Atheist or Agnostic: A Confusion of Terms?

I often hear things along the line of “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” usually followed by one or more insinuations of atheists, such as:

  • “I think being an atheist requires just as much faith as being a theist [so I’m an agnostic instead].”
  • “Atheists are just as closed-minded as theists [so I’m an agnostic instead].”
  • “Neither side can disprove the other, so it’s hypocritical for atheists to criticize theism [so I’m an agnostic instead].”

This misconception of agnosticism presumes that atheism and theism are diametrically opposed extremes, and that agnosticism is a sort of middle ground between them. Perhaps most believe the picture looks like this:

agnosticism_misconception

There are at least a couple of things wrong with this. First, neither theism nor atheism explicitly entail extreme, absolutely certain belief in anything. (Most theists I have talked to about this do not proclaim 100% certainty, and I do not know a single atheist who is absolutely certain that no gods exist. Though, the stats suggest that theism within the general population is more often than not accompanied with absolute certainty.)

Second, gnosticism deals with a separate issue from theism. Theism is concerned with belief, whereas gnosticism is concerned with knowledge. This is why I identify formally as agnostic atheist: I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). To repeat myself, atheism does not necessarily entail 100% certainty that no gods exist, neither does theism necessarily entail 100% certainty that one or more gods do exist. This famous chart categorizes the distinction between belief and knowledge:

Agnostic_chart

Agnosticism is not a third way between atheism and theism; it is a separate dimension altogether. This is usually as far as explanations of atheism vs agnosticism go. However, I would like to take this one step further.

More In-Depth

The chart above is misleading. It merely states what the areas are, not how the populace actually fits into them. Nor does it address the philosophical difference between the concepts of strong atheism and weak atheism (though it mentions strong atheism at the bottom). I will try to address these points here.

Here is the same chart but with areas adjusted for  the actual proportions of people within atheism and theism (crude estimation):

modified-agnostic-chart-2

In addition, I have drawn an arrow to simulate folding this chart into a line:

agnosticism_more_accurate

Again, it seems that most atheists are agnostic rather than gnostic, whereas most theists are gnostic rather than agnostic. That is, most atheists do not claim to know their belief, whereas a majority of theists are 100% certain that their god(s) exist:

nones-relig-6
Source

Combining the two diagrams together allows for a comparison of misconception vs reality, where the sizes of the arrows attempt to match the correct proportions of people:

agnosticism-atheism-misconception-vs-reality

For this reason, I find the claim very unreasonable that atheism is “just as extreme” as theism. It is simply not true, since most atheists fall under agnostic atheism, whereas most theists fall under gnostic theism. Only a gnostic atheist could be possibly as “extreme” as a gnostic theist (gnosticism being a necessary condition), but I would still argue the gnostic theist position is more extreme.

Namely, the categorization above applies to a general concept of god, not any god in particular. It is very possible to be a gnostic atheist regarding a particular god, such as how most Christians are gnostic atheists with regards to Zeus or Thor. “I just know Zeus belongs in mythology.” I think Christians would agree that being a gnostic atheist with respect to Zeus is not as extreme a position as being a gnostic theist with respect to Zeus.

So this is where the misconceptions and the qualms of atheism vs agnosticism come from. The words “atheist” and “agnostic” as used in the wrong definitions actually point to roughly the same group of people—agnostic atheists. The primary misconception is additionally preserved by several factors, including:

  • People expect one-word answers for religious identity, thus it would be generally unwieldy for someone to answer “agnostic atheist,” and would instead answer either “atheist” or “agnostic.”
  • On surveys, “atheist” and “agnostic” are usually mutually exclusive. Thus, you are forced to pick one.
  • The word “atheist” has such a negative social stigma (mainly the result of religious propaganda) that many people would not want to deal with the repercussions of saying it, and would rather answer “agnostic.”
  • Since many people would rather answer agnostic, this leads to a harmful feedback loop: if an atheist says “I’m an agnostic because atheism is just as closed-minded,” this perpetuates the negative stigma of “atheist,” which in turn causes more people to avoid using the term “atheist.”
  • To some degree, the word “atheism” is also confused with the term “strong atheism,” and similarly, “agnosticism” is confused with the term “weak atheism.” Which brings me to…

Strong Atheism vs Weak Atheism

There is another misconception that atheism automatically entails the concept of strong atheism, which asserts that no gods exist. This is in contrast to weak atheism, which rejects the existence of gods without necessarily the positive assertion that no gods exist. The majority of atheists are weak atheists; in fact, I don’t know any strong atheists.

For another example, say you lived 4000 years ago and someone asserted that the Earth was a triangle. Without having to assert that Earth is not a triangle [strong], you can be doubtful that Earth is a triangle [weak]. To doubt the triangle Earth theory, you do not necessarily need some alternate explanation. This is why the claim, “Because they don’t believe in a god, atheists must believe that something came out of nothing and that everything is materialistic” is invalid—atheism doesn’t not entail any belief; it is nonbelief. In addition, note that gnostic atheism is even stronger than strong atheism, as it entails not only an assertion but also knowledge involved in making the assertion.

However, the atheism diagram is often mislabeled with strong atheism as atheism and weak atheism as agnosticism:

agnosticism-vs-atheism-strong-weak

In this terminology, I would identify as weak atheist with regards to belief (I don’t believe there is any god, but I don’t make the positive claim that there do not exist any), and weak agnostic with regards to knowledge (I don’t think it’s possible to know right now, but it may be possible in the future—it is provable but not falsifiable). And again, there is a distinction between the concept of a general god and the particular god of Christianity.

From my experience in talking to people, much of the time when they say “I’m an agnostic, not an atheist,” what they really mean really comes down to “I’m a weak atheist, not a strong atheist,” or “I’m an agnostic atheist, not a gnostic atheist.” Sure, this is a semantic difference, but it has a lot of real world implications due to equivocations of atheism with strong atheism and of atheism with gnostic atheism. It certainly confounds people who are thinking about these things and it enables completely wrong arguments to be made against atheists.

Of course, there’s still a lot more to cover. For example, I haven’t even addressed the atheist vs deist vs theist distinction yet, which is concerned with whether a god currently interacts with the world or not. A deist might believe an all-powerful being created the universe 13.8 billion years ago but hasn’t touched the universe since then, whereas a theist believes that a god still interacts with the world today. But this wasn’t too relevant in the atheist/agnostic distinction this post is concerned with. I hope this clears at least some of the confusion surrounding these terms.

In addition to “atheist” and “agnostic,” there are many more terms that can make the conversation even more confusing: humanist, secularist, freethinker, nonreligious, rationalist, etc., each with different connotations. This may be in a future post.