Atheist vs Agnostic
By Steve Gillman - 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
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
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.
Love of Country?
Atheist vs Agnostic