A dictionary definition of the term 'agnostic':
- One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a
- One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess
- One who is doubtful or noncommittal about something.
Word History: An agnostic does not deny the existence of God and heaven but holds that one cannot know for certain whether or not they exist. The term agnostic was fittingly coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge. He made up the word from the prefix a-, meaning “without, not,” as in amoral, and the noun Gnostic. Gnostic
is related to the Greek word gnsis, “knowledge,” which was used by early Christian writers to mean “higher, esoteric knowledge of spiritual things” hence, Gnostic referred to those with such knowledge. In coining the term agnostic, Huxley was considering as “Gnostics” a group of his fellow intellectuals“ists,” as he called them who had eagerly embraced various doctrines or theories that explained the world to their satisfaction. Because he was a “man without a rag of a label to cover himself with,” Huxley coined the term agnostic for himself, its first published use being in 1870.
What Is an agnostic?
An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
Are agnostics atheists?
No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.
The agnostics' claim is denied by the Bible:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
What is the difference between atheists and agnostics?
There are several problems with trying to defend the label "atheist" as one who is convinced that God does not exist.
Atheists. First, an atheist is faced with proving a "universal negative," which is very difficult (but not always impossible) to do.5 For example, in order to prove with complete certainty that there are no white crows anywhere in the universe, we would have to search every portion of the universe thoroughly and simultaneously (in case the white one flies away as we approach). By analogy, to prove with complete certainty that God does not exist would require virtually infinite knowledge of the material world and the immaterial world and anything hypothetically "beyond" both states of existence.
Second, the atheist must produce better alternative explanations to account for the wealth of empirical and scientific evidence that points to an intelligent designer. This entity certainly must be greater than the universe produced.
Third, most atheists are materialists, believing that the only reality is the physical universe. They find it difficult to address adequately the existence of nonmaterial realities, such as numbers, moral values, ideas, and consciousness. For these and other reasons, most unbelievers avoid the label "atheist."
Agnostics. Such God-doubters redefine the term "atheist" to mean "agnostic," equivalent to nontheist. Or they may simply prefer to say they are "agnostic," having little or no knowledge that would lead them to believe any god or gods exist. The term "agnostic" was devised by T. H. Huxley, who said that one must follow reason "as far as it can take you," but then, as the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, "frankly and honestly to recognize the limits of your knowledge."6 Agnosticism may be applied in a limited way to a variety of worldview areas, although in this article we refer specifically to agnosticism about the existence of God.
Agnostics may argue that they do not have sufficient information to believe that God exists, but that such information might be possessed by someone else, and might, in fact, come into their possession in the future. This kind of agnostic is the easiest kind to talk with, because he or she is open to evaluating new arguments and evidence. This kind of agnostic is not predisposed against the gospel and is willing to consider changing his or her beliefs.
Other agnostics believe that no one can know at this time that God exists. They acknowledge, however, that it may become possible to know in the future (e.g., when science becomes sufficiently advanced, or humans evolve enough mentally and spiritually).
Some agnostics believe that it is inherently impossible to know if God exists. They might think that God is so "other" or qualitatively different that He is impossible to "know." They might argue from analogy that just as it is impossible for a snail to understand a mathematical formula, or for a man to understand what it is like to be a woman, so is it impossible for a human to understand or know God.
Another agnostic might argue that human language is based on human experiences in the material world, and so it is limited to describing things in the material world. Since God is immaterial, we can never use language that adequately describes Him, nor can He communicate His existence to us. Still other agnostics maintain that we can only know what we can test empirically, or with the senses, such as in a laboratory. Since God is immaterial (if He exists), He cannot be empirically discerned and therefore we can never know of His existence. These last two kinds of agnostics are the most difficult to communicate with, but even they can be challenged to consider the claims of Christianity. Like people everywhere, they have a conscience and are confronted with God's power and wisdom in His creation (see Rom. 1:20-32; 2:14-15).
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