The term, agnosticism, has a long history and many folks are unaware of how it originated or how it was applied.
So let us first deal with a variety of definitions.
When dealing with dictionaries please remember they are descriptive, not prescriptive, so we will not only be covering dictionary definitions but also referencing a philosophical paper on the matter, which references Huxley’s original position.
Language also changes and evolves, it is described through common use, so even though one definition might be more logical than another, within a certain setting the less logical might be “more correct”, at least colloquially.
That said, there are many who like to cling to a particular definition of a word as the “only definition”. This article hopes to demonstrate how Agnosticism is currently defined and used in various settings.
Cambridge Dictionary on Agnosticism
The beliefs of someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, if a god existshttps://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/agnosticism
Merriam-Webster Dictionary Definition of Agnosticism
an agnostic quality, state, or attitude
a: the view that any ultimate reality (such as a deity) is unknown and probably unknowable : a philosophical or religious position characterized by uncertainty about the existence of a god or any gods
Religious agnosticism may accept the ethical value of a religious way of living and even endorse religious ideas as a viable basis for understanding various aspects of human existence.
— Gary Gutting
b: an attitude of doubt or uncertainty about something
This purposeful agnosticism, which served the tobacco industry well, will sound eerily familiar to anyone following the global warming “debate”—another case in which a few pedigreed skeptics, whose views align with those of a powerful industry, are framing consensus as controversy.
— Jonathan Miles
The developers of quantum mechanics, attempting to describe the electron’s charge or mass or momentum or energy or spin in almost every new equation, nevertheless maintained a silent agnosticism about certain issues of its existence.
— James Gleickhttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agnosticism
Lexicon Definition of Agnosticism (Agnostic)
A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/agnostic
1,1 (in a non-religious context) having a doubtful or non-committal attitude towards something.
‘until now I’ve been fairly agnostic about electoral reform’
1.2 Computing usually in combination Denoting or relating to hardware or software that is compatible with many types of platform or operating system.
‘many common file formats (JPEG, MP3, etc.) are platform-agnostic’
‘our industry is moving towards a device-agnostic model’https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/agnostic
SEP Definition of Agnosticism
The terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism” were famously coined in the late nineteenth century by the English biologist, T.H. Huxley. He said that he originally invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like [himself], confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence. (1884)
including of course the matter of God’s existence. He did not, however, define “agnosticism” simply as the state of being an agnostic. Instead, he often used that term to refer to a normative epistemological principle, something similar to (though weaker than) what we now call “evidentialism”. Roughly, Huxley’s principle says that it is wrong to say that one knows or believes that a proposition is true without logically satisfactory evidence (Huxley 1884 and 1889). But it was Huxley’s application of this principle to theistic and atheistic belief that ultimately had the greatest influence on the meaning of the term. He argued that, since neither of those beliefs is adequately supported by evidence, we ought to suspend judgment on the issue of whether or not there is a God.
Nowadays, the term “agnostic” is often used (when the issue is God’s existence) to refer to those who follow the recommendation expressed in the conclusion of Huxley’s argument: an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false. Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic. Call this the “psychological” sense of the term. It is certainly useful to have a term to refer to people who are neither theists nor atheists, but philosophers might wish that some other term besides “agnostic” (“theological skeptic”, perhaps?) were used. The problem is that it is also very useful for philosophical purposes to have a name for the epistemological position that follows from the premise of Huxley’s argument, the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, or most ambitiously, that neither the belief that God exists nor the belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of any sort. Just as the metaphysical question of God’s existence is central to philosophy of religion, so too is the epistemological question of whether or not theism or atheism is known or has some other sort of positive epistemic status. And given the etymology of “agnostic”, what better term could there be for a negative answer to that epistemological question than “agnosticism”? Further, as suggested earlier, it is, for very good reason, typical in philosophy to use the suffix “-ism” to refer to a proposition instead of to a state or condition, since only the former can sensibly be tested by argument.Draper (2017)
Summary of the Definitions on Agnosticism
What you might think strange about all these definitions is they all seem to mention belief. I am sure you have repetitiously heard atheists say “agnosticism only deals with knowledge” and that it is “wrong” to phrase it as a 3rd option around god’s existence, instead joining Agnosticism/Gnosticism to Theism or Atheism.
The problem with this is it does not follow the rules of logic. It also doesn’t make sense used how the word is supposed to be defined. If being agnostic is essentially not knowing what you believe, being an agnostic atheist translates to I don’t know if I hold the belief does not exist or not. I know that is not what people mean by it but there you go.
Huxley’s original coining was a normative epistemic principle, similar to evidentialism, where that one should not believe ANYTHING that can not be learned by experiment, observed, validated, or given sufficient reason to determine true or false.
You might also realise that from the original definition, it wasn’t always speaking about the existence of god either. It was used as a withholding judgment proposition. “I don’t know enough about this topic to believe either way”.
Do you think Liverpool will with the cup? – I’m agnostic about that. Why? I don’t follow football. I don’t have enough knowledge to make any sort of judgment and don’t care enough to look at the points. I completely lack belief in the fact that they will or won’t win the cup. Now I could research this and get some answers which would provide me a grounding for a belief.
We can see from the dictionary definitions this is often referring to a belief about the knowledge of gods existence, and the SEP article speaks about agnosticism being that middle ground where we do not have enough justification to assign a truth value to at least one god existing/not existing.
Of course, we have yet to cover how it is commonly used on the internet, and we will do so shortly. It would be an Etymological fallacy to say that agnostic can only mean how it was originally coined, which brings me on to the next section. The Etymology of Agnosticism.
