‘Agnostic’ – what the term actually means

Today, I got an interesting and thought-provoking comment from JR (as a response to my reaction to a comment where I declined to participate in celebrating ‘Agnostic Month’ on the grounds that I found ‘agnosticism’ illogical and arrogant).

JR managed to ‘hit’ one of my really, really ‘big buttons’.  So, I thought I’d best answer him in a full-fledged post of its own…..because I suspect that philosophically, we are close.  It’s those danged ‘labels’ that are all over the place.

Which, of course, is the above-mentioned ‘button’ of mine….

JR’s comment was:

Have to disagree, Xanthippa. Of all the philosophical positions one can hold on religion agnosticism is the most rational. Based on what an agnostic rationally ‘knows’ about the world s/he forms an opinion that the objective evidence available to date does not conclusively prove the existence of a supreme being who consciously and deliberately created the universe as we know it and now, in some fashion or other, watches over and/or guides its existence. That last part would be my definition of “God” which I think covers most others’ definition also (if you can propose a more satisfactory one, please do).

Those who worship God, or just “believe” in God’s existence, do so based on their own objective knowledge of the world plus subjective internal “feelings” which are not directly accessible to anyone else. Their subjectively formed convictions are, by definition, unconvincing to non-“believers” who, clearly, have no similar “feelings”. A weak agnostic is one who is not convinced yet, but who thinks it possible that some time in the future, through new knowledge or, who knows?, even a religious experience or revelation, God’s existence will be satisfactorily proven (to him/her). A strong agnostic, on the other hand, believes that knowledge of the existence of God is forever beyond the human mind to grasp – it can never be objectively “proven”. Neither form of agnosticism constitutes atheism which I understand to require an absolute conviction or “belief “ in the non-existence of God – no “maybe” about it. The atheist requires an extremely strong faith – because there can never be any objective proof of a negative.

Your notion of a “militant agnostic” is interesting. I’ve never encountered one of those. It sounds oxymoronic. Is there an on-line example?

The problem, of course, is the disconnect between the popular use of these terms and their actual meaning.

THAT is my ‘big button’ that JR managed to really ‘push’!

Luckily, most of the terms to describe forms of belief or non-belief in all kinds of ‘thingies’ regarding God(s) have been artificially created, so we have their actual (i.e. correct) definitions and need not rely on the inaccuracies of their vulgar use…

Aside:  ‘vulgar’, of course, means ‘common’ or ‘as popularly used by ‘common’ people’.

Another aside:  Wikipedia used to actually have the correct definitions of these terms.  However, a few years ago, they changed them to reflect the vulgar usage of them rather than their accurate meanings.  Disappointing!


The terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ do not refer to the same aspect of belief:  one addresses ‘BELIEF’ while the other addresses ‘KNOWLEDGE’.  Perhaps I should go back to the beginning….

First, there was the term ‘ATHEIST’.  It was specifically designed to express NON-BELIEF or NEGATIVE BELIEF regarding the existence of God(s).  Literally, ‘ATHEIST’ = ‘apart from the belief in the existence of God(s).

By definition, an ‘atheist’ does not hold the positive belief that God(s) exist.

The term was ‘coined’ with specifically THAT meaning:  it expressly did not address the PRESENCE of ANY specific belief – only the absence of belief in the existence of God.  Of course, the term became misused almost as soon as it was engineered…

The second term to have been ‘coined’  was the term ‘THEIST’ = someone who holds the POSITIVE BELIEF that God(s) DO exist.  It was designed specifically to be the opposite of the term ‘ATHEIST’.

‘Theist’ describes someone with the presence of belief in the existence of God(s), ‘atheist’ describes someone with the absence of belief in the existence of God(s).

The term which properly describes a person who holds the positive belief in the non-existence of God(s) is ‘ANTITHEIST’: though, naturally, this term, too, became misused shortly after it was invented.  Currently, the most popular usage of the term ‘antitheist’ is to describe a person who is opposed to all forms of organized religion.

