From NSwiki, the NationStates encyclopedia.
Jump to: navigation, search
This article, released under the GFDL, has been taken in large part from the Wikipedia page on this subject.

Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth values of certain claims, particularly theological claims regarding the existence of God, gods or deities, are either unknown or inherently unknowable. The term and the related agnostic were coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 and are also used to describe those who are unconvinced or noncommittal about the existence of deities as well as other matters of religion. The word agnostic comes from the Greek a (without) and gnosis (knowledge). Agnosticism is not to be confused with a view specifically opposing the doctrine of gnosis and Gnosticism — these are religious concepts that are not generally related to agnosticism.

Agnostics may claim that it is not possible to have absolute or certain spiritual knowledge; alternately they may claim that while certainty may be possible, they personally have no such knowledge. Agnosticism in both cases involves scepticism toward religious statements.

Among the most famous agnostics (in the original sense) were Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell. It has been argued from the works of David Hume, especially Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that he was an agnostic, but this remains subject to debate.

Logical positivism

Logical positivists, such as Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer, are sometimes erroneously thought to be agnostic. Using arguments reminiscent of Wikipedia:Wittgenstein’s famous "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", they viewed any talk of gods as literally nonsense. For the logical positivists and adherents of similar schools of thought, statements about religious or other transcendent experiences could not have a truth value, and were deemed to be without meaning. But this includes all utterances about God, even those agnostic statements that deny knowledge of God is possible. In Language, Truth and Logic Ayer explicitly rejects agnosticism on the grounds that an agnostic, despite claiming that knowledge of God is not possible, nevertheless holds that statements about God have meaning.


Theists and strong atheists make statements about the world, the theist that 'God exists', the strong atheist that 'God does not exist'. Agnostics make the statement about these statements, 'one cannot know whether or not God exists'.

Agnosticism has suffered more than most expressions of philosophical position from terminological vagaries. Examples come from attempts to associate agnosticism with atheism. The "freethinking" tradition of atheism calls a lack of belief in the existence of any deities, "weak atheism" (or "negative atheism"). However, one can still draw a distinction between weak atheism and agnosticism by drawing a distinction between belief and knowledge, leading those who believe knowledge of God is not possible to claim agnosticism is about knowledge, while atheism/theism is about the lack of belief. Agnostic atheism is a combination of both.

George Smith, a prominent atheist writer, has argued that all agnosticism is a form of atheism (defined here as "lacking a belief in a deity"). (Ref: Atheism, The Case Against God by George H. Smith, 1989 Prometheus Books, NY) His argument against agnostic theism is that it is contradictory to state that a being is inherently or currently unknowable, and yet positively assert a belief in its existence (which means that at least one aspect of it - existence - is known). Further, he argues that "one cannot possibly know that something exists without some knowledge of what it is that exists." The concept of "god" becomes meaningless because it is declared unknowable, and the agnostic theist makes the equivalent statement of "a blark exists." Mr. Smith compares this unspecified belief to nonbelief, and concludes that all agnosticism is a form of atheism. The agnostic theist who still wishes to believe must ascribe attributes of some sort to their belief, thus rendering them no longer agnostic (as they are now claiming some knowledge of their deity), and instead making them a theist.

Data collection services [1], [2] often display the common use of the term, distinct from atheism in its lack of disputing the existence of deities. Agnostics are listed alongside secular, non-religious or other such categories.

Other variations include:

  • strong agnosticism (aka hard agnosticism, closed agnosticism, strict agnosticism) — the view that the question of the existence of deities is unknowable by nature or that human beings are ill-equipped to judge the evidence.
  • weak agnosticism (aka soft agnosticism, open agnosticism, empirical agnosticism) — the view that the existence or nonexistence of God or gods is currently unknown, but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until more evidence is available.
  • apathetic agnosticism (aka ignosticism or apatheism) — the view that the question of the existence of deities is meaningless because it has no verifiable consequences.
  • model agnosticism — the view that philosophical and metaphysical questions are not ultimately verifiable, but that a model of malleable assumption should be built upon rational thought. Note that this branch of agnosticism differs from others in that it does not focus upon the question of a deity's existence.

External links