I have friends that will say “I’m agnostic, I don’t know what is out there”. That makes me wonder if they are just afraid to admit they are atheists or don’t want to admit that they are religious. Is it that black or white? Can there be grey area in the belief or no belief in Gods? – Atheism United commenter
It’s a common misconception, but it’s essential to clarify the terms. There’s some nuance here that’s often misunderstood due to a campaign of deceit peddled by theists.
Atheism and agnosticism deal with different things.
Atheism/theism is about belief. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods or a god. It’s not a claim of absolute knowledge but a statement about one’s belief.
Agnosticism, on the other hand, deals with knowledge. An agnostic is someone who claims that we can’t know with certainty whether gods exist or not. Agnosticism has nothing to do with belief in a god; instead, it emphasizes the limitations of human knowledge.
When your friends claim they are agnostic and avoid the atheist designation, it’s likely because they’ve believed the false definitions of the terms typically peddled by those who benefit from dividing atheists into smaller groups of agnostic and atheist.
If you ask your friend if they believe in a god, and they say yes, then they are a theist. Everyone else is without a belief in a god and therefore an atheist. If you ask someone, “Do you believe?” and they say, “I don’t know what is out there,” they haven’t answered your question. Many atheists agree that we don’t know everything that is out there. But we are without a belief in a god. In fact, 58% of Atheism United claims to be agnostic atheists:
That’s right, all of your “agnostic” friends are either atheists or theists. They either have a belief in a god, or they are without a belief in a god. “Maybe I believe in a god” typically translates to “I don’t currently have a positive belief in a god.”
There are very rare cases of people being on the border of theism and atheism. What I mean is they go back and forth, which means that they are 100% atheist in some moments and 100% theists in other moments. They may even go back and forth throughout a day. But they are always one or the other, with belief or without belief in a god.
Agnosticism is a claim that a person makes about lacking knowledge (not belief) about a first cause of the universe. Some people say everyone is agnostic because nobody knows for sure, but agnosticism is a personal claim. Therefore, we can use agnosticism as a qualifier to someone’s theism or atheism. There are agnostic theists and there are agnostic atheists. In most cases, when a person says they are agnostic, they are likely an agnostic atheist, who is also unaware of the non-bastardized definition of atheism.
In other words, they might not be afraid, they might’ve just been lied to about the terms. And you may find that the brainwashing of those lies runs so deep that they’ll defend their agnosticism and avoid the term atheist if you present them with this story. It’s possible that the theistic campaign to break atheists up into many smaller groups will have the intended effect by virtue of creating this false negative connotation of the word atheist.