Agnostic: what it does – and does not – mean

One term misused in debates about ‘religion’ almost as often as the term ‘atheist’ is the term ‘agnostic’.

Perhaps it’s the Aspie in me, but I think that if people are going to make passionate arguments, often using some terms in an authoritarian or patronizing manner, they ought to have taken the time to learn what those terms actually mean.  (Of course, not everyone does that – but, many do…)

The term ‘agnostic’ does not describe a person’s ‘belief in’ or ‘non-belief in’ or ‘belief-in-the-non’ existence of god(s).

Not even a little bit.

An ‘agnostic’ can believe in the existence of god(s).

An ‘agnostic’ can believe in the non-existence of  god(s).

An ‘agnostic’ can hold no belief in either the existence, or the non-existence, of god(s).

Still, many people use the term to mean ‘someone who does not believe one way or the other if god(s) exist’…..

Sorry – that is NOT what the word ‘agnostic’ describes!!!

Certainly, some agnostics fall into the category of ‘not holding a belief in either the existence, or the non-existence, of god(s).  But, that is only because there is an overlap in ‘groups’ or ‘states of belief’ that various definitions describe.

…kind of like there is an overlap between ‘long arms’ and ‘long hair’.  Both revolve about something being ‘long’.  And, some people with ‘long arms’ also have ‘long hair’.  But the terms each describe a different ‘long’ – so they cannot be used as if they meant the same thing!

Yes – I am getting bogged down in words.  To re-phrase:  the term ‘agnostic’ may include theists, non-theists, atheists or any other -theist group because it does not describe the state of one’s belief in the divine.

Rather, it describes one’s belief about the ‘ability to have knowledge’ of the existence of the divine.

Let’s look at the root of the word:

‘Gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’ in Greek.

The term, when used in English, refers to ‘spiritual enlightenment’ – as in, the type of ‘mystical enlightenment’ a person receives during a ‘spiritual  rapture’ or ‘spirit quest’ or another altered-state type meditation or similar experience.

For example, Gnostic Christians do not recognize the authority of any church or clergyman, because they strive for direct spiritual knowledge – gnosis.  This they regard as much more important than any dogma…

The prefix ‘a-’ simply means ‘apart from’.

Thus, ‘a-gnostic’ – taken bit by bit – literally means ‘apart from (spiritual) knowledge’.

Once ‘put together’, the term ‘agnostic’ means ‘belief that it is un-knowable ‘ if god(s) do or do not exist.

Thus, this is a statement of belief.  Yes, to be an agnostic, one must hold this belief!

But this belief is not about the existence of the divine: it is a belief about existence of knowledge of the divine!

Specifically, an agnostic actively believes that we cannot know whether god(s) exist.

This does not preclude choosing to believe, anyway.  Many people have concluded that they cannot know for sure if god(s) exist, so, to be on the safe side, they decide to believe!  This is the very point of Pascal’s Wager.

Blaise Pascal argued that we cannot know – through reason, so really, really know – if God exists.  Therefore, we ought to consider the 2 possible scenarios (God exists and God does not exist) and our 2 choices of action (believe in God or not believe in God) and do a risk-assessment:

Scenario 1:  God does not exist

Choice 1:  behave as if God does exist

Result – more effort during life, but, nothing gained.

Choice 2:  behave as if God does not exist

Result – nothing lost and nothing gained.

Scenario 2:  God exists:

Choice 1:   behave as if God does exist

Result – more effort during life, but huge gain at ‘the end’! Eternal Salvation!

Choice 2:  behave as if God does not exist

Result – less effort during life, but then… everything lost! Eternal damnation!

Therefore, Pascal’s reasoning goes, the cost to one’s soul of ‘not believing’ in God is much greater (eternal damnation) than the cost of believing in God while alive (obeying the church).  Therefore, the only reasonable choice is to believe!

(OK – there could be an argument made whether Pascal actually said ‘choose to believe’ or ‘live as if you believe’:  the first one would be an agnostic who chooses to be a theist, the second one would be an agnostic who is an atheist, but chooses to behave as a theist.  But, that – as well as just how ‘voluntary’ it is ‘to believe’ – is a whole different discussion!)

Aside:  this same argument has been used by some people to justify spending tons of money on ‘preventing the disaster of global warming/anthropogenic climate change’.  That ought to suffice in helping us recognize that the whole ‘ACC’ movement is a religion, not science, and that ‘carbon credits’ are its ‘indulgences’.

But – back to the main point…

Summary:  The term ‘agnostic’ does not refer to one’s ‘beliefs’ about the existence of God.  Rather, it is the positive (‘actively present’) belief that it is impossible to know if god(s) exist.

Thus, it is a belief about the nature (presence) of knowledge.  Specific knowledge, in this case, but knowledge none the less.

It is not a statement about one’s state of belief in the subject of that knowledge – the existence of god(s).

Agnostics can either believe that god(s) exist – or not.  They just believe they cannot ever actually know

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