Atheist vs Agnostic

I have heard the debate on Atheist vs Agnostic for a while and I figured I would put my feelings about it here.  First off I am an atheist, so this post is basically reasons why I am not agnostic, I will clarify what i mean by atheist though.  I find it interesting that to the world it is better to be agnostic than atheist.  Maybe people feel like they can convert you or that there is hope for you yet if you are an agnostic, while if you are an atheist there is no hope.  Maybe it is the fact that atheism is contrary while being agnostic is neutral.

The trouble with both of these words, maybe with all words, is that the aren’t very clear.  I have heard a few definitions for agnostic such as:  someone who doesn’t know if a god exists, someone who doesn’t care if a god exists, someone who is waiting for the evidence before deciding. defines agnostic as:

1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

3. of or pertaining to agnostics or agnosticism.

4. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge.

Atheist is  meant as someone who doesn’t believe in a god, although I feel like there is a stigma about it meaning that someone won’t believe in a god, someone who doesn’t believe no matter what.

The thing is, I feel like absolute belief either way is a bad thing.  Science knows that it can’t prove anything 100%, it never tries.  All science does is say this idea fits the evidence so far.  If there is a lot of evidence it says this is a fact, knowing that if new evidence comes along, the fact may change.

This should be the behavior of all intelligent and rational people, everyone should be agnostic about everything.  In the practical sense, we still say “I believe the sky is blue”, or “I believe the Earth revolves around the sun”.  No one claims to be agnostic about fire being hot.  So in this general sense I am agnostic.  I know the answers may change based on evidence.  This post is specifically about feelings toward a god though.

Obviously no one KNOWS if a god exists or not.  Believers like to say they have spoken to their god, but there are other possibly simpler explanations, so I don’t like that definition, because again, everyone should be agnostic.  Someone who doesn’t care if a god exists is a legitimate definitions, I just don’t think it applies to me.  We as humans are always searching for answers to where we came from, whether it was a god or some multi-verse is very interesting, on a more personal level though, it is important because if there was a god and he was like the god in the bible, I would like to know so I could avoid going to hell.  That place sounds like it sucks.

Which comes to the next definition, waiting for evidence.  This is where I clarify what I mean by atheist.  I am an atheist toward all of the current religions I know about.  I am not agnostic toward them because there is a ton of evidence against them.   They don’t make any sense, and have nothing in them that couldn’t have been written by someone of their time period.  Evolution is a great example.  There are massive amounts of evidence for evolution, none of which is described in any holy text that I have every seen, and it is a process that takes away the need for a creator.  I Am agnostic toward the Idea of a god/creator/higher power because, just like I said before, this is the behavior of rational people.  Maybe our universe is just some colony of bacterial on some other creatures body, the problem with this speculation is that there are infinite “what ifs?”.  So I don’t like to waste my time with them.  So I still call myself an Atheist because I don’t worship or believe in any of this because the evidence just isn’t there.

I don’t want to go into it to much but I do want to point out what Richard Dawkins and many other say.  “We are all atheist to something”.  Maybe it is Zeus or maybe unicorns, but we come to this through logic and evidence.  I find it interesting that a Christian is just as logical as me when it comes to Islam.  They know it isn’t true, but when it comes to their own religion, logic flies out the window.

The last point I want to make is the “maybe it is unknowable” argument.  I don’t like this either, because I feel like it is an excuse to stop looking for an answer.  Just like the Christian answer to “What created the big bang?” If you just say god, and that is the end, that just sucks.  No need to look any further once god come into the picture.  I feel the way about the “unknowable” answer. If something is unknowable then why keep looking.  The thing is you can never know if something is unknowable so why use it even as a place holder answer.  So I am an Atheist in this respect too, I think that it wasn’t a god that created us, so we had better keep looking.

So that I why I am an atheist and not agnostic.  This all reminds me of a quote from a religious friend of mine, and it kind of ties with what I said early.  He said that what he didn’t like about atheist was that “they think we are wrong”.  The we he was talking about was Christians.  What I don’t like about this is the shifted burden of proof.  He was right that I do think he is wrong, but I think he is wrong because lack of evidence.  It is the responsibility of the religious to find proof for their beliefs if they want to be taken seriously.  Anyway, that is why I am not religious.

