Atheist or Agnostic — and Does it Matter?

The divisions within the nontheistic community are almost entirely rhetorical.

Many people tell me they wouldn’t mind if I were an agnostic, but that I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to be an atheist.

I used to call myself an agnostic because I could not logically prove whether a god exists, so I took the agnostic position that the existence of any god is unknown — and perhaps unknowable. I was without belief in any gods and thought it highly improbable that any supernatural beings exist. When I learned that this view is consistent with atheism, I became an atheist.

So, my “conversion” from agnosticism to atheism was more definitional than theological. In reality, depending on how terms are defined and their context, I can accurately call myself an atheist or an agnostic, as well as a humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, infidel, and more.

I’m curious about why people find “atheist” so much more threatening than “agnostic” when self-described “atheists” and “agnostics” often hold identical views about deities. As with atheists, agnostics almost never give equal merit to belief and disbelief. For instance, I can neither prove nor disprove the following claims.

Claim 1: The universe was created 30 minutes ago and the creator planted false memories in all of us.

Claim 2: Infidels who don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster are condemned to burn for eternity in a vat of hot pasta sauce.

I assume we are all “agnostic” about these two hypotheses, but at the same time pretty certain they are false. (I’d also call myself an atheist with respect to such creators.) The burden of proof is on the person making the assertion — as it should be with any supernatural claim.

I’ve seen and participated in a number of debates about whether God exists, and they often degenerate into playground disputes. The theist says to the atheist, “Disprove God,” while the atheist says to the theist, “Prove God.”

In such debates I’m sometimes told that I made my case for being an agnostic, not an atheist, because I didn’t disprove God’s existence. In future discussions and debates, I think I’ll try a different approach.

When Christians insist that I’m an agnostic and not really an atheist because I can’t demonstrate with absolute certainty that there is no God, I will respond: “Can you demonstrate with absolute certainty that Jesus is Lord? If not, then you are an agnostic, not really a Christian.”

Perhaps these Christians (or those of other faiths) would understand that such certainty is an almost impossible standard of knowledge. I’m willing to call myself an agnostic atheist if they’ll call themselves agnostic Christians.

The word “proof” or “certainty” means different things to different people. It doesn’t work for me when Christians say they have unquestioned faith in God because Jesus came into their hearts, just as it wouldn’t work for them were I to say I have unquestioned faith that there is no God because he didn’t come into mine. The most I might say about faith is that I have faith in reason, the scientific method, and evidence — and the lack of evidence for any gods is why I’m an atheist.

Theists aren’t the only ones who argue about atheism versus agnosticism. I’ve heard atheists refer to agnostics as gutless or cowardly atheists. I’ve heard agnostics denigrate atheists by charging that they go out of their way to offend religious people. Adding humanists and secular humanists into the mix further divides the nontheistic community.

To move beyond such disputes I helped found the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government.

Here’s an interesting distinction between Christians and secularists: Christians have the same unifying word, but fight over theology whereas secularists have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are purely rhetorical. Such “verbal” wars over terminology were hilariously satirized in the Life of Brian movie, where people with common interests splintered into Judean People’s Front, Judean Popular People’s Front, and People’s Front of Judea — sometimes forgetting the name of their own group.

Fortunately, organizations in the Secular Coalition have stopped sparring over words and cooperate on the 95 percent of things our members have in common. We all disbelieve in the same gods and we want to be fruitful and multiply our community of reason.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Herb Silverman
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  • rafaelrobyns

    Your posts are taking on, or maybe have always had, an Andy Rooney type folksy cadence. And I mean that as a compliment. Keep up the good fight.

  • Ed Buckner

    As one well known (and correctly) as an atheist to those who know me, but who considers himself to be an agnostic atheist, I happily endorse Dr. Silverman’s conclusions. May His Noodly Appendage touch and protect him.

