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What is the Difference Between an Atheist and an Agnostic?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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The primary difference between an atheist and an agnostic is that the atheist does not believe God or gods exist whereas the agnostic is not sure either way because existence of God or gods, they say, cannot be proven. The atheist may be a weak atheist or strong atheist. The weak atheist may say, “I’m not sure whether gods exist so I don’t worship any. “ The strong atheist comments: “There is no God or gods.”

Some people use the terms of atheist or agnostic interchangeably. How much difference is there, really between a weak atheist and an agnostic? Actually there is some difference. The atheist, whether weak or strong, is not in search of spiritual meaning through finding proof of a god. The agnostic may, on the other hand, be looking for proof, or may be open to the proofs or faith people use to define god. The agnostic does not necessarily rule out that faith might come to him or her at some future point.

The atheist on the other hand, completely discounts the concept of being converted to a belief in god. Even if the atheist is weak, he or she does not choose ever to worship any sort of god. This does not mean that all atheists will stay atheists for life, but many do.

One of the principle arguments for atheism is that a God cannot possibly exist. How could an all powerful being allow for the evils occurring on earth, such as genocide? Why would an all powerful being ignore the many cries for help he or she hears from the faithful?

Most people who believe in God argue that praying does not mean one is guaranteed an answer to one’s prayers. Further, God’s ways are mysterious and above the understanding of humans, thus we cannot fully understand why God would adopt a laissez-faire policy in the world.

The agnostic might ask the same questions as the atheist, but might occasionally evaluate the mysterious ways in which a god or gods might move. The agnostic might also have a tentative belief in an intelligent presence, but believe religions get caught up in doctrine, and have failed to clearly define such a presence. A statement from an agnostic again might be “Sometimes I think there may be something out there, but I’m not sure what it is.”

Thus the main differences between an atheist and an agnostic relates to openness to the question as to whether God exists. The agnostic looks for proof, or a transforming experience of faith. The atheist, on the other hand, refuses to pay homage to any god, because he or she believes no god exists.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1000373 — On Sep 07, 2018

There's no real difference. Agnosticism describes your knowledge, not your belief. Atheism/Theism, describes your belief. Atheists do not believe in any gods, but that is not an assertion of absolute knowledge.

People are asserting different definitions of "agnosticism" whose root is Gnosticism, which was a separate sect of Christian belief that held that there was absolute knowledge of God's existence. Agnosticism simple meant they believed there wasn't.

If you could be an agnostic Christian, why on earth does anyone think that agnosticism is inherently aside from the two topics? The assertion of whether or not they know for certain is a part of the atheist/theist discussion, it's not a separate discussion.

By anon972468 — On Oct 04, 2014

I am an atheist and I don't go around saying, "God does not exist!" That is because if you had done you're homework you would know that atheists do not believe in a God or a God like being due to lack of evidence. If I were to meet God in person and saw his/her power, then it would no longer be supernatural but natural, so therefore we would not need religion for a reason. According to the bible, God had given us all free will, so if he/she is all knowing, then he/she would know that some of us would not believe.

I like to think if God and Heaven are real, then he/she would actually allow atheists into Heaven as they were acting on their own free will and that God would say to an atheist if he or she is real, "My child your lack of belief in my existence was not your fault, but mine as I gave you free will therefore it is me who should ask forgiveness and not you."

If we take a step back and look at the God theory, it says that he/she is the ultimate creator of everything. So, it stands to reason that God is both pure good and pure sin at the same time and that Satan and hell are not God's anger at humans and their sins, but God's anger is pointed at himself/herself and that he cannot forgive him/herself for the ultimate sin.

It's kind of like if you have done something wrong then you would want to put that at back of your mind and try to move on. What if God had done the same but the back of his/hers mind is Hell?

I am only a human who dose not believe in the existence of God due to evidence that has been presented so far. I am not going to say for sure that God is not real since I am not all knowing, but I'll bet you the reasons why and how we are all here are greater then what any of us could being to possibly imagine.

The answer is out there and religion may be one of them, but Atheists are looking for an alternative answer to religion. Rant over.

