Atheism vs. Agnosticism: What's the Difference?

Are they Alternatives to Each Other?

Atheism vs. Agnosticism: Degrees of Difference
Degrees of Difference. Andy Ryan/Stone/Getty Images

If atheism is just disbelief in gods, then what's the difference between that and agnosticism?


Many people who adopt the label of agnostic also simultaneously reject the label of atheist, even if it technically applies to them. There is a common misconception that agnosticism is somehow a more “reasonable” position while atheism is more “dogmatic,” ultimately indistinguishable from theism except in the details.

This is not a valid position to argue for because it misrepresents or misunderstands everything involved: atheism, theism, agnosticism, and even the nature of belief itself. It also happens to reinforce popular prejudice against atheists.


Agnostic Atheism & Agnostic Theism

The primary reason atheists are thought to be closed-minded seems to be the belief that atheism requires a dogmatic, unthinking denial of the . In contrast, agnostics appear to be open-minded because they admit to not knowing for sure if any gods exist or not. This is a mistake because atheism is not defined in that manner; on the contrary, an atheist may not necessarily deny any gods and may in fact be an atheist precisely because they do not know for sure if any gods exist — in other words, they may be an agnostic as well as an atheist.

Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes clear that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a “third way” between atheism and theism.

The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge — it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not, not to describe someone who somehow found an alternative between the presence and absence of some particular belief.

It should therefore be clear that agnosticism is 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. A person who believes in a god while insisting that they know for sure that their god exists would be a gnostic theist. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism. A person who denies that any gods exists while insisting that they know for sure that gods either don't or can't exist would be a gnostic atheist.

In the end, the fact of the matter is a person isn’t faced with the necessity of only being either an atheist or an agnostic. Not only can a person be both, but it is in fact common for people to be both agnostics and atheists. An agnostic atheist won’t claim to know for sure that nothing warranting the label “god” exists or that such cannot exist, but they also don’t actively believe that such an entity does indeed exist.


Prejudice Against Atheism, Atheists

It is worth noting that there is a vicious double standard involved when theists claim that agnosticism is “better” than atheism because it is less dogmatic.

If atheists are closed-minded because they are not agnostic, then so are theists - but agnostics making this argument rarely state this explicitly. It's almost as if they are trying to curry favor with religious theists by attacking atheists, isn't it? On the other hand, if theists can be open-minded then so can atheists.

Agnostics may sincerely believe that agnosticism is more rational and theists may sincerely reinforce that belief, but it relies upon more than one misunderstanding about both atheism and agnosticism. These misunderstandings are only exacerbated by continual social pressure and prejudice against atheism and atheists. People who are unafraid of stating that they indeed do not believe in any gods are still despised in many places, whereas “agnostic” is perceived as more respectable.