It appears to me that JR has mistakenly used the term ‘atheist’ to label the positive belief system of the ‘antitheist’.  Common, if frustrating, mistake.

To recap:  we have visited the core definitions of three terms, two of which describe holding ‘positive beliefs’ and one which describes the absence of a particular positive belief:

  • ‘theist’ holds the positive belief that God(s) exist
  • ‘anti-theist’ holds the positive belief that God(s) do not exist

Thus,  the ‘theist’ and ‘antitheist’ both hold positive beliefs as to the existence of God(s) – just opposite positive beliefs.

  • ‘atheist’ does not hold the positive belief that God(s) exist

In this way, ‘theist‘ and ‘atheist’ are opposite:  one is the presence of a positive belief in the existence of God(s), the other is the absence of such a belief.  However, the term ‘atheist’ does not address the presence or absence of any other belief regarding the existence of God(s).  Thus, antitheists are one of the many sub-groups of atheists.

All these terms are focused on the belief in the EXISTENCE of deities – exclusively.

It would be ‘an error of omission’ it it were not mentioned at this point that ‘monotheism’ is actually a special case of ‘antitheism/theism’, as it is a positive belief that ALL BUT ONE Gods and Goddesses do NOT exist.  As such, it is a positive belief in the non-existence of so many deities, the belief in the existence of one last remaining one of them is so illogical as to defy comprehension.  That is why so many professionals in the field think that ‘monotheism’ can only be achieved through serious brainwashing during early childhood or through mental illness.  I am not a professional in the field, so I merely report this, without commenting on the validity of such an opinion.  (Note:  Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all forms of monolatry, not monotheism, and thus do not fall into this category if practiced according to their scriptures.)

In contrast, the term ‘agnostic’ addresses something quite different.

A‘ means ‘apart from’.

‘Gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’.

Aside:  It is important to stress that the Greek term ‘gnosis’ means ‘personal knowledge’ and has, throughout the millenia, been used to also denote ‘mystical knowledge’ when it has been used in the context of religion or religious experiences.  ‘Gnostic Christians’, for example, were a sect of Christianity which rejected imposition of the structure of The Church in favour of ‘personal knowledge’ or ‘gnosis’ of the divine.  Until the ‘Conversion of Constantine’, ‘Gnostic Christianity’ was the ‘norm’.  Several Crusades were authorized by various Catholic Popes to suppress Gnostic Christianity: ‘the Albigensian Heresy’ (Cathars), ‘Bogomils’ and Hussites, to name just a few.  (Reformations introduced by Martin Luther were a watered-down bastardization of the teachings of the Hussites, a century or so after the Hussite teachings went ‘underground’.  But, that is a different ‘button’…)

The term ‘AGNOSTIC’ refers to a person who holds the positive belief that it is impossible for us, puny humans, to ever achieve KNOWLEDGE whether or not God(s) exist.  It thus corresponds to what JR identified as ‘strong agnosticism’:  there is, by definition, no such thing as ‘weak agnosticism’ (according to JR’s description thereof).

In other words, an ‘agnostic’ believes it is UNKNOWABLE whether God(s) exist.

This positive belief does not address the actual existence of deities:  just our ability to ever KNOWfor sure, one way or the other.

As such, a person who believes s/he can never know if God(s) exist can still hold positive beliefs as to their existence itself! After all, these are beliefs regarding completely different aspects:  one is ‘belief’, the other is ‘knowledge’.

Thus, an agnostic can be a theist or an atheist (of the antitheist type or otherwise)!

As for the ‘militant agnostics’ I have encountered – I am sorry, but it was in ‘real life’, not online.  However, the vast majority (though not all) of them fit into the logical fallacy of ‘Pascal’s Wager’:  “we cannot KNOW if GOD exists, but I am safer/can’t loose if I believe in God, so I do!”

When I would point out to these people that this does not constitute actual ‘belief’ and is both a moral and logical hypocrisy (if I chose to use kind terms), these militant agnostics got downright crotchety!


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