22 Responses to Atheist vs Agnostic

  1. What would you call yourself in regards to gods that you have not ever heard explicitly defined? Agnostic or atheist?

    I think the term “agnostic”, in the way it is generally understood, just confuses everything. Towards gods I have not ever heard of, I am an implicit atheist. Ones I have heard of I am an explicit atheist towards. Agnosticism is either a claim about knowledge or a fence sitter position – if it is the first, I am an agnostic towards everything (not just gods), if the second, I am definitely not agnostic.

  2. Josh Wittner says:


    Great question! I’m not the author of this article, but as a member of the Northwest Skeptics I find myself compelled to answer it. I wouldn’t consider myself atheistic or agnostic to any gods I’ve never heard of nor imagined. Those two concepts both imply a knowledge of the claim for which they are being applied. To gods I have never gained knowledge of I remain simply ignorant.


  3. Jason says:

    “I find it interesting that a Christian is just as logical as me when it comes to Islam. They know it isn’t true, but when it comes to their own religion, logic flies out the window.”

    I think it’s important to note that the reason you believe Islam is wrong and the reason a Christian believes Islam is wrong are completely different. Yours is coming from a scientific reasoning perspective while they believe that Islam is wrong because of the one of the commandments that they believe in: you shall have no other gods before me.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Matt Casanova says:

    That is a great question. I agree with what you say about Agnosticism, I could be called Agnostic toward everything, so why bother to use it as a label, and I don’t think the fence sitter applies to me either. I think there is ample evidence to sway me away from the belief of a supernatural creation. So until I learn about more evidence for gods, I am Atheist. As you said “agnostic” is just a little confusing. I have no problems saying I don’t believe in something and then admitting I am wrong later. If for example Einstein wasn’t quite right about relativity, I wouldn’t feel ashamed to say “Yea I believed he was right, whoops” I certainly don’t need to declare that I am agnostic to his ideas just because they may change.

    Now for your question. I agree with Josh that I would be simply ignorant, but the fact remains that since I don’t know about such gods, I certainly don’t/can’t believe in them. So I guess I would agree with you that I am implicitly Atheist. There are millions upon millions of “What if” god questions, or denials to evolution or whatever, and just declaring them isn’t enough, a claim needs evidence to back it up. So while I am open to the idea of gods, just saying “I think there is a thunder god named…Susie” is going to get a “Yea right” from me unless you have something to back it up.

  5. Matt Casanova says:

    To Jason.

    Your right that the commandment influences them and so it really is different, since they are still starting with their answer. The point I was trying to make was that after that starting point, they totally use logic and reason to destroy another religion.

  6. Josh Wittner says:

    I don’t think you can be implicitly atheist to a concept you don’t have. You can’t believe in it, nor can you not believe it. Without knowledge of the god, one cannot be an atheist or an agnostic to it.

    As for Susie the thunder god, this is not an idea you are ignorant to, you at least can infer a reasonable amount of information about the likelihood of such a god because of our understanding of the nature of thunder. This is not an unknown god.

    When you make the statement that you are implicitly atheistic toward unknown gods, I think you are actually referring to some kind of god for which you have a concept of, at least it seems that you are thinking of something when you say that you don’t believe in it. If not then I think the statement make no sense.

    I do not think it is possible to make any claims about believing things you have no concept of.

  7. “I don’t think you can be implicitly atheist to a concept you don’t have.”

    “I do not think it is possible to make any claims about believing things you have no concept of.”

    Being an atheist isn’t a claim about believing things – you just say you lack a belief. Being an explicit atheist means you know of a god and explicitly reject belief in it (though this doesn’t mean you explicitly deny it’s existence, you just explicitly state you lack that belief), and being an implicit atheist just means you don’t believe in that god. There is nothing funny about not believing in something you lack a concept of, it’s the default state.

  8. Josh Wittner says:

    This discussion always to turns to a definition of terms. I was playing a bit more strict with my definition of atheist, that is, using it only to mean the disbelief or rejection of belief in a god or gods. My point was that, with this definition, and being truly ignorant of the gods in question one cannot truthfully atheistic or agnostic but only ignorant.

