Bronze-level article


From RationalWiki
(Redirected from Agnostic)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Proposed symbol for agnosticism.
Going One God Further
Icon atheism.svg
Key Concepts
Articles to not believe in
Notable heathens
In just the same way that any democracy is better than any dictatorship, so even the compromise of agnosticism is better than faith. It minimizes the totalitarian temptation, the witless worship of the absolute, and the surrender of reason, that may have led to saintliness but can hardly repay for the harm it has done.
Christopher Hitchens[1]
No one is more dangerous than someone who thinks he has The Truth. To be an atheist is almost as arrogant as to be a fundamentalist.
Tom Lehrer

Agnosticism in contemporary theology is the position that the existence and nature of a god or gods are unknown or unknowable. Agnostics are sometimes looked upon as wishy-washy fence sitters by both atheists and theists; however, most agnostics feel that it's intellectually indefensible to make a strong assertion one way or another. There is a frequent conflation between the idea of atheism ("I do not believe there is evidence for God") and agnosticism ("I don't know if there is a God") because the former is an expression of belief and the latter is an expression of knowledge.

The term was coined by English biologist T.H. Huxley in 1869, although the concept was expressed far earlier than that, going back to the Greeks around 450 BCE and even earlier mentions in the Hindu Vedas, written between 1700 and 1100 BCE. In modern times, the word agnosticism is used exclusively. Initially, agnosticism had been intended as a philosophical position that the epistemological question of whether a god exists is malformed and thus that a position on the question is impossible, making the terms theism and atheism obsolete. It has more modernly been used to mean someone who doesn't know, or doesn't think the existence of a god is knowable.


I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure — that is all that agnosticism means.
Clarence Darrow during the Scopes trial
because I don't know and neither do you.
—Bumper Sticker

Huxley was a scientist, above all else. He described agnosticism as a form of demarcation. It wasn't that we couldn't know, for certain; it was that we couldn't even begin to know, without evidence. His agnosticism was not compatible with forming a belief as to the existence, or non-existence, of gods. It was a total suspension of judgement.

"Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe."[2]

Huxley also clearly stated that his form of agnosticism did not amount to "unknowable".

"The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as "unknowable." What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty–the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities –is far more extensive than I could wish."[3]

In theory, agnosticism is compatible with all but the most dogmatic of religious faiths, but in practice most agnostics are perceived as godless. Agnostics believe that while there is insufficient evidence to prove that there is a god, believing that there is not a god also requires a leap of faith (similar to any religious conviction) that lacks sufficient evidence. Simply put, agnosticism merely asserts that we lack the knowledge to determine whether or not God exists — in a sense, it differs from more explicit atheism by being a position based on a lack of knowledge, rather than a lack of belief. True agnostics would actually not fit on a hypothetical scale between theism and atheism as they would say the argument is unanswerable and could result in anything, almost like Schrödinger's cat but where the box can never be opened.

Most agnostics, however, can additionally be categorised depending on how their beliefs work out in practice, whether they're more atheistic or theistic. Agnostics may live and act as if there is no God and that no religion is correct, but shy away from the title "atheist" because of the expression of certainty implied. On the other hand, someone may consider themselves spiritual but not religious, or perhaps even nominally follow a religion, but identify as an agnostic in order to convey an honest doubt about the reality of it all.

Agnostic atheism[edit]

We cannot know with certainty if God or Christ exists. They COULD. Then again, there COULD be a giant reptilian bird in charge of everything. Can we be CERTAIN there isn't? No, so it's pointless to talk about.
—Mr. Weatherhead, South Park

Agnostic atheism holds that insufficient evidence exists to prove a god but also that logic is insufficient in overcoming the unknowability of the existence of a god. Agnostic atheists lean towards atheism as a sound null hypothesis, particularly in practice, but acknowledge that they could be wrong. The difference between atheism and agnostic atheism is subtle and may not always be discernible, though agnostic atheists are generally more tolerant of the religious than more convinced atheists.

An agnostic atheist has two qualities: they don't happen to believe in any gods and they don't claim to know or be sure that no gods can or do exist. Not believing that some claim is true while also not claiming to know for sure that it's false is not only easy, it happens in lots and lots of different topics. It would be a surprise if it didn't happen when the topic is the existence of gods.

