What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?


My father was famously a preacher turned agnostic. We used to argue all the time about the difference between an agnostic and an athiest. I felt the difference was inconsequential, he felt it was important. And I've had the same argument with other proclaimed agnostics. I found an amusing way to sum up my view of it in one answer.

What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

The difference is the atheist says she's an atheist, while the agnostic says she's an agnostic. In other words, the difference is only about what they say and not about what they do. I challenge proclaimed agnostics to describe how their life is different from those who say there's no god, or the even more common "areligious" who simply say they have no religion. (I love Dawkins' answer to those who charge that atheism is a religion -- he says that not believing in god is no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.)

Some of the argument comes from misunderstandings about how similar the positions really are. Agnostics imagine that atheists say they are "certain" and thus are fools, but the truth is just about every atheist I have ever seen would say that, should God appear before them, miracles a-blazing, they would of course respond to evidence and change their minds. They just don't think it's likely enough to make it worth worrying about. It may be that agnostics do indeed worry about this more than atheists do, which in a way is a difference of behaviour, but a minor one. Atheists by and large admit, in the extreme, that the agnostic is technically right that we can't know for certain, and agnostics, in spite of the claim of uncertainty, live their lives exactly as atheists do, presuming there is no god. Agnostics think the concept of "doubt of certainty" is important. Atheists acknowledge and even agree with it, but find it unproductive.

But in the long run the only difference comes down to what they say, think and worry about, not to what they do. Agnostics that I've met don't tend to pray "just in case" following Pascal's Wager. There should perhaps be a term for those who live their life differently because of that wager, though I will credit some would call themselves agnostic.

It may be the case that agnosticism is a label found almost exclusively in the formerly religious. One doesn't hear much of a person raised atheist (or more simply areligious) who then "converts" to agnosticism, though many convert to atheism and agnosticism from religion.

Some come on, agnostics. Tell me how you live your life differently from atheists. Not how you say or think different things but what you actually do.


Awesome article. I think that most agnostics are in fact atheists if the definition of atheist means "I don't believe in a theist God." I think the reason most agnostics prefer that label is because atheism has been wrongly equated with nihilism. The word atheist conjures up this image of some cold intellectual unwilling to bend to any possibility of spirituality or meaning in life. In fact, there are strong atheists (who are more apt to say they have a firm and complete understanding of the world through science - the end) and weak atheists (who simply say I do not believe in God big G). I happen to believe that many Eastern traditions and philosophies (like Buddhism which I need to read more about) can fit into an atheistic worldview just fine. Anyway, thanks so much for posting this. Next week (oh no, starting tomorrow) is videoblogging week and I hope to devote a video each day to this very topic.

Dear Uneducated,

To be an Agnostic simply means "I do not know!". I have had many an argument with Atheists concerning their position that there definitely is not a God. However being an Agnostic I KNOW that it is impossible to prove a negative position. Thanks to Aristotle logic proves that Atheists can NEVER prove there is NOT a God. Also, the Religious cults have never given any PROOF there IS a God! Ergo, the only logical stance I can take is one of an Agnostic, I do not know! How can you find ANY fault with this? I do not say you are wrong in your God belief OR do I say the Atheists are right. You can not possibly argue with this position logically!

Much as the US has "libertarians" who are not anarchists, no, really, they're not, honest[1]. You also have agnostics, because the direct threat to God's Own Country posed by athesists can make it uncomfortable at best to proclaim yourself an atheist.

Plues there's the native pedantry amongst scientists and engineers that makes the certainty of atheism uncomfortable for some of us.

[1] actually, libertarians are not anarchists, any more than muslims are jews. Their underlying philosophy derives from anarchism, but they've swerved back to become militant statists which is truly bizarre from an anarchist point of view. But in some ways the parallel holds - it can be dangerous to say you're an anarchist/atheist, so there's a softer term in common use that basically says "I'm an X but I don't want to argue about it".

And Brad, your question is case sensitive. Pedantic!

My point is that the "certainty of atheism" is overstated. An atheist simply states "god does not exist" in a pretty similar sense to saying "faeries do not exist." Should god, or faeries show up, they will happily change their minds. However, you don't alter your life under the supposition that either are at all likely to appear. The difference may come up over a misconception on either side about what "certainty" means to the other.

The question is not case sensitive when I test it, and the code that tests is a php strcasecmp which should not pay attention to case, so can you duplicate that for me?

I used to think largely as you do, Brad. But I've come around. (The autobiography, for those interested in the demographics of this term use: I was a child Christian and theist, then a college-student athiest, and now a young-adult agnostic (who, incidentally, studies epistemology).)

