If atheism is just disbelief in gods, then what is the difference between that and agnosticism?
Many people who adopt the label of agnostic reject the label of atheist — there is a common perception that agnosticism is a more “reasonable” position while atheism is more “dogmatic,” ultimately indistinguishable from theism except in the details. This is not a valid position to adopt because it misrepresents or misunderstands everything involved: atheism, theism, agnosticism, and the nature of belief itself. It also happens to reinforce popular prejudice against atheists.
Prejudice Against Atheism, Atheists
Agnostics may sincerely believe it and theists may sincerely reinforce it, but it relies upon more than one misunderstanding about both atheism and agnosticism. These misunderstandings are only exacerbated by continual social pressure and prejudice against atheism and atheists. People who are unafraid of stating that they indeed do not believe in any gods are still despised in many places, whereas “agnostic” is perceived as more respectable.
Atheists are thought to be closed-minded because they deny the existence of gods, whereas agnostics appear to be open-minded because they do not know for sure. This is a mistake because atheists do not necessarily deny any gods and may indeed be an atheist because they do not know for sure — in other words, they may be an agnostic as well.
Agnostic Atheism & Agnostic Theism
Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a “third way” between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge — it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not.
Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.
It is also worth noting that there is a vicious double standard involved when theists claim that agnosticism is “better” than atheism because it is less dogmatic. If atheists are closed-minded because they are not agnostic, then so are theists. On the other hand, if theism can be open-minded then so can atheism.
In the end, the fact of the matter is a person isn’t faced with the necessity of only being either an atheist or an agnostic. Quite the contrary, not only can a person be both, but it is in fact common for people to be both agnostics and atheists. An agnostic atheist won’t claim to know for sure that nothing warranting the label “god” exists or that such cannot exist, but they also don’t actively believe that such an entity does indeed exist.