Atheists vs Agnostics: New Study Tries to Find the Difference

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A new study endeavors to explain the difference between atheists and agnostics, and I don’t mean in the “actually using the definition of each of those words and exploring the philosophical similarities and differences between them,” I just mean…um, asking people which one they self-identify as and then what other things they self-identify as. It’s complicated. Let’s get into it.

First, my own background: I spent my first 7 years attending a Christian Baptist church, the next ten years considering myself a Christian Baptist, and then the next 20-some years as an agnostic atheist. That’s right, I’m every conservative Christian parent’s worst nightmare: a pious god-botherer who went away to college, took one philosophy class, and immediately became a nonbelieving socialist.

You may immediately notice I described myself using both of the terms that I previously suggested are mutually exclusive: agnostic and atheist. I’m both! Because they’re actually terms that address very different things, though many people don’t realize this. I’ll also note that I am a language descriptivist, not prescriptivist, which means I believe words mean what most people think they mean and not necessarily what the dictionary says. But sometimes, especially in a scientific or philosophical context, it’s useful to keep distinct meanings for words independent of what the general population believes, like when we talk about evolutionary “theory” as opposed to your “theory” that your cat is secretly trying to kill you.

So it is with “atheist” and “agnostic.” When I say I’m an agnostic atheist, this is what I mean: “gnosticism” refers to knowledge – is it possible to KNOW with absolute certainty whether or not there is such a thing as a “god”? In general, no. I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no Christian god, or Muslim god, or Jewish god, or Egyptian god, or Zoroastrian god, or unicorns, or Santa Claus, or any other magical being that disappears whenever you try to look for it. And I’m an “atheist” because I BELIEVE that none of those things exist. I go about my day to day life assuming that I’m not going to be supernaturally gifted commandments etched into stone tablets, or impaled by a unicorn.

With that in mind, we can separate people into four broad categories: agnostic atheists like me, who think we can’t know for sure whether or not there’s a god but who believe there’s not enough evidence for one; gnostic atheists who think we CAN know for sure whether or not there’s a god and who believe there isn’t one; agnostic theists who think we can’t know for sure but believe there IS a god; and gnostic theists who think we CAN know and believe there IS one.

It would be interesting to examine the personality differences between each of these groups, particularly gnostic versus agnostic: do gnostics have more rigidity in their beliefs than agnostics? Are they more emotional stability? Are they more or less open-minded? More or less anxious?

That would be interesting, indeed, but that’s not what this new study is about. In “Being agnostic, not atheist: Personality, cognitive, and ideological differences,” psychologists asked 600 Belgians how they self-identified: atheist, agnostic, or Christian. Anyone who said they weren’t any of those was discarded, leaving 551 people. They then gave those people a questionnaire to determine “Why do many religious nonbelievers self-identify as agnostics instead of atheists?”

I think a study like that would ALSO be interesting, because as I said, many people (even most people) don’t necessarily know the difference between “atheist” and “agnostic,” and that includes people who self-identify with those labels. And promisingly, this paper opens with the pointed question, “Why do many religious nonbelievers self-identify as agnostics instead of atheists?” Unfortunately, they go on to answer that question by exclusively examining the differences in personality between those two groups, asking them questions to rate each subject’s level of neuroticism, pro or anti-social tendencies, open-mindedness, cognitive abilities, religiosity and spirituality.

I’ll skip to their findings, for the record, and I’ll just quote directly from the abstract: “Compared to atheists, agnostics were more neurotic, but also more prosocially oriented and spiritual, and less dogmatic. Strong self-identification as atheist, but not as agnostic, was positively related to analytic thinking and emotional stability but also dogmatism. Nevertheless, spiritual inclinations among both agnostics and atheists reflected low dogmatism and high prosocial orientation, and, additionally, among agnostics, social and cognitive curiosity.”

