Agnosticism is the philosophical or religious view that the truth
value of certain claims — particularly claims regarding the existence
of God, gods, deities, ultimate reality or afterlife — is unknown or,
depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently unknowable due to the
subjective nature of experience.
Agnostics claim either that it is not possible to have absolute or certain knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of God or gods; or, alternatively, posit that while certainty may be possible for some, they personally have not come into possession of this knowledge. Agnosticism in both cases involves some form of skepticism.
Agnosticism is not necessarily without a belief in God or gods. Rather, its belief is that the existence of God or gods is unknowable. It is important to note that, contrary to the more popular understanding of agnosticism merely as an agnostic attitude towards the divine, agnosticism is in fact quite a constructive project in two ways. First, as understood originally by Thomas Huxley who coined the term, it involves a serious philosophical process for approaching the question of the existence of God. Second, agnosticism can religiously issue in awareness of one's ignorance, which in turn can lead to a profound experience of the divine.
The term agnosticism comes from a conjunction of the Greek prefix "a," meaning "without," and gnosis, meaning "knowledge." Thus, the term refers quite explicitly to the agnostic's deficit in knowledge regarding the divine. The term "agnostic" is relatively new, having been introduced by Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe his personal philosophy that rejected gnosticism, by which he meant all claims to occult or mystical knowledge such as that spoken of by early Christian church leaders, who used the Greek word gnosis to describe "spiritual knowledge." Agnosticism is not to be confused, however, with religious views opposing the Gnostic movement, that is, the early proto-Christian religious sects extant during the early first millennium.
In recent years, use of the word agnosticism to refer to that which is not knowable or certain is apparent in scientific literature in psychology and neuroscience. Furthermore, the term is sometimes used with a meaning resembling that of "independent," particularly in technical and marketing literature, which may make reference to a "hardware agnostic" or "platform agnostic."
Philosophical Foundations of Agnosticism
The Sophist philosopher Protagoras (485-420 B.C.E.) seems to have been the first among many thinkers throughout history who suggested that the question of God's existence was unknowable. However, it was Enlightenment philosopher David Hume who laid the foundations for modern agnosticism when he asserted that any meaningful statement about the universe is always qualified by some degree of doubt.
Building on Hume, we see that the fallibility of human reasoning means that a person cannot obtain absolute certainty in any matter save for trivial cases where a statement is true by definition (as in, "all bachelors are unmarried" or "all triangles have three angles"). All rational statements that assert a factual claim about the universe which begin with the statement "I believe that..." are simply shorthand for the statement "based on my knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of the prevailing evidence, I tentatively believe that..." For instance, when one says, "I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy," said person is not asserting an absolute truth but rather a tentative belief based on an interpretation of the evidence assembled before him or her. Even though one may set an alarm clock at night, fully believing that the sun will rise the next day, that belief is tentative, tempered by a small but finite degree of doubt, since there is always some infinetesmal measure of possibility that the sun might explode or that that person might die, and so on.
What sets apart agnosticism from the general skepticism that permeates much of modern Western philosophy is that the nature of God is the crux of the issue, not whether or not God merely exists. Thus, the nature and attributes of God are of foremost concern. Agnosticism maintains as a fundamental principle that the nature and attributes of God are beyond the grasp of humanity's finite and limited mind, since those divine attributes transcend human comprehension. The concept of God is quite simply too immense a concept for a mere human being to wrap her or his mind around. Humans might apply terms such as "omnipotent," "omniprescent," "infinite" and "eternal," to attempt to characterize God, but, the agnostic would assert, these highly obsfucatory terms only underscore the inadequacy of our mental equipment to understand a concept so vast, ephemeral and elusive.
Agnostic views may be as old as philosophical skepticism, but the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism" were created by Thomas Huxley to place his beliefs alongside those of the other dominant philosophical and religious creeds of his time. Huxley perceived his beliefs to be fundamentally different in one important way from all these other positions, whether they were theist, pantheist, deist, idealist or Christian. In his words:
Huxley's agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was attempting to suppress scientific discoveries that appeared to clash with literal readings of the Book of Genesis and other established Jewish and Christian doctrines. Ever since, the term has been used as an important category in the classification of religious belief. The term must, however, not be thought of strictly in terms of religious categorization. Originally, it served to describe Huxley’s position on the foundations of knowledge, as opposed to merely his position on the existence of God. As Huxley himself wrote:The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
Agnosticism, then, originated as an epistemological process before it became a descriptor for a specific position on the existence of God. To use agnosticism in its most common sense—that is, referring to someone who considers the existence of God to be unknowable—is to employ Herbert Spencer's definition of the term.Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle (...) Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
Variations of Agnosticism
Agnosticism can be subdivided into several subcategories. Recently suggested variations include:
- Strong agnosticism (also called "hard agnosticism," "closed agnosticism," "strict agnosticism," or "absolute agnosticism") refers the view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of God or gods and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, "I don't know whether God exists or not, and neither do you."