In abstract terms, there's a clear place for a middle ground between believing something and disbeliving it; sometimes, we think there's no good reason to believe either way (or equal reason on both sides), and suspend judgment. The Iranian government says that a group of British sailors was captured in Iranian waters, something the British deny. Jack believes the Iranians; he thinks the sailors were in Iranian waters. Danny disbelieves them, trusting the British instead; he disbelieves that they were in Iranian waters (that is: he believes they were NOT in Iranian waters.) I look at the situation and decide I don't have enough evidence to tell one way or the other. I don't believe it, but I don't disbelieve it either. I suspend judgment.

Once we admit that there is a category of suspension of judgment, there's an obvious place for agnosticism. Is there a God? Theists believe there is; atheists believe there is not. Agnostics suspend judgment. We don't think that we have good enough grounds for believing one way or the other. (We might, but needn't, add that we don't think anyone else has such grounds either.)

Some atheists will press us on this: "if you believe there's no good evidence for the existence of God, you should just believe that there is no God! What better reason could there be for disbelief? (This is, after all, why we disbelieve in fairies!)"

The atheist may be right in pressing this argument -- but he is arguing on substantive grounds that we should be atheists instead of agnostics. He's not arguing that there's no category that we occupy. And indeed, there's room to question whether his argument is cogent. I used to think it was, but now I think it may not be. He's appealing to some principle of ontological parsimony or Occam's Razor or some such thing. These are substantive principles about rationality. They're extremely popular and widespread principles, but they are substantive ones, and I sometimes worry whether they hold up to philosophical scrutiny. Why must we think there's no God, once we admit that there's no conclusive evidence for God's existence? Why not just suspend belief about God? Maybe about fairies too! Maybe you think this is just crazy. Maybe it is. I don't want to get into an argument on the merits of agnosticism here; the point is just that there is a view to be held, and that it's not absolutely nuts to hold it.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Here's a case where most people will agree that the parallel to the agnostic line is right. There are a whole bunch of stars in the universe; consider the claim that, at this very instant, there is an even number of stars in the universe. Perhaps someone will try to convince us that there are. We will demand evidence, and he will be unable to supply any. No one thinks that the proper response at this point is to believe that there is an ODD number of stars; the rational thing to do is to suspend judgment. The agnostic thinks that "there is an even number of stars" is, in the relevant respects, like "there is a God". The athiest thinks there's an important difference between these two cases.

I hope that clarifies the position and gives some plausibility to it. I don't know that I can meet the challenge given, but I think it's unreasonable:

I challenge proclaimed agnostics to describe how their life is different from those who say there’s no god

To see that this is unreasonable as a test for there being a significant difference between athiests and agnostics, consider: how is the life of the person who believes there is an even number of stars different from that of the person who believes there is an odd number? How is each of them different from the person who is agnostic about that question? No answer is obviously true; the only test distinguishing them might be to put the question to each. But there is an epistemic difference. Indeed, we think that one, and not the other two, is responding rationally to the evidence.

Most people think the question of god is a vastly more fundamental one than the parity of the number of stars in the universe. People who seek god usually want it to bring meaning to their life, and change how they live their life. The parity of the star count would not change anybody's life, so it's a non-question. Even the existence of faeries is of much greater importance; your life will be different if you seriously think faeries might come into it.

Thus my challenge. Are you kinder to others than you think you would be if you didn't suspend judgement on the question of god? Do your actions follow a different moral code? Epistemology and our view of it can affect our actions, though there are some epistemological differences which don't result in real-world effects, and this one seems like one of them.

There are of course many agnostic concepts of what sort of god it is that you suspend judgment on. It could be the Christian god, or it could be a completely non-interventionist god who is much more abstract. (I think most agnostics tend to the latter side of the spectrum. Indeed, it may be hard to tell theists who believe in a god who started the universe but afterwards plays no part in it from non-theists.)

Anyway, I understand the differences of thought, which is why I made the challenging definition of the difference being only one of what you say. So I still think it's fair to ask, "what did you do differently today than how you would have done it if you lived your life concluding there's no god?"

I think the important distinction is believing in the possibility of some sort of intelligence behind the universe, and believing that one of the current major world religions are correct. It's the latter that would motivate somone to act much differently, as Brad suggests. Agnostics and atheists alike would probably put equal credence in the specific beliefs in God that are currently in place, and in that case aren't terribly different from one another.

One observable difference between an atheist and an agnostic is that atheists are willing to attack theism (e.g. "The Root of All Evil" by Dawkins) whereas agnostics tend to leave theists alone.