By JKClark — On Aug 19, 2014

The "weak Atheist", or A-theist, term is basically a modern invention, started by the likes of George H Smith, and has only become more prominent over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, when he wrote Atheism: The Case Against God, he stated in his book that the "common" and "most frequent" meaning of Atheism, at the time, was still Atheism (the belief that Gods do not exist). He proposed the new meaning Atheism, which is actually nonsensical, and mutilated Huxley quotes about Agnosticism along the way.

A number of people had argued against being labeled Atheists, as they claimed to only be non-believers, but nobody offered a new label for the non-belief position, until Thomas Huxley. He claimed to be neither Atheist or Theist, and came up with the new term Agnostic.

Huxley's definition was aimed at the process of forming a belief. The "knowledge" he was referring to was the evidence, or knowledge, gathering phase before forming a belief.

Thomas Huxley: "It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe."

"I do not very much care to speak of anything as "unknowable."

Agnostics have no belief, either way, as no evidence has convinced them to believe the Theist proposition, or the Atheist proposition. Agnostics are the middle, between two opposing propositions.

No Belief = Agnostic

True Belief = Theist or Atheist

Justified True Belief = Theo-gnostic or Atheo-gnostic

It's really pretty simple.

Atheists tend to acknowledge that there are such things as Atheists, or "strong Atheists", as they call them, but then lie and claim there is only one proposition, as to the existence of God(s), when there are, in fact, two...Gods Exist (Theist) and Gods do not exist (Atheist).

The "Atheist" definition, and label, fails when it comes to the Atheist proposition.

By anon941223 — On Mar 21, 2014

People who don't believe in God frequently say that God can't exist because God would not allow bad things to happen. Those people have obviously never read the Bible. The fact that God lets "bad" things happen is proof of His existence. The Bible is full accounts of Him mass executing defenseless Egyptian children; encouraging the slaughter of all men, women, and boys of conquered cities but keeping the little girls for sexual trophies. Sodom and Gommorah. The flood. The Midianites. The Amalekites. It's recommended to execute someone for collecting firewood on the wrong day of the week, etc., etc., etc. The Bible says that God is vengeful. The Bible says God is jealous. The Bible says that God wants to be feared. The Bible says that God's preferred method of punishment is death.

But nowhere in the Bible does it describe God as a servant. People who ask, "If God exists why does He let bad things happen" have never read the Bible. God is not your servant. You are God's servant. And nowhere in the Bible does it say that God loves everyone. In fact, it is very clear that God has a preferred people. And it's not you. Anyone who does not realize that has never read the Bible and needs to stop asking ridiculous questions about things that would be clearly answered if they only bothered to read the Bible. Read your Bible!

By anon925469 — On Jan 12, 2014

All I know is that i believe in God.

By anon924057 — On Jan 01, 2014

To all those confused: I just want to say that our living God cannot be explained by science. God is outside the bounds of time, and beyond the comprehension of any creation including man being the supreme being in the creation. We can't seek God on our own terms.

Jesus came to earth as a picture of God seeking man -- His children. We just need to surrender our thoughts in our own free will. we have to humble down. Jesus died on the cross so we can live. He redeemed us. We were bought at a price, we are not our own.

"The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."(2 Corinthians 4:4)

Many of us must have come into confusion as a single strand of light breaks in our lives, giving hope and chance that the Truth will be revealed in our lives.

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32)

By anon353304 — On Oct 29, 2013

Lucifer was a perfect angel. He did not make a mistake. You also need to be repentant to get God's forgiveness. Lucifer is not or never has been repentant. Use your brain. God is love, he is not a fool.

By anon345901 — On Aug 23, 2013

You can't see God so he doesn't exist. You also cannot see friendship, hope, faith, love, and courage, but they do exist. To me, God exists in miracles such as conception, integrity, humanity, and trust. God gave us free will. If everyone helped everyone else out, and pride was removed, it would be a completely different world out there.

By anon338000 — On Jun 09, 2013

Someone needs to learn more about atheism and agnosticism before attempting to teach people about them.

By anon337145 — On Jun 03, 2013

I don't know what I believe in. On one hand, I want to believe God exists. On the hand, I don't want believe God exists. But if God exists, how do I know he's there? I can't see God, how can I believe in God? I sort of am a little atheist and agnostic like anon21773. Nobody can make me believe in God, so I choose not to believe in him. I don't know what to do, I'm so confused.

