Last modified on December 19, 2023, at 17:48


T. H. Huxley coined the word "agnostic".

Agnosticism is, in weaker forms, an affirmation of ignorance regarding the existence of a God or gods, and in stronger forms, the assertion that the existence of a deity or deities is unknowable. The word agnostic is derived from the Greek word "agnostos" which means "to not know."[1]

According to the philosopher William L. Rowe, "agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist."[2]

By contrast, the formal definition of atheism given by encycylopedias of philosophy such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and other philosophy reference works) is that atheism is a religion that denies the existence of God (see: Definitions of atheist and agnostic).[3]

Beginning in the latter portion of the 20th century and continuing beyond, many agnostics and atheists have argued that the definition of atheism should be a lack of belief in God or gods. [4][5] [6][7]

In terms of contemporary definitions of atheism, the Webster-Merriam Dictionary defines atheism in two ways: "1) a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods 2) a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods."[8] Oxford English Dictionies defines atheism as "Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods."[9]

Types of agnosticism

See also: Types of agnosticism and Agnostic beliefs

Weak and strong agnosticism

See also: Atheism and agnosticism and Antitheism and Denials that atheists exist

The proponent of the weaker form does not make a claim to knowledge about existence, but he simply suspends from making a decision. A suspension of decision, in terms of logic, does not have a truth value, and therefore they are not making an argument. The proponent of the stronger form goes a step further and makes a claim to knowledge by saying, I know that the existence of God cannot be known.

Apathetic agnosticism

See also: Apatheism and Atheism and apathy

Apathetic agnosticism is not knowing if God/gods exists exist and not caring if God/gods exist.

Agnostic beliefs

See: Agnostic beliefs

Origin of the word agnosticism

The word "agnostic" was coined in 1869 by T. H. Huxley[10] from the Greek roots a- not, and -gnostic, knowing; the philosopher Herbert Spencer was influential in spreading its use. One nineteenth century saw held that "There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet."[11]

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Origin of the word agnostic

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Though there are a couple of references in The Oxford English Dictionary to earlier occurrences of the word ‘agnostic’, it seems (perhaps independently) to have been introduced by T. H. Huxley at a party in London to found the Metaphysical Society... Huxley thought that as many of these people liked to describe themselves as adherents of various ‘isms’ he would invent one for himself. He took it from a description in Acts 17:23 of an altar inscribed ‘to an unknown God’.[12]

History of agnosticism

See also: History of agnosticism

Up until at least 1970, there was a rise of agnosticism in the world. However, in the latter part of the 20th century and beyond, there was a decline of global agnosticism (see: History of agnosticism).

T. H. Huxley was an vociferous proponent of Darwinism and the worldview of Darwinism had extremely harmful effects on the world as it was influential in terms of Social Darwinism, Communism, Nazism and evolutionary racism (See: History of agnosticism).

The agnostic George Dvorsky points out that due to the greater intensity of the atheism vs. religion ideological struggle for cultural dominance, agnosticism has been pushed to the philosophical sidelines.[13]

Analysis of agnosticism and common objections to agnosticism

Common arguments for the existence of God

Norman Geisler on complete agnosticism

See also: Agnosticism quotes

Christian apologist Norman Geisler wrote on complete agnosticism:

Complete agnosticism is self-defeating; it reduces to the self-destructing assertion that "one knows enough about reality in order to affirm that nothing can be known about reality." This statement provides within itself all that is necessary to falsify itself. For if one knows something about reality, then he surely cannot affirm in the same breath that all of reality is unknowable. And of course if one knows nothing whatsoever about reality, then he has no basis whatsoever for making a statement about reality. It will not suffice to say that his knowledge about reality is purely and completely negative, that is, a knowledge of what one cannot meaningfully affirm that something is not – that it follows that total agnosticism is self-defeating because it assumes some knowledge about reality in order to deny any knowledge of reality (Geisler, Apologetics, p. 20).[14]

Shaun Doyle: Four problems with agnosticism

Shaun Doyle writes:

First, either God exists, or He doesn’t. And, theism and atheism imply starkly different worlds. Atheism is a world of no objective purpose, meaning, beauty, or value. Theism expects science to work; it’s a massive accident if God doesn’t exist. But this contradicts strong agnosticism, which entails that theistic and atheistic worlds must be indiscernible. It also means weak agnosticism is flawed. The wildly different implications of theism and atheism make it unreasonable to remain agnostic forever.

