Atheist FAQ: Atheism vs Agnosticism. What’s the Difference Anyway?

Atheist Cartoon - The Simpsons

Atheism is the absence of belief in a god, gods or any kind of other divine power(s). For the atheist, the only thing you can really ever know is that which can be proven to exist. Moreover, the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims. In other words, it is not the atheist’s job to prove that gods, pink elephants, teapots orbiting the sun and so forth do not exist. It is up to the entity making such claims to prove they do exist.

Agnosticism is the notion that the existence or non-existence of any deity is unknown or cannot be known because said existence cannot be disproved. Agnostics, therefore, do not believe that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims. For an agnostic not being able to disprove the existence of god is good enough of a reason to remain open to the possibility of its existence.

Agnosticism and Organized Religion

Note that agnostics may also be people who believe in a higher power or a god without the attachment of organized religion. An agnostic may believe in a higher power or a transcendent nature of reality that “drives” the universe, life and the human condition. In that case, the higher power is not necessarily god as described in the Abrahamic religions or the gods in polytheistic traditions. The “I am spiritual but not religious” phrase is often used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.

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Agnosticism is, therefore, compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.

Agnosticism More Reasonable?

There is also a common (false) perception that agnosticism is a more “reasonable” position while atheism is more “dogmatic,” ultimately indistinguishable from theism except in the details. An assertion that could not be further from the truth because the very things, the “details” that inform a religious person and an atheist are precisely the things that starkly set them apart and define them. Atheism and theism are not like catholicism and protestantism that in essence adhere to the same principles and are only different with respect to their (extreme) interpretations of each belief system.

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To state that atheists are just like theists, “except in detail” is missing the whole point and thus what those “details” consist of. It is like saying anti-segregationists and segregationists are indistinguishable from one another “except in the details”. As if being against slavery and the subjugation of human beings was as valid and desirable of a view as being pro slavery. 

Similarly, stating that theism and atheism are the same except for some “minor detail” implies that theism is an equally valid and desirable view only distinguishable from atheism with respect to some minor “details”.

Fact is, they are not. Theism is clearly an inferior and undesirable view to hold for all the reasons that have been discussed at length by skeptics. Therefore, to equate both as being merely two sides of the same coin misses the essence and nature of either belief. 

In the world view of religious people, rationality, logic, fact-based knowledge and thus not wanting to live one’s life based on fairy tales and anecdotes, are considered too radical and threatening.  Therefore, the religious person prefers the agnostic over the atheist whom they often equate with and perceive as a path to evil – mainly because atheists do not have religion to guide their ethics and morals. 

Agnosticism gives the impression of reason. Therefore, while an agnostic, just like an atheist, may not believe in any of the fairy tales perpetuated by religious thinking, the agnostic may still say – unlike the atheist – that he is “open” to religion so he is left alone to appear reasonable. After all, no one can blame you or attack you or think less of you because you don’t know any better. In fact, as long as you are open to the religious person’s belief in falsehoods, said religious people are cool with you and you aren’t considered a radical or a threat.  On the contrary, in that case you become merely a lost, misguided soul eligible for redemption. 

Note that while both atheists and agnostics operate from the standpoint of “I don’t know” – agnostics remain open to the possibility of a higher power “just in case” or because they cannot disprove it, while atheists do not leave any room for religion and higher power and will only be convinced if they see evidence.

Existential Uncertainty

Psychologically speaking, agnosticism appears more “bearable” as a philosophy than flat out rejection of a deity. Agnostics may remain open to the possibility of a higher power because ultimately they cannot fathom that there is no higher power and deeper reason behind all this. While their logical, rational mind tells them that all the stuff they read in the Bible and other outlets of religiosity are a bunch of made up hooey, their hearts – the emotional aspect of their being, the part of their higher developed brains capable of abstract thought – that which is looking for the meaning of it all –  does not permit them to just dismiss god and the notion of a higher power.

That is because existential angst and uncertainty can be terrifying and something a lot of people cannot get their minds around. The idea that there is no higher power. No father figure with a plan for all of us. No afterlife and instead a real end to consciousness and existence as we know it is something most human beings find unbearable to live with.  In fact, it can be argued that if it wasn’t for the belief in a higher power, a higher purpose and a promise of a better tomorrow and heaven surrounded by one’s loved ones for eternity etc., most people wouldn’t put up with the crap they are putting up with everyday. In that sense, being a non-believer is a luxury most people do not have. 

Spirituality and Atheism Are Not Mutually Exclusive

If one defines spirituality as the private realm of thought and experience connoting a blend of humanistic psychology with the internal experience of the individual and esoteric traditions aimed at personal well-being, growth and development (as opposed to religion that represents the organized aspect, the institutions, which press people into a mold) then atheists can be spiritual people too. However, that does not mean that they believe in a higher power as an explanation for existence. 

