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Agnostics and Agnosticism

Agnostic-Atheists. Agnostic-Theists.
More definitions. Famous Agnostics.

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Can an Agnostic also be an Atheist?

Theists believe in the existence of a God, or a Goddess, or in multiple Gods, or multiple Goddesses or in a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Agnostics believe that the existence of a deity can neither be proven nor disproven.

However, some Agnostics consider themselves to be Atheists. That is because the term "Atheist" has two slightly different meanings:

1. Strong Atheist: A person who positively believes that no God(s) or Goddess(es) exists. E. Haldeman-Julius suggests that:
"The atheist perceives that history, in every branch of science, in the plainly observable realities of life and in the processes of common sense there is no place for the picture of a God; the idea doesn't fit in with a calmly reasoned and realistic view of life. The atheist, therefore denies the assumptions of theism because they are mere assumptions and are not proved; whereas the contrary evidences, against the idea of theism, are overwhelming." 1
This is the definition of Atheism used by most Christians, other Theists, and dictionaries of the English language.

2. A person who has no belief in a God or Goddess. Just as most people believe that a newborn has no concept of a deity, some adults also have no such belief. The term "Atheist" is derived from the Greek words "a" which means "without" and "Theos" which means "God." A person can be a non-Theist by simply lacking a belief in God without actively denying God's existence. This is the definition of Atheism used by many Atheists.

Some Agnostics feel that their beliefs match the second definition, and thus consider themselves to be both Atheist and an Agnostic. Such confusion is common throughout the field of religion. We have found 17 definitions for the term "Witch," eight for "cult," and six for the "Pagan." -- all different. A lack of clear, unambiguous definitions for religious terms is responsible for a great deal of confusion and hatred. It makes dialog among Agnostics, Theists, and Atheists very difficult. In fact, when such a dialogue is attempted, it should be preceded with a long session to agree on a set of definitions.

As currently defined, most Agnostics hold the question of the existence of God open, pending the arrival of more evidence. They would be willing to change their belief if some solid evidence or logical proof is found in the future.

Can an Agnostic also be a Theist?

Agnostic-Theist: A Theist firmly believes in the existence of a God. An Agnostic has concluded that there is no proof for either the existence or non-existence of God. However, these two beliefs are not necessarily mutually exclusive. An Agnostic could still believe in the existence of God even though they accept that there is no proof either way.

Further definitions and subdivisions:

Three main meanings have been associated with "Agnostic" over the past century and a half:
 
bulletHuxley defined agnosticism as follows: "... it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism." 2
 
bullet"... an agnostic is someone who not only is undecided concerning the existence of God, but who also thinks that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable. We cannot know whether or not God exists, according to an agnostic, and should therefore neither believe nor disbelieve in him." 3
 
bulletAn agnostic is undecided about whether or not God exists.

George Smith, the author of "Atheism" 4 divides Agnostics into two types:
 
bulletAgnostic Theists: those who believe that a deity probably exists, even though god's existence cannot be proven;
 
bulletAgnostic Atheists: those who believe that it is very improbable that a deity exists, even though god's non-existence cannot absolutely be proven. 5

Another category of Agnostic are the "Empirical Agnostics."  They believe that God may exist, but that little or nothing can be known about him/her/it/them.

Still another category are "Agnostic Humanists." These individuals are undecided about the existence of God. Further, they do not really consider the question to be particularly important. They have derived their moral and behavioral codes from secular considerations. Their ethical behavior would not be altered if a deity were proven to exist.