Second, the weak agnostic might be unreasonably incredulous regarding the evidence for God. For instance, most Muslims reject the historicity of Jesus’ death by crucifixion based on the Koran (e.g. Surah 4:157), despite the fact there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion. Muslims refuse to accept an obvious truth due to a deeply held prior commitment. If so many people can be blinded to well-evidenced truths due to a faulty bias, it’s not hard to see that the same is possible for the agnostic.

Third, it assumes that their allegedly poor position to know about God is permanent. Rather, a person’s ability to know truths fluctuates with changing circumstances. It may be that they were once in a better position to know, or that they will come into a better position to know. The weak agnostic’s ability to know about God is in principle provisional.

Finally, a dogged stance of doubt in the face of uncertainty is not very reasonable. For instance, Jesus said: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The psalmist said: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). God’s goodness is worth grasping, and He is willing to answer those who seek after Him. As such, even if there is such a thing as reasonable uncertainty, that need not translate (and if God exists, certainly should not translate) into reasonable doubt.[15]

Laurence B. Brown on agnosticism

The Islamic scholar Laurence B. Brown raises the question to agnostics: ""You claim that nothing can be known with certainty ... how, then, can you be so sure?"[16]

Agnosticism is often seen as cowardly and fence sitting

See also: Agnosticism and cowardice

Both theists and atheists frequently accuse agnostics of being cowardly, due to their wishy-washy rejection of God.[17] Studs Terkel, a self-described agnostic, jokingly referred to the frequent charge of agnostics being called cowardly, "You happen to be talking to an agnostic. You know what an agnostic is? A cowardly atheist".[18]

It is also said by particular Christian groups, particularly but not exclusively in the United States of America, that those who know of Jesus but do not accept Him are just as damned as those who reject Him explicitly.

Agnostic Richard Dawkins and accusations of cowardice

Richard Dawkins
The Oxford University Professor Daniel Came wrote to the agnostic Richard Dawkins:: "The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part."[19]

See also: Agnosticism and debate

The evolutionists Richard Dawkins is an agnostic who flip-flops his public persona between being an agnostic and being an atheist (See: Richard Dawkins and agnosticism).

The Oxford University Professor Daniel Came (an atheist) wrote to Richard Dawkins: "The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part."[20]

In October 2011, William Lane Craig went to England and the Daily Telegraph declared that Dawkins is either a fool or a coward for his refusal to debate William Lane Craig plus declared that Dawkins is a "proud man" and a "coward" who puts on an "illiterate, angry schtick" for the public.[21] In addition, Christian apologist Ken Ammi called Dawkins a "cowardly clown" because Dawkins and other prominent atheists refused to debate Creation Ministries International at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention.[22]

Shmuley Boteach (see license agreement)

Below are some resources relating to Dawkins refusal to debate various debate opponents:

In addition, respected biochemist and intelligent design researcher Dr Michael Behe has openly challenged prominent evolutionists and proponents of Darwinism to debate him regarding the many failings of evolutionism, yet Richard Dawkins - one of the most outspoken Darwinists today - has declined all such invitations.

