Atheist vs Agnostic vs Skeptic vs Humanist

There has been a bit of buzz regarding these terms, so I feel it may be appropriate to write down my own thoughts on the matter. By doing so others might indeed chip in with points that I have failed to consider and so I will then learn something new.


First, lets start with the obvious, and yet for many not so obvious, definition of “Atheism”. I’ll keep this simple; if you are indeed like me a non-believer then I’m about to teach your grandmother to suck eggs. Atheism is the rejection of God assertions due to the lack of objective empirical evidence for all such claims. Sadly this is truly challenging for many believers to grasp, and try as you might to explain it again and again, they simply revert to ignoring as you clarify …

It is not a religion, no faith is required. Instead it is the null hypothesis, and so until somebody asserting a god claim coughs up some credible evidence, all such claims can be dismissed.

It is not a world view, it says nothing about any other non-god claims, and it dictates nothing about morality … it is simply the rejection of daft claims, akin to perhaps rejecting a claim that pink unicorns dance in your garden each night when nobody is watching, and so at best it is perhaps interesting to ponder why people believe such daft nonsense that is not in any way credible.

Some strands of belief also assert that non-belief does not actually exist (because the bible tells them this), and so they claim we all secretly believe and are simply angry with their god (yes indeed those fracking pink unicorns really do exist, you simply reject the assertion because they keep on mucking up your flower display)


OK, so what about being agnostic? Well this is rather interesting, because many atheists are also agnostics. That is a bit of a surprise to some because the terms are thought of as mutually exclusive. I do not assert a no-god claim, I have no evidence for such an assertion, and so in that sense I am not only a non-believer, but I am also agnostic. I do indeed find no evidence for god claims, and I also find the assertion to be highly improbably, just as I find the pink unicorn hypothesis to be improbable. In essence – I hold to the null hypothesis and until some credible evidence comes to light, then that is where I stand, and so I am not asserting a no-god claim, I am simply rejecting the daft god-claims.

This deserves a bit more clarification. I remain confident that the intelligent design hypothesis is incorrect (hint: no credible evidence, not one jot), and that evolution is indeed correct because of the mountains of evidence we have. However, should somebody come up with something, such as fossil mammals in Precambrian rocks, then that would indeed open up some interesting speculation, because it clearly conflicts with the current consensus. Would I be religious and attempt to ignore such evidence? No not at all, I’m interested in understanding the things that are actually true and so I need to account for all the evidence, not just the bits that I agree with. So it is with god claims, I reject them because of a lack of evidence, but I remain open to any new evidence, and yet perhaps if I am truly honest, I have no expectation of ever being presented with any.


Moving on … I am convinced that most humans (with or without a belief) are decent honourable humans who strive to do what is right. It is humanism that leads me down this road and takes me to a place where we can deploy reason and logic instead of blind dogma to strive for ethics and justice. Belief might indeed dictate that slavery is a jolly good idea and that being gay is a hideous crime, but by deploying some reason and logic it quickly becomes clear that slavery is wrong as is the anti-gay stance. If you are not sure about this, then pause and consider slavery – the bible from cover to cover is a pro slavery text and takes no stance against it, yet today we as a culture have evolved our ethics to a degree that enables us to recognise that slavery is truly abhorrent and immoral. This is not a Christian stance; instead it is a secular stance. Those that advocate a biblical standard of morality should seriously pause and consider what that actually means, because that is a pro-slavery stance, there is not one single word in that text that opposes slavery.


Now let us consider the word skeptic.

I think of skepticism as the application of critical thinking to any and all claims, be they religious or non-religious. So when faced with any form of woo, … quack medicine, lake monsters, ghosts, aliens, free energy, psychics (frauds), or religious claims, etc… then you can think of this as a methodology that may be used to determine what is and is not true.

Now lets put all this together

Now this is the part where it gets interesting … yes, being an atheist is indeed a conclusion derived from a critical and very skeptical examination of religious claims … but …

  • There are atheists (the folks skeptical about religious claims) who are not skeptical about other non-religious claims and perhaps buy into various other forms of woo such as anti-vaccine, or psychic powers.
  • There are also skeptics, who will piss upon bigfoot and alien claims, but at the same time hold a religious belief

So what should we make of this, who holds the high ground, should we start to police such terms and include or exclude those that do not meet a specific criteria? My thoughts … heck no.

Folks might indeed be smart enough to be skeptical about religious claims, but that does not make them immune to being conned by other claims. In a similar manner, bigfoot skeptics might indeed have sussed out the fact that the bigfoot claims are a bit of a scam by folks after funding or book peddling, but might not have yet applied critical thinking to other aspects.