    The article you linked me to has informed me of the meaning of the term as you applied it and so I’ll have to think again about my stance. I do take objection though to your statement that being an atheist isn’t a claim about believing things, because it seems clear that it is. Saying that you are without belief in something, is clearly a statement about belief.

    How does implicit atheism, meaning having the lack of belief in a claim as in the case of the new born and god, differ from the meaning of ignorance to the claim? Can one be implicitly atheistic to a concept that they are not ignorant of? Can one not be implicitly atheistic to something they are ignorant of? Are the two simply synonyms?

    By the way, this conversation rules. I checked out your blog, and it rules too.

  9. Being completely ignorant about a god concept means you are an implicit atheist towards it – it is in no way a comment a positive belief, but a lack of one.

    Explicit atheism (i.e. understanding a god concept and not believing it) I think is a bit more like a positive belief, but isn’t itself one. I think it is just a belief that there is not enough evidence to warrant the belief in that specific god concept. There is some evaluation of the evidence and a conclusion, which makes this different from implicit atheism.

    Being a strong atheist, which is a subset of explicit atheism, means not only do you know of a god concept and not think there is enough evidence to warrant belief, but you also think you have evidence that that god does not exist. That is, strong atheism towards a god is a positive belief that that god does not exist (contrasting with weak atheism, which is just a lack of belief in that god).

    That is how I understand and use the terms.

  10. Josh Wittner says:

    So the terms ‘implicitly atheist’ and ‘completely ignorant’ are interchangeable? Then I would still stand by my original answer to your question, and I think that stretching the definition of atheist like this makes the word weaker and more confusing, like agnostic already is. And seems wholly unnecessary.

    I think with the terms atheist meaning one rejects belief, agnostic meaning that you claim we’ll never know or at least can’t know now and so neither rejects nor embraces belief, and ignorant meaning unknowing of the concept of such a belief we’ve got all the terms we need without confusing the language.

    Do you agree? If not, then what reasons do you have for the necessity of the term implicit atheism?

  11. I don’t agree – I think agnostic definitely muddies the water far more than just having qualifications on atheist. If “agnostic” means “I don’t know”, then we are stuck being agnostics about everything. If we are only agnostic about things we don’t have a concept about, it seems you’ve completely changed the definition of agnostic, which is supposed to mean “we can’t know”, and even if we leave that aside, I don’t see how this makes the terms any less confusing.

    There are infinitely many gods that are possible. I don’t believe in any gods, so I call myself an atheist – nothing complicated about that. We don’t really complicate the term by extending it to gods we don’t know about. If we are atheists towards the gods we know about, but agnostic about the ones we haven’t, what do we say when someone asks us for a noun describing our religious views? It seems odd to say we are atheists, given that we are agnostics towards the vast majority of gods that have ever been believed in (unless you have studied mythology extensively and know the thousands and thousands of gods of different cultures), but by saying we’re agnostic we’re watering down our position.

    If someone tells me about a specific god, then I can say “I don’t believe that”, unless they give me good reason to believe. About gods I haven’t heard about, I have to say “I have no belief in those.” Any god I lack a belief about I am a weak atheist about. Thus I am a weak atheist towards them. It follows simply from the definition of weak atheist. We definitely don’t want to get rid of the term weak atheism, but I don’t think it needs revising either.

  12. Josh Wittner says:

    I’ve read and reread the definitions of atheism and I think I finally grok your point. My confusion wasn’t with weak or strong atheism, it was that I didn’t see a need to use the term implicit atheism since ignorant seemed more clear and concise, but I see now that in a discussion on the forms of atheism the term has some use.

    As for its use when describing my position on claims that I am ignorant of, it adds no information because I am at all times implicitly atheist to all things I have never considered. So with having the knowledge that one is ignorant of a claim I have the knowledge that they are implicitly atheist to it. And having the knowledge that one is implicitly atheist to a claim, I have the knowledge that they are ignorant of it. When one is used the other is necessarily implied. That said, it would not be untrue to say that I am implicitly atheistic toward claims I am ignorant of. Though I think I would have just created a tautology.