Agnosticism vs. biblical worldview

See also: Atheism vs. Christianity and Atheism and the Bible

The Christian website states:

The Bible tells us that we must accept by faith that God exists. Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith “it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” God is spirit (John 4:24) so He cannot be seen or touched. Unless God chooses to reveal Himself, He is invisible to our senses (Romans 1:20). The Bible declares that the existence of God can be clearly seen in the universe (Psalm 19:1-4), sensed in nature (Romans 1:18-22), and confirmed in our own hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Agnostics are unwilling to make a decision either for or against God’s existence. It is the ultimate “straddling the fence” position. Theists believe that God exists. Atheists believe that God does not exist. Agnostics believe that we should not believe or disbelieve in God’s existence, because it is impossible to know either way.[23]

Agnosticism and atheism vs. other theism arguments

Agnosticism and morality

See also: American agnosticism and political views statistics and Atheism and morality

Barna Group studies: Atheism and morality

Barna Group study on behavior of agnostics vs. evangelical Christians:

Richard Deem wrote:

A random sample of 1003 adults were surveyed in May, 2008 by The Barna Group for their participation in a number of negative behaviors within the previous week. The results showed that there were vast differences in the behaviors of evangelicals compared to agnostics/atheists.

These results show that atheists/agnostics participate in morally questionable behaviors to a much greater degree than evangelical Christians - an average of nearly five times the frequency![24]

Barna Group study related to agnostics' beliefs about behaviors:

The Barna Group found that agnostics and atheists in America were more likely, than theists in America, to look upon the following behaviors as morally acceptable: illegal drug use; excessive drinking; sexual relationships outside of marriage; abortion; cohabitating with someone of opposite sex outside of marriage; obscene language; gambling; pornography and obscene sexual behavior; and engaging in homosexuality/bisexuality.[25]

Given the many diseases associated with homosexuality, the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is quite arguably one of the many example where the Bible exhibited knowledge that was ahead of its time. See also: Atheism and sexuality immorality

Agnosticism and Uncharitableness

See also: Agnosticism and charity

Per capita agnostics and atheists in the United States give significantly less to charity than theists.

Aldous Huxley and sexual immorality quote

See also: Atheism and meaninglessness

Aldous Huxley

The agnostic Aldous Huxley wrote:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning - the Christian meaning, they insisted - of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.[26]

Agnosticism and loneliness

Compared to deeply religious cultures where an extended family and a sense of community often exists, secular countries are often lonelier societies.

See also: Agnosticism and loneliness

The agnostic Lyndsay West wrote in Religion News:

I know that I am not the only 25-year-old agnostic in the world, but the fellowship that is so easily accessible within the Christian community seems relatively lacking for nonbelievers. I went from being inundated by church events celebrating like-mindedness to feeling pathological in my irreligious rebirth.[27]

Compared to deeply religious cultures where an extended family and a sense of community often exists, secular countries are often lonelier societies.

For more information, please see:

Agnosticism and demographics

See also: Demographics of agnosticism and United States, irreligion vs. religion and demographics and Atheist population

American agnosticism and gender

Pew Forum reported about agnosticism/gender in the United States:

Atheists and agnostics are much more likely to be male (64%) than female (36%). Americans who identify their religion as “nothing in particular” are more evenly divided: 53% are men, and 47% are women.[28]

Western agnosticism and race

See also: Western agnosticism and race and Western atheism and race

Pew Forum reported about agnosticism/race in the United States:

Atheists and agnostics are particularly likely to be non-Hispanic whites. Fully eight-in-ten atheists and agnostics (82%) are white, 3% are black, 6% are Hispanic, and the remainder is of some other race or of mixed race."[29]

For more information, please see: Western agnosticism and race

Global agnosticism

See also: Global agnosticism and Desecularization and Agnosticism statistics and Global atheism

Secular Europe has one of the highest rates of agnosticism rates in the world.

According to the agnostic and religious demography scholar Eric Kaufmann, in the Europe of tomorrow, immigration and religious fertility will increase the proportion of committed Christians in Europe, many from the developing world.[30] See: Desecularization In 2015, Pew Research indicated in their report The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 that agnostics and atheists “will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”[31]

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated that agnostics made up about 12.8% of the global adult population in 2015. CSGC projects that agnostics will makeup about 11.5% of the global adult population in 2025 and 9.1% of the global adult population in 2050.[32]

The agnostic Eric Kaufmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London and author. His academic research specialty is how demographic changes affect religion/irreligion and politics.

