General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

How do you use the word agnostic?

Asked by LostInParadise (28468points) October 7th, 2010

I had always thought that the definition was someone who was undecided about the existence of God. I was speaking to someone who said that she thought it meant someone who believed that the existence of God could not be proved or disproved. I checked a dictionary and found that both definitions were given, with hers listed first.

Using this other other definition, a person could be both an agnostic and a believer, claiming that belief was a matter of faith and was beyond science. My guess would be that this is the older definition of agnostic. Kant was the first philosopher to say that religion was beyond proof, and he was himself a believer. According to the dictionary, the use of agnostic was about a half century after Kant.

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46 Answers

fundevogel's avatar

Reposted from a quip I made last night:

Agnosticism is not a position on the existence of god but of knowledge. It may qualify a position of atheism or theism, but agnosticism on it’s own says nothing about belief in god. Laci explains the difference between terms here.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

I recently ran across an article that really helped me understand agnosticism. Essentially, there are two types: Agnostic Theism and Agnostic Atheism

Thus, it is clear that agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism. A person can believe in a god (theism) without claiming to know for sure if that god exists; the result is agnostic theism. On the other hand, a person can disbelieve in gods (atheism) without claiming to know for sure that no gods can or do exist; the result is agnostic atheism.


Nullo's avatar

‘Agnostic’ was coined by T.H. Huxley (1825–1895) from Gk. agnostos “unknown, unknowable,” from a- “not” + gnostos ”(to be) known.”
I use it to mean ‘theological bench-warmer.’

josie's avatar

You are correct about the dictionary definitions.

My personal observation is that saying you are agnostic is a way of saying you are atheist without the stigma “Godless heathen” that is sometimes attached to atheists.

If that is the case, then in my opinion, it is sort of a chicken shit position.

And since I do not like chicken shit anything I’ll just say it. There is no God. No agnosticism here.

Seek's avatar

To me, the term “agnostic” means a person who still believes Pascal’s Wager has merit.

That is, they don’t really believe in god, but they really don’t want to be wrong, either. So they sit on the fence.

josie's avatar


Like I said. Chicken shit.
Not you, of course, but that whole notion of sort of trying to have it both ways.

lillycoyote's avatar

I would agree with @fundevogel‘s description of agnosticism.

She said (on the thread she links to);

“I’m… technically an agnostic atheist. But that just means that I know I don’t have enough knowledge to know if god exists or doesn’t exist in absolute certainty. It doesn’t mean that I’m not confident in the information available to me and the conclusion I’ve drawn from it.”

And don’t think it’s fence sitting, or the fear of admitting you are an atheist, or being open to Pascals Wager or anything like that. The agnosticism that @fundevogel describes is, in my opinion, is just the most rational position to take. It’s the “absolute certainty” that’s at issue I think. To be absolutely certain about something that cannot be either proved or disproved with absolute certainty isn’t entirely rational. No one can “know” something that is unknowable.

ucme's avatar

Hi chicken shit fence sitter here. pulls splinter out of arse My definition has always been that I don’t believe in god/heaven. On the other hand, it’s good to have some bargaining tools.You never know when they might come in handy.

cockswain's avatar

Another chicken shitter too. I refer to myself as agnostic (when I feel the urge to generalize myself), but I mean it as I’m skeptical of all things until I see some sort of compelling evidence that causes me to find it likely to be true. And even then I leave some skepticism. The god aspect just falls into place with that. I don’t think there is likely a god since I’ve seen no compelling evidence, but that doesn’t mean I know there isn’t one. You know, chicken shit stuff.

tranquilsea's avatar

I consider myself to be agnostic. At this point in my life I have not seen nor heard nor read anything that leads me to believe that there is an omnipotent and omniscient god. But I am also not closing the door on there being evidence of a god in the future. I can’t comfortably make a statement that there is no god as there is much we don’t know and, perhaps, can’t know at this point.

Seek's avatar

@lillycoyote To be absolutely certain about something that cannot be either proved or disproved with absolute certainty isn’t entirely rational. No one can “know” something that is unknowable.

In that case, the majority of atheists are “agnostic”, as any one of them would happily change their position if evidence to the contrary were shown.

cockswain's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I tend to think of atheism as a sub-class of agnostics.

