Monday, January 10, 2011 Login

What is Agnosticism?

The term “agnostic” was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) in 1869. While at a meeting of “The Metaphysical Society,” members identified themselves both by name and by religious affiliation. Not having a religious affiliation, Huxley referred to himself as an agnostic. So what did he mean by this?

In an essay called Agnosticism, Huxley wrote:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. 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. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Elsewhere he summed it up the following way:

That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism. ["Agnosticism and Christianity," 1889]

Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), who became known as “The Great Agnostic,” once said:

Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be…We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. [Why I am an Agnostic, 1896]

The Simple Definition

Both men emphasized in their speeches and their writings that they consider themselves agnostic with respect to gods existence because they do not know if a god exists. Thus, the simple definition for an agnostic is one who lacks knowledge of something or does not know whether or not something is true (i.e., that god exists).

The root gnost means knowledge, therefore the term “a-gnostic” simply means without knowledge. One can be agnostic with regards to anything, like the existence of ghosts, and not just God.

From this a new question arises: Are agnostics also atheists? How is agnosticism different from atheism? I address this question in What is Atheism?

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:14 pm


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