2006, Orion Nebula
Orion Nebula photo by NASA

What’s the difference between agnostic & atheist?

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What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist? You have probably heard these terms a lot — and they’re sometimes used interchangeably. Here’s a little clarity.


Freedom of choice

The United States was a country founded on the idea of freedom, including the freedom of religion — freedom to practice the religion of your choice and worship the god(s) of your choice, even if that meant none at all.

While the “none of the above” option wasn’t particularly common in early US history, as time moves along so do beliefs, opinions, and knowledge, and so the agnostics and atheists have become more vocal and numerous in the last 100 years or so.

Of course, without some definition and perspective, these are just words — so let’s take a look at some definitions.

By the book

According to¬†Gutenberg Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (with parentheticals removed for clarity), agnosticism is defined as:

That doctrine which, professing ignorance, neither asserts nor denies. Specifically: The doctrine that the existence of a personal Deity, an unseen world, etc., can be neither proved nor disproved, because of the necessary limits of the human mind, or because of the insufficiency of the evidence furnished by physical and physical data, to warrant a positive conclusion — opposed alike dogmatic skepticism and to dogmatic theism.

In short, not a person who actively does not believe in a god or higher power, but feels that the existence of God(s) can neither be proven nor disproven. They are people who believe that, as the late Carl Sagan so eloquently put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

On the other hand, the same version of Webster’s defines atheism as:

The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.

An atheist, then, straight up absolutely does not believe in God(s), no ambiguousness or waiting for evidence — not that the truth is unknowable, but that the truth is, God doesn’t exist.

More than semantics

The difference between the two may seem like a lot of hair-splitting to most, but among these two groups, the division can be almost as large as the gap between atheists and believers.

One could consider that the agnostic view is slightly more “scientific,” in the sense that existence can neither be definitively proven nor disproven using the scientific method.

On the other hand, one could argue that the atheists’ point is — as there is a scientific explanation for the formation of the universe, galaxy, stars, planets, and life — that God(s) doesn’t exist — because science explains everything.

And that brings us to another term: pantheism.

The doctrine that the universe, taken or conceived of as a whole, is God; the doctrine that there is no God but the combined force and laws which are manifested in the existing universe; cosmotheism.

In short

Agnostic: Neither believes nor disbelieves; a skeptic.

Atheist: Does not believe in a higher power, period, end of story.