As I noted at the start of my post, my father was a famously professed agnostic, and we used to argue about this all the time. However, that didn't stop him from writing Farewell to God. Now Farewell to God is not the level of attack that I understand Root of All Evil to be of course but it's still a strong critique of Christianity.

But once again, this is pushing the boundaries between "do" and "say." Yes, talk and argument are forms of action, but this doesn't dispute my core thesis that the difference lies in what they say not what they do.

I will credit that quite possibly agnostics are less likely to get "evangelical" about the message than atheists. There are many stripes of atheist, ranging from Dawkins who wishes to actively promote his reasoning to those who simply wish the religious would leave them alone.

I don't know if this counts, but I think that atheistic governments are a lot more likely to persecute theists than agnostic governments, including confiscating church property and putting people in prison. I think that there are some individual atheists who would gladly ban the teaching of religion to children if they had the power. That doesn't seem like something an agnostic would do.

While I am mostly focused on the activities of the individual here, I think you do present some valid points. In theory (but really only in theory) the USA expresses a somewhat agnostic philosophy in the 1st amendment, and the USSR was officially atheist as I recall, though otherwise officially atheist states are rare.

I say "In theory" about the USA because even though it has official separation of church and state, bizarrely politics in the USA are far more influenced by religion than they are in Canada or the UK of many other European nations that don't have that separation. (This does not imply that not having separation is good, since obviously we still have plenty of nasty theocracies.) But what it does mean is that oppression or enforcement of religion seems more tied to the national mood than to any properly chosen principles of good government. The USSR was a dictatorship; its policy on religion was secondary. Canada, which has a Catholic school system and a head of state who is the head of the Church of England, probably has greater freedom of religion in many ways than the USA.

Why should agnostics answer to atheists? If atheists tend to acknowledge that technically agnostics are correct(!), what's their beef with aligning themselves with the technically correct crowd, and living their lives as the agnostics live theirs--as you say, exactly the same? I don't know how atheists live their lives (as if they could conceivably live them similarly to one another), nor do I know how agnostics generally live theirs, but I don't find myself up late at night wondering about the possibility of God's existence. I also, however, don't feel compelled to be obnoxious enough to make a point I *technically* don't even agree with ("I believe God does not exist" as opposed to "I do not believe in God."). I can just as easily as an atheist tell a person with blind faith that I do not respect their religious beliefs and practices. It seems to me that not only is agnosticism more accurate, it's less work. It's a perfect fit for how I feel about not only belief in a higher power, but all absolute knowledge, and how I expect I will always feel. For me, atheism is not necessary and is by definition more restrictive (only encompasses religion). My label has nothing to do with cowardice.

Well, I actually have the reverse view on what's less work. I find that agnostics tend, though not universally, to make a big deal about how they are not atheists. Atheists tend to not care a lot about the difference.

Hey, it's only the most fundamental metaphysical question of all. It seems worthy to conclude something about it.

I think that, basically, the convictions are the same. Where there is more hostility
to the non-religious, some atheists adopt the agnostic tag, since it seems less hostile
to religion and less likely to get them into trouble. For the same reason, they will probably
need to justify this decision more, pointing out that they are not as big a danger as
atheists. Atheists who claim to be atheists, on the other hand, obviously don't care about
such sentiments, and so obviously don't feel any pressure to justify what they call themselves.

That's the difference.

Of course, whether or not one perceives hostility is subjective, so even in the same society
there will be some atheists who prefer the agnostic label.

It's not about believing something doesn't exist vs. not believing something exists and it's not
about being sure or not.

"The difference is the atheist says she’s an atheist, while the agnostic says she’s an agnostic."

Really, isn't a christian just someone who says they believe in a 'god' and behaves and acts in a certain way, while the atheists, etc, say they believe or don't believe in something else, and act in some other ways a bit differently?

Viewed from, perhaps, an aliens perspective, all they'd see is a bunch of humans proclaiming to believe this or not believe that, and running around doing or not doing certain activities, while actually sharing most other attributes - having limbs, a head, needing to eat, sleep - and everyone proclaiming themselves to be right and everyone else wrong . .

There is a difference between having faith in something, like Christ, and not having a religious belief. It is a common argument of the faithful to suggest that atheism is itself a religion or a "faith in science" or somesuch, but, as noted above, this isn't true, at least for most. As I said above, I don't know any rational atheist or agnostic who would not, if presented with an actual God, miracles-a-poppin', accept the reality and believe. They just don't feel it's time to prostrate when the evidence is, in their judgement, so insufficient.

