Atheist vs. Agnostic: Are They The Same Thing?

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the online atheist community, you’ll be familiar with the “atheist vs agnostic” debate. Some people think they mean the same thing, others think they answer completely different questions. Which one are you? Can you be both? 

What Does “Atheist” Mean? 

This could be (and will be) it’s own post. But for now, let’s agree that atheists, by definition, do not believe in a god or gods. Whether that means they are willing to say there are definitely no gods, or whether they simply remain unconvinced, the core definition stands: atheism is a non-affirming position on whether gods exist.  

What Does “Agnostic” Mean? 

Agnosticism specifically claims that you cannot (to various degrees) know certain things–particularly metaphysical things such as the existence of gods, a soul, an afterlife, etc.–to be true. There have been many agnostic philosophers who spoke on this concept, going all the way back to Protagoras in ancient Greece.  

Agnosticism, like atheism, can come in many flavors, such as: 

  • strong agnosticism (X is definitely unknowable) 
  • mild agnosticism (X is currently unknowable, but could be conceived to be knowable) 
  • pragmatic agnosticism (there is no evidence for or against X) 
  • apathetic agnosticism (I don’t care whether X is knowable or not) 

How Does Atheism Intersect With Agnosticism?

How do these two worldviews come together? Well, if you think of a Venn diagram, agnosticism deals with the larger category (metaphysics as a whole) while atheism discusses specifically the smaller category of god(s). See below: 

So are all atheists agnostics? No, because some atheists are not atheist because of knowledge claims, but rather for other reasons (you’d have to ask them). And are all agnostics atheists? No! There are theist agnostics as well, of all different religions and denominations. So, a Venn diagram of atheism and agnosticism might look like this: 

So what might it mean when someone says they are an “agnostic atheist”? Well, it could mean that they find themselves at the intersection of those two circles: they are an atheist and they are an agnostic, one stance might inform or influence the other in important ways. 

So Where Does the Controversy Come In? 

Because words have many meanings and are always changing, people use the words “atheist” and “agnostic” differently. There are multiple definitions of both words (as you can see from even the most basic breakdown above), and people argue about these definitions. 

Some people think the two words are incompatible. You can only be an atheist or an agnostic. Others think they are interchangeable and therefore using both is redundant: if you are one, you are the other. Hence the “atheist vs agnostic” debate. 

Will We Ever Escape the “Atheist vs. Agnostic” Debate? 

We probably will never see the end of this particular debate, and that’s as it should be! This kind of conversation–when conducted in an honest, respectful way–is healthy for any community to have, especially as it starts finding its voice and making others aware of it. 

Can you be an agnostic atheist? I think you can be. Should you assume all atheists are agnostic, or vice versa? Absolutely not! If this ongoing discussion can teach us anything, it’s that we should never assume we know what another person means or apply broad assumptions to an identity. Ask people what the words mean to them, figure out why those definitions are meaningful, and go from there. 

Do you agree? Disagree? If you’re interested in talking more about this, we would love to talk to you! Call 585-LA-MURPH or visit on Sunday mornings at 11:30am CT to talk with us on air. 

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