Seek's avatar

@cockswain That’s actually pretty offensive. I almost remarked angrily and snarkily (is that a word?) at you for that one.

lillycoyote's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I have no agenda one way or the other, really. Just clarity. I just thought @fundevogel‘s definition of agnosticism was very good and very clear and straight forward. I just addressed some of the things others said because I thought they added complications and ascribed motives to people that, in my opinion, clouded what seems like a pretty simple idea.

cockswain's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr Why? I see no reason for that to be offensive at all. Agnostics are skeptical of things, including theism. That’s why I define it that way.

Seek's avatar

@cockswain I think it’s because of the oft-implied meaning of “agnostic”. That being – one who cannot decide, or chooses not to decide.

I made my choice. No gods. If you have a god, show me – but until then, you’ve got nothing. I’m as “undecided” about gods as I am “undecided” about purple unicorns living in my basil plant. The ideas are equally absurd. I do not, and will not, give the slightest credence to the idea of a divine being without hard evidence, and to imply that I am a “sub-class” of a group that often states belief and unbelief are equally valid positions is insulting.

mrentropy's avatar

Well, now I don’t know. I always thought I was agnostic. After @Pied_Pfeffer‘s entry, I’m lucky if I could be an Agnostic Agnostic. In any case, I feel equal that there could be a god and that there could not be a god. And this comes from years of going back and forth.

So, if I were to use the word ‘agnostic’ it would be thusly: “Agnostic Front rules!”

cockswain's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr Oh, I see what you mean. I’ve probably co-opted “agnosticism” as a general definition of how I view the world without necessarily fully researching all definitions and views of it. Given your definition, I don’t view atheism as a sub-class at all. Given my definition, any true agnostic will be a nearly complete atheist.

I figured we just had a semantic difference. Always important to define terms before beginning a discussion.

Jabe73's avatar

I’m not sure why this is so complicated but it seems many love to make it out to be. Agnostic literally just means when someone denies that man knows the ultimate nature of things. Atheist means the lack of belief in a higher power or God type entity. I’m sure there are many agnostics who lean towards the theist side, some lean towards the atheist side and then you probally have true agnostics that really are somewhere in the middle.

I suppose atheists can vary too. I know of some atheists that pretty much have phased out almost any possiblity that any type of god could possibly exist. Some atheists leave leave themselves open to more of the “I will stick with my beliefs until proven otherwise” variety.

iphigeneia's avatar

I dislike the terms agnostic atheist and agnostic theist, because they look like they are leaning one way or the other. I have spent time on both sides of the fence, but agnosticism is not just for when you haven’t decided yet. I’m sitting on the fence and I’m not budging. To continue with the metaphor, you can get a better view from here.

Jabe73's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I think you are wrong on the Pascal’s Wager reasoning for the beliefs of agnostics. First of all Pascal’s Wager does not make any sense because which religious god do you believe in then? You said you were a former Christian right? Then you know full well as I do that a lack of belief in God is not what lands you in hell but accepting Jesus as your Saviour because we are all sinners. Being the lesser of two “evils” (such as atheism, agnosticism) does you no good in determining where you will wind up when you die.

Agnosticism to me may actually be the most reasonable approach anyone can take for I think truth is stranger than fiction and we don’t know everything. I do not think Pascal’s Wager is a factor behind the reasoning of why some choose to be agnostic rather than atheist. Maybe some but not most.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

I say I am agnostic in that since I don’t believe god/s have been proven then I’m not one qualified to prove they don’t.

Nullo's avatar

I feel that agnostics are generally more tolerable than atheists.

lillycoyote's avatar

@Nullo And more tolerable than religious fanatics, fundamentalists and true believers of any sort. I find in your face, absolute certainty regarding things that are unknowable to be intolerable from anyone.

cockswain's avatar

Second that.

jerv's avatar

Personally, I’ve always used it as a term for those who believe that humanity is incapable of understanding the true nature of the divine and therefore cannot make any accurate definitive statements about any sort of higher powers.

For the record, I am a Theistic Agnostic. I believe that there is something, but I’ll be damned if I (or anyone else) know anything about it/them, or even really could.

tranquilsea's avatar

@lillycoyote “I find in your face, absolute certainty regarding things that are unknowable to be intolerable from anyone.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Nullo's avatar

@lillycoyote @cockswain @tranquilsea Keep in mind that atheists can be just as fanatical about their atheistic beliefs as the fieriest Pentecostal.
They even say that they happen to believe in one less God than a monotheist.

cockswain's avatar

I object your honor: relevance!

everephebe's avatar

I am technically, an agnostic theist (sort of), but prefer to call myself a religious atheist. Agnostics get a bad reputation for being well, lame, on-the-fence folks. This is not right, agnosticism is a strong and defined position. To say something is unknowable is a good scientific position, as god is a tricky can’t be proved & can’t be disproved thing. It might be more valid than theism or atheist when you look at it that way.