By anon324928 — On Mar 13, 2013

Agnostic Atheist: Someone who doesn't believe in gods, but doesn't claim knowledge one way or another; they simply have yet to be convinced.

Gnostic Atheist: Someone who doesn't believe in gods, and actively denies the possibility of the existence of specific or all gods.

Agnosticism: The lack of knowledge (to be unsure).

Gnosticism: The claim to knowledge (to be sure)

Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive terms, I myself am an agnostic atheist, in that I don't believe in gods, but I don't actively deny their possibility. In the same manner, someone can be a Gnostic theist, actively believing in a god and claiming knowledge of their existence.

In order to be fully agnostic on the subject of religion, you would have to had never heard of the god, or any aspect of the religion, and its beliefs in question.

Having cleared that up, I find it insulting that the author claims that atheists aren't searching for spiritual meaning, or spirituality. We are, or at least I am. I constantly question and search for such things, however I look for it in an evidenced and practical, instead of just feelings or desires.

Additionally, atheists don't completely discount the ability to be converted to theism. If a god came down, and shook your hand and said, yeah I exist sucker, and demonstrated that they are in fact a God, well, one would have to stop being an Atheist. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to worship them, but to continue to disbelieve their existence would be incorrect.

By anon310724 — On Dec 26, 2012

One way to get at the difference is to look at the Greek roots of both words. Theos refers to God(s). Gnosis refers to knowledge. An atheist's focus is on the concept of God itself. There may be miraculous and beautiful things happening to mankind every day, but there cannot be a God force causing them to happen.

An atheist is not necessarily a hateful person who spends his or her time attacking a religious person's belief structure. They just don't believe in a divine power known as God. Some people who claim to be atheists are more likely to be former believers who have become disillusioned with organized religion.

Agnostics, on the other hand, are often people who rely heavily on tangible evidence before believing in anything, let alone an all-powerful creator of the universe. An agnostic hasn't necessarily written off the existence of a God force, but is waiting for unassailable proof before taking a permanent stance.

An agnostic is more likely to identify as a seeker of truth than most atheists would. Many atheists have taken a solid position on the question of a Supreme Being, and that answer is "no". An agnostic is more likely to answer "maybe".

By anon263854 — On Apr 26, 2012

I was born a Christian, but recently came to my senses about everything and I basically decided to not be religious anymore.

I sort of realized that I had become atheist, but now I have just began to discover agnosticism. (don't judge, I'm still in middle school!)

But now I feel like I'm more agnostic atheist, because I believe that it is really, really, really unlikely that there is a higher power but there's really a big possibility that there's a higher power. I feel like atheist is too much of an ignorant status for me and agnostic seems to be to lenient towards theism.

By anon239811 — On Jan 11, 2012

Agnostics go to church; atheists don't. That's the difference.

By anon234616 — On Dec 13, 2011

I would have believed in God without any evidence for him. Yet I choose not to because of the evidence against him. --From an Ex-Muslim

By anon220216 — On Oct 06, 2011

God is not false simply because of what someone thinks. Likewise, God is not true simply because of what someone believes. I heard a saying on an episode of "Criminal Minds" once: "To one who believes, no proof is necessary. To one who does not believe, no proof is sufficient". I don't remember who said it. If, however, this axiom holds true, then it would seem that the principal issue is belief, not proof, or rather evidence. "Faith" by its very definition requires little or none.

Since "proof" is present on both sides of this equation (according to this saying) for both the believer and the non-believer then it stands to reason that it is not necessary to make one either a believer or non-believer, as it applies to God. In my opinion, trying to use proof or evidence to sustain and believe or not believe in God is like trying to use a screwdriver to drive a nail. You can make it work, but that doesn't make it the right tool for the job.

By the way, I am a Christian.

By anon218055 — On Sep 27, 2011

@anon163360: The "If God exists, why is there so much tragedy in the world?" question is fairly common in these types of discussions, but difficult to answer. The default Christian response is that we live in a fallen world, since Adam and Eve both ate the fruit which gave them the knowledge between Good and Evil.

