The Grammarphobia Blog

Is he an “atheist” or an “agnostic”?

Q: I am having an ongoing argument with my girlfriend about whether I am an atheist or an agnostic. If asked if I believe in god, I would say “NO.” So, I think this classifies me as an atheist. On the other hand if I was then asked if I was positive that there is no god, I would say that I am not positive; I just don’t think that one exists. She say that for this reason I am an agnostic. I think that our problem lies in the word “belief.” Do you have to be positive of something you believe in? Is it possible to say you believe in something but still admit some doubt?

A: This is a complicated question because it involves fine shades of difference in religious skepticism. Here’s what I think (and I allow that some would disagree). An atheist denies altogether that there is a God or gods. He believes that God is impossible. An agnostic doesn’t deny the existence of God; he thinks the existence or nonexistence can’t be proved or disproved—in other words, certainty is impossible.

So an agnostic, while allowing that we can never know for sure, may or may not choose to believe in the probability of God’s existence. This means there are two kinds of agnostics. Both deny that we can be certain; one believes God probably exists and the other believes that he probably doesn’t.

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, differentiates between “disbelief” and “unbelief.” He says one who disbelieves has considered the plausibility of God’s existence and rejected it. This person he defines as an atheist. The unbeliever has doubts about whether or not there is a God. This person he defines as an agnostic.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes that an agnostic does not deny; he merely holds that the answer isn’t knowable. (The word “agnostic” was apparently coined by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century. He believed that only material phenomena could be known with certainty.)

In short, the answer to your question is yes—it’s possible to say you believe in something but still admit doubt. That’s one kind of agnostic. Belief is not the same as certainty. So I guess I agree with your girlfriend that you’re an agnostic.