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Atheism vs Agnosticism

A discussion among friends tonight caused me to look deeper into my stance and beliefs. I've been confused by the term "Agnostic" before but now I understand how the term is not mutually exclusive to "Atheism." Simply put, belief is not the same as knowledge.

Links to reference in case I forget:

In short, agnosticism is atheism because:

A good deal of people consider themselves to be 'agnostics'. By this they mean to identify themselves as doubters on the question of a 'god's' existence. They usually hold to this position of doubt because reason compels them to doubt the existence of any 'god', yet they resist calling themselves atheists because they also want to hold to their disbelief tentatively. Their expressed reason for this is clear: while their reason leads them to doubt the claims of theism, reason also demands that they keep an open mind on the question of 'god'. If you are one such person then it might interest you to know that your doubt actually makes you an atheist, not an agnostic. Why is this so? Because the word 'theism' simply implies a belief in a god. Therefore, if you find yourself identifying yourself primarily as a doubter of the existence of a 'god', then you are an a-theist... someone who does not hold to a belief in a 'god', someone who does not accept the claims of theists. That's all the term means - a position of non acceptance, a position of non belief.

It is the fallback position, the position one holds to when a claim is unsupported or unproven. Yet, you might feel that the word 'atheist' still implies more than what you actually hold to. A common response to hearing that one is an 'atheist' is to say: "But I don't disbelieve, I just don't believe!" But take a look at those words carefully: if you literally "don't disbelieve" - then, by double negation, you'd believe! Not disbelieving is believing. But you are not identifying yourself as a theist with doubts, right? You're identifying yourself as a doubter... period. That is atheism.


But then what does agnosticism mean?

Gnosticism (in the sense used here) addresses the issue of what one knows or claims to know. For any claim about the existence of god, gnostics are individuals who claim to know that the claim is true. Typically, this claim of knowledge is esoteric and may be attributed to divine revelation. In some cases, the gnostic will assert that this knowledge is available to anyone though rarely through empirical, scientific evidence.

An agnostic is, literally, someone who does not claim to know that such claims are true. An additional, and common, usage of the term agnostic exists as a label for the philosophical position invented by Thomas Huxley. Those individuals adopting this label claim that the answers to questions about the existence of gods are unknown and unknowable. Additionally, many claim that the questions are essentially meaningless as "god" is ill-defined.


The terms can be combined:

"How can you call yourself atheist? You can't possibly know for sure, therefore you're agnostic!" This statement or variations thereof has been self-posted on /r/atheism countless times.

The key difference between these two notions is the difference between knowledge and belief. While it is impossible to "know" for certain whether gods exist or not, that does not mean that one is prevented from evaluating the probability of a god's existence and making a "belief" conclusion from that.

What is most important to note is that atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. One can be an agnostic atheist, also called a "weak" atheist, or a gnostic atheist, also called a "strong" atheist (see below). Agnosticism and atheism make completely different claims regarding completely different levels of cognition. The majority of atheists freely admit that while they cannot "know" for certain that a god exists, they choose to "believe" it doesn't -- based on the lack of evidence, unlikelihood of the claim, disbelief in magic/supernatural beings, et cetera.

See also this handy infographic or the page it's from for a more detailed discussion of this principle.


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Anne Druyan on the humility of science