    I don’t feel bound to be able to express my religious beliefs through the use of a single noun. I’m not sure those who do, or those who can, have thought out religious belief well enough. However, if asked the question, I would probably say I am ‘materialistic’, or ‘naturalistic’ as they are the most fitting terms I know of. For gods in particular I cannot possibly provide one noun that covers my belief in all gods, because I am in a different state of belief for different gods.

    Just to note:

    Materialism – “The theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.”

    Naturalism – “The view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.”

  13. “As for its use when describing my position on claims that I am ignorant of, it adds no information because I am at all times implicitly atheist to all things I have never considered.”

    True enough.

    “I don’t feel bound to be able to express my religious beliefs through the use of a single noun.”

    I find that interesting. I find it useful to describe myself as an atheist – everyone gets the idea. I like to make it known where I stand on issues (wear my views on my sleeve, sometimes literally), so people who share my views know they aren’t alone, and to try to encourage people to discuss these sorts of things with me. Unfortunately, not many people know what a naturalist or a materialist is. Frankly, most people make the assumption that I am one (regardless of whether they know what the terms mean) when I say I am an atheist. I don’t think I have compressed my beliefs in any way when I say I’m an atheist, though of course the term itself doesn’t say much (it just says what I am not).

    I am thinking now that it might be better to say you’re a materialist or naturalist if asked (most people would ask “Oh, what’s that?” which would open the gates for dialogue), but if you’re going to put it on a button, shirt, or website profile, atheist is probably better (since people will understand what it means).

    If I had to take a pick of a single label, I would probably use secular humanist.

  14. Josh Wittner says:

    I really agree that most people would sooner understand if I used the term atheist, but I really do feel that my atheism is a product of my materialism so I’d probably prefer to use that term. Plus I really like your point that it would be more likely to open up the conversation, especially since those two terms (materialism and naturalism) don’t have the negative connotation attached to them like atheism does (at least amongst the strongly religious).

    I would also consider myself a secular humanist, which, like my atheism, arises from my materialist philosophy. And like materialist or naturalist it is more likely to encourage in depth conversation.

    Thanks for the super interesting conversation!

  15. “I really do feel that my atheism is a product of my materialism”

    I know – being an atheist is such a secondary description for me. Saying I’m an atheist is as much a part of my philosophy or identity as saying I am a non-astrologer or a unicorn-unbeliever.

    Anyways, thanks to you as well for the interesting conversation.

  16. Matt Casanova says:

    I have been busy with school so I haven’t had time to respond so here it is.

    My problem with agnosticism is that is is still such an obvious, redundant word. Saying that I am atheist to gods I know and agnostic to gods I don’t know would still be ultimately incorrect because i know that I could be wrong, and can always be wrong. I say I am atheist because I lack belief in supernatural gods, weather I could be wrong or not I still lack that belief. If it turns out I am wrong that is OK, I will say I was wrong, before I didn’t belief now I do because of evidence: X, Y and Z.

    I don’t feel the need to keep a tally of if I am right or wrong. Saying I am ignorant is a fine term, but I still don’t belief. I do not hold a belief in unknown gods so I still say I am atheist. Again I know I could be wrong, I don’t feel the need to say it each time. Just saying i am ignorant feels slightly like a cop out, while it is being honest, the fact is that I still don’t belief.

    Also I feel that claiming to be a materialist is claiming to be atheist for all unknown gods. Just so everyone knows, I would also call myself a materialist. Anyway by saying that you think that everything can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena, you are saying that you don’t believe there is a supernatural explanation for things, basically you are saying you are an atheist to all gods. As rational people we understand that we don’t really know, but we make decisions based on the evidence at hand.

    I also agree that just saying atheist is a short concise way to explain to someone how you feel on the topic of religion, and sometimes that is what is required. Opening up conversations is fun and important when the time is right, on the other hand, being understood clearly is another. Maybe saying that you are an atheist isn’t totally descriptive, but people will still get the gist, saying materialist or naturalist or even secular humanist will go over some peoples head and they may just move on with out asking questions.

