My answer to this question has made many self-proclaimed Agnostics upset in the past and will probably ire a few more. I can assure all Agnostic readers that I do not intent to offend you with my answer. My answer is how I see the dilemma of Agnosticism versus Atheism and how they both contradict and coexist.
An Atheist is someone that lacks belief in gods and supernatural beings. An Agnostic is someone who claims that we, as human beings, cannot have the knowledge of whether gods exist or not.
There are two types of people in this world: Atheists and theists. Either people believe in a god or they lack belief in a god.
Agnosticism and Atheism deal with two separate issues. Atheism and theism deal with beliefs or lack thereof. Gnosticism and Agnosticism deal with knowledge or lack thereof.
Atheism and Agnosticism cover different issues. That is why Agnosticism and Atheism can co-exist together. If one prefers they can call themselves an Atheistic Agnostic or Agnostic Atheist (depending on where they want the emphasis to be). There are also Agnostic theists and theistic Agnostics.
Because Agnosticism deals with knowledge instead of belief, we can use Agnosticism more freely in the area of knowledge and decision-making. Have you ever heard of the term political Agnostic? A political Agnostic is someone that claims they do not have enough knowledge about politics to make a decision about what party to vote for, what candidate to choose, or how to vote on an amendment.
Many people confuse Agnosticism and Atheism. While an Agnostic may be Atheistic, the position of Agnosticism does not automatically make one an Atheist. The criterion that makes one an Atheist is the lack of belief in gods.
The argument I often get from Agnostics (that do not want to admit their Atheism or theism) is, “But I don’t know! I can’t answer yes or no to the question of do you believe.”
The Agnostic may sincerely not know if they believe or do not believe. The problem is that the Agnostic is using the incorrect definition of Atheism as “not believing.”
Atheism is a lack of belief. The Agnostic either has a belief or lacks belief. Knowledge or lack thereof is irrelevant to the fact that the individual believes either in a god or supernatural being or, in his or her lack of knowledge and claim of belief, lacks said belief, and is therefore Atheistic.
There is nothing wrong with claiming no knowledge to make a belief or lack of belief decision or statement. Agnosticism is a respectable stance to take and on many ideas, an appropriate stance to take. However, the fact remains that all Agnostics are either theistic or Atheistic. They believe either in a god or in gods or they lack a belief in a god or gods.
Robert Green Ingersoll said that Agnostics are Atheists seeking social acceptance. While he said this in jest, there is a bit of truth to that statement. I get a completely different reaction from people if I tell them I am an Agnostic (same holds true with the word Freethinker). Declaring one’s self an Agnostic gets you fewer evil glares, snide remarks, and proselytizing from the general population. Many Atheists are afraid of the word Atheist and prefer to say that they are Agnostic.
Personally, I consider myself an Atheistic Agnostic. I am an Atheist because I lack belief in any gods and supernatural beings. I am an Agnostic because I realize that I do not know everything and I am constantly learning something. I grant the possibility of a god, but there is no evidence that any god exists. As I address in other questions, we should make our conclusions based on what we do know – not what we do not know. As I receive new data, I reevaluate my position and reconsider my conclusions. If I need to change my conclusions and positions upon the arrival of new data then I will do so.
My Atheism allows people to know that I lack a belief in gods and supernatural beings. My Agnosticism lets people know that I recognize that I do not know everything and that I have an open mind to further inquiry and data.
The next time someone tells you they are an Agnostic do not automatically assume they are Atheist, because the two are not synonymous.