While I believe in a divine placeholder for what is not known yet, and for creation itself, I chose not to worship a deity or be tied to any religion. Learning about what people think about god or the sacred is fascinating, I agree with Dan Dennett that schools should teach all religion without bias.

Why I call myself a religious atheist? Well one it sounds better than agnostic theist, and two: I am against religious practice, because we don’t know the deeper mysterious of the universe, we should use science to understand and not make things up. Dogma and socialized repression of free thought? Don’t sign me up. I don’t believe in the divine nature of religion, it’s actually a bunch of rubbish + two or three good ideas about being a decent human being.

How do you use the word agnostic? Well hopefully not as a pejorative anymore, as it is a solid stand for reason. Why argue for or against, something that has no evidence? Religion has plenty of evidence for needing to be dismantled as a paradigm, at least until it is totally redesigned.

everephebe's avatar

For me there is no fence. There are two chicken coops near by, one full of theist chickens, and one full of atheist chickens. And my those chickens are locked up in there, while I can walk free.

But yes Pascal’s wager is pure cowardice. My mind is made up, no one could convert me, or make me change my mind- except with an abundance of science.

lucifer's avatar

Meh, a lot of complicated comments up there ^

O_o I understand “Agnostic” as “I Don’t know, so I don’t really Care either way”.

Its like Ignorance is Bliss at a whole new divine level :P

jerv's avatar

@everephebe I run into quite a few people who consider me weak for “being on the fence”, but they rely on the bravery of running in packs and cannot handle a one-on-one religious debate whereas I can generally hold my own all alone.

Seek's avatar

^ @jerv

You’re probably what I’d call an “Einsteinian Theist”. My husband is one too. It’s the type of person that says “There’s something out there that I can’t understand, and I’m going to call it ‘God’.”

For the record, I have no problem with this stance.

Jabe73's avatar

@Nullo Right on.

To others here: There should be no shame in being agnostic, it is a sign of being an open-minded skeptic. I usually get along great with agnostics. Wish I knew more personally.

mattbrowne's avatar

I agree with @Pied_Pfeffer‘s quote, although we should be aware that not all terminology is used the same way by all people. This is what makes communication so difficult at times.

According to the quote I would be an agnostic theist, but there are other descriptions such as unorthodox or undogmatic or liberal theism or as mentioned by @Seek_Kolinahr Einsteinian theism. Instead of agnostic atheism, there’s also implicit atheism (versus explicit atheism), soft atheism (versus hard atheism) negative atheism (versus positive atheism) and weak atheism (versus strong atheism) and there are some nuances between these definitions which sometimes create a lot of confusion.

‘Positive atheism is a term popularly used to describe the form of atheism that maintains that “There is at least one god” is a false statement. Negative atheism refers to any other type of non-theism, wherein a person does not believe any deities exist, but does not claim that same statement is false.’

‘Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions. In some senses, agnosticism is a stance about the similarities or differences between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief.’

LostInParadise's avatar

There seem to be about as many varieties of skeptcism as of belief.

mattbrowne's avatar

Absolutely. There are even skeptic believers, like myself.

Seek's avatar

^ I used to call myself an “apathist” after I left the church, and before admitting to myself that I was an atheist.

Only lasted a couple of months. Whenever I hear someone call themselves an “apatheist”, my heart flutters a little in joy at another deconversion.

cockswain's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I saw your question about the Mormon’s hassling you at your house. I giggled at how much that must have strengthened your resolve against organized religion.

Seek's avatar

Let’s just say I won’t be bringing my son to First Methodist’s Halloween alternative trunk party this year.

everephebe's avatar

@fundevogel, no. I am actively against most religious practice, I care about religions and I am very interested in the issue. Nor am I an empatheist.

fundevogel's avatar

@everephene – Is there a term for that particular stance or have you escaped the tyranny of labels?

@Seek_Kolinahr I really like the term, I’m a little sad that a can’t use it to describe myself.

Paradox's avatar

To me agnostic means open minded skeptic.

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