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Useful Notes / Agnosticism

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"Agnosticism" is the view that the existence of any gods is unknown or unknowable. The term was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869, though the concept has been kicking around for much longer. Agnostics usually appear under the category of "non-believers" along with atheists. Incidentally, there is a degree of overlap with atheism.

Agnosticism is not mutually exclusive with atheism or theism since it is a question of if someone believes they can or cannot know a god exists. While agnostics generally agree with atheists on the subject of belief in God or gods, they disagree on the subject of disbelief: a common agnostic criticism of atheism is the scientific principle that "absence of proof does not constitute a disproof". Once again, this is only an issue for the gnostic/strong/positive/hard atheists, who are a minority. As noted on the atheism page, the term "agnostic" is often considered functionally interchangeable with "soft" atheism (although usually not by self-described agnostics themselves).


There are many different strands of agnostic thought, including the following :

  • Belief that God is inherently "unknowable". Adherents to this type of agnosticism believe that one cannot know of God's existence, role, appearance or ethics (assuming that it might exist at all).
  • Belief that God's existence is neither proven nor disproven. That is, that while God may be "knowable", we do not "know" yet either way.
  • Agnostic atheism, where there is not enough evidence to know that a god exists, but it is not impossible that one does.
  • Agnostic theism, where God probably exists based on the evidence at hand, but that it is not certain.
  • Apatheism (a portmanteau of "apathy" and "theism"), where the individual simply does not care whether God does or does not exist, or finds no practical reason to believe either way.

Agnosticism can also be used to describe someone who is undecided, or just non-committed to any particular belief. For example, in experimental physics, there is a concept called "model agnosticism", which describes a state of mind in which the experimenter has multiple theories (or "models"), but keeps an open mind about which of them is true pending the results of the experiment.

Agnostics have on occasion been condemned by followers of various religions for their lack of belief (often being lumped in with atheists in the process). They have also been criticized by prominent agnostic atheist Richard Dawkins for "fence sitting" — i.e. not having the conviction to outright admit to being an atheist. Self-described agnostics Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson fall into this camp, admittedly calling themselves agnostics because they have to deal with politics where atheism is still a dirty word. It can also be a label used because "atheist" is defined by some as knowing gods do not exist.


Many agnostics find this accusation insulting, and parallels have been drawn between agnosticism and bisexuality, as bisexuals can also face discrimination from both ends of a spectrum on similar grounds. However, this view supposes that belief is a spectrum rather than binary, as if someone could only half believe. Additional factors that further muddle the issue is the psychological aspect of the person, as one might believe more strongly at one time, and not think much about one's particular faith at another, also, a country might be 90% Catholic, but have only ~17% actively going to church. Critics also point out that there is already a term for someone who does not actively believe in any deities: atheist.note 

Agnostic theism is more unusual, representing a form of deep connection with Judaism and early Church/Christianity. Some have argued that philosophers such as the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard qualify. Kierkegaard felt the existence of God was something which no one could rationally prove, and they had to make a "leap of faith." The same may be found in fideism, a view arguing that belief in God must rest upon faith alone, wholly independent of reason.


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