  • Loretta Haskell

    As I continue to grow up I’m finding the use of the word “arrogant” a red flag and have stopped using the word myself as it is such a harsh judgment. To call Herb Silverman or any other atheist “arrogant” because of their disbelief in God assumes that the one judging has enough judgment to make the final call. Herb and many other atheists have highly developed critical thinking skills, something many theists could develop more. If a creator endowed humans with the power of reason to function in this world, why would he not want his creation to use that ability? And, if there is no God, why would we not reason and question the origins of our existence and try to understand our purpose in life? Herb was honored to have been selected for Warren Smith’s list, “Who’s Who in Hell” years ago but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he ends up in heaven some day. If truth-seeking and good character are the requirements, that’s where we’ll find him.

    • bakabomb

      Arrogance is a legitimate description of attitude or behavior, though not belief. I’ve encountered plenty of it on both sides of the issue. Rabid proselytes abound at both extremes of the spectrum; their lack of humility and overweening certitude qualify them amply for that description.

    • Tracie Holladay

      Well, I think a lot of people use the word “arrogant” because they have the impression that an atheist is basically declaring this to the world: “I KNOW there is no god, I KNOW there never has been a god, and I KNOW there NEVER WILL BE a god.” They seem to not have any interest in saying “of course, I could be wrong…”

  • Amy

    Excellent article! I find that I often have to explain to people what atheist and agnostic means and that they are not mutually exclusive, nor is calling oneself an atheist making a statement of fact, arrogantly or otherwise. I am going to save this link and save my fingers some typing the next time this discussion arises by simply sharing this article.

  • Jackie Krentzman

    Well done! When it comes down to it, these are just labels and labels tend to separate and antagonize and often serve as a distraction. I like how you dug into this with humor and clarity

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    Whenever (usually?) I meet an agnostic. I ask him or her, if s/he is an agnostic about Santa Clause.

    If s/he answers “no” — I ask “why?”

    Usually the answer is akin to “Santa couldn’t possibly visit every home on earth in a 24 hour time period” (or something similar).

    Then, I ask: “Could your god, create a Santa, who could visit every home on earth, in 24 hours?

    Invariably, the answer is “yes.”

    Which means that such “believers” are agnostic about Santa.

    We “Secular Humanist Pantheists” know there is a god; question: “does this make “Secular Pantheist Humanists” “believers” or, “agnostics” or, “Atheists?”

    (To Secular Humanist Pantheists — god; nature; and the universe, can be used interchangeably. Hopefully Dr. Silverman will devote one of his columns to classify the category into which “Secular Humanist Pantheists” should be placed. Secular Humanist Pantheists are the only group able to prove the existence of god.

    • Jim Sittnick

      “Santa Clause” was the name of a movie. The guy that we all believe in is named Santa Claus.

      • bakabomb

        Yeah, yeah, but is “Santa Claus” his real name or is that just what we call him?

        • Tracie Holladay

          Insert discussion here about St Nicholas…

    • westcj

      I am not really sure I follow your argument here William. If you asked an agnostic the question: “Could your god, create a Santa, who could visit every home on earth, in 24 hours?” Surely an agnostic would reply:” I don’t believe there is a god”( as I would).
      I can’t understand how an agnostic could answer your question by admitting there is a god who could create a Santa
      Chris West

  • RichardSRussell

    I follow the taxonomy of George H. Smith in his book Atheism: The Case against God, in which he says that there are 2 different, mutually orthogonal questions involved:
    (1) Do you believe that gods exist? (This determines whether you’re a theist or an atheist.)
    (2) Does your belief, whatever it is, rise to the level of knowledge? (This determines whether you’re a gnostic or an agnostic.)

    Thus there are 4 possible combinations:
    (1) Gnostic theists, who know that at least one god exists (invariably their own).
    (2) Agnostic theists, who think a god or gods probably exist but aren’t positive.
    (3) Agnostic atheists, who don’t think there are any gods but can’t say so with certainty.
    (4) Gnostic atheists, who know that there are no gods.

    I myself am an agnostic atheist with regard to the various “superhero” gods like Greek Apollo (chariot of the sun), Norse Thor (thunder), Roman Ceres (crops and harvest), Egyptian Horus (the hunt), or Hopi Kokopelli (shape-changing trickster god). These are simply exaggerated human beings and, while I’ve never seen any evidence that any of them (or anything like them) actually exist in real life, there’s no reason why they couldn’t exist, given lots of genetic manipulation or technological progress. (After all, the medium by which I am communicating with you right at the moment would’ve seemed beyond the powers of Mercury, the messenger god, up until just a few decades ago.)