The etymology of agnostic is quite simple. Where A can mean both without and not in the instance of agonistic it means NOT.
not + gnostic
Now the gnostic bit goes a little bit further back from the Greek gnostos which meant known through a couple of variants up to its use gnostic in the 16th century
The history of Gnostic may be of interest to you too.
1580s, “believer in a mystical religious doctrine of spiritual knowledge,” from Late Latin Gnosticus “a Gnostic,” from Late Greek Gnōstikos, noun use of adjective gnōstikos “knowing, able to discern, good at knowing,” from gnōstos “known, to be known,” from gignōskein “to learn, to come to know,” from PIE root *gno- “to know.” Applied to various early Christian sects that claimed direct personal knowledge beyond the Gospel or the Church hierarchy; they appeared in the first century A.D., flourished in the second, and were stamped out by the 6th.https://www.etymonline.com/word/gnostic
So as a noun we see this used in relation to belief again…
“relating to knowledge,” especially mystical or esoteric knowledge of spiritual things, 1650s, from Greek gnōstikos “knowing, good at knowing, able to discern,” from gnōstos “known, perceived, understood,” earlier gnōtos, from gignōskein “learn to know, come to know, perceive; discern, distinguish; observe, form a judgment,” from PIE *gi-gno-sko-, reduplicated and suffixed form of root *gno- “to know.”https://www.etymonline.com/word/gnostic
How is Agnosticism Defined today
There are 3 primary and 1 colloquial definitions of agnosticism/being agnostic used today.
The epistemic principle
Coined by the late TH Huxley to be a cornerstone of the scientific method. This is sometimes now referred to as evidential agnosticism.
The Psychological State
Agnostic as a psychological state is where you don’t believe a proposition to be true or false. You are suspending judgement.
This is sometimes referred to as weak agnosticism.
Knowledge of God
The theory that gods or the supernatural are unknowable.
This is sometimes referred to as hard agnosticism.
Based purely on etymology, it is often claimed that agnosticism only means ‘Without Knowledge’. This is sometimes referred to as an etymological fallacy.
People seem not to be aware of propositional logic, nor how agnosticism was originally used.
When I speak to people and tell them what it originally meant, regardless of what it means today, they become denialist. They claim I am wrong. That it has never applied to a belief, it only deals with knowledge etc. These are often the same people who think the “lack belief” definition of atheism is the ONLY definition and remain willfully ignorant of others too.
People take a strict look at this and use the a to mean “without” instead of “not” and gnostic to relate to knowledge. “without knowledge”.
This then leads them to believe this can only apply to knowledge and seem to think it only applies to knowledge of god’s existence.
This is often tagged on to the “atheist” proposition like “agnostic atheist” – whilst I understand the intent of this, to say “I don’t claim to have knowledge of god’s existence, I just don’t believe god exists” it is nonsensical.
That said, language is described through use, so even though it is a nonsensical phrase, we have to accept how people might use it, just as we have to accept folks who use the “lack belief” definition of atheism.
The important part of communication is to understand each other, so as long as you define how you are using the terms then it doesn’t really matter if you are using the most logical version or not. What is wrong, is claiming someone is using the terms “wrong” or being so arrogant as to say a whole field is using the terms incorrectly.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certain words that are correct in context, e.g. a scientific theory is much different to the colloquial use, and terms like “kinds” have no real place when you are discussing evolution. To say terms such as Agnostic or Atheist are being used incorrectly in academia because they do not reflect what your internet tribe says they mean today is beyond arrogant.
A reminder on how it ought to be used
Perhaps ought is not the most palatable word to be used here but, simply put, the most logical definition of the term is the one that anyone who views themselves as rational ought to use.
As described above it was originally used towards a number of topics, basically admitting ignorance towards them, withholding any judgement and saying “I can’t say anything about this topic either way”.
If someone to say they were agnostic towards evolutionary biology they would be admitting they are so ignorant of the topic that they don’t know if evolution is true or not. Regardless of the facts, at least they are being honest.
Many propositions such as ones like existence are dichotomous, either god exists or doesn’t.
Not only can you hold the belief god exists, or does not exist, and be an atheist or theist… but you can also withhold your judgement, that is to say not have a positive (or negative) attitude towards either proposition. Essentially lacking belief in gods existence and lacking belief in gods non-existence. This position is known as agnostic.
Simply being a non-theist does not necessarily make you an atheist, and reduced the atheist position to one of absurdity where rocks, cabbages, tomatoes, babies, cartoons and slugs are all atheist. In fact, there are a variety of ontological positions to consider.
Still not sure knowledge can relate to belief?
Q: Where did you leave your car keys
A: I don’t know
Q: Well where do you believe you left them?
A: I don’t know
Result: Agnostic in regards to the location of keys.
Summary on Agnosticism
Funnily enough, people are agnostic to how agnostic ought to be used.
A belief something we hold to be true, or a positive attitude towards a proposition.
If we don’t hold P or Not P to be true, then we do not have a positive attitude towards either proposition. We are in a state of unbelief and are therefore agnostic.
Folks in general might not be quite as rigid in their use of agnosticism as Huxley was, but it is still used in epistemology and logic as that middle ground where you do not believe either P or not P to be true.
Whilst it is important to accept how agnostic, and even atheism, is used today, and pointless to make extensive arguments about it, I would also encourage folks to look into these things more and understand its origins and more logical use, even if one still prefers to use their definition.
Making statements like “Agnostic only deals with knowledge” and “there is no agnostic middle ground” show a lack of understanding about propositional logic, how these terms came about and how they are used in academia. Making statements that it is being “used incorrectly in academia” shows considerable ignorance, arrogance, and a level of pseudointellecualism that definitely fulfils the classic pigeon chess meme.