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Atheist vs Agnostic: What's the difference?

By Edited Feb 21, 2014 0 2

As someone who doesn't subscribe to any religious dogma, I've spent my entire life struggling with how to categorize my belief system.   I've always believed that religions are entirely human creations and that the answers to the ultimate questions about our existence are still, and may always be, unknown.  I'm fascinated by the religions of the world and feel they have much to teach us about ourselves and the world around us.

The two monikers that are always bandied about to classify non-believers are agnostic and atheist. Atheists seem to have a reputation as troublemakers, dismissive of, and at times hostile toward, any religious viewpoint.  Agnostics, on the other hand, seem to be in some strange gray area; not believing in any one religion and without the willpower to commit to the full-fledged non-belief that atheists profess.  Not sure how I fit in, I set out to find exactly what the definitions of these words meant and how one could define, and defend, their self-proclaimed categorization into either.


The dictionary defines an Atheist as:  

"...one who denies the existence of a deity or of divine beings."
- http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheist

A keyword here is denies.  That is a firm statement and means that in order to be an atheist you must unequivocally reject any notion of a higher being.  There is no maybe.  

Another interesting word in the definition above is deity and divine being. Interestingly, there is no mention of higher "power" or other force outside of the physically known universe.  That means, technically, an atheist can believe in a "life force" or greater power that affects things in a way outside of our perception.

It seems there's a lot more room for mysticism and the supernatural in an atheistic viewpoint than I had once thought.  Do my beliefs fit into this classification?  In order to answer that question I need to delve deeper into another definition.


According to Dictionary.com, an Agnostic is:

"A person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as god, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable" - http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/agnostic

The words to highlight here are unknown and unknowable.  This states that to be agnostic does not mean firmly denying the existence of a deity, simply that such an assertion one way or the other is not possible.  It can be argued that agnostics have a more strict belief system than atheists do.  Where the definition of atheism allows for the belief in a supernatural explanation for the ultimate answers, agnostics say that this is a step too far.   

I feel as if my belief system falls somewhere between these two definitions.  While I do admit that I cannot claim to know with certainty that a super natural deity that controls the course of the universe does not exist, I do find this very unlikely.  I do strongly believe that even if a divine being did exist, none of our current interpretations of that being, vis a vis religion, have gotten it right.

I guess that makes me an agnostic atheist!  I look forward to continuing my journey of self-discovery and I'm looking forward to discovering new questions to ask along the way.



Mar 23, 2011 2:04pm
An atheist must have faith. To declare there is no God requires faith, because one's point (there is no God) cannot be proven. An agnostic takes no positon except to say that the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven. If one takes no position then there is nothing to defend. An agnostic is a fence-sitter on one of the deepest questions of life. And that's okay for some there can be no other option.
Mar 23, 2011 2:22pm
Good point, I definitely agree that to be a true Atheist requires faith.
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