- Weak agnosticism (also called "mild agnosticism," "soft agnosticism," "open agnosticism," "empirical agnosticism," "temporal agnosticism") refers to the view that the existence or nonexistence of God or gods is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, given the proper evidence. Therefore, the weak agnostic will withhold judgment of the existence of God or gods until more evidence is available. A weak agnostic would say, "I don't know whether God exists or not, but maybe you do."
- Apathetic agnosticism refers to the view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of God or gods, and that since any God or gods that may exist appear unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question of the divine is largely academic anyway. An apathetic agnostic like the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot would say, "I simply do not care whether God exists or not."
- Ignosticism is the assertion that a coherent definition of "God" must be put forward before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, that is, not empirically testable, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of God is meaningless. So, an ignostic would say, "I don't know what you mean when you say, 'God exists'." The term "ignosticism" was coined by Reform Jewish Rabbi Sherwin Wine. It should be noted that A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange and other philosophers see ignosticism as different from atheism and agnosticism, on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism still do accept "God exists" as a meaningful proposition which can be judged to be false (atheism) or still inconclusive (agnosticism).
- Agnostic theism (also called "religious agnosticism") is the view of those who do not claim to know the existence of God or gods, but still believe in the existence of such a being. Some agnostic theists happily admit of their ignorance humbly, so they may be able to become closer to God piously. Others, while believing in the divine, may despair of ever fully comprehend what it is in which they believe.
- Agnostic atheism is the view contrary to agnostic theism: the existence of God or gods is unknowable, therefore one should not believe in said God or gods. Bertrand Russell called himself an "atheistically inclined" agnostic.
- Weak atheism may also be considered a form of agnosticism, since weak atheists do not deny the claim that a single deity or group of deities exists. Rather, they only refrain from assenting to theistic claims, harbouring no opinion regarding the existence of deities, either because of a lack of interest in the matter (a viewpoint referred to as apatheism), or a belief that the arguments and evidence provided by both theists and strong atheists are equally unpersuasive, since both bear the burden of proof as to whether or not a god does or does not exist, respectively.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, threads of agnosticism are subtly woven through many of the world's religions. In faith-based streams as varied as fideism and the Hindu bhakti movement, intellectual knowledge of the divine's existence is considered inferior to unquestioning devotion to the supreme diety. Christian fideists would argue, for instance, that human cognition cannot be considered a viable means to knowledge, since it is corrupted by original sin; therefore, faith in God is the only hope for realization of God.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), the famous Christian existentialist theologian, is a key proponent of this line of thought. Reacting against Hegel's gnostic claim to be able to reach total knowledge, Kierkegaard presumed that God's existence cannot be known with any certainty by human faculties, and suggested that a "leap of faith" was necessary in order to realize God and transcend these faculties.
Although most variations of Christianity claim knowledge of a highly personal and anthropomorphic creator God, others are somewhat more agnostic in their approaches to the divine. For instance, Roman Catholic dogma concerning the nature of God contains many strictures of agnosticism. Consider the terminology used in the Catholic Encyclopedia for purposes of characterizing God: this being is made from "infinitely perfect spiritual substance," and is further described as "omnipotent," "eternal," "incomprehensible," as well as "infinite in intellect and will and in every perfection." Each of these terms suggests that the supreme divine being is virtually unknowable to mortal humans as they exist in their current physical form.
Many strains of Buddhism could also be referred to as agnostic, if not non-theistic. While Buddhist texts feature a plethora of gods and goddesses who lack the abilities to create or grant salvation, the existence of a singular, supreme diety is rarely discussed. Most Buddhists believe that such a supreme god may or may not exist; however, the existence of such a divine being or beings is considered by them to be irrelevant in the quest concerned with the achievement of nirvana, or enlightenment.
Agnosticism is an important classification in the categorization of philosophical and religious belief, as it effectively represents the middle-ground between belief in God or gods and outright disbelief. That said, agnosticism is also one of the most confusing of such categories. For while the term can simply refer to a neutral, agnostic position about the existence of the divine, it can also mean something more serious and constructive than one expects. There seem to be two ways of appreciating the significance of agnosticism: one philosophical, and the other religious.
Philosophically, one must be cognizant of the fact that agnosticism in its original sense in Huxley refers more specifically to a serious process for approaching the question of the existence of God or gods, and also of a variety of other phenomena, through empiricism and reason. To limit the term agnostic to a type of person who is simply unsure about the existence of God or gods, then, does not do justice to the intended meaning of the word. These terminological caveats are perhaps illustrative of how unique and nuanced the position of the agnostic actually: while both theists and atheists form staunch positions as to God's existence or nonexistence, respectively, agnostics remain grounded in a specific mode of thought rather than an ostensible position.
Religiously, if the agnostic is so humble as to realize the extent of her ignorance, then she can be led to experience God in the realm of piety and faith more profoundly than the avowed theist that does not necessarily goes though agnosticism. Agnosticism, then, can have a constructive, rather than destructive, role of letting humans have a profound experience of the divine. It seems related to the spiritual kind of agnosticism that Socrates talked about when he emphasized the need for awareness of one's ignorance in pursuit of wisdom.