Atheism vs Agnosticism

Does God exist?  Can we know God? — These are the questions that philosophers have been debating for millennia, but I have only recently started to truly ask myself.

Since I disclosed my disbelief in the LDS Church, I’ve had many friends ask me what my current belief is regarding God in general. My friends are curious if my disbelief is isolated to the LDS Church as an organization, or if it extends to include Christianity or God in its entirety. Because I can’t see how the fallacies of the LDS Church are much different than those of other religious organizations, I’ve made the determination that God (as I have been raised to define Him) is a man-made concept. This has lead me to answer their question by saying I’m an atheist. However, my use of the term atheist, is only based on a simplistic definition. As I continue to read and learn more about philosophy, I find that my friends’ question is more complicated than I originally thought.

The colloquial understanding of atheism is a disbelief in the existence of a god or gods, while agnosticism is undecided in the existence of a god or gods. (From here on out, I’ll use ‘god’ in the singular masculine form, for simplicity and to reflect my LDS background.) Thus, a linear scale is drawn, with atheism on one side, theism on the other, and agnosticism in the middle. (see fig.1) This is the understanding I had when responding to my friends – I didn’t believe in God, so I must be atheist.

Colloquial Definitions


I’ve since learned that these terms actually describe positions taken on two different questions and therefore, don’t fit the linear scale above. Theism & atheism are the positions taken at the polar ends of the question, “does God exist?” While gnosticism & agnosticism are the positions at the polar ends of the question, “can we know God or facts about God?” It’s important to recognize the difference in these two questions; one addresses the existence of a supreme being, while the other addresses the ability to gather information of said being. This would mean that there are not only three positions as seen in fig. 1, but actually four positions as illustrated in fig. 2:


According to this idea, there are four positions available to take, since both questions are presumed to have simple yes/no answers. An agnostic atheist is someone who doesn’t believe knowledge can be obtained of God, because He doesn’t exist. An agnostic theist is someone who believes knowledge cannot be obtained of God, but believes that He does exist. A gnostic atheist is someone who believes that knowledge of God could be obtained if God did exist, but doesn’t. While finally, a gnostic theist is one who believes that knowledge can be obtained of God, and that He does exist.

Unfortunately for my brain, this isn’t the only way to look at the possible answers to these questions. One could argue that the two questions are dependent of each other, which would mean that the answer to the first question could affect the answer the second. Thus, if you believed that you cannot know about God, the existence question is rendered moot, and you’d be agnostic. While if you believed you could know, only then the “does God exist” question becomes applicable and subdivide that group into atheists & theists. This would be illustrated as per fig.3:


However, the reverse order of these questions could also be true, in that the existence of God inherently speaks to His knowability. Meaning if God does exist, then He is knowable; while if He doesn’t exist, His knowability is still questionable and would subdivide this group into atheists and agnostics. If something exists, it can, or will one day be able to be known. While if it doesn’t exist, it remains to be argued whether we will ever be able to know that for sure. This would be illustrated as per fig.4:


Of course, the previous two scenarios could be combined to show how both questions are ultimately one in the same. One could argue that if God does exist, He can be known, since all existing things can be known to us in time as we further our understanding and technology. While if God doesn’t exist, it can never be known since you cannot prove a negative. (The reverse phrasing would also work: if we cannot know about God, then He must not exist, while if we can know about God, He must exist.) As fig.5 illustrates, this creates a dichotomy:



So where does this leave me? I believe that God, as defined by humans, does not exist (there’s too much evidence suggesting that God is a human construct). I also believe that there is no way of proving that something does not exist and therefore, we’ll never know for sure. This would mean that I’m atheist (fig.1 & 5), agnostic atheist (fig.2 & 4), or agnostic (fig.3 & 5) depending on your choice of scenario as illustrated above. What do I call myself? Atheist, as per fig.1 – this is more easily understood than responding to such a question with all of the above explanation!


References: ScienceBlogs


Posted on 2011-03-06, in Atheism, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I’ve been called a “dictionary atheist” by other atheists because my assertion is that atheist means just what it says – a-theist. Not a theist. Non-theist.

    We can’t PROVE there’s no creator, anymore than I can prove there are no invisible unicorns in my closet. But I’m not a unicornist, therefore I’m an a-unicornist.

    Some others have used the terms “hard atheist” (there can’t possibly be a creator!) and “soft atheist” (it’s extraordinarily unlikely and silly to presume such… etc.)

    I was not raised in a religious family, so before I’d heard of (and rejected) religion, I was an atheist by default. Others argue that I couldn’t have been. I ask them then what exactly was I? Certainly not agnostic.

    • I’ve been reading some books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris lately, in an effort to better understand what being ‘atheist’ means. You’re absolutely right, atheist means “not a theist”, and doesn’t require an absolute answer as to whether gods exist.

      I’ve also come to realize that such a scale as ‘hard to soft’ or ‘strong to weak’ atheism is absurd. You either believe in a god(s) or you don’t. The type of god(s) one believes in can then be subdivided into the deism, theism, pantheism, and panentheism categories, but there aren’t sub-categories of atheism.

      I really appreciate your comments, as they are very much in line with what I’ve come to discover. This post was created very early in my exploration of atheism and, though I’m still exploring, I have a much better understanding of the terms now.

      Here are some videos that I have found to be a great explanation of the different ‘theism terms:

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