    I think that is all…probably not though.

  17. Josh Wittner says:

    Agnosticism isn’t redundant if used as its meant to be used. Not as a wavering, confused title for an atheist who doesn’t want to pick a side, but as a concise description for someone who believes that it is impossible to know. I am agnostic about all unfalsifiable claims.

    Agnosticism has somehow gotten mixed up with atheism when the two are quite distinct. Atheism describes a state of belief, agnosticism describes belief about the possibility or more specifically the impossibility of certain knowledge. Being an agnostic imparts no restrictions on your belief or disbelief in any claim.

    While some may not understand what I mean when I say ‘materialist’, it is the best word I know of to describe my philosophy. And it says so much more than ‘atheist’ does, it states the reasoning behind my atheism and implies my atheism at the same time.

    The more I think about it, the more I like materialist or naturalist. Plus, how’s it ever gonna become part of the common vernacular if no one except us esoteric fools is using it.

    “Do you believe in god?”
    “I believe that there are only natural forces at work in the universe.”

  18. Matt Casanova says:

    You make some good points. I agree using materialist is the only way to get the word out. I actually like it better to because it is declaring what you believe instead of what you don’t believe. However I guess I don’t feel like the word needs to spread about materialist, when atheist will do. When a different word pops up, Materialist, Naturalist, Secular Humanist, Bright, Skeptic, people think these are new causes or cults and dismiss them because they sound new and therefore must be small.

    Atheists are somewhere between 10% and 16% of the US population. That is some potential minority power in the Government to sway the Candidates. Maybe it’s not a strong agenda but I care about better education and a stronger separation of church and state, also just general rationality in my fellow citizens. My point is that if we keep choosing different words that better describe us we lose the strength of numbers. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be a materialist, just that Atheist is already known and when giving a quick answer it will do nicely.

    I Also agree that I wasn’t using Agnosticism in the right context, but even in the right context I feel it is redundant. Since you are adding the qualifier to it you are basically saying you think all unknowable claims are unknowable. Since there is a word like unfalsifiable or just saying “Nope, can’t prove that” I can’t imagine ever using agnostic in this context.

    Person1: Invisible unicorns exist!!!
    Me: Well I do believe I am agnostic to invisible unicorns.


    Person1: Invisible unicorns exist!!!
    Me: Nope, Can’t prove that.

    And as I said before claiming something is unknowable feels like giving up. Maybe it is only unknowable right now. So why even use it. And when it comes to practicality when something is is unknowable it might as well not exist. For example, if we are really living in the Matrix right now and the robots are much better than in those movies, we would potentially never know, so why even consider it. I might as well go on believing that it isn’t true. While I do think that it would be unfalsifiable I would still have to say I am Atheist to living in the Matrix. You can quote me on that.

  19. Josh Wittner says:

    The thing is, I don’t believe ‘atheist’ will do. When asked about my beliefs, or my philosophy, saying that I don’t have belief in any god just will not do. It doesn’t convey anything. Saying I’m an atheist doesn’t convey to people that my understanding of the world is natural, that I think science is the best path to knowledge and that through it I see no evidence supporting any claims of the super natural.

    Also being an atheist says nothing about my political agenda, whereas naturalist, materialist, skeptic, etc. at least implies the use of reason and evidence concerning my political agenda. Secular Humanist is even more clear. My political agenda is in no way motivated by my disbelief in any god, and I don’t want people to think that it is. I would not align myself with someone politically just because they are an atheist, because knowing that they’re an atheist doesn’t tell me anything about their values.

    Would you say that you want better education because you’re an atheist? That is not why I want better education.

    Applying the term agnostic to a claim is only valuable if the ability of the truth of the claim to be knowable isn’t predefined. It is a reasonable conclusion to a claim presented at face value. I agree that saying, “I am agnostic to all unfalsifiable claims” is redundant. Saying I am agnostic about a claim the unfalsifiable nature of which isn’t taken for granted, is not.

    Also it conveys more information than, “nope, can’t prove that”. It states that you believe that not only can the claimant not prove it, but also that you cannot disprove it, and that no will ever be able to do either ever.

