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Agnosticism is the position of believing that knowledge of the existence or non-existence of god is impossible. It is often put forth as a middle ground between theism and atheism. Understood this way, agnosticism is skepticism regarding all things theological. The agnostic holds that human knowledge is limited to the natural world, that the mind is incapable of knowledge of the supernatural. Understood this way, an agnostic could also be a theist or an atheist. The former is called a fideist, one who believes in god purely on faith. The latter is sometimes accused by theists of having faith in the non-existence of god, but the accusation is absurd and the expression meaningless. The agnostic atheist simply finds no compelling reason to believe in god.

The term 'agnostic' was created by T. H. Huxley (1825-1895), who took his cue from David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Huxley says that he invented the term to describe what he thought made him unique among his fellow thinkers: 

They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

'Agnostic' came to mind, he says, because the term was "suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant...." Huxley seems to have intended the term to mean that metaphysics is, more or less, bunk. In short, he seems to have agreed with Hume's conclusion at the end of  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.*

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason resolved some of the main epistemological issues raised by Hume, but at the expense of rejecting the possibility of knowing anything beyond appearances of phenomena. We can't know god but the idea of god is a practical necessity, according to Kant.

Finally, there is an argument, popular among some who fancy themselves intellectuals, that agnosticism is the only intellectually honest position to take with regard to gods. According to this viewpoint, theism and atheism are arrogant affirmations of being certain about something that is intrinsically unknowable. It is, of course, true that it is possible there is some unknowable being or entity who creates universes, has unimaginable powers, and is like nothing we have any experience of. No atheist that I know of has ever denied such a possibility, nor have we denied the possibility of an unknowable Easter Bunny who lays eggs on Saturn or any other imaginable epistemic improbability. So what? Atheists and theists do not concern themselves with epistemic improbabilities, but with gods about whom stories have been told for millennia. The more we learn about the universe, the less reason there is for believing that any of these gods were not created by human imagination. Agnosticism regarding Zeus or Abraham's god is not an intellectually honest position, as it can be maintained only by a fatuous and dishonest treatment of the available evidence. That evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that all gods fashioned thus far in the minds of men are highly improbable. Agnosticism regarding unimaginable, unknowable beings is redundant.

See also atheism, bright, gods, theism, and theist.

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (on-line text)

Huxley, Thomas Henry. Agnosticism and Christianity and Other Essays (Great Mind Series)  (Prometheus Books,1992).

Why Am I An Agnostic? by Robert Green Ingersoll (1889)

What Is Agnosticism? (1981) by H. J. Blackham


agnosticism - Religious Tolerance Page

review of The God Delusion by R. T. Carroll Last updated 19-Oct-2015

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