agnosticism TH Huxley Quote2

On my walk today, I was considering a number of conversations I’ve had recently with folks arguing for default states and atheist rocks and some of the things I’ve said in response.



One of the key points I brought up is an IST is a follower of an ISM, which is why we can’t be born an IST. It’s also another why describing atheism purely by the absence of a psychological state doesn’t really work for an ISM.

There are other types of IST and ISM, of course, that don’t necessarily fall into this category, or sometimes you might have an IST in this sense but the practice they follow doesn’t typically have an ISM suffix – like a horticulturist’s practice is horticulture or a cyclist cycles. Occasionally something with the ISM suffix that doesn’t fall into the category that has ISTs, like astigmatism.

The English language is one that is derived from many, so many rules applied to it are often more guidelines and between things like etymology and context we can work out which rules we ought to be following.

So, for the context, in the discussions we have been having recently about theist, atheist, theism and atheism, an IST is a suffix of a noun that describes the follower of an ISM. That is to say, it is a relational IST/ISM so ought to typically fall into those rules. An ISM is a noun that describes a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy. This also seems to be the way these words are usually applied even if not always.

Some folks might be wondering how either theism or atheism can actually be an ISM as they are a position on just one topic and, whilst at the core they are, when you delve a little bit into the philosophy of religion you realise there is a bit more meat there, like the arguments and justifications for and against the existence of a deity. You could even say there are specific behaviours you’d expect people to do, or not, depending on where they land.

When you think about other ISMs too you can reduce them to single points, like communism is the theory of social organisation where all property is owned by the community and each person contributed and receive according to their ability and needs. Capitalism is a political system where the country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. Animism is the attribution of the soul to inanimate objects. Moral relativism is the ethical theory that a society/culture and time make something moral.

With all of these, you can expand on them much further too. You don’t have to and I guess you could say you were an IST of them based on the single line description, but I wouldn’t think that necessarily a particularly rational method of deliberation, in a similar way that I wouldn’t base the quality of an album solely on the album cover.

So, yes, at their core both theism and atheism are just a position on one topic, but there is more to them than that. Perhaps we could expand on this another time but, at least for now, let us focus on the current topic.

For more information on the semantics of -IST and -ISM an interesting paper to check out is ‘A note on the semantics of -ist and -ism’ by Adrienne Lehrer. They describe what I do in much more detail and give additional examples too.

The IC on the other hand is a suffix usually used to turn something into an adjective. So theistic or atheistic are used in a more descriptive way. That said, it can be used at the end of certain nouns, but usually in a descriptive sense again, like mechanic or lyric, it describes what something is rather than providing an identity to someone following an ISM.

An atheistic religion would be a religion without any gods. A theistic book would be one that promoted belief in God or gods. We are not describing the mental states of the religion or book, that would be ridiculous.

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Agnostic and Agnosticism

Agnostic, don't know

This got me thinking about agnosticism. People will describe themselves as agnostic rather than agnostist or agnosticist.

This was at least somewhat easier to answer for how the terms are usually used within the philosophy of religion.

Please, for the moment at least, forget how you prefer to define the terms and allow me to stipulate what might be a different use to what you are aware of or perhaps like.

Theism and atheism are ontological positions. That means they speak to the nature of being of the God (or gods) character(s). First and foremost, as to whether one exists or not.

Theism speaks to the propositional content of the belief that at least one god exists, with the theist accepting this as true.

Atheism speaks to the propositional content of the belief that no gods exist with the atheist accepting this as true.

So what about agnostic in this regard? Well, agnostic is actually describing a mental state of suspending judgement. It’s an epistemic position rather than an ontological one and relates to any proposition.

In the case of the proposition “God exists”, you’re so uncertain you don’t know if you believe the proposition God exists or not. It’s an epistemic position about the ontology of God.

Using these definitions we can see why agnostic theist and agnostic atheist don’t actually make sense because they are actually describing the same position.

If you are suspending judgment on the proposition “God exists” or suspending judgment on the proposition “God does not exist” the result is the same. Although, this is not the only use of agnostic atheism though, but should help you understand why many will say the label is a silly one. Of course, there are issues with some of the other definitions too which you’re free to browse if you like in this article: Agnostic Atheism.

So, we can understand why agnostic is an IC instead of an IST in this regard as it is describing a psychological state, one of suspending judgment. Someone saying “I’m an agnostic” using this definition, seems to be getting the phrasing wrong as what they are actually saying is “I am agnostic toward [this] proposition” where [this] will often be speaking of “God Exists” but you can usually infer from the context if they are speaking of something else.

I think, though, the use of “an agnostic” tends to refer to someone who is agnostic towards the proposition “God exists”. So whilst the phrasing might seem a little off, it’s understandable that “an agnostic” is someone who suspends judgement in the god proposition, and if we know what the person means then they’ve achieved the point in language and any argument becomes for the love of arguing about semantics rather than having any real depth to it.