For some strange reason, though, many people have the mistaken impression that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive. But why? There's nothing about "I don't know" which excludes "I don't believe." On the contrary, not only are they compatible but they frequently appear together because not knowing is frequently a reason for not believing. It's often a very good idea to not accept some proposition is true unless you have enough evidence that would qualify as knowledge.[3]

Agnostic theism[edit]

There is also agnostic theism, which maintains a belief in god, but acknowledges uncertainty regarding the characteristics of that god. Some theist agnostics are also Deist, believing that God created the universe but is irrelevant to the workings of it (essentially, they assert that we may or may not know whether God exists but it matters not anyway because of God's role to play, or lack thereof, in universal affairs). Believing agnostics often identify themselves as fideists, a term coined by Martin Gardner (a deist himself) for people who choose to believe in God because it comforts them and not for intellectual reasons.

The agnostic theist may also or alternatively be agnostic regarding the properties of the god or gods that they believe in.

Total agnosticism[edit]

Total agnosticism is when "agnostic" is one's primary theological position, as opposed to merely being an adjective to one's theological position. It is the philosophical position that both the theistic and atheistic positions are equally valid points of view. Some have humorously compared total agnosticism to pansexuality.

This variety of agnosticism is a form of pluralism.

Weak and strong agnosticism[edit]

Like pretty much every other philosophical definition ever invented, agnosticism has also been split into so-called "weak" and "strong" positions.

Strong agnosticism[edit]

Going by several titles, including "strong", "hard", "closed" and "permanent", strong agnosticism states that there is no way to answer the question "does God exist?" and further than that, there never will be. This is rooted in the fact that an omnipotent being, if it/he/she exists, would not be subservient to the principles of logic, and therefore that confirming God's existence or nonexistence is fundamentally impossible, irrespective of the methods used.

Weak agnosticism[edit]

That strong agnosticism also goes by the name "permanent" should be a clue as to what the weak form is; that is, in principle, the question of God's existence is solvable and evidence can be sought. While this isn't synonymous with God's existence definitely being knowable, it leaves an open mind as to whether we could figure it out. This is almost like being agnostic about being agnostic.

Somewhat snarky views of agnosticism[edit]

Note: All the following comments should ideally be read after reading our straw man article:

An atheist's opinion[edit]

  • An agnostic is someone too intelligent to believe in gods but too cowardly to be an atheist.
  • A secondary opinion is that since an agnostic lacks positive and explicit belief in any gods anyway, they are, well, technically an atheist anyway.[4][5]
  • A more charitable view suggested by Leon Baradat is that "Agnostics are the only people smart enough not to take sides in religious matters."

A theist's opinion[edit]

  • An agnostic is someone too intelligent to be a closed minded, outright atheist but too cowardly to commit to a belief in gods.
  • A secondary opinion is that since an agnostic is prepared to believe in gods in principle, are also open to the idea of religion in general, and don't reject the concept of a higher power outright, they are, well, technically a theist anyway.

An agnostic's opinion[edit]

  • A theist is someone who stubbornly insists that their imaginary friend(s) are real.
  • An atheist is someone who just as stubbornly insists that the theist's friend(s) would be measurable have measurements if they exist.
  • An atheist, furthermore, is someone who (1) insists that the question "Does God exist?" is answerable, (2) claims to have the correct answer, and (3) promptly paints themself into the less-than-sunny corner of having to prove a negative.
  • An atheist is someone who believes that enough is known about the term 'God', and enough is known about what would constitute relevant evidence, that they can make affirmative statements about its existence.
  • A secondary opinion is that theists and atheists should turn their stereos down because some of us are trying to sleep. (Actually, for many agnostics this is the primary opinion — and for some, the only relevant issue.)
  • As Carl Sagan put it, opinionated theism and atheism are "the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed."

An agnostic lightbulb joke[edit]

  • Q. How many agnostics does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
  • A. "Are you sure that's a socket? That could be part of the sprinkler system. I can't get close enough to far as I can tell, it could be either one. There's no real way of knowing."

Another agnostic lightbulb joke[edit]

  • Q. How many agnostics does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
  • A. None. They'll ask you to prove it can be screwed in.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. "The Lord and the Intellectuals", Harper's, July 1982
  2. Agnosticism: A Symposium [1]
  3. Agnosticism and Christianity [2]
  4. An illustration can be found on the internets here.
  5. A more reasonable version can be found here.