The religious can indeed be truly daft to an offensive degree, for example Jerry Newcombe, an Evangelical Leader has claimed that the tragedy in Colorado happened because America has lost its fear of hell … WTF!! … no, it happened because a nut got hold of a gun, it is not associated with belief or non-belief, but rather points to an individual with a mental disorder. However, being a non-believer does not in any way make you immune to making a similar mistake, for example here is an atheist claiming that the shooting was caused by belief … sigh! and of course you can also have skeptics who (quite rightly) criticise woo, but strangely accept some religious claims.

So where am I heading with all this? Well basically, I am attempting to say that we don’t live in a world where it is “skeptics” vs “atheists” vs “agnistics” vs “hummanists” vs … etc… but rather that these are words that can be applied to all of us (potentially) such that …

  • Being a skeptic is about applying critical thinking, but we have not all learned to apply it to all claims yet
  • Being an atheist is simply a conclusion reached after applying skeptical thinking to religious claims, and most skeptics get there, but not all have made it yet
  • Being a humanist is the deployment of logic and reason to derive secular ethics and justice, and yet many often carry a lot of religious baggage, and so take a bit of time to get here as well.

I recognise that the above definitions are a tad simplistic, but my aim was a quick summary, not a book. The key is this; nobody jumps to a specific position instantly, instead I find that we all tend to rise to the surface of sanity like a deep sea diver decompressing. As we rise, we slowly let the crazy stuff go bit by bit as we de-compress on the way up.

Regardless of where we are, we are all human, and I believe (mostly) open to the idea of embracing the things that are actually true, so let us not piss on each other because our views differ, but rather strive to engage in friendly debate. I find that when I do, I often learn something new and change my mind about something.

In the end I find that most skeptics are atheists and also that most atheists are skeptics, we simply don’t all make it all the way in one leap.

What is of course truly encouraging is that the latest survey conducted by the Pew Research Center throughout 2011 and reported by USA Today is that non-belief is now 19% in the US (6% in 1990, 15% in 2010), so we are quite clearly becoming a lot more rational and less insane.

19 thoughts on “Atheist vs Agnostic vs Skeptic vs Humanist”

  1. Hello Dave. Your article covers many points admirably. However, there is a problem, I believe, with modern atheist movements trying so hard against “organized religion” that the personal religious views, of atheism itself, keep on getting relegated to irrelevancy by ourselves. Ranting against the religious opinions of atheism is not wise. The un-cola may not be a cola, but it is still a soft drink. I wrote this on Facebook recently, and maybe it will explain: “Is atheism defensible by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Of course, it is. Freedom of speech, freedom of personal religious views, freedom to “press” body parts on surfaces and buttons (like laser printers and writing instruments), the right to peaceably assemble at more than just the grocery store, and the right to petition. That’s versus the right for the citizenry to carry ICBMs and M-1 Abrams battle tanks. It’s funny that way.” My point is that time and time again, atheists undermine themselves, by aiming against all personal religious opinion (which each atheist actually possesses) just because of sloppiness with the language. Organized non-pagan triads of religions is the enemy, rather than the “religion” believe it or not of “atheism.” This has plagued us for many decades. Maybe we can do something about it. My blog is, and some of this issues are covered therein. Thanks for reading, and keep up the good fight!

  2. Differentiating Atheism from agnosticism is a hazy endeavor. Confusing because like your definition of atheism… it excludes the fact that most atheists profanely assert the no-god claim. Profanely, out of apoplectic frustration. Einstein addressed this…

    He said, “the belief in god, was a childish one, so (he) was an agnostic because atheists couldn’t disprove the existence of god.” And, “You may call me an agnostic, for I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.”

    You said, Atheism “is not a religion, no faith is required.” Yes, it’s not a religion, but I disagree that “no faith is required.” Like Einstein said, he was not an atheist because they “could not disprove the existence of god.” Since they can’t, they only “have faith” that there is no god.

    The agnostic’s profound case… We all want to know our purpose, our place in the universe… but WE JUST DON’T KNOW…Somehow everyone else says they know, but they all know something different! If “the truth sets you free,” only agnostics are such, for it’s only they who admit WE JUST DON’T KNOW. (Everyone’s

    The practical flaw of most atheists is, like Einstein said, they should be humble enough to admit that they can’t “disprove the existence of god…” and be forthright enough to be agnostics.

  3. You know the ironic thing everyone believes in something. I believe in the theory of evolution & I believe we are still evolving but then there’ll come a day that we’ll get wiped out just like the dinosaur’s, whether it will be by our hand or an outside force is the big question. So I believe in something. Atheist’s, Agnostic, Humanist’s or whatever you’re having yourself believe in something. That there’s no superior being/beings pulling the strings. The only difference between them & myself is that I don’t feel the need to label myself. I have no problem with any religions, I say live & let live, people are free to believe in whatever they want with one caveat, that they don’t do harm to their fellow man/woman. Either way whatever happens at the end of days. We’re all fucked so we may as well make the most of this life. We live/lived on a beautiful planet it’s just a pity we Humans are destroying it.