Kaufmann wrote in 2010:

Worldwide, the march of religion can probably only be reversed by a renewed, self-aware secularism. Today, it appears exhausted and lacking in confidence... Secularism's greatest triumphs owe less to science than to popular social movements like nationalism, socialism and 1960s anarchist-liberalism. Ironically, secularism's demographic deficit means that it will probably only succeed in the twenty-first century if it can create a secular form of 'religious' enthusiasm." [33]

According to Kaufmann, in the Europe of tomorrow, immigration and religious fertility will increase the proportion of committed Christians in Europe, many from the developing world.[34]

Frequency in Western World Countries

Financial Times (FT)/Harris Poll among adults in 5 countries in 2006

Agnosticism has become a fairly common belief system in Western culture with 14% of people in the United States, 32% of people in France and 35% of people in Great Britain self-identifying as agnostics.[35]

Agnosticism statistics

See: Agnosticism statistics

Agnosticism debates

See also: Agnosticism debates

Despite there being more self-described agnostics in the world than self-described atheists (See also: Definitions of Atheist and Agnostic),[36] since at least the latter part of the 20th century, there have been more atheism vs. Christianity debates than atheism vs. agnosticism debates (see: Atheism debates and Atheism vs. Christianity debates). In recent times, however, there have been notable cases of atheists being unwilling to engage in debates (see: Atheism and cowardice).

Intelligent design proponent Phillip E. Johnson debated the evolutionary paleontologist and agnostic Stephen Gould at Harvard University before a select audience of elite American intellectuals in a closed door event not open to the public. The debate was considered a draw. At the end of the debate, Johnson hugged Gould and he noticed in the embrace that Gould was nervously shaking.[37]

For a listing of notable agnosticism related debates, please see: Agnosticism debates

Betrand Russell on agnosticism

An essay by the Christian apologist Dr. James Spiegel describes Bertrand Russell as a "misogynistic and a serial adulterer; a chronic seducer of women, especially very young women, even in his old age."[38]

Bertrand Russell once wrote that, in describing his beliefs,

I never know whether I should say 'Agnostic' or whether I should say 'Atheist'.... As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one [can] prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.[39]

In 1927, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled "Why I am not a Christian" which was based on a lecture Russell gave the same year.[40][41]

Below are some works by Christian apologists which show the inconsistencies and logical fallacies of Bertrand Russell's essay:

Charles Darwin and agnosticism

evolution darwin theory
Late in Charles Darwin's life, Darwin told the Duke of Argyll that he frequently had overwhelming thoughts that the natural world was the result of design.[42] In a letter to Asa Gray, Darwin confided: "...I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science."[43]

Charles Darwin likely abandoned Christianity as a student when he disappointed his father by refusing to become a minister. In his autobiography Charles Darwin wrote about the diminishment of his religious faith and Darwin stated that he was an agnostic.[44] Darwin wrote the following: "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."[45] However, Darwin stated in his private notebooks that he was a materialist, which is a type of atheist.[46] [47][48] In the 1996 British Journal for the Philosophy of Science Kim Sterelny wrote in a book review the following: "I have no doubt that Darwin was a materialist and a mechanist..."[49] See: Religious views of Charles Darwin

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states regarding a candid admission of Charles Darwin:

In 1885, the Duke of Argyll recounted a conversation he had had with Charles Darwin the year before Darwin's death:

In the course of that conversation I said to Mr. Darwin, with reference to some of his own remarkable works on the Fertilisation of Orchids, and upon The Earthworms, and various other observations he made of the wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in nature—I said it was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and the expression of Mind. I shall never forget Mr. Darwin's answer. He looked at me very hard and said, “Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,” and he shook his head vaguely, adding, “it seems to go away.”(Argyll 1885, 244)[50]

