Agnostic or Atheist?

I've been told that I may be more agnostic than atheist. It's been suggested a few times, by different people, and each time it's in the same helpful, conciliatory tone. While these people may mean well, I'm more comfortable defining myself as an atheist. It's more accurate, and I don't see any shame in it.

When defining atheism, it's important to remember that it is not a belief system. Atheism is a general term which applies to anyone who does not believe in a god or gods. Beyond that, the term "atheist" doesn't say a whole lot about a person's actual beliefs or philosophies.

There are atheists who are adamantly opposed to any religion, and those who think people should be free to believe whatever they like. There are those who speak out about their atheistic leanings, and those who think promoting atheist views is no different than proselytizing.

Just like Unix, (or Christianity) atheism has many different flavors. If I wanted to be more specific, I'd probably say that I'm a humanist, secularist, agnostic atheist. But that's a mouthful! So, I stick with atheist and keep the other terms for those who ask more about my actual beliefs.

What Does It Mean To Be Agnostic?

Agnostic is another one of those A-words. As in atheism, the "a" in agnostic indicates the negative of [the rest of the word]. Theism means a belief in god(s). Atheism means not having a belief in god(s). Agnostic means not being gnostic. So what is gnostic?

During pre-Christian or early Christian times (1st to 5th Century) there was a religious sect known as Gnostics. In a nutshell, they believed that they had special knowledge of god--not faith, but knowledge--which made them superior to others. (Gnosis is Greek for "knowledge.")

Today, the meaning of gnostic, in the religious sense, generally means "knowledge of god." Agnostic then refers to the belief that it is not possible to have knowledge of god. Agnostics believe that humans can only know about human (natural) experiences. Whether a supernatural god exists is therefore unknowable.

Agnostic Theists 

When I think about the definitions of gnosticism and agnosticism, it seems clear that "agnostic" can apply to either an atheist or a theist.

Many, if not most, of the Christians I know say that it is not possible for humans to actually "know" whether god (in any form) exists. They say religion is a matter of faith and their faith is enough for them. In fact, their faith in something that they cannot possibly know is often described as a strength.

Some people may even disagree with a lot of religious doctrine, but still believe in their personal version of their religion's god. They disagree with "the church" but that does not affect their faith in god.

Whether they go to church or not, these are all agnostic theists. They do not know whether god exists, but they believe god exists.

Why I Call Myself Atheist, Not Agnostic

Technically, I am an agnostic atheist. However, I see atheist as the more accurate part of that term.

If there were a supernatural god or god-like force controlling the universe, I believe that we, as humans, would not be capable of knowing what it is. In that sense, I'm agnostic.

However, I think the chances of there actually being a supernatural god or god-like force controlling the universe are about as likely as our suddenly discovering that leprechauns, unicorns and the Easter Bunny really do exist. In fact, I think Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster are more plausible than the gods explained by any major world religion.

I put religious stories, legends, and fairy tales all in the same bucket. I could be wrong. All the evil in the world might have come from Pandora's box, fairies may hide among us, and my love of garlic may be the only reason I've never encountered a vampire. But I see god and religion as a man-made invention, and that's why I call myself an atheist.


  1. Great article. This is always an issue and many theists and atheists don't understand the "label" they have taken.
    I think since theists can't prove a god exists, they are all agnostic by default. Since no Atheist has ever proven god/gods do not exist, we are all agnostic by default as well. That being the case, they cancel each other out and I never use the term.
    The question becomes, "Do you worship a personal god?" If you do, you are a theist (with gods) and if you don't your are an atheist (without gods).
    I also consider myself an anti-theist, since I am against religion of any flavor. I openly denounce religion and try to thwart it every chance.
    When I hear someone say they are agnostic, I think they are unwilling to engage theists in debate, so they take the safer road. If a person wishes to avoid confrontation, this may be the safe road to travel. I do the same thing when abortion is discussed. Too much of a headache, as I understand both sides of the argument.
    It still doesn't answer the question of whether you worship a personal god or not, because if you don't, then you are an atheist by definition.
    Thanks Susan, again, nice article

  2. Thanks, Kenny. I hear what you're saying and agree that agnostic is often seen as a safer term than atheist. There is a lot of fear surrounding religion in general. The classic "what if you're wrong" argument is clearly designed to prey on that fear and manipulate people into not believing in themselves.

  3. Thanks Susan and Thank God, that makes me "Gnostic" because I have experienced and understand the meaning of "knowing Right from Wrong!"

  4. A GOOD ARTICLE. I HAD READ A POEM WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL (10th class) "the god is in heaven and all is well with the world" Later I was told and I read that He has three qualities-1st He is omnipotent,2nd He is omnipresent and 3rd He is omniscient. I am 67 years old person and I have not seen,felt or experienced any of these qualities,When I was not aware I was theist but now I am atheist.Why police is used to guard and control the temples and mosques when there is God having the said 3 qualities which are His powers also.We know that if police is withdrawn from society only for a week time there will be no law and order but if the God goes on leave even for a year there will not be a situation of lawlessness.
    Thanks for clarification on the said terms which created confusions.