    Before I sign off I would like to ask a question of the person who wrote the article above. Why did you only pick out the Bible for criticism & not books of other (faiths)? I wouldn’t criticize any religious books, the core message is good in all of them. It’s the people that choose to interpret the meaning to suit their own ends that are wrong.

    • Hi Tom … good comment.

      To answer your question “Why did you only pick out the Bible for criticism & not books of other (faiths)?”. That perhaps reflects the observation that the dominant variations of belief that the readers will be familiar with are generally founded upon some interpretation of that specific text. It’s an old posting and I have also been critical of other variations of belief founded upon other texts over the years. For examples, search for “Islam” on this site via the search box at the bottom.

      Having mulled over it all over the years, I tend to hold the following position …
      – Most humans, regardless of their specific culturally inherited religious belief, or lack of any religious belief, are generally decent honourable people who wish no harm to anybody.
      – What does merit strong criticism are the truly bad ideas that motivate people to behave in an abhorrent manner.

      To give an example, the Amish are renowned for some rather unusual beliefs that results in a highly unique lifestyle. They apply their beliefs to themselves and do not seek to impose it upon others who do not believe what they believe. Everybody is OK with this. There are others who also hold deeply felt beliefs but they don’t keep it to themselves, but instead strive to impose it upon everybody by force of law – anti-gay rhetoric would perhaps be one of the primary examples. Folks who try to impose absurd ideas upon others merit some rather robust criticism because they have crossed a line and are breaching basic human rights.

      The various religious texts themselves are simply reflections of the age they were authored in. For those that wish to bask in the poetry and metaphor, I wish them well, but for those that declare it to be a divinely inspired text that must be obeyed literally and not questioned … I’ll push back and say “no, you don’t get to remove evidence-based science books and replace them with this, it belongs in a class on myths and ancient literature, not a science class”.

  4. Maybe a psyechedelic perspective would help in this scenario. A good dose of DMT could help figure out new understanding in the subject who takes it. It is mind shattering to a point where one simply drops questioning.

  5. Why skeptic in the presence of Quran! Awake!!
    Quran is God’s verbatim conversation with mankind consisting of more than 500 pages. God introduces Himself to mankind and tells us that He created us and this entire creation and what does He want from us. And what is His future plan? Without reading and understanding and following Quran, one is deaf, dumb and blind.

  6. Why be skeptic Atheist in the presence of Quran! Awake And Reflect !!
    Quran is God’s verbatim conversation with mankind consisting of more than 500 pages. God introduces Himself to mankind and tells us that He created us and this entire creation and what does He want from us. And what is His future plan? Without reading and understanding and following Quran, one is deaf, dumb and blind.
    Quran’s each word is genuine and unadulterated and is in the bosoms of billions of children (aged between 7 years and 14 years) for the last 14 centuries. This is a Divine Manual of Life Authored by God Himself – for sure!

    • Hi Abdul,

      // Quran is God’s verbatim conversation with mankind //

      I get that you believe this, and that it is a popular religious belief, but what exactly convinces you that this is actually true?

  7. Atheism is absolutely a faith argument and a self-defeating one. To assert, There is No God means you are God. For only God, an omniscient being, can positively make the truth statement, There is No God. Atheists are technically skeptics. They don’t believe (faith) that there is a God and they are doubtful (faith) there is a God. You cannot prove the non-existence of a Being that is immaterial, spaceless, timeless. You can’t even state categorically that God is not right now taking the form of a grain of sand on a beach. However improbable you may believe (faith) that to be, you cannot PROVE that God is NOT a speck of sand on a beach. Atheism is a self-defeating term. You are an AGNOSTIC, and more specifically, a SKEPTIC. You are not, however, a God who can definitively claim that There is No God. God can only be proved in the positive revelation, not the negative.

    • If my deceleration of a non existence of all religious deities (atheism) results in the deceleration of myself as said God, then my belief of non God is directly influenced by the religious beliefs of a believer of God. Due to my prior declaration of non existence, the belief cultivated by religion is invalid to if no one else myself. Thus, since I believe that anyone can state an absolute truth (i.e. “Conservation of matter” a naturalistic observation brough about by critical thought) thanks to the lack of an all mighty, all knowing God as established by my process of thought. In short, my atheist views allow me to state an absolute truth of existence and non existence without myself in turn becoming a God because I believe that anyone, not just a God can state an absolute truth.

