What Does "Agnostic" Mean?
It's all about embracing mystery and the limits of human knowledge.
Posted Jun 05, 2019
“Maybe there is a God, but maybe not. I’m just not sure. I mean, who can really say?”
If you’ve ever uttered such words or heard someone else utter them, you’re dealing with agnosticism.
“Agnostic” is a label people often use to indicate that they embrace an orientation somewhere between the serene surety of knowing that there is a God and the conviction that there isn’t.
That is, while a theist is someone who believes in God, and an atheist is someone who does not believe in God, an agnostic is someone who isn’t convinced that God exists, but at the same time, can’t be totally sure that God doesn’t exist. And given a lack of knowledge concerning the question of God’s existence – or the lack of any possibility of such knowledge -- an agnostic simply sighs and shrugs, offering an unapologetic “Who knows?” to the whole matter.
In the words of philosopher Julian Baggini, an agnostic “claims we cannot know whether God exists and so the only rational option is to reserve judgment.” It’s not only a humble position to take, but it’s also a pretty common one; according to the latest tallies, there are over one hundred million agnostics in the world today. And it has been around for quite a while -- perhaps the world’s first known agnostic was the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, of the 5th century BC, who famously remarked: “Concerning the gods, I am unable to discover whether they exist or not…for there are many hindrances to knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.”
The actual term itself comes from the Greek language (“gnosis” means knowledge and the prefix “a” means without), and it was famously coined for modern usage in the 1860s by English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. He offered up the term “agnostic” to capture an ideological position that expressed the limits of existential knowledge, and the limits of our ability to know, with empirical certainty, where or not there is a God.
Thus, at the heart of agnosticism, is an acceptance of the epistemological boundaries of human knowledge and the ultimately blurry borders of human understanding. Agnosticism also entails a profound embracing of existential mystery. As 19th-century British scholar Leslie Stephen expressed, “we are a company of ignorant beings, feeling our way through mists and darkness…dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe ultimate origin…[and thus] we shall be content to admit openly…that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute.” Or in the succinctly poetic words of 19th-century American orator Robert Ingersoll: “Nobody knows how it is. The human mind is not big enough to answer the questions of origin and destiny.”
Most people in the world believe In God. This belief provides them with comfort and security; it gives them hope when life is hard; it convinces them that death is not the end; it offers them rules on how to behave; it assures them that good people will be rewarded in the afterlife and bad people will be punished.
But for an ever-growing number of people, such beliefs don’t hold any water; they are not based on evidence, but wishful thinking. Of course, they can’t be sure that there isn’t a god out there, somewhere. Maybe there is, after all. But such individuals lack the knowledge to be convinced, either way. In fact, they suspect that such convincing knowledge is unattainable.
They are agnostic.