Declaring yourself right and everyone else wrong is human nature, and of itself not a flaw. The actual flaw is being wrong, or more to the point, having a poor estimation of your own accuracy. A wise person only assigns extremely high confidence to conclusions when they are very well justified, and if they are truly wise, the facts bear this out. If you asked most atheists if there is a god (any god, not just the Christian one) they would say they are highly confident there is not, but if they had to give a number, it would not be 100%. Agnostics might give a number that's a bit lower but I would wager it would not be a great deal lower. If an agnostic truly want to claim they think it's 50-50 whether there is a god or not, then Pascal's wager starts to make a lot of sense since the stakes are so high, and they would no longer be agnostic.

Pascal's wager is too simplistic, though. If you decide to live as if God is real (whatever your actual belief), you then have to decide what it is that God wants you to do, and opinion is strongly divided on that matter.

But since the proclaimed agnostics I know live their lives the same as atheists when it comes to "what god wants" I am presuming they don't put a very large probability on the existence of any particular god. If you thought the Christian god was 50% likely, it does seem foolish not to take Pascal's wager when the punishment (lake of fire and all) is so harsh. Not that such a god would be fooled by the most insincere form of the wager. Christians argue about how much faith their god demands, some feel it's total faith, some allow for doubt -- we being human after all -- and of course there is much argument about how important "works" are in addition to the level of faith.

Agnostics, in my experince, have been more prepared to think again about their beliefs, and listen to other points of view.

Also, this subject is one people often do not think rationally about - many people believe what they like to believe rather than carefully considering evidence, even if they don't realise that that is what they've done.

What is a humani
sts? What relation do they have to agnostics and atheists if any?

You will find that Humanism is a pretty broad philosophical school, with religious and non-religious components. You may be interested in secular humanism which more closely relates to non-theism.

The main article seems to assert that atheists and agnostics are basically the same thing because neither practices a set of organized beliefs, so thus they do not live any differently. The person who wrote this obviously believes in god. So if there is a god, is his existence confined to a place of worship? or is he every where like many Christians believe? and if so, isn't it more important how you live your life and treat others, than how many organized church gatherings you attend. You can go to church every Sunday and be a bad person. You can not believe in god at all and be a good person. Now under this guys theory the guy who goes home and beats his wife everyday will go to heaven over the agnostic or atheist person who may serve meals at the homeless shelter or be involved in community action that doesn't involve the church. Actions are more important than beliefs!

Personally, I think Agnostics are much more open minded than Atheists, or if I dare say, Theists. As an Agnostic, I know I am much more tolerant of other religions than an Atheist friend I used to have (and the arguments of this subject are the exact reason why I am no longer friends with him). I'm speaking through personal experiences, but I think I am much more free spirited and understanding as an Agnostic than an Atheist because I am not constantly having to defend my right to believe one way or another. When others talk about "god" or other deities, I am not offended, and I do not feel like I need to "set them straight" on the existence or nonexistence of the divine, like my afore mentioned friend did almost everytime it was mentioned, and would much rather give them the freedom to believe what they want because that is fair and much easier than contradicting them. I am ok with whatever people want to believe, as long as it doesn't interfere with my way of life. Now if someone personally attacks my beliefs by saying I am wrong because there is or isn't a "god" and that I need to be "saved", I will adamantly defend myself because I don't think I need to be saved. I don't HAVE to believe one way or another. I don't believe that the existence of any deity can be proven or disproven. It's possible that there is a "god". Of course, almost anything is possible. But it is also possible that there isn't one. I guess what I'm trying to say as I don't try to bring up my beliefs in a conversation about the Christian god (since that's the most common religion here) because I would rather be left alone and believe that it is possible "god" exists, rather than get into a fight that will very quickly turn ugly and ultimately against me, like an Atheist MIGHT. I am also much more comfortable examining and reevaluating my beliefs than an Atheist or even a Theist because my beliefs are elastic. I believe I am much more tolerant of others BECAUSE I am Agnostic. But as I've said before, this is from my personal experiences, and I know there are others that would strongly disagree with me.

I'm agnostic. And I live differently from any atheist. It's true, I dont attend mass. But that doesnt make me live like an agnostic. I believe that the fact of going to church is not the only way to be connected to God.

I talk to God instead. I treat him as an equal, i dont know if i'm doing right. I talk to him when I feel blue, or when I have a doubt, I ask him for advice, and to show himself and prove me that he exists.

Nothing like that has happened, but I dont quit trying.

Great differentiation between agnostics and atheism. I think a lot of people throw around both terms not fully understanding what they mean. Great Job.

I think you would be a great addition to Officially Atheist - A social network for atheists....so we can unite, share our views, learn, and debate about various aspects of religion and science.

