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Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions. In some senses, agnosticism is a stance about the differences between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief. As such, the term agnostic does not necessarily signal a particular view about religion or God, as some agnostics also identify as theists or atheists.

Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist, coined the word agnostic in 1860. However, earlier thinkers and written works have promoted agnostic points of view. They include Protagoras, a 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher, and a creation story in the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu religious text. Since Huxley coined the term, many other thinkers have written extensively about agnosticism, ranging from Albert Einstein to Pope Benedict XVI.

Defining agnosticism

Demographic research services normally list agnostics in the same category as atheists and/or non-religious people. Some sources use agnostic in the sense of noncommittal. Agnosticism oftentimes overlaps with other belief systems. Agnostic theists identify themselves both as agnostics and as followers of particular religions, viewing agnosticism as a framework for thinking about the nature of belief and their relation to revealed truths. Some nonreligious people, such as author Philip Pullman, identify as both agnostic and atheist.

Etymology

Agnostic (Greek: α- a-, without + γνώσις gnōsis, knowledge) was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1860 to describe his philosophy which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge. Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe "spiritual knowledge." Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the ancient religious movement of Gnosticism in particular; Huxley used the term in a broader, more abstract sense. Huxley identified agnosticism not as a creed but rather as a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.

In recent years, scientific literature dealing with neuroscience and psychology has used the word to mean "not knowable". In technical and marketing literature, agnostic often has a meaning close to "independent"—for example, "platform agnostic" or "hardware agnostic."

Qualifying agnosticism

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume contended that meaningful statements about the universe are always qualified by some degree of doubt.. He asserted that the fallibility of human beings means that they cannot obtain absolute certainty except in trivial cases where a statement is true by definition (i.e. tautologies such as "all bachelors are unmarried" or "all triangles have three angles"). All rational statements that assert a factual claim about the universe that begin "I believe that ...." are simply shorthand for, "Based on my knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of the prevailing evidence, I tentatively believe that...." For instance, when one says, "I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy," one is not asserting an absolute truth but a tentative belief based on interpretation of the assembled evidence. Even though one may set an alarm clock prior to the following day, believing that waking up will be possible, that belief is tentative, tempered by a small but finite degree of doubt (the earth might be destroyed, or one might die before the alarm goes off).

The Catholic Church sees merit in examining what it calls Partial Agnosticism, specifically those systems that "do not aim at constructing a complete philosophy of the Unknowable, but at excluding special kinds of truth, notably religious, from the domain of knowledge." However, the Church is historically opposed to a full denial of the ability of human reason to know God. The Council of the Vatican, relying on biblical scripture, declares that "God, the beginning and end of all, can, by the natural light of human reason, be known with certainty from the works of creation" (Const. De Fide, II, De Rev.)

Types of agnosticism

Agnosticism can be subdivided into several categories. Recently suggested variations include:
Strong agnosticism (also called "hard," "closed," "strict," or "permanent agnosticism"): the view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, "I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you."
Weak agnosticism (also called "soft," "open," "empirical," or "temporal agnosticism"): the view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until/if any evidence is available. A weak agnostic would say, "I don't know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day when there is evidence we can find something out."
Apathetic agnosticism (also called Pragmatic agnosticism): the view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of any deity, but since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic.
Agnostic atheism: the view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but do not believe in any.
Agnostic theism (also called "spiritual agnosticism"): the view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence. Søren Kierkegaard believed that knowledge of any deity is impossible, and because of that people who want to be theists must believe: "If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe." (See Knowledge vs. Beliefs.)
Ignosticism: the view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition isn't coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable. A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept "a deity exists" as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against. An ignostic cannot even say whether he/she is a theist or a nontheist until a better definition of theism is put forth.


History of agnostic thought

Since Huxley first used the term, several writers have defended agnosticism as a philosophical viewpoint. A number of earlier thinkers and writings have explored agnostic thought.

Agnosticism in the Rigveda

The Rigveda is an ancient Indian text, considered sacred in Hinduism, that dates from between 1700 and 1100 BCE Agnostic ideas are explored in the Nasadiya Sukta, a creation hymn that describes the emergence of the universe. The last lines of the text read:

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only He knows—or perhaps He does not know.

In Greek Philosophy

Agnostic thought, in the form of skepticism, emerged as a formal philosophical position in ancient Greece. Its proponents included Protagoras, Pyrrho, and Carneades. Such thinkers rejected the idea that certainty was possible.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Henry Huxley.


Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism, but the terms agnostic and agnosticism were created by Huxley to sum up his thoughts on contemporary developments of metaphysics about the "unconditioned" (Hamilton) and the "unknowable" (Herbert Spencer). It is important, therefore, to discover Huxley's own views on the matter. Though Huxley began to use the term "agnostic" in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively:

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter...


It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions...


That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.


And again, to the same correspondent, May 6, 1863:

I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.


Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave the following account:

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; 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. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.


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. To my great satisfaction the term took.


Huxley's agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established Jewish and Christian doctrines. Agnosticism should not, however, be confused with natural theology, deism, pantheism, or other science positive forms of theism.

By way of clarification, Huxley states, "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" (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889). Although A. W. Momerie has noted that this is nothing but a definition of honesty, Huxley's usual definition goes beyond mere honesty to insist that these metaphysical issues are fundamentally unknowable.

Robert G. Ingersoll

Robert G.
Ingersoll.


Robert G. Ingersoll, an Illinoismarker lawyer and politician who evolved into a well-known and sought-after orator in 19th century America, has been referred to as the "Great Agnostic."

