Introduction | Types of Agnosticism | Support for Agnosticism
Agnosticism is the belief that the nature and existence of gods is unknown and inherently unknowable due to the nature of subjective experience. Technically, this position is strong agnosticism: in popular usage, an agnostic may just be someone who takes no position, pro or con, on the existence of gods, or who has not yet been able to decide, or who suspends judgment due to lack of evidence one way or the other (weak agnosticism).
Agnosticism maintains that the nature and attributes of God are beyond the grasp of man's finite and limited mind. Agnostics generally claim either that it is not possible to have absolute or certain knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God or gods, or that, while individual certainty may be possible, they personally have no knowledge. In both cases this involves some form of skepticism.
The earliest professed agnostic was Protagoras, although the term itself (from the Greek "agnosis" meaning "without knowledge") was not coined in English until the 1880s by T. H. Huxley.
- Strong Agnosticism:
This is the view (also called hard agnosticism, closed agnosticism, strict agnosticism, absolute agnosticism or epistemological agnosticism) that the question of the existence or non-existence of God or gods is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience.
- Mild Agnosticism:
This is the view (also called weak agnosticism, soft agnosticism, open agnosticism, empirical agnosticism, or temporal agnosticism) that the existence or non-existence of God or gods is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until more evidence becomes available.
- Pragmatic Agnosticism:
This is the view that there is no proof of either the existence or non-existence of God or gods.
- Apathetic Agnosticism:
This is the view that there is no proof of either the existence or non-existence of God or gods, but since any God or gods that may exist appear unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic anyway.
- Agnostic Theism:
This is the view (also called religious agnosticism) of those who do not claim to know of the existence of God or gods, but still believe in such an existence.
- Agnostic Atheism:
This is the view of those who claim not to know of the existence or non-existence of God or gods, but do not believe in them.
This is the view that a coherent definition of "God" must be put forward before the question of the existence or non-existence of God can even be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the Non-Cognitivist view that the existence of God is meaningless or empirically untestable. A. J. Ayer, Theodore Drange and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept "God exists" as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.
Some of the most important agnostic philosophers are Protagoras, T. H. Huxley, Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell, but many more public figures have been self-confessed agnostics, including Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Milton Friedman, Carl Sagan and Mark Twain.
The Greek Sophist Protagoras was probably the earliest agnostic. He professed that the existence of the gods was unknowable in the 5th Century B.C.
Huxley was responsible for creating the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism" to sum up his own position on Metaphysics. His agnosticism was a response to the clerical intolerance of the 1860's as it tried to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with scripture.
Ingersoll, known as "The Great Agnostic", was an influential American politician in the late 19th Century, and a strong supporter of Freethought (the philosophical viewpoint that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logic and not be influenced by emotion, authority, tradition or dogma). He popularized and justified the agnostic position, which he summed up in his 1986 lecture "Why I Am An Agnostic".
Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" and "Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?" are considered classic statements of agnosticism. He was careful to distinguish between his atheism as regards certain types of god concepts, and his agnosticism as regards some other types of superhuman intelligence. Though he generally considered himself an agnostic in a purely philosophical context, he said that the label "atheist" conveyed a more accurate understanding of his views in a popular context.