As a punishment for disobeying His one command, God allowed mankind to experience suffering and tragedies and hardships. It's only through the sacrifice of a perfect offering (God's own Son, Jesus Christ) that mankind has been spared a total collapse into pure evil. God allows human tragedies to happen because they are human by nature, not of God. God has the power to stop earthquakes or hurricanes or wars, but humans who live in an imperfect world must learn to cope with challenges until they reach a perfect one (Heaven) in the afterlife.

There is also a philosophy called theodicy which examines the question of God's apparent silence during times of human tragedy. If God exists, why didn't he stop the Holocaust or the Killing Fields or 9/11? One short answer is that God is so powerful that He can only work in small gestures. A giant hand coming out of the sky and swatting down those planes on 9/11 might have prevented a human tragedy, but then millions of people around the world would live in fear of the Giant Hand. God has to move in much smaller ways, putting the right people in the right places to be the most effective during human tragedies. First responders and other rescuers are not there by accident or happenstance.

If God did everything for us and protected us from every harm, we would soon become too complacent for words.

By anon190972 — On Jun 27, 2011

I was a christian for most of my life and now I have had my consciousness completely raised for seven years now from the wishful thinking of having imaginary friends that eliminated all my obstacles and questions about life I’ve been asking myself since a child.

I'm proud to be an atheist by questioning everything and to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Everything in our universe is of natural ingredients by natural processes and there's nothing greater than the four known established forces (ingredients) that govern our expanding universe (strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity and electromagnetism).

I always hated history and science but now are my best favorite subjects that answer all my questions I ever had about who we are and where we come from, without any form of magic being responsible nor required. I now know that religion is not for people who can think for themselves and that the notion of the existence of a creator, religion is far from and could never establish. This is one reason how we have evolved so rapidly with modern technology, because we are a species that naturally seeks knowledge and no longer listens to hearsay.

Follow the evidence. This is the only evidence of our existence, reality, and to spend it on wishful thinking is a total waste of consciousness from ape to human. That's all for now.

By anon181440 — On May 29, 2011

@normanrp: It's not that god hasn't forgiven Lucifer. Lucifer wants no part of god's plan for man. that's why he chooses to stay away from the kingdom of heaven.

By anon163360 — On Mar 27, 2011

I am an agnostic because I question if there is a God or a heaven. It would be easier if I was a believer, but that has not happened. I question my religious friends who say God is responsible for the good that happens, however, he is never responsible for the bad. If there is a god why is there so much tragedy?

By anon161730 — On Mar 21, 2011

It's a matter of how you negate belief. In other words, where the word "not" is positioned in relation to the word believe. If you are an atheist, you "believe not" (and thus hold the non-existence of a deity as strongly as a believer holds the existence of a deity); if you are an agnostic, you do "not believe" (and thus any talk of the existence or otherwise of a deity is irrelevant - quite possibly even tedious!)

By anon134673 — On Dec 15, 2010

By the way, an apatheist (apathy + theism/atheism) is someone who doesn't think about or doesn't care about whether or not a deity exists. Technically, apatheists are atheists, but an apatheist won't use the label atheist because, obviously, they don't care about it either way.

So, I suspect many of you who consider agnostic to mean "don't care" might actually mean apatheist.

By anon134672 — On Dec 15, 2010

Actually, agnosticism means one does not believe the existence of a deity can be known or proven -- it is a stance on knowledge of the existence of a deity, not a stance on actual belief in a deity.

One can be an agnostic and a theist, or, more likely, one can be an agnostic and an atheist. An agnostic atheist is one who does not believe the existence of a deity can be known or proven, and consequently does not believe in the existence of a deity. An agnostic theist is one who does not believe the existence of a deity can be known or proven, yet believes in a deity anyway.

Atheism means, quite simply, lack of belief in the existence of a deity. However, atheism can be split into two types: strong atheism (also known as positive atheism) and weak atheism (also known as negative atheism).

Strong atheism is an intentional rejection of the existence of a deity, positing with certainty that a deity does not, or cannot, exist. Weak atheism is just a mere lack of belief, which is the implied meaning of the term atheism.

By leidelac — On Nov 15, 2010

simply put: an atheist no god. none ever. an agnostic: drop the subject.

By anon111920 — On Sep 18, 2010

This writer has a pretty misguided sense of what a strong Agnostic is. They go on about weak and strong atheists but not agnostic.

