What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? This is the second of a series of short posts about whether gods exist and why the question is an important one.
Many people think that theists believe in a god, and atheists believe there are no gods, and agnostics are somewhere in the middle: they don’t know.
But that is not how these ideas relate to each other. Theism and atheism are about belief, while agnosticism is about knowledge.
As one issue, theism and atheism are about what you believe. If you believe there is a god, then you are a theist. If you believe there are no gods, then you are an atheist.
As a different issue, agnosticism is about what you claim to be able to know. If you believe something, but you do not claim to be able to know for certain, then you are agnostic about that issue.
If somebody asks you whether you believe that a god exists, and you answer ‘I don’t know,’ then you are answering a different question that you were asked.
It may well be true that you don’t know whether a god exists, but you were being asked whether or not you believe that a god exists.
For example, I strongly believe there are no gods, and almost certainly no personal gods, based on applying reason to the best available evidence. So I am a strong atheist.
I also don’t claim to be able to know that there are no gods, because I am a fallible human being and there might be new evidence that I am currently unaware of. So I am also an agnostic.
However, I describe myself as an atheist because it more accurately gets across what I mean. If I said I am an agnostic, some people might mistakenly think that I am 50:50 on whether a god exists.