    • PS: Even if it is impossible to prove the existence of an omnipresent being, it is in turn impossible to prove the existence of one. The observations made by humans, ourselves the inventors of the beings we enjoy to worship, serve to disprove near every single feat ever recounted as happening by a direct result of afore mentioned being. The brain child of humans, religion and belief in an all powerful deity, was created for purely personal gain without the physical labor or effort required in the times religion was first created or harnessed or recognized, whichever you please. Therefore, all actions done in the name of religion are truly done in the name of personal gain, in the short or long term.

  8. For me, I’m an agnostic humanistic skeptic. I realize that coexistence with others is political. I don’t know who is behind all of creation, I question it, and my values point to the advancement of the human race via love which came from a very religious upbringing. As a preacher in my past, via religion, I studied the query of intent. Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water they say. we must admit there are plenty humanistic missions with religious people. We need to acknowledge this at least.

  9. Theology (from Greek θεός meaning “god” and -λογία, -logy, meaning “study of”) is the systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious truths.

    Atheism is a theology. It is an explanation that a great deal of thought and passion has been invested in. No wonder either. Humans need explanations for life’s uncertainties and help with its terrors even if they are nihilist ones.

    Being the negative of faith doesn’t default to the purely rational view (true). Because empiricism cannot conclusively prove or disprove the existence of God, there is a matter of faith for both positions. If you don’t believe in God that’s fine, but that is your belief.

    I am not empirically convinced though. I have read disproofs of Old Testament stories, but try as many scientists do to know God’s mind, they have no proof that God does not exist.

    Furthermore in a human being, atheism attempts to fill exactly the same need that a faith in a deity fills. Religions comfort and encourage people to help them deal with the uncertainties of life, the feelings of powerlessness and its heartbreaks. While positive religious faith augments a person’s capabilities to cope with hardships with prayer and a heightened spiritual awareness, atheism exhorts people to put their faith in reason and self will.

    I am comfortable at one level with this statement, “God exists because people need him to exist.” which introduces the idea that a God concept is needed and useful to people.

    If you believe self will is a beautiful human attribute, you won’t agree that Atheism is arguably one of the most destructive theologies because it creates myths about the nature of man or a successful balanced life and leads to dysfunctions like addiction and mental illness. Or that as a mass idea, it has totally failed.

    Honestly, we have already seen in the political history of the 20th century examples of post Christian society with death cults based in materialist atheist ideologies that justified the mass murders for utopian goals based purely on reason. The societies that defeated these horrible systems were informed by traditional Judeo/Christian values.

    If atheists are secure in the empirical evidence against Old Testament stories or the existence of God, they should be able to establish with 100% certainty that God does not exist. It really should be easy to do that. But in fact, it is impossible.

    If you feel a sense of God in your life and you find an understanding of God you are blessed. If that is an absolute 0 for you, I am not envious. Both states are the reality of the human condition, however.

    I have walked both roads and choose faith, a choice that grows richer and warmer in my heart as the years pass.

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  11. Dave,

    Thanks for this…it is an area that I’m often having to clarify, also, particularly in regards to what “atheist” means. However, I don’t think that it is only the religious community who is confused about this…some atheist groups, particularly in the U.S., have added to the confusion by trying to make the term “atheist” mean more than it does.

    More and more, I’m seeing atheist groups — particularly those attached to American Atheists — trying to present atheism as something that believes in specific values…that atheists promote democracy, that atheists promote critical thinking, that atheists believe in equality, etc.

    It is not unfair to say that “[insert name here] Atheist Group” believe in or promotes such things…as that particular group may well do so. But this CANNOT be extended to ALL atheists. There are atheists who are homophobes, atheists who are racists, atheists who are sexist, atheists who believe in psychic powers, etc.

    We have a tendency to mock Christians who, when we point out some terrible atrocity committed by other Christians, simply dismiss it by saying, “Oh, but they aren’t real Christians”. Yet several years ago, when I was a speaker at an American Atheists national conference, and I was discussing these issues, I raised the fact that there were also atheists who are racist, sexist, etc. To which one of the women — a leader in the American Atheist organization — stated, “Oh, but they’re not REAL atheists”!

    I don’t even bother identifying myself as an atheist, because it says NOTHING about my values, or what I believe in…it says only what I DON’T believe in, and in only one specific category. I instead identify as a Humanist…because THAT designation identifies specific values that I hold, and that I am happy to have identified as being part of who I am.

    But we can hardly blame non-atheists for confusion over what “atheism” is, when we have certain politically-motivated sections of the atheist community who themselves are trying to redefine the term “atheist” to fit their personal agendas.


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