In common everyday language, the word agnostic has come to mean “I’m not sure about the whole religion thing.” Many people who don’t really believe in a deity prefer it to the term atheist, which can sound harsh to some.
While agnostic is often used today, it has a precise technical meaning that is somewhat different from the common definition. It allows a certain kind of distinction to be made about our knowledge and beliefs that are difficult to make with other terms, so it’s useful to review the actual definitions. Also, as we’ll see, it’s actually possible to be an agnostic atheist or even an agnostic theist.
The origins of the term “agnostic”
The word agnosticism was coined by Thomas Huxley, a biologist, in the mid-1800s. He derived it from the Greek word gnosis, which was used in the early Christian church to refer to special knowledge about God. Huxley personally did not believe he possessed absolute knowledge about God or the nature of any deity, and he had doubts about others who claimed to have proof or such genuine knowledge.
Agnosticism thus began for him as a methodology for understanding the world. Without being able to rely on divine knowledge (gnosis), he was an a-gnostic. The truth of claims about the world or the universe should therefore be evaluated on the basis of what he can actually know, not some hidden spiritual “knowledge” that could not be verified. In short, it was a claim about epistemology, or the philosophical study of what knowledge is, what its limitations are, and how we know what we know.
As the term was adopted by other philosophers, it came to mean a systematic belief about what we can and cannot know. In essence, to be agnostic was to believe that we cannot know whether there is a God — we lack either the information or the ability to understand or perhaps that information is not available to us in the universe we see and experience. Any claims about the existence or nature of God are pure speculation, since we are not able to know any of those things for certain.
Note that this is very different from simply saying, “I don’t know whether there’s a God.” Agnosticism is expressing a positive belief that “I cannot know whether there is a God” or even that “Humans cannot know whether there is a God.” It says that we simply don’t have proper information to constitute knowledge that could be confirmed about such matters.
Varieties of atheism
Most philosophers and scholars who discuss religion have a different way of classifying people who say “I don’t know.” The most common distinction is between so-called strong and weak atheism. Other terms are also in use for these categories: for example, some refer to these as positive and negative atheism.
The basic distinction is that strong/positive atheism is a positive belief that there is no God. It’s a certainty that gods do not exist. Weak/negative atheism is merely the absence of belief in a God. Since theism implies belief in God, weak atheism merely says, “I don’t have that belief.” A weak atheist doesn’t know whether God exists or not, whereas a strong atheist asserts that God definitely does not exist.
All of this discussion may seem somewhat technical and abstract. It’s probably easiest to think of this in terms of beliefs about something practical.
Suppose we have a friend who is going to try to jump over a fence. We might make some statements about our beliefs regarding that friend’s likelihood of success.
Theism: “I believe she will make that jump.” (“I’ve seen her jump fences like that many times before.”)
Strong Atheism: “I believe she will not make that jump.” (“I’ve seen her try to jump fences shorter than that one, and she’s never made it.”)
Weak Atheism: “I don’t know whether she will make that jump.” (“Honestly, I know she can jump, but I’ve never seen it, and I don’t know how high. The fence looks pretty high, but I just don’t know.”)
Agnosticism: “I don’t think it’s possible to know whether she will make that jump.” (“All of us have seen her jump a lot of times before. She’s consistently cleared lower fences, and she has fallen over higher ones. This one is somewhere in the middle, and she’s wearing different shoes and clothes, so I don’t believe we have the kind of information necessary to make a solid prediction one way or the other.”)
This should make the distinction between weak atheism and agnosticism more clear. Agnosticism is not just “I don’t know” — it’s a recognition that the current state of knowledge is not sufficient to make a determination.
To offer another example:
Theism: “I believe it will snow next Wednesday.”
Atheism: “I believe it will NOT snow next Wednesday.”
Weak atheism: “I don’t know whether it will snow next Wednesday.”
Agnosticism: “I believe we cannot determine whether it will snow next Wednesday” (due to inherent problems in predicting weather, lack of good forecast data, etc.).
As mentioned above, we can combine agnosticism with other statements about belief. Agnosticism is a statement about our certain knowledge, whereas theism/atheism are statements about beliefs (which believers may or may not believe can be proved with certainty in an objective scientific fashion). Thus, we could have:
Agnostic theism: “We don’t have enough solid scientific data to make an accurate prediction, but I nevertheless believe it will snow next Wednesday because it always snows on Aunt Tilly’s birthday.”
Agnostic atheism: “We don’t have enough solid scientific data to make an accurate prediction, but I nevertheless believe it will NOT snow next Wednesday because it never snows on Uncle Ted’s anniversary.”
In these cases, we have beliefs that do not follow from any logical or scientific rigor. There’s no scientific reason to associate snowfall with someone’s birthday or anniversary. Nevertheless, one may still have faith in something (or deny the possibility of something) on the basis of “beliefs” (rational or irrational) while still acknowledging that ultimately we just don’t have proper evidence to make a determination.
Note that I do not at all mean to trivialize any religious beliefs (or even atheistic beliefs) by comparing them to the statements here about jumping or snowfall. I’m merely trying illustrate the distinction made between claims about what we are able to know (gnostic/agnostic) versus what we believe (atheist/theist).
Many theists would state that they not only “believe” but that they “know” that God exists for certain. Those religious persons believe that actual knowledge (gnosis) about a deity is possible, which would be the opposite of agnostic.
What about those who “just don’t know” but don’t want to be called “atheists”?
As I mentioned at the beginning, there seems to be a stigma associated with the term atheist. This is probably the reason why many people have adopted the term agnostic when they really are referring to a category of weak atheism.
In common language today, most people will understand agnostic to mean “weak atheist,” unless you are talking to a philosopher, a religious scholar, or someone who is pedantic about word meanings. To use agnostic in that sense is incorrect from a historical and etymological standpoint, however, and some people might misunderstand you or even correct you.
This leaves a conundrum for people who aren’t quite certain about religion (they aren’t really believers or “theists”) but don’t want to be associated with the term atheist. For those people, I would propose you adopt the term skeptic.
A skeptic merely questions the validity of commonly accepted beliefs, whether those beliefs are in a theist’s God or a strong atheist’s certain (but ultimately unprovable) assertion that there is no God. A skeptic just doesn’t know. A skeptic also is generally not ready to make the agnostic claim that we can’t know. A skeptic is hesitant to make any certain claims about knowledge or beliefs.
Being a skeptic probably the best middle ground, and it’s more accurate than claiming to be “agnostic” unless you want to make a specific philosophical assertion about the nature of knowledge.