as the existence of a higher power is non-consequential and irrelevant. It is a philosophy that relies on scientific evidence alone, thus doesn’t attempt to prove or disprove a higher power.

    Atheism, on the other hand, is an anti-religion. No, I don’t mean anti-religious; I mean that its relationship to religion is the similar to what antimatter is to matter. They both are basically the same thing on their own, however, they don’t mix. This is why theists and atheists often clash. Atheism and theism technically are both religions. One worships a higher power, the other worships the idea that there is no higher power. Both are extrascientific philosophies that attempt to answer whether or not there is a higher power. However, since science has no preference on the matter, it can’t be used to disprove or prove God. So why waste your time?

    • No, they aren’t even remotely the same. No one goes and blows up a church for atheism. Some do it for Communism or Nihilism, but not atheism.
      Did this article get shared on a Christianist site like 3 months ago or something?

  9. Theism is belief, atheism is unbelief. Gnosticism is (claim to) knowledge, agnosticism is admitting lack of knowledge. These are clearly different realms (belief/knowledge) and there is always overlap. For example, I may not believe in god, but I may also admit that I don’t know if a god exists.

    The problem arises when these terms are used in exclusivity of each other. A devout Mormon will often say, “I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that god exists.” That’s a claim to knowledge so extreme that it excludes the possibility of belief or unbelief. On the other end of the spectrum, you find self-professed agnostics who, when asked if they believe in god reply, “Man, I don’t know.” Such self-labelled agnostics are asserting a position every bit as extreme as the convinced Mormon.

    In reality, and whether people are willing to admit it or not, everyone has a position on belief, just as everyone has a position on claims to knowledge.

  10. Evangelical atheists weighing in here are surpisingly dogmatic in their rhetorical approach. What’s up with that? They seem as shrill and closed minded as theists one finds on TV late at night.


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