Atheist vs Agnostic

By - July 17, 2012

What is the difference, and does it matter? It might be important to some people, but I don't really worry about what others want to call me. I'll explain here why I feel I'm an atheist vs agnostic, and let friends and family fret over whether I can be called an agnostic and so allotted more hope in their religious minds.

To start with, there are very few proponents of what we might call strict atheism, the kind in which the believer claims that no gods exist. Most who call themselves atheists are not believers, but non-believers; they simply have not seen evidence that convinces them there is a god, and so they have no belief in one. Even famous atheists like Richard Dawkins understand that one cannot prove a negative. He says, for example, that if there was a scale of one to seven with an absolute belief that there is a god being one and an absolute belief that there is no god being seven, he would be a six.

Dawkins says, "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there." Now, many people try to make this out to be the same as agnosticism, but it isn't quite identical. Agnosticism is just a more general approach of skepticism about claims of truth. An agnostic essentially feels that when it comes to claims about gods and other metaphysical matters, the truth is unknown or unknowable. Some who are called agnostics even have religious beliefs (or at least practices), but they do not consider them proven or provable.

The two might seem like they are very close, but if you look at the origin of the words there are some clues as to the meanings. Consider the prefix "im", which usually means "not". We have the words "moral" and "immoral," with the latter meaning "not moral" or "opposed to morality." The prefix "a", on the other hand, though also used to mean "not," usually means it in the sense of "without," or "lacking". Thus, when we say someone is "amoral", it does not mean the same thing as "immoral". It suggests a lack of any sense of morality or moral conscience, as opposed to the immoral person who knows and feels he is doing wrong.

Since "Gnosticism" comes from the Greek "gnosis", or "knowledge", "agnosticism" suggests a lack of religious belief or being without absolute faith in the verity of religious knowledge. "Atheism" more simply suggests being without theism; a simple lack of belief in any god.

As a practical matter it seems that agnostics are "waiting to see" and do not want to simply state that they do not believe in a god (even though that is usually the case). If you ask agnostics if they believe in a god, many will answer with something like, "I don't know if God exists or not," which is another way to say "no". For some, this might be a way to avoid the social stigma attached to being an atheist, who simply says, "no, I do not believe in God."

Is this just being argumentative? Perhaps. But imagine if I asked you whether you believe in the Blue Snake that rules the world from the sky. By the way, she is the mother of the world, and the basis for the title essay in my book, "Blue Snake." Now, you would probably comfortably answer, "no" because I have not presented you with any evidence for her existence. That makes you an "aserpentist," which is a person who has no belief in the Serpentine Mother. You would not really feel the need to explain that maybe she exists and maybe she doesn't.

We cannot prove the non-existence of anything with certainty, but when things are highly improbable and no meaningful evidence for there existence is offered, it is enough to say "I don't believe in that." If I tell you that Bugs Bunny is God, you don't have to say, "I'll wait and see," or "Maybe you're right, but I'm not sure." Those would be more agnostic things to say, but more likely you would feel okay saying you do not believe what I told you.

So, to be clear, I do not claim that God does not exist, nor can you claim with certainty that the Blue Snake does not exist (or, for that matter, The Great Dork from the story The Adorkist). But I do not believe in the biblical God, I am without any theist beliefs, and I do not feel the need to "wait and see," so I call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic.

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Atheist vs Agnostic

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