An atheist, much like an agnostic, admits that he simply does not know (unlike religious people who seemingly have an “answer” for everything). However, unlike the agnostic, the atheist is not willing to entertain the possibility of a god and religion simply because he “does not know.”

Atheists are skeptics, much like agnostics, and any good skeptic maintains an open mind and is willing to learn, evaluate and re-evaluate their beliefs and views as well as be educated. But being a skeptic, having an open mind and being willing to learn and find out more does not equal entertaining far fetched fairy tales and fantasies in the from of religion as a serious possibility for our existence and being. This is were atheists and agnostics diverge as for the atheist, religion does not become the substitute belief or truth until something else comes around.

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The reason atheists are quite persistent is that they do not believe that standing by and respecting religious supremacy can do any good. On the contrary, atheists see a real and palpable danger in giving credence to such views as atheists find religion to be solely responsible for the decline in knowledge and education (such as pertaining to stem cell research, teaching creationism and intelligent design being taught in schools in the United States as a viable theory next to evolution, just to name a few examples) and the myriad of other wrongs taking place in the name of religion. 

Atheists may even adhere to the notion that religion is just a byproduct of the diseased human mind as opposed to its driver. Misogyny was not born out of religion. It existed before religion was invented and became incorporated and institutionalized into religious doctrine. That is why misogyny is prevalent among  religious people and atheists alike.

I Do Not Know

Finally, one of the most important things that distinguishes atheists from agnostics is that the latter ultimately believes that the answers may be there and are just waiting to be discovered. That there is a possibility that there is a higher power and purpose that we just haven’t figured it out yet but one day may.

An atheist, on the other hand, is perfectly fine with not knowing all the answers or the notion that there may really never be an answer when it comes to the questions of why and the nature of existence. In fact, an atheist operates from that assumption and is only willing to entertain the alternative with definite proof.  An agnostic, however, is willing to entertain the alternative even without proof.

Ultimately, the atheist recognizes that maybe there are some things we will never know. And maybe the key is to know what those things are and to leave them alone.

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  1. #1 by myatheistlife on March 24, 2013 - 7:36 PM

    This is a very good post. Being in the atheist category, among others, I disagree slightly with your concluding statement. At least where I am concerned. There are some questions that we might never know the answers to but I do not believe they should be left alone, rather they should be bothered till there is no bothering left. For every person that says they have an answer it should be investigated, and when found lacking thrown to the dustbin of history. Where they are not found lacking, lets put those ‘under the microscope’… repeatedly. What we find may never budge the answer away from the ‘we don’t know’ side of the board, but to say that there cannot be answers and the questions should be left alone is little better than claiming to have the answer and then forbid questioning of it.

    Even anti-theists would rather investigate the possible answers than let them rust while certainty that a thing is unknowable prances about like the ignorance of religious certainty.

    • #2 by popreflection on March 25, 2013 - 9:55 AM

      I should clarify. My point was with respect to the very fundamental question of what drives life as we know it, what makes it tick, the purpose (if any). This is not about halting research and development and wallowing in ignorance. But there is a certain point where even the biggest skeptic and biggest researcher has to realize that maybe we will not have all the answers and that it is ok if we do not.

      • #3 by myatheistlife on March 25, 2013 - 12:22 PM

        That seems to imply that you feel that “the very fundamental question of what drives life as we know it, what makes it tick, the purpose (if any)” is/are unknowable things. Why would you say that?

        • #4 by popreflection on March 25, 2013 - 3:18 PM

          I don’t think that they are unknowable I am just saying we may not know and that it is ok. I am comfortable with not knowing why I am here and I don;t know if there is an answer or will. I dont like the idea of a “why” because again that implies intent. Nowhere does it say we are required to know the secrets of existence and the universe. We can try to find out but that is not my objective as an atheist. Find out or die trying. All I care about is people understand it definitely is not religion or god.

          • #5 by myatheistlife on March 25, 2013 - 3:22 PM

            Well, that I can agree with. I’m slightly different in as much as I think it is possible that finding out how to create AI in the classical sense will show us the answers to the questions that people want answers to. We already have a valid answer for “why?” – shit happens. It may not be correct in the end, but it’s at least as good as any other and has all the evidence required … so far.

          • #6 by popreflection on March 25, 2013 - 3:37 PM

            i dont think creating AI can give us the answers to the why and life as we know it. Why DNA, why these specific amino acids. Why this planet. Why evolution. it just tells you how to create something similar but it doesn’t give you answers with regard to the above. I think it is a futile quest. Nothing changed for me and my life not knowing.

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