I am an agnostic, Was raised christian, and i dont think i live my life any different from most belivers, or non-belivers(atheists).

i think its pointless to argue the meaning of 'agnostic' and 'atheist'. and i also do think that there is a difference. an atheist rejects that there is any kind of higher power, an agnostic BELIEVES there is some kind of higher power, just not sure what it is. so basically when you distinguish wether you are an agnostic or an atheist you are stating wether your an open to believing or closed minded. I do not think it matters how either lives their life because you can be a christian and not pray or go to church.....and you can also be an atheist or agnostic.you can be a agnostic or atheist and still agree wtih waiting till your married to have sex, not killing people, its wrong to lie, you shouldnt steal, being gay isnt right, and anything else the bible says about how you should live your life. and you can also be a christian and think that being with the opposite sex is okay, or having sex before your married, not go to church, ect. so yes there is a difference, and its not based off of your actions. it cant be because your neither definitions can be proved by actions.
christian - believes in jesus christ ( god )
atheist - total denial of any higher power
agnostic - BELIEVES there is a higher power just unsure of what it is. ( does not follow a set religion )

i am personally an agnostic.

Most people are not clear on the fact that there are two types of agnostics -- theist and non-theist. An agnostic's central tenet is that we can't know the nature of god or if there even is a god. (It is often said as "can't know" though almost everybody would agree that if a god were to reveal itself to us, we then would be able to know. Proving a negative is harder.)

With that tenet, there are two types of agnostics. Those who believe there is some sort of god, and those who don't. You're in the former camp -- at least I think you are. To be an agnostic you have to accept it as possible that there is no god, and that it is possible there is one. If you are firm in the belief that there is some sort of god, but don't know which sort, you are not an agnostic, you are a general theist.

Most of us who call ourselves atheists are strictly "atheist agnostics" because we do indeed credit that a god could reveal itself and we would then accept theism. However, our current belief is that there is no god. I say belief because we know you can't usually prove a negative.

However, typically our belief in that negative becomes quite strong when it comes to specific gods of various religions, be they the monotheist gods, or Zeus, or Odin, or Krishna. At that point, we reach a level of "I don't believe in the god of Abraham" at the level of "I don't believe in elves."

There are few pure atheists, who declare that they are certain that there can't be a god. Or rather, this happens because we use different meanings of the word certain. Pressed on it, most logical people will agree it is hard to be certain of a negative, but in common use we use that word in that context all the time. I am certain there is no god to the extent that I would bet my life (or my "soul") on it, which is a pretty high level of certainty, and meets the more common usage of the word.

However, my main point remains the same. The difference between those who call themselves agnostic and those who call themselves atheist (really atheist agnostic) is seen only in what they call themselves. You could say it is in what they believe, but what they believe manifests only in what they say, not in what they do.

"...just about every atheist I have ever seen would say that, should God appear before them, miracles a-blazing, they would of course respond to evidence and change their minds."

But that isn't atheist--it's agnostic. An atheist, presented with God and miracles a-blazing, would insist that it actually isn't God and those aren't miracles and there's some entirely materialistic explanation for the whole thing.

Well, it depends what you mean by insist. An atheist, and anybody else, should be skeptical of any extraordinary claim. But once the extraordinary claim is clearly proven, most rational people, including almost everybody I know who calls themselves an atheist, would accept the new evidence.

This is why I say one of the big reasons there is no difference is that technically the atheists are agnostics. Atheist agnostics.

When agnosticism was invented as a concept, or at least named, it was a radical idea. Atheism was a total blasphemy, but the agnostic was just trying to say we can't know. (Or rather, we can't yet know, though some agnostics assert we could never know which I don't think is true, unless they accept, on faith, that a god would never reveal itself.)

So in fact what you have is a lot of atheist agnostics, a tiny number of pure atheists who would deny even proof put before them, and a moderate number of theist agnostics who don't think we can know, but tend to suspect theism is right.

THey all live their lives the same, though.

"Tell me how you live your life differently from atheists"

Your right the difference is what they say, not what they do. As an Agnostic myself I think the difference is that athleist don't believe in a God while agnostics believe that it is possible or may not care if there is a god or not. The ones who do things "just in case" usually claim a relegion.

As an agnositic I believe that there could be a god but even if there is he does not have any impact in my life.

How I live my life different from an atheist is a question of little substance. All or even the majority of christians do not live similar live stlyes.

I have known atheists that are great people and have known some who are terrible people. same with agnostics, christians, jews, ect.

I will say that I think agnostic, atheist, christian or whatever, if God shows up performing miracles in front of their eyes and starts walking on water, I as well as most people will believe in whatever religion tat person tells me too.

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