Dictionary definitions of "Agnostic:"

The word is often used to refer to a person who is uncertain about something other than the existence of God -- global warming, HIV as the cause of AIDS, an afterlife, etc. However, in its religious sense, we have found the following definitions of Agnostic:

bulletHoughton Mifflin: "One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God. One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism." 6
 
bulletColumbia encyclopedia: "[A belief] that the existence of God cannot be logically proved or disproved. Agnosticism is not to be confused with atheism which asserts that there is no God." 7
 
bulletWikipedia: ['A belief] that the (truth) values of certain claims -- particularly theological claims regarding the existence of God, gods, or deities -- are unknown, inherently unknowable, or incoherent, and therefore, irrelevant to life." 8
 
bulletMerriam-Webster: "A person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god." 9
 
bulletDie.net: "One who professes ignorance, or denies that we have any knowledge, save of phenomena; one who supports agnosticism, neither affirming nor denying the existence of a personal Deity, a future life, etc." 10
 
bulletWordNet: " A person who claims that they cannot have true knowledge about the existence of God (but does not deny that God might exist)." 11
 
bulletWiktionary: "Doubtful or uncertain about the existence or demonstrability of God or other deity. 12

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Famous Agnostics:

Charles Darwin, a 19th century British self-taught geologist and writer. He attended a course in theology at Christ's College, Cambridge. Darwin wrote in two places in his book "Life and Letters" about his personal faith:

"The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."
"I think an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind. The whole subject [of God] is beyond the scope of man's intellect."
Thomas H. Huxley, a well known English religious skeptic, invented the term Agnostic in the mid 19th century (sources differ about the exact date). In 1899, he wrote:

"...every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him." 13

He also wrote:

"When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last...So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant..." 14

Robert G. Ingersoll is perhaps the most famous American Agnostic of the 19th century. He commented on the problem of theodicy -- the presence of evil in a universe that many people believe was created and is run by God: 

"There is no subject -- and can be none -- concerning which any human being is under any obligation to believe without evidence...The man who, without prejudice, reads and understands the Old and New Testaments will cease to be an orthodox Christian. The intelligent man who investigates the religion of any country without fear and without prejudice will not and cannot be a believer....He who cannot harmonize the cruelties of the Bible with the goodness of Jehovah, cannot harmonize the cruelties of Nature with the goodness and wisdom of a supposed Deity. He will find it impossible to account for pestilence and famine, for earthquake and storm, for slavery, for the triumph of the strong over the weak, for the countless victories of injustice. He will find it impossible to account for martyrs -- for the burning of the good, the noble, the loving, by the ignorant, the malicious, and the infamous. " 15

Bertrand Russell was a well known British philosopher of the 20th century. He was arrested during World War I for anti-war activities, and filled out a form at the jail. The officer, noting that Russell had defined his religious affiliation as "Agnostic" commented: "Ah yes; we all worship Him in our own way, don't we."  This comment allegedly "kept him smiling through his first few days of incarceration." 16

Francois M. Arouet, the French 18th century author and playwright who worked under the pseudonym Voltaire is often considered the father of Agnosticism.

References used:

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

  1. E. Haldeman-Julius, "The Meaning Of Atheism," at: http://www.infidels.org/
  2. "Agnostic definition," Essortment, at: http://azaz.essortment.com/
  3. "Theism, Atheism and Agnosticsm," Philosophy of Religion, at: http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/
  4. George Smith, "Atheism: The case against God (Skeptic's bookshelf)," Prometheus Books, (1980). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. G.H. Smith, "Atheism: The case against God," Prometheus, (1980) Read 24 fascinating reviews and/or safely order this book from Amazon.com online bookstore
  6. Yahoo! education, at: http://education.yahoo.com/
  7. Columbia Encyclopedia, at: http://columbia.thefreedictionary.com/
  8. Wikipedia, at: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/
  9. Merriam-Webster, at: http://www.m-w.com/
  10. "Definition: agnostic," at: http://dict.die.net/
  11. WorldNetWeb, at: http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/
  12. Wiktionary, at: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki
  13. Thomas H. Huxley, "Agnosticism," (1889). Online at: http://www.infidels.org/
  14. J. Hastings, ed., "Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics"
  15. R.G. Ingersoll, "Why I am an Agnostic," at: http://www.infidels.org/
  16. See a brief note in the Atheists-for-Jesus website at: http://www.atheists-for-jesus.com/

Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2009-DEC-28
Author: B.A. Robinson.
Links last checked on 2009-DEC-28

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