This form of agnosticism is thought of as weak or soft agnosticism, but what about other forms of agnosticism?

Hard Agnosticism

There’s hard (or strong) agnosticism which is the theory or belief that that the existence, or non-existence, of God or the supernatural is unknowable to everyone and that we humans are ill-equipped to deal with the question.

This does seem closer to an ISM use like theism or atheism, so should hard agnostics be agnosticist or agnostists? Perhaps, this one is tougher to answer.

The similarity is, it is still an epistemological position rather than an ontological one, but the difference is, it is also propositional rather than the suspense of judgement in a proposition.

It’s not used like a mechanic which is a noun that happens to describe a job that has a multitude of things under it. So why is it an IC instead of an IST?

Unlike theism or atheism, there isn’t anywhere near as much work done on this position. The position extends past the speaker asserting no one can have knowledge of gods, but it doesn’t even really specify what it means by gods. There are many takes on gods and whilst I might think some are a bit of a redefinition fallacy, are still how people view gods. I’m not sure anyone can fully justify that knowledge of gods is impossible… And from what I’ve read there doesn’t seem to be much justification other than the lack of evidence, contradictory evidence between different god claims and that sort of thing, which is why they recommend suspense of judgement (weak agnosticism). So, it seems hard agnosticism isn’t fully justified in its assertion.

This doesn’t fully answer why it isn’t an IST and remains an IC.

Well, what I think is because it is describing a mental state that it is impossible for anyone to have, rather than a practice or philosophy that can necessarily be followed. I’m not convinced this is a fully satisfactory answer, but it seems to be the case.

Perhaps it is just one of those instances where the rules are bent for a specific purpose and there isn’t a great answer as to why.

Epistemic Principle

agnosticism TH Huxley Quote2

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.”

 Thomas Henry Huxley

Agnosticism was coined by the late TH Huxley as an epistemic principle that essentially stated that we should not say we believe or know anything that we have no scientific evidence for.

It’s essentially saying that we should say we suspend judgement, even if we believe a certain thing, if we cannot justify our position with some form of scientific evidence.

It makes sense that this is an ISM because it’s essentially a distinct practice that should be followed, so why are the people that follow this not agnostists?

It would actually seem to be an inconsistency here, because the epistemic principle does seem to fall under the ISM and IST schema, so it seems odd that the first edit edition of agnosticism doesn’t seem to follow it.

I think part of the reason is that Huxley saw this in line with part of the scientific method. You don’t make conclusions without evidence to back them up. So with any new hypothesis, the scientist should remain agnostic until they have evidence to support something. He felt that metaphysical claims require the same sort of evidence as the physical and we shouldn’t make any sort of claim about them without that evidence.

Whilst Huxley’s intention was to address people making claims about the metaphysical, the term was adopted for physical things too. Therefore, one could say “I’m agnostic about evolution.” They would be speaking of a suspense of judgement because they are saying they are ignorant of any evidence that supports (or negates) it.

Now, I don’t think any scientist is agnostic towards evolution these days, it is widely accepted by scientists of all faiths and from what I can glean, the only people that disbelieve it tend to be doing so from a young-earth perspective.

Although, speaking of science, it’s made me think of another example that doesn’t exactly follow the IC, IST and ISM rule.

A scientist is a qualified expert in the field of science.

Scientism is an excessive belief in the power of science, almost to the point of deifying science as an all-powerful perfect thing.

Scientistic is an adjective describing the behaviours of one that seems to ascribe to scientism.

Obviously, scientism was coined after science, and scientist is already used for someone that does science. Also, no one I have met actively ascribes to scientism, and if you point out their scientistic behaviours they will claim that they don’t think that way, so it’s not like an atheist ascribing to atheism, it’s more like talking about the atheistic religion that seems to demonstrate atheist-like tendencies, e.g. no gods.

Back to the ‘why not agnostist’ though… Using Huxlian agnosticism, it is more about not saying you believe or know something without scientific evidence. That would mean that you could believe a god does or does not exist, but should remain externally agnostic.

So, could we say that because it is describing a way to think and maybe even behave rather than a large more all-encompassing ISM, or maybe again we are left just having to accept that this use of agnosticism and agnostic doesn’t exactly conform to the standard ‘rules’.

Maybe there is another reason entirely.

Are We There Yet?

It seems like we still don’t have a good answer as to why, and this is due to the examination so far being purely on the suffixes. Having examined the use of the suffixes within the English language, we have already seen a number of examples where the rules don’t seem to follow, even within the different types of agnosticism. It’s fair to say that looking at the suffixes alone will not bring us any closer to an answer, and perhaps might confuse us further.

So, where next?

