Agnosticism: The Basics

By Psyche | January 13, 2004

The word ‘agnostic’ comes from the Greek agnostos meaning ‘unknown, unknowable’ (‘a’ meaning ‘without’, and ‘gnosis’ meaning ‘knowledge’). Therefore literally, agnostic means ‘without knowledge’, but tends to refer specifically to one who is ‘without knowledge of gods’. The term was coined by Thomas H. Huxley, a British scientist in the nineteenth century who believed only material things could be known with any precision.

Better described as a philosophy than a religious or spiritual belief, agnosticism holds two basic principles at its core. The first being epistemological in nature, in that agnosticism relies on empirical and logical means for expressing what can be known about the world. The second principle deals with morality, insisting that one cannot ethically state a claim that cannot be supported either through empirical evidence or logic.

Agnosticism is based on simple observation of the world. There is no direct evidence that gods exist, nothing one can point to and say ‘hey look, here’s a god over here’, nor anything equivalent to a god’s fingerprint to examine. Numerous people have tried to assert claims of the existence of gods, saying that it is implied based on sacred writings, seemingly miraculous events, anecdotes of personal inspiration or mystical experiences, secret ‘master plans’, etc., but this is rarely sufficient to convince anyone; agnostics require empirical evidence to support such claims.

Some agnostics may take it that step further, and adopt an agnostic attitude toward any potential information about the world, not only the existence of gods, but in anything one can know for certain about the world.

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Agnosticism is often misunderstood to mean that a person is merely undecided as to whether or not gods exist; when actually agnostics believe that such knowledge simply isn’t possible. Agnostics would likely be willing to change their position if some solid empirical evidence or logical proof is discovered in the future. However, many have taken the position that there is no logical way to prove without a doubt the existence or non-existence of gods.

There is a misconception that agnosticism is some sort of ‘third way’ or middle ground between theism and atheism. Agnosticism states that knowledge of gods cannot be known, whereas with theism and atheism the argument lies with the belief in the existence of gods. In fact, there exists agnostic theism, which is the belief in gods without claiming to know for sure whether or not those gods exist; and agnostic atheism, which is the disbelief in gods without claiming to know for certain whether or not those gods exist. Agnosticism challenges the very idea that a conclusion as to whether or not gods exist can be known at all.

A great many atheists are also agnostics. It is not uncommon for an atheist to be strong in hir belief and also maintain that their belief is based on faith, and not having absolute knowledge to support it. Some degree of agnosticism is evident in every theist who considers hir god or gods to be ‘unfathomable’, or to ‘work in mysterious ways’. This demonstrates a recognized lack of knowledge on the part of the believer. It may not be reasonable to believe in something acknowledged to be fundamentally unknowable, but as we know, that doesn’t stop everyone. Thus, once the terms are correctly understood, it becomes obvious agnosticism is not an alternative ‘third way’ or middle ground between theism and atheism – it is a separate issue that is compatible with both.

To sum up, agnosticism states that knowledge of gods is not possible, nothing further is necessarily implied in religion, politics, morality, etc. Gods may or may not exist, but agnostics deem it impossible to state with any certainty one way or the other.

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