    However, I’m a gnostic atheist with respect to the monotheistic deities, for whom 4 ultimate characteristics are claimed by their devotees. Yahweh, God, and Allah are said to be (1) omnipotent, (2) omniscient, (3) omnipresent, and (4) omnibenevolent. It takes almost no work at all to imagine one of these features being pitted against another (“If God knows everything about how the future works out, as you’d expect from an omniscient being, then he can’t change any of it, which means he’s not omnipotent. But if he can change it, then he didn’t know the future after all, so he’s not omniscient.”), or even how one of them could be pitted against itself (“Can God make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it?”). So no such critter can exist, and I can say with certainty that I know that. QED.

    • Sam

      Solid critique.

      For myself I try to keep in mind the idea of our finite existence. Our imaginations, imo, cannot do justice to such concepts such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence.

      Wait But Why has a solid article discussing this on A Religion for the Nonreligious.

  • Disqusdmnj

    Sheesh… this would all be so much easier – and so less necessary – if any of these gods just finally appeared to let everyone know they existed! All powerful, but apparently REALLY shy.

    • Iconoclast

      Yes, I’ve always wondered why one of these supernatural chaps, or gals, doesn’t just come out and take out a full page ad in the NY Times advising one and all of her or his existence. Perhaps that would be a bit pricey, and what about a credit card for payment, no LOC….still there is the “omnipotent” thing, at least with Yahweh/God/Jehovah/Allah/Holy Ghost/Jesus entity, so I think He/She/It should be able to work that out.
      Then again, He works in “strange” ways….I know, I know….that’s always the escape.

    • Guest

      The dude’s just camera shy. He used to appear all the time, to lots of different groups of people. Only when it became possible to actually document these appearances, did this being become camera shy.

  • Laurence Kitsch

    In my opinion everyone is agnostic, because no one knows for sure if a god exists and if so what is its true nature. And all agnostics are atheists because they don’t have a god. I think it’s all irrelevant anyway. It’s how you live your life that really defines you. Not what you claim you believe or don’t believe.

  • Sarah Roney Dalton

    Proud atheist here. Frankly, if I found out that supernatural gods existed, I wouldn’t follow them!

  • Thomas

    As HItch put it, the atheist proposition is not that “there is no god,” rather, it is that “there is no reason to think that there is a god.” Some self-proclaimed agnostics say that there “may or may not” be a god. But they wouldn’t also say that there “may or not” be a tooth fairy. In addition, “I don’t know,” is not a state of belief…you either believe in something or you don’t.

  • Eric Cheung

    My interpretation of the term “god” is that it’s a political title for an intelligent creator. That’s consistent with ancient dictators and even current ones like those of North Korea, who insist that their people worship them. Therefore, in defiance of such demands, I consider myself an atheist. But regarding the existence of an intelligent creator, I must concede that it’s impossible to prove a negative of that type. So I would have to be considered an agnostic on that front.

  • Robert Haberzeth

    I´m definately an antitheist

  • Steve GeeWhizz

    Perhaps a label that is neutral and yet unflattering in it’s simplicity. Why should any of us identify ourselves by what we are not? Well, except for Naturalists and Humanists and others which have already gone beyond the questions of deities. I like to count myself as a Humanist and atheism is merely a symptom of Humanism. Nobody I know of is an AntiUnicornist or such. How about some terminology then for folks who have added to the baseline of knowledge? How about “Believists”?

    • Sam

      Early humanism was religious, and certain humanist are still religion, although the tern has taken more and more atheistic tones in recent history.

      • Steve GeeWhizz

        Thanks Sam, I’ll do some research on that. Very interesting. For myself I am mostly interested in the current meaning for the term Humanist.

