When I was in church as a teenager, the pastor started a series of sermons and bible study lessons called Back to Basics, where he would teach the basic topics of the Lutheran faith. It was a good way to incorporate new members while getting everyone on the same page when it came to more complicated details of their beliefs. Borrowing from this idea, I’d like to do the same thing with this blog; I’ve covered a lot of atheism-related topics so far, like objective morality, Pascal’s Wager, and the paradoxes of prayer and free will. There are a lot of other topics, though, that I’ve only briefly touched on in other posts, but I’d like to spend some time going into more detail on them. The first topic in my Atheist Back to Basics series is going to be that of agnosticism and atheism.
It seems that most people who have done any research on atheism and related topics already know how an atheist differs (or doesn’t differ) from an agnostic. When I read apologetics books, the authors are usually about fifty-fifty on whether or not they really understand what the words actually mean (but when apologists are wrong, they’re generally very wrong).
More commonly, I see the words atheist and agnostic confused with one another by people who identify as one or the other but don’t really spend that much time researching their technical definitions. It’s generally accepted in this case that an atheist more intensely disbelieves, or hates, God, or religion, or what have you. I remember seeing a TV show many years ago in which a character told someone that she and her daughter are atheists, but the daughter cut in to specify, “You’re an atheist, mom; I’m just an agnostic,” as if to show that she’s not quite as guilty of unbelief as her mom is. I find that agnostics usually think it necessary to point this out because “We just can’t know for certain whether or not a god exists. And I certainly don’t know; therefore, I’m agnostic.”
This is perfectly good logic. As a matter of fact, I’m an agnostic. I’d even bet that you are one, too, even if you’re a Christian theist, or you’ve been a convinced atheist all your life. Why? Because my agnostic quote was right. We can’t know. God is unprovable. You can’t prove he exists, but you can’t prove he doesn’t. And no atheist should be trying to claim otherwise.
Does this mean I’m a fifty-fifty agnostic? We can’t know if God exists, so it’s a useless point to try to find out? Obviously not. It’s always a good, and often fascinating, practice to try to get all of your beliefs as close to the truth as possible. In this regard, I believe that agnosticism is stagnant. It means you haven’t really tried to reach the answer, because I’d bet that if you had, you would have been swayed at least a bit one way or another. And since everyone is agnostic because no one knows for sure, whichever way your beliefs sway could determine whether you are an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist (and I know there are other options such as deist or pantheist, but I’m simplifying it here because I believe that these two could be put under the umbrella of theist).
When I was moving away from pure agnosticism as a teenager and towards atheism in college, I tried to compartmentalize my belief by imagining it as a spectrum: maybe now I’m 75% atheist but 25% agnostic. (This was back before I knew any good rebuttals to the argument for morality or the Kalam cosmological argument or fine-tuning.) I think this is mostly a semantic issue, but I would say that no spectrum or percentages are really necessary. This is partly because I think the Dawkins scale works just fine, but mostly because atheism and agnosticism aren’t mutually exclusive. (Note: you will have a very hard time finding any atheist who claims to be a 7 on this scale; almost every atheist I’ve met, and even Dawkins, per his admission when introducing the scale, is between 6 and 7, most people being 6.9.)
How are atheism and agnosticism different? Atheism is just a disbelief in a god or gods. It’s what you get when someone says, “Hey dude, God exists,” and you respond with, “Err, I don’t quite believe that thing you just said there…” Congratulations, you’re an atheist! Agnosticism, on the other hand, deals with knowledge and whether or not you know for sure whether or not there is a god. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe that you can know; therefore, everyone is an agnostic, even if you think you are positive that God exists.
If you want to know more about atheism and agnosticism, I highly recommend Chapter 2 of Dawkins’ The God Delusion that deals with this in more depth without getting too technical. The section “The Poverty of Agnosticism” starts, in my hardcover edition, on page 46.
Update 9/26/21: Please read this post for what I think is a better and more nuanced look at the differences between the atheist and agnostic identities.