Agnosticism in it's purest form is not a middle of the road wishy washy approach, waiting for compelling evidence either which way. Agnosticism in it's purest form is one of simply not caring what the answer is. This pressure to make a choice is simply manmade and it's a misguided modus operandi.

It's like someone giving you very little facts on a criminal subject and making you feel as if you must choose guilty or not guilty. "But nothing is at stake and I don't have enough facts...why would I choose?" / "Cause...you have to!" / "Why?" / "Just...cause!"

See? Pure agnosticism is one of saying the quest to arrive at an opinion is not a priority and is irrelevant. Which is why I'd argue that agnosticism is not "somewhere between" theism and atheism but rather stands alone at the other end of the spectrum. Whereas theists and atheists duke it out over the definitive nature of existence arguing the big question, agnostics believe the question was never really begged in the first place and that it does not matter.

By anon111859 — On Sep 18, 2010

"What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?"

"I don't know" and "I don't care".

By anon87638 — On May 31, 2010

Very difficult for me when confronted by tragedy or death and their comment is "too bad"

and they sometimes get testy when asked to explain just what it is they believe in -- other than themselves, of course. Whatever we believe we should be glad to explain and stand for it.

By anon73845 — On Mar 29, 2010

It is completely illogical say "What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?". They're not mutually exclusive. It's like saying, "What the difference between a cat and a white animal?" You can have cats that aren't white and white animals that aren't cats but you can also have a white cat, in the same way you can have an agnostic atheist and in fact most atheists are agnostic.

Theism pertains to belief. Gnosticism pertains to knowledge. All rational people are agnostic, both theists and atheists. I've never met an atheist who claimed to know that no gods exist even if they believe it and a theist can't have faith without being an agnostic.

Why do you believe?

How do you know?

There's your difference.

By anon72225 — On Mar 22, 2010

I thought it was a good explanation of the differences between two terms that are, for most people interchangeable.

By anon49906 — On Oct 23, 2009

This article paints something of a clear description but shows a definite bias against atheism. It uses words like "openness" as it relates to agnosticism and "refuse" as it relates to atheism. If the writer were truly unbiased it would use no negative verbiage for either.

Let me guess: the writer was a Christian?

By anon37809 — On Jul 22, 2009

God breaks his own commandments. He murders constantly in the old testament and He committed adultery when he made Mary pregnant.

By anon33717 — On Jun 10, 2009

I don't quite understand why the article focuses so much on the problem of evil.

This seems to be more a problem for theologians.

It is certainly true that the idea of a loving god is logically much harder to justify than a hateful or malicious god.

Though an atheist by definition doesn't face this problem since he doesn't believe in a god, neither a good nor an evil one.

Why not just say that an atheist is a person who doesn't accept claims about the nature of the universe (especially extraordinary claims like a god) on faith but rather requires evidence?

Since there is no evidence and the claim is very unlikely the atheist sees no reason to believe the claim.

An agnostic on the other hand simply admits (depending on the form of agnosticism) his lack or impossibility of knowledge about things like the afterlife and leaves it at that.

By normanrp — On May 21, 2009

I'm not an atheist but I am a thinker & I know I'm going to catch hell for this but; if God is loving even sent his son to die for our sins then why doesn't he forgive Lucifer isn't this breaking one of the commandments?

By anon27696 — On Mar 04, 2009

"One of the principle arguments for atheism is that a God cannot possibly exist. How could an all powerful being allow for the evils occurring on earth, such as genocide?"

That would be an argument against a loving god. But is not the reason an atheist would give for her unbelief.

The main argument an atheist has (which goes back to the philosopher Hume) is that god is an inelegant hypothesis, because it is a prime mover that can't explain it's own existence and is therefore no real explanation for anything.

By Occam's razor this hypothesis can therefore be safely dropped.

Also the reason why an atheist doesn't take a "transforming experience of faith" into account is because (s)he believes that personal experiences should not have more weight than objective evidence.

An atheist would change her mind if there were evidence for a religious claim. For example if we could actually see in a microscope a difference between a host that has been "transformed" by the priest and one that hasn't.

By anon21773 — On Nov 21, 2008

Am i an agnostic then because this article shows that i am both a little atheist and a little agnostic help please!!!!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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