Define 'agnostic,' please; does it take faith to be one?


What does it mean to be agnostic?  Are there people who actually consider it to be a religion?


In Pew Research’s much-mulled 2014 religion poll of 35,000 U.S. adults, 3.1 percent defined themselves as “atheists” (compared with 1.6 percent in a similar 2007 survey) while a somewhat larger faction of 4 percent called themselves “agnostics” (versus 2.4 percent in 2007). Pew grabbed headlines by combining them with the far larger numbers who said their faith was “nothing in particular” and concluding that 22.8 percent of Americans are now religiously “unaffiliated” compared with only 16.1 percent seven years earlier.

The agnostic term was coined in 1869 by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a noted advocate of Darwin’s evolution theory, to distinguish his own doubts from outright atheism. Darwin soon embraced that label for himself. So did a popular U.S. performer of that era, the touring anti-religion lecturer Robert Ingersoll. However, the agnostic outlook was nothing new. This sort of skepticism was found among some thinkers in ancient Greece and India as far back as the centuries B.C.

No doubt (so to speak) the line between agnosticism and atheism can be confusing, but it was well and clearly defined by the great British mathematician Bertrand Russell, a critic of Christianity, in his essay “What Is An Agnostic?”:

“An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Are agnostics atheists? No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism.”

Note the first two sentences. Other writers on this distinguish between “strong” (or “hard” or “closed” or “strict”) agnosticism and “weak” (or “soft” or “open”) agnosticism. The first camp asserts flatly that human reason is incapable of verifying God or the supernatural so no-one is ever capable of knowing the truth. The second “weak” form contends that we are currently unable to know about such things but they aren’t necessarily unknowable in principle so it’s wise to avoid absolute claims.

Continue reading "Define 'agnostic,' please" by Richard Ostling.

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