For most of his adult life Charles Darwin suffered from very poor health.[51] The 1992 New Encyclopaedia Britannica stated that Darwin's illness was psychogenic in origin (A psychogenic illness is one that originates in the mind or in mental condition).[52] see: Charles Darwin's illness

Famous agnostics

See also: Famous agnostics and Ex-agnostics

Famous ex-agnostics

Agnosticism quotes

See: Agnosticism quotes

See also

External links


  1. Agnosticism -
  2. Rowe, William L. (1998). "Agnosticism". In Edward Craig. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-07310-3. "In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in God, whereas an atheist disbelieves in God. In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist. In so far as one holds that our beliefs are rational only if they are sufficiently supported by human reason, the person who accepts the philosophical position of agnosticism will hold that neither the belief that God exists nor the belief that God does not exist is rational."
  3. Multiple references:
  4. Day, Donn R. (2007). "Atheism - etymology".
  5. Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  6. Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.
  7. Britain is a less religious country than the United States and the online Oxford Dictionaries offers both the narrow/broad definitions of atheism (As noted in a previous footnote the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is a traditional American dictionary, offers a more narrow definition of atheism similar to the definition that major encyclopedias of philosophy use). Oxford Dictionaries: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.[2]
  8. Atheism, Webster-Merriam dictionary
  9. Atheism, Oxford online dictionary
  10. T. H. Huxley was also an early and influential supporter of Darwinism.
  11. London, Jack (1913), Martin Eden, Chapter 13
  12. [Atheism and Agnosticism], Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  13. Why Agnosticism Probably Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means by George Dvorsky
  15. Agnosticism by Shaun Doyle
  16. Laurence B. Brown (February 2008). MisGod'ed: A Roadmap of Guidance and Misguidance in the Abrahamic Religions.
  17. Studs Terkel, a self-described agnostic, jokingly referred to the frequent charge of agnostics being called cowardly, "You happen to be talking to an agnostic. You know what an agnostic is? A cowardly atheist".[3]
  18. Interview:Studs Terkel, PBS
  19. Richard Dawkins accused of cowardice for refusing to debate existence of God, The Daily Telegraph, May 14, 2011
  20. Richard Dawkins accused of cowardice for refusing to debate existence of God, The Daily Telegraph, May 14, 2011
  21. Richard Dawkins is either a fool or a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig - October 21, 2011 - The Daily Telegraph
  22. Richard Dawkins, the Cowardly Clown
  23. What is agnosticism?,
  24. Atheism Doesn't Lead to Immoral Behavior - Or Does It? by Richard Deem
  25. Practical outcomes replace biblical principles as the moral standard, Barna Group
  26. Aldous Huxley quote
  27. Agnostics need more support in coming out to family and friends By Lyndsay West
  28. “Nones” on the Rise - Demographics, Pew Forum
  29. “Nones” on the Rise - Demographics, Pew Forum
  30. Shall the Righteous Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Eric Kaufmann
  31. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050, Pew Research Forum
  32. Status of Global Christianity, 2015, in the Context of 1900–2050
  33. Shall the religious inherit the earth? - Eric Kaufmann
  34. Shall the Righteous Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Eric Kaufmann
  36. Table on the projected global shrinkage/growth of various worldviews including atheism and agnosticism (Source: Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)
  37. Meyer on Phillip Johnson’s Courage, ID the Future website, the account of the debate begins at the 4 minute 45 second portion of the audio recording
  38. The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief By James Spiegel, page 72, Moody Publishers, 2010
  39. Russell, Bertrand (1947) Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? Most online sources say "by which one prove," probably a mistake.
  47. Barrett, Paul H. Darwin on Man 1974:276
  48. American Scientist May 1977:323
  49. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Volume 47, 1996, page 641
  55. Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: a Personal View of Scientific Discovery, Basic Books reprint edition, 1990, ISBN 0-465-09138-5, p. 145.