    If one only goes so far as to say that they are agnostic to a claim, then I agree that they are giving up. I think on any given claim someone is in a state of belief about that claim that could be classified as for or against, whether that person is agnostic or not. I think answering the question “Do you believe in the christian god?” by saying you’re agnostic is a cop out and really isn’t an answer at all. But I think saying something like “I do/don’t believe, but I am agnostic” is a perfectly reasonable and rational thing to say and conveys more clearly ones understanding of the issue. The terms ‘atheist and ‘agnostic’ are not exclusive to each other, nor does one imply the other.

  20. Matt Casanova says:

    I agree that atheist doesn’t say anything about my view of the universe, or of my political agenda. What do we do then? Everyone of the “unnamed” us’s would describe themselves differently. Some people probably don’t even like that I am saying we or us. However, Christians get things done because they are united. They can rally to get votes in and make thier collective voices heard. For any group to be heard they need to get together.

    What do we do to be heard?

    I am not expecting an answer, I certainly don’t have one. Maybe what I am saying is bigger than the post topic. I don’t know.

    As for agnostic, I feel like the unfalsifiablily of a claim is a property of the object or Idea. If I say something is unfalsifiable I am describing the object, if I say I am agnostic to something I am describing a property of myself. Maybe this is correct, but I don’t see any situtation where I would say agnostic over unfalsifiable. I feel like I would always be describing the object/idea. These are all just reasons why I don’t like the word. I never seems appropriot.

    As for the example of “I do believe but I am agnostic”. It seems wierd to believe in something and also believe it is unknowable. If you believe something…truely believe…then how could you also think it is unknowable? I feel like if you think it is uknknowable, then you don’t truly believe, you are just ok with an idea or claim. It could go either way for you. At least in terms of the Christian God, people who believe, think they talk with him. There is nothing unknowable about that. People who think a god is unknowable, and claim to believe have a deep contradiction they need to figure out. This certainly was my situation for a while. I didn’t know if a god existed, but I still when through the motions just because that is what people did. Everyone I knew believed in god.

    Maybe these claims are only a contradiction in the framework of personal gods. I can’t think of another situation right now. If you have a good one let me know.

  21. Josh Wittner says:

    What do we do to be heard? Definitely a topic for another post, but as of yet I don’t know. I’ve got opinions, and ideas, but I’ve never executed on them so I don’t know if they’re valid. We’re gonna definitely have to talk about this more.

    If we accept that saying you ‘believe a claim is unfalsifiable’ and saying you ‘are agnostic to a claim’ are interchangeable, then why not use agnostic in these cases? “I am agnostic” is more concise than “I believe that claim is unfalsifiable and the truth of it can never be known.”

    As for the agnostic believer, I don’t agree that there is a contradiction there. You’re uncertainty concerning god’s existence didn’t make you agnostic it was when you realized that the concept of god was unfalsifiable that you became agnostic. Believing that you’ll never know (in this life at least) if god exists but still believing that he/she does is the basis of faith; the foundation of religion. There are many many people who believe in god, but do not think god responds to them directly. Christians at least believe that god listens to them, but I don’t think they all believe god talks back.

    Not all believers are fundamentalists, and not all believers are so delusional.

  22. Alpal says:

    Beautiful read… you are an isightful logically thinking person… I agree with all rationalizations… but I still am a believer in God our creator… if you came to my house and saw an exact duplicate of the,”Mona Lisa” on the floor in paint… and I told you that it got there from paint knocked and spilt from unsealed paint tins in the work benc . Would you believe that ? Created chaotically by chance. I wouldnt because I would see design and thought behind it in fact, “creativeness” . The universe is so huge and we as humans are so small we cannot.see the canvas or frame but art and creativeness is easily observed even from within. You are correct when you say nothing can be proven one hundred percent but I can see design, thought and creativeness in everything… a connection, a system an interlinking to all … yet I am to call it a belief and not fact. Belief is at the crux of it all… we all believe in something… and it varies as to why… what convinces us could be our eyes, ears, experience, a dream and/or just a feeling. Logically speaking “Nothing is fact…Everything is belief”.

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