        • Steve GeeWhizz

          Sam, I did a quick peruse through some research and found that indeed there are some religiosity in Humanisms past. But, mainly only as a short-lived offshoot in the late 18th century. For the most part though it has remained a constant philosophical standard that values the wellness of the human condition, reason and critical thinking. It seems to have it’s origins in separating natural world thinking from mythology in Greece, circa 600 BCE. I thought I had it mostly pretty close. But thank you. I enjoy reading up on this sort of thing. As we know, religions require supernatural deities or some sort of supreme being, plus dogma,ritual and a few other superstitions. Unless of course you’re a Buddhist! I still stick with my main assertion then that ALL denominational designations for non-relgious are fruitless and are putting the cart behind the horse. Unless, of course, non-belief is a symptom of another philosophy and not a stand-alone project. For most Non-relgious perhaps the proper the verbiage used presently is, by definition, too much information. Let’s get back to the main point in Herb’s OP and forget all of that and use the term “Believist” for religious believers. Feedback appreciated.

  • Infidel

    I’ve often thought that “atheist” is sort of a trap word that was created by believers to shift the burden of proof to non-believers. The problem I have with “agnostic” is it gives the impression that the person who is agnostic thinks there is a 50/50 chance on whether there is a god or not. Me? I’m as atheists as tehy come. Now, my mind is willing to be changed, seriously, it is. I just need to see some reliable proof. : )

  • Rich G

    Doesn’t this assume that atheism is a certainty that there are no gods?
    That’s not the case. Hard atheism would agree with that but soft
    atheists would admit that they can’t be sure. Also, I’m an anti-theist,
    I stand strongly and actively opposed to religion.

    So, three different types of atheist.

  • David Theis

    Atheism and agnosticism are two different and independent concept which are not mutually exclusive and can be used together for greater accuracy and precision

    Theism/Atheism – is a position based on belief: a theist has belief in a deity while an atheist does not believe in any deities

    Gnosticism/Agnosticism – is a position of knowledge: a gnostic knows (one way or the other) if there is a deity or if there are deities, an agnostic does not know (if there is a deity or deities)

    A person can be a combination of the two as follows:

    Gnostic Theist – Knows God exists and believes in this God

    Agnostic Theist – Doesn’t know for sure that any gods exists but believes in God

    Agnostic Atheist – Doesn’t know for sure that gods are fiction, but does not believe in any gods

    Gnostic Atheist – Knows that all gods are a fiction and does not believe in any gods

  • Paul Schmeer

    Why do people avoid the label “atheist”? Herb, you know the answer. We all do. It is because of the reaction we get from people. Some lables like “agnostic, humanist, skeptic, or secular” fall kinder on the ears of traditional deists. We get more wiggle room and maybe even an opportunity to have a real conversation, instead of having it drop like a rock because the last generation made it such a loaded word. We know it is just semantics.

  • JD Sullivan

    Do you believe in gravity?

  • Richard Bonine

    IMO, atheism is nothing more than agnostic activism. I am an agnostic because I don’t want the burden of having to prove that there is no god, which would become the case if I claimed to be an atheist.

    • Kyle

      That’s not true. A lot of people are making the same mistake here. Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive.

      You can be an agnostic – atheist, one who does not know, and does not believe.
      A gnostic – atheist, one who does know (nobody) and does not believe.
      An agnostic – theist, not knowing and believing.
      Or a gnostic – theist, knowing and believing (also nobody).

      I hope I’m describing them clearly, you are likely by definition both. The ones who need to explain the case for or against are the ones who claim to know the answer. Gnostic.

      • Sam

        There is a great visual aid on the net about this somewhere….

  • anamericanundernogods

    I am an “atheist” not “agnostic.”

    The answer to the question

    “I’m curious about why people find atheist so much more threatening than agnostic!”

    which is asked by Herb is that

    an “Atheist” is a nonbeliever who has made her of his mind up and has decided that there are no gods;

    but an “Agonistic” is doubting and yet to decide one-way or another.
    So, some religious people hope that they can change the agnostic’s mind.

    • Sam

      Hear, hear.

  • Secularist FreeThought

    They’re not mutually exclusive positions. Atheism addresses a position on belief. Gnosticism addresses a position on knowledge. I’m an agnostic atheist. Although I usually just go by the term: ‘atheist’. Since it’s usually my beliefs in question. Not my knowledge. I don’t believe that anyone can claim to know one way or the other. But there’s no good reason to believe any gods exist.

