September 23, 2009

Understanding Atheism and Agnosticism

Atheist Campaign on Tube TrainImage by Loz Flowers via Flickr

Back in 2007, everybody suddenly became curious about agnosticism after Zac Efron, the star of High School Musical 2, revealed that he was raised agnostic in an interview with Rolling Stone and that he remains agnostic as reported by The Jewish Daily Forward. What does being agnostic say about him? What does it mean to be agnostic, and how is this different from being an atheist?

I have found that one of the more frequent points of confusion for those first beginning to explore the subject of atheism is the relationship of atheism to agnosticism. It is often thought that these represent two distinct positions on the question of god(s) and that people who do not believe in gods must be either agnostics or atheists. Among atheists, people who identify themselves as "agnostic" are sometimes even derided as people who don't have the guts to admit that they are atheists. So what is going on here, and what do these terms mean anyway?

Atheism and agnosticism are not really distinct positions on the question of gods at all; they refer to different questions. Atheism is a response to the question of belief in god(s); agnosticism addresses the question of certainty. I recently ran across a great comment in reddit/atheism by a user called disturbd that provided a succinct yet accurate summary. I have edited it only for grammar.

Agnosticism deals with one's claim to knowledge on a subject; atheism describes one's lack of belief in deities. They are not mutually exclusive terms. If you don't claim to know whether or not gods exist, regardless of your belief or lack thereof, you are agnostic. Agnostic simply means "without knowledge." You can be an agnostic atheist (I don't know, but I don't believe in gods), or an agnostic theist (I don't know, but I do believe in god/s). A gnostic atheist/theist would claim to know their position is true. A gnostic theist holds the position, "I believe in god and I know he exists". A gnostic atheist is the opposite, "I know there is no god."

The author goes on to explain that he, just like me, is an agnostic atheist.

So to answer your question, I'm both. I'm an agnostic atheist. I just think the label "atheist" more closely describes my lack of belief. I find that many people that call themselves agnostic are actually atheists, but choose to label themselves agnostic to avoid the stigma associated with the word, and any consequential persecution from theists that may follow their "coming out." I look at it the other way. If I tell you I am an atheist, and you view me differently because of it, I would like to know that so I can move on with my life and pay you no mind.

My goal here is not to pretend that this matter is settled or that everybody accepts what I have presented above (even though I do). The meanings of these terms continue to generate disagreement. For more on this subject of atheism vs. agnosticism, see: