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Agnostics and Agnosticism

Quotations. Etymology.
History. Beliefs of Agnostics.

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"There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer." Gertrude Stein, attempting to describe Agnosticism.

bullet "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." Thomas Jefferson
bullet"I don't know & you don't either." "Militant Agnostic" bumper sticker from
bullet"I don't 'know' if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world." Bart Ehrman. 19
bullet"True religion, like our founding principles, requires that the rights of the disbeliever be equally acknowledged with those of the believer." A. Powell Davies, Unitarian minister.
bullet"I don't try to imagine a personal god; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it." Albert Einstein, physicist.
bulletBertrand Russell, English philosopher:
bullet"None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of Homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof."

"Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line." 20
bulletWhen asked what he would do if he died and met God, he replied: "Why, I should say, 'God, you gave us insufficient evidence'."

bullet"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.  If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.  If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. I am not afraid." Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor during the 1st century CE.

Etymology & history:

The word "Agnostic" was coined by Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) from two original Greek words: agnôstos, which means ignorant and gnosis which means knowledge. 17 An Agnostic is not simply without knowledge or stupid. Agnostics take the stance that no knowledge of God is now possible; some say that God's existence or non-existence will never be provable.

The French website "Atheism: Man standing on his own two feet" writes that Huxley:

"... took inspiration from the ideas of David Hume and of Emmanuel Kant. Agnosticism is a philosophy that declares absolute, divine, metaphysics -- and more generally that which cannot be grasp by experiment -- is inaccessible to the human mind and to perception. Consequently, the existence of God cannot be proven. Agnosticism professes a complete ignorance about the profound nature, the origin, and the destiny of things. It is a form of skepticism applied to metaphysics and theology.

Already present in the Ancient Greece, agnosticism developed rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries because of scientific discoveries that contradicted many religious dogmas, the Bible and other Holy Scriptures. 17

What is Agnosticism and what do Agnostics believe?

Agnosticism is a concept. It is not a full religion, like Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is a belief related to the existence or non-existence of God. However, many people have added a moral code, rituals and other items to Agnosticism, and have created a belief system with many of the attributes of a religion.

The one principle linking all meanings of "Agnostic" is that God's existence can neither be proved nor disproved, on the basis of current evidence. Agnostics note that some theologians and philosophers have tried to to prove for millennia that God exists. Others have attempted to prove that God does not exist. Agnostics feel that neither side has convincingly succeeded at their task. Further, most Agnostics act on this belief by concluding that they cannot believe -- or disbelieve -- in a deity without evidence.

When asked what their religion is, many of those who are unsure of the existence of a God will reply "Agnostic." Since so many Agnostics regard this as their religion, we have a policy of capitalizing the term out of respect, as we do for all religions on this web site. This is not often seen on the Internet or in print, but we feel that it is appropriate.

When asked whether they believe in the existence of one or more Gods and/or Goddesses, Theists will answer in the affirmative; strong Atheists will say no. Agnostics often cannot give a straight "Yes" or "No" answer. They might respond with one of the following:

bulletI don't know.
bulletThe Gods that various believers worship are like unicorns: they are obviously fictional creations of humanity. But, who knows. They might actually exist.
bulletThere is no way to know, but perhaps someone will find a proof or disproof in the future.
bulletThere will never be any way to know.
bulletThe question is meaningless.
bulletI doubt it, but cannot be sure God doesn't exist.
bulletI think so, but cannot be positive that God exists.
bulletI don't know but will lead my life in the assumption that no God exists.
bulletI don't know but will lead my life assuming that God does exist -- perhaps because of the rewards I would receive if God does exist.
bulletI will have to withhold my opinion until God, if he exists, decides to make his presence known. Rearranging, say, 10,000 stars in the sky to read "I AM" would be a great start. Even recreating an amputated leg would be a strong indicator. But, of course, neither has ever happened.
bulletI think that God exists, but have no proof.
bulletI worship a god (or a god and goddess, or a goddess, or some combination of god(s) and goddess(es) but cannot prove that they exist.
bulletI cannot give an opinion because there is no way that we can prove the existence or non-existence of God given currently available knowledge.
bulletI cannot give an opinion because there is no way to know, with certainty, anything about God, either now or in the future.
bulletYes, God exists. But we do not know anything about God at this time.
bulletYes, God exists. But we have no possibility of knowing anything about God, now or in the future.

Some people criticize Agnostics as simply being indecisive -- unable to make up their mind. But most Agnostics have actually taken a firm stand that it would be meaningless to become a Theist or strong Atheist without evidence. Not being able to prove his/her/its/their existence, most Agnostics consider it unethical or irrational to pick a side.

Many Theists believe that Agnostics are merely going through a phase in their spiritual life. They are actually searching for God, perhaps without being aware of it. They will eventually find God. The Bible promises it.

Ultimately, the term "Agnostic" is something like "Christianity." Both refer to a wide diversity of belief systems. In many cases, an individual asserts that their particular definition is the only fully valid one. There are many definitions circulating, and no real consensus.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Bart Ehrman, "God's Problem: how the Bible fails to answer our most important question -- Why we suffer," Harper One, (2008). Read reviews or order this book
  2. Bertrand Russell, "Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas." (1947) at:
  3. "What is agnosticism,"  Atheism," at:

Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2011-MAY-14
Author: B.A. Robinson.
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