Agnosticism: A Brief History of Doubt

Agnosticism, literally meaning “without knowledge, was first coined by the biologist (and friend and supporter of Charles Darwin) T.X. Huxley. According to Brittanica.com: He coined it as a suitable label for his own position. “It came into my head as suggestively antithetical to the ‘Gnostic’ of Church history who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.”

“... in another 1889 essay “Agnosticism and Christianity,” he contrasted “scientific theology,” with which “agnosticism has no quarrel,” with “Ecclesiasticism, or, as our neighbours across the Channel call it, Clericalism,” and his complaint against the latter’s proponents was not that they reach substantive conclusions different from his own but that they maintain “that it is morally wrong not to believe certain propositions, whatever the results of strict scientific investigation of the evidence of these propositions.” The second possibility, that of an agnosticism that is religious as opposed to secular, was realized perhaps most strikingly in the Buddha. Typically and traditionally, the ecclesiastical Christian has insisted that absolute certainty about some minimum approved list of propositions concerning God and the general divine scheme of things was wholly necessary to salvation. Equally typically, according to the tradition, the Buddha sidestepped all such speculative questions. At best they could only distract attention from the urgent business of salvation—salvation, of course, in his own very different interpretation.”

More recently, the term agnostic has been used in some cases as a substitute word for atheism, the lack of belief in a god. While some people use it to express doubt or lack of conviction for their atheism (i.e. “fence sitters” or “weak atheists” ), as Richard Dawkins described in “The God Delusion”, we stress that agnosticism is more a reason for atheism than a replacement for the term.

Many have quarreled over which word to use and when. Agnostic, as it is correctly defined, is about knowledge, where atheism is about belief, so the two terms are not on a separate scale if taken literally. Indeed, Humanism, agnosticism, and atheism, are often used interchangeably, but taken literally they are all on different scales (Agnosticism is about knowledge, atheism is about belief, Humanism is about ethics). However, the popularity of Dawkins’ scale shows modern usage has shifted from the original intent.

Today, the distinction between agnostic and atheist is less important than the overall lack of belief in the supernatural in general and of gods specifically. The difference between the two terms, then, is not “softness” or “Weakness” as Dawkins implied, but humility.

Agnostics are not weak atheists; they are humble atheists. Agnostics are indeed sometimes quite militant in their convictions (“I’m not sure and neither are you” ). Whatever your degree of conviction is behind your agnosticism, it implies an acknowledgement that while you don’t have a belief in gods (or faeries, or unicorns), you don’t know everything, and when one of those beings shows up, you’ll take in the new evidence an believe in it (after first making sure it’s not a hoax).

Agnosticism is modest, humble, and anti-extreme in its atheism. You don’t believe in any gods per se, but you’re aware of your own limitations and are therefore not willing to rule out gods, or anything about which you don’t know. To be sure, there is lots of room for discussion on the terms, and we at agnostic.com don’t really care what you call yourself.

Indeed, you could say we are agnostic about labels or their correct usage. After all, we could be wrong.

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