Etymology & Use


To truly understand these words, perhaps we need to take a closer look at their formation and application throughout history. I’ve already done an extensive post on atheism which you can read here: Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism, however, to summarise the way atheism came about.

  • Atheos – Greek – Someone forsaken by the gods
  • Atheos – Greek – Someone who didn’t believe in the Pantheon
  • Atheos – Greek – Used by people to describe others that didn’t believe in their god
  • Athéisme  – French – Explicit denial of the existence of God, generally with the establishment of a humanism without religion
  • Atheism – Believing there is no God / Denying there is a God
  • Atheism – Not Believing in a God
  • Atheism – Absence of a belief in a God
  • Atheism – Lacking a Belief in a God

Please note, Atheism is still held as the proposition or belief gods do not exist, it is just there are additional definitions used. They have not “replaced” the old ones.

The french suffix -isme comes from the greek -ismos signifying the practice or teaching of a thing. Denying God’s existence was put into practice. We can see how this came to English as an -ism. We can also understand why we have -ists that follow this practice, especially when you take into account all the philosophy around atheism.

To this end, we can again see why Atheism being described purely in terms of an absent mental state is atypical for an -ism and it is just through the evolution of the word that we have god here.

So What then of Agnosticism?

I mentioned how TH Huxley coined the term, but not so much as to the “why?”

We can look at the etymology and see the word is combined from the prefix a- the word gnostic and the suffix -ism.

The prefix a- is usually used to mean either not, as in negation, or without. Sometimes this can change the meaning of the word, and sometimes it doesn’t. I provide some examples in Sin-onyms; The sinful use of synonyms but that isn’t really relevant for now.

Gnostic comes from the Greek Gnostikos, which came from gnostos, which came from gnotos, from gignoskein… but how did that evolution go?

In short, it went something like this:

  • Gno – to know
  • Gignoskein – learn to know, come to know, perceive; discern, distinguish; observe, form a judgement.
  • Gnostos/gnotos – Known, perceived, understood
  • Gnostikos – Knowing, Good at Knowing, Able to discern
  • Gnostic (noun) – Believer in a mystical religious doctrine of spiritual knowledge
  • Gnostic (adjective) – Relating to knowledge especially mystical or esoteric knowledge of spiritual things.

The first point to focus on here is Gnostic in the NOUN sense. If we remember the example of mechanic which is a noun that also has entailments of actions, we can see Gnostic being used in a sort of similar way. A Gnostic was one that believed they had special knowledge of God and essentially adhered to Gnosticism (although that in itself has held different meanings throughout the years too). It then became an adjective like a gnostic Christian would be one that claimed to have special knowledge of God.

Huxley saw both atheists and theists of this time act as if they had this special knowledge and he found that positively repugnant. These were metaphysical claims that no one had any scientific evidence to support. He wanted to negate Gnosticism and the gnostic attitudes he found so distasteful and so the prefix a- was used. Thus we see the beginnings of agnosticism as an epistemic principle.

We then saw this label somewhat altered by Christians calling themselves ‘agnostic Christians’ – missing the point that Huxley said that people should not claim to know or believe that which we have no scientific evidence for and using it to identify as Christians that were not as arrogant as the gnostics or said they believed in an unknown God. Equally, we had the likes of Flint arguing for sceptical or agnostic atheism for the same reasons.

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.

Paul Draper
Atheism and Agnosticism

And as I mentioned, the psychological state of being agnostic is not always used in regard to gods, but to any proposition that you suspend judgement on. There is a difference between being agnostic toward a proposition and being AN agnostic. AN agnostic would be, at least most likely, related to God or gods.

I think at this point we have come full circle and have a much better understanding of the evolution of the terms and why they might not have the same suffix, or be using suffixes in a different way.


confused monkey rejects evolution

Language is confusing. Even when there are rules they are often more likely to be guidelines and words get their meaning from use. With the fact that people like to change/tweak words or leave out important information about the words origins and various uses for their specific agendas, we can see how problems can be compounded leaving people to talk past each other and get irate about other uses of words.

I think we at least can understand why atheism, theism, atheist and theist are ISMs and ISTs as they describe distinct practices/philosophies that people ascribe to and identify with, whereas agnostic, at least in the weak sense, is describing an epistemic position where you suspend judgement in a proposition. Essentially, saying you don’t know enough about the topic to be compelled to believe it is either true or false.

We can also understand why that atheism used in the absence of belief or lack of belief sense is atypical for an -ism, but with the rules not being fixed in place nor prescriptive, and language being this thing that changes and evolves with time we can see it is still a valid use, even if it does sometimes result in absurdities.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Tim, the Silenced Swordsman for reading through and pointing out I got too hyperfocused on the suffix and completely forgot to delve into the etymology of the terms.

References and Further Reading:

Posts about Agnosticism

Posts About Atheism