I read all this and was just…baffled. What are we meant to do with this information? In their discussion, they describe how they believe these results provide indirect evidence to support their hypotheses that “being agnostic reflects a distinct psychological category, not reducible, for instance, to being a closet atheist.” They go on to say:

“Nonbelievers who prefer to self-identify as agnostic and not as atheist may be (1) more anxious and hesitant about the best answer to give to the fundamental existential questions, (2) more interested in, and respectful of, people from opposite sides and their (un)beliefs and values, (3) less certain and more flexible regarding their own beliefs and worldviews, and/or (4) more religiously socialized and today more valuing (nonreligious) spirituality. The latter possibly allows agnostics “not to throw the baby [spirituality] out with the bathwater [religion]”. Finally, high analytic thinkers may turn out to self-identify strongly as atheists but not necessarily as agnostics.”

Fascinating! So much…indirect evidence for these hypotheses that remain open. If only there were a way to gather DIRECT evidence to confirm or refute them. Like, I don’t know, maybe by…asking atheists and agnostics why they identify the way they do?

Look, I understand that sometimes you can’t just straight up ask someone a question and get the unvarnished truth, but in MANY cases it can be surprisingly effective. For instance, when you are in a highly secularized country like Belgium where there’s not a lot of reasons why a person WOULD lie about why they consider themselves an “atheist” instead of an “agnostic.”

Here’s how I would design a survey to puzzle this out: I’d ask people to define what they think “atheist” means, and what they think “agnostic” means. I’d ask for their honest opinion on whether or not they believe in a god, and whether or not they think it’s possible to be certain there is or isn’t a god. Maybe I’d give them a little quadrant and they could put a marker where they think their mindset is. I’d compare where they place themselves with how they describe themselves: are self-described “atheists” more likely to put their marker in the “no belief, high certainty” quadrant? Are self-described “agnostics” more likely to put their market in the “no belief, low certainty” quadrant? And then I’d just straight up ask them why they identify as “atheist” instead of “agnostic” and vice versa: is it because you have a negative view of one of those terms? Is it because the actual definition just doesn’t fit what you believe? 

By the time you get that information, personality information can actually be interesting: for instance, atheists who prefer the term “agnostic” because they don’t like the stereotype of an atheist may be more neurotic than those who prefer the term because they just think it better describes them. Maybe people whose self-identification more closely matches their beliefs are also more analytical than people who, for instance, call themselves “agnostic” simply because they haven’t thought critically about their own beliefs.

So yeah, while I think this study COULD have been interesting, it just ends up being a muddled mess that misses a golden opportunity to actually learn more about how people with a minority belief system (even in Belgium) that exists outside of an organized religion interrogate their own beliefs and how they then represent those beliefs to the outside world. Atheism and agnosticism are interesting because they’re philosophies that don’t have communities and “leaders” who offer consistent, frequent guidance on how to think about their beliefs and how those beliefs inform their behavior. Sure, there are the atheists who will simply do whatever Richard Dawkins tells them to do, because humans are gonna human. But there’s just nothing that compares to a person going to the same church every Sunday and listening to the same preacher read from and interpret the same book, over and over again from birth to death. People within the same religious sect will disagree, but on a population level you can make certain assumptions about everyone who calls themselves “Catholic,” for instance, and you just can’t do that with everyone who calls themselves “atheist.” For that reason, we need research on that population to be way more in-depth and way better thought-out than this.
Personally, if I had to answer this survey and pick either “atheist” or “agnostic,” I would probably pick “atheist” just because it better describes the way I walk around in the world and behave, and because more people will understand what it means compared to “agnostic.” Way too many people think “agnostic” just means you aren’t sure what you believe, and I never want to give people the wrong impression that I lack convictions. I think I have a lot of atheists, agnostics, and others on this channel so I’d be interested in seeing how you guys tend to self-identify, and why. Comment below, and if you enjoyed this video, please consider subscribing! And if you REALLY enjoyed this video, become a patron at You can always click the link in the description box to view the video transcript with all citations on patreon, but by becoming a patron you get bonus stuff like ad–free videos, weekly newsletters and monthly Q&As! Thanks everyone!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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