  • Tracie Holladay

    oh man, ask Neil DeGrasse Tyson about why he doesn’t want to be lumped in with atheists

    he said it’s because of certain behaviors they exhibit that he doesn’t want to be associated with

  • LanceJZ

    you do know that atheist and agnostic are not exclusive, and kind of
    need one for the other. One is knowledge and can be knowledge of
    anything, and one is what that knowledge is about. Agnostic by itself is
    saying you are like Dr Pepper.
    I would go as far as to say that by default (Meaning almost all are and
    one starts that way.) an atheist is an agnostic atheist, I’ve never met
    one online or off that is not.
    Also there is only one definition for both of those words. Context has
    nothing to do with it, learning what the definitions are does.
    So I just wrote a better article than this dude.

  • Daniel E. Bond

    The real question is the quality of a person’s life. I have attended a Unitarian Universalist Church for years, and the congregation spans a very wide spectrum of thinking/believing on these questions. I think/feel most of this comes down to how fulfilling the intellect is to any given individual. Most adults engage their world as objectively and thoughtfully as they can, with generally satisfying results. However, any serious contemplation will invariably put one in a realm where our thinking is just plain inadequate. Some of us can just accept that and move on. Many many people, however, continue to explore, and this often leads to greater fulfillment. So what? Let us be gentle and supportive with one another. As Clint said: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Know your limitations, but don’t be satisfied with them. Encourage the same in others. Exult the mind, but honor the heart. Love the heart, but respect the mind. Daniel E. Bond

  • Warmenuf

    Since it is the path that led me to abandon my Christian faith a few years ago, I suggest asking the proponent of any religion what he/she thinks of other religions. Surely it is the height of arrogance to claim truth for one’s own beliefs while branding the beliefs of others as “mythological.” The majority of religions claim, each one, to be “the one true religion.” A scene from Gore Vidal’s Creation is one I keep coming back to. A Persian, Cyrus Spitama (grandson of Zoroaster) is traveling in India, representing the Persian court. Engaging in a debate with Indian religionists, Cyrus becomes disgusted at the polytheism he sees in India and says “But Zoroaster is the ONLY God!” One of the Indian thinkers smiles and says “Oh, yes, we have many Only Gods, too.”

  • Carstonio

    My own stance is similar to Silverman’s – I don’t know if gods exist, and their existence seems highly improbable but not impossible. I don’t use the atheist label for myself, primarily because of the assumptions that other people bring to the label. I would probably be confused with someone who holds a positive belief that gods don’t exist and who flatly declares the existence of gods to be impossible.

    And I would probably also be confused with someone who opposes religion and seeks to convert people to non-belief. Any problems with religion are really problems of authoritarianism and absolutism. I’m less interested in what people believe about gods and more interested in what they believe about members of other religions. Especially when they insist that others deserve to suffer for eternity, or should be treated by society and government as second-class citizens.

    Also, in my experience, too many atheists debate as if the issue is Christianity exclusively, or sometimes Islam as well. They address Christian theology as though that were the default, even though the empirical objections to the hypothesis of gods applies to all religions that claim the existence of gods. Often they appear to accept Christianity’s theological assumptions even while condemning them, as if that religion was more unique than any other religion.

  • Joe Cogan

    No rational person claims to be agnostic about unicorns or leprechauns. Why should claims of deities be given special treatment?

  • Carstonio

    Silverman seems to assume that the principles of the First Amendment are valued primarily by atheists, as if being religious automatically meant rejecting those secularist principles. Am I misreading him?

  • Sam

    “It doesn’t work for me when Christians say they have unquestioned faith in God because Jesus came into their hearts, just as it wouldn’t work for them were I to say I have unquestioned faith that there is no God because he didn’t come into mine.”

    Love it!

  • Ilene King

    I agree with Dr. Silverman and that is why I call myself a non-theist, by which I mean a deity plays no role whatsoever in my life. There is no evidence of the existence of a deity and, therefore, I’ve stopped debating whether I am agnostic or atheist, because it simply doesn’t matter. The label doesn’t change how I conduct my life. The concept of a deity simply is not part of my thinking. I don’t care what labels people apply to themselves regarding a deity, but it infuriates me when people attempt to legislate their religion or do senseless, unjust, brutal, despicable, horrific things in the name of their deity.