In an 1896 lecture titled Why I Am An Agnostic, Ingersoll related why he was an agnostic:

Is there a supernatural power—an arbitrary mind—an enthroned God—a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world—to which all causes bow? I do not deny. I do not know—but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme—that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken—that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer—no power that worship can persuade or change—no power that cares for man.


I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all—that there is no interference—no chance—that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.


Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.


In the conclusion of the speech he simply sums up the agnostic position as:

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.


Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell


Bertrand Russell's pamphlet, Why I Am Not a Christian, based on a speech delivered in 1927 and later included in a book of the same title, is considered a classic statement of agnosticism. The essay briefly lays out Russell’s objections to some of the arguments for the existence of God before discussing his moral objections to Christian teachings. He then calls upon his readers to "stand on their own two feet and look fair and square at the world," with a "fearless attitude and a free intelligence."

In 1939, Russell gave a lecture on The existence and nature of God, in which he characterized himself as an atheist. He said:

The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise; and my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter.


However, later in the same lecture, discussing modern non-anthropomorphic concepts of God, Russell states:

That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can.


In Russell's 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:

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.


In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:

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.


However, later in the essay, Russell says:

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.


Criticism of agnosticism

Agnosticism is criticized from a variety of standpoints. Some religious thinkers see agnosticism as a rejection of the revealed truth of their religion beyond simply doubting one's faith. Some atheists also criticize the use of the term agnosticism as functionally indistinguishable from atheism.

Religious criticism

Most theistic thinkers repudiate the validity of agnosticism, or certain forms of agnosticism. Religious scholars in the three Abrahamic religions affirm the possibility of knowledge, even of metaphysical realities such as God and the soul, because human intelligence, they assert, has a non-material, spiritual element. They affirm that “not being able to see or hold some specific thing does not necessarily negate its existence,” as in the case of gravity, entropy, or reason and thought.
Blaise Pascal


Religious scholars, such as Brown, Tacelli, and Kreeft, argue that agnosticism does not take into account the numerous evidence of his existence that God has placed in his creation. And for this, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli cite 20 arguments for God’s existence. They assert that agnosticism's demand for scientific evidence through laboratory testing is in effect asking God, the supreme being, to become man’s servant. They argue that the question of God should be treated differently from other knowable objects in that "this question regards not that which is below us, but that which is above us." Christian Philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that, even if there were truly no evidence for God, agnostics should consider what is now known as Pascal’s Wager: the infinite expected value of acknowledging God is always greater than the finite expected value of not acknowledging his existence, and thus it is a safer “bet” to choose God.

According to Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, agnosticism, more specifically strong agnosticism, is reasoning that limits and contradicts itself in claiming the power of reason to know scientific truth, but not religious or philosophical truths. He blames the exclusion of reasoning from religion and ethics for the dangerous pathologies of religion and science such as human and ecological disasters. “Agnosticism,” said Ratzinger, “is always the fruit of a refusal of that knowledge which is in fact offered to man [...] The knowledge of God has always existed.” He asserted that agnosticism is a choice of comfort, pride, dominion, and utility over truth, and is opposed by the following attitudes: the keenest self-criticism, humble listening to the whole of existence, the persistent patience and self-correction of the scientific method, a readiness to be purified by the truth.

According to some theistic scholars, agnosticism is impossible in actual practice, since a person can live only either as if God did not exist (etsi Deus non daretur), or as if God did exist (etsi Deus daretur). These scholars believe that each day in a person’s life is an unavoidable step towards death, and thus not to decide for or against God, whom they view as the all-encompassing foundation, purpose, and meaning of life, is to decide in favor of atheism.

Atheist criticism

According to Richard Dawkins, a distinction between agnosticism and atheism is unwieldy and depends on how close to zero we are willing to rate the existence of any given god-like entity. Since in practice it is not worth contrasting a zero probability with a probability that is nearly indistinguishable from zero, he prefers to categorize himself as a "de facto atheist".

See also



Notes

  1. Patri, Umesh and Prativa Devi. " Progress of Atheism in India: A Historical Perspective". Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee. Vijayawada, February 1990. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
  2. Major Religions Ranked by Size
  3. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Agnostics
  4. http://www.surefish.co.uk/culture/features/pullman_interview.htm
  5. American Heritage Dictionary, 2000, under agnostic
  6. http://books.google.com/books?id=97DaE6BzKTsC&pg=PA41
  7. http://books.google.com/books?id=97DaE6BzKTsC&pg=PA42
  8. Oxford English Dictionary, Additions Series, 1993
  9. Hume, David, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (1748)
  10. Agnosticism, II., Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent. [1]
  11. Agnosticism, VIII., Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent.[2]
  12. [3] Drange, Theodore (1998). "Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism". Internet Infidels. Retrieved on 2007-03-26.
  13. Oberlies (1998:155) gives an estimate of 1100 BCE for the youngest hymns in book 10. Estimates for a terminus post quem of the earliest hymns are far more uncertain. Oberlies (p. 158) based on 'cumulative evidence' sets wide range of 1700–1100
  14. http://books.google.com/books?id=lqKwteD19U8C&pg=PA26&lpg=PA26&dq=creation+hymn+of+rig+veda+agnosticism+doniger&source=bl&ots=MIwOE3Hweh&sig=ww44IcN89zl0t4FZbCBY0LVC_iM&hl=en&ei=bZ73Sva_MYal8QazybTzCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  15. http://www.philosophyonline.co.uk/tok/scepticism8.htm
  16. Collected Papers, Vol. 10, p.258
  17. Shed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Journal of Islamic Philosophy, p 21-22.
  18. Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God, from the Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli, SJ, Intervarsity Press, 1994.
  19. Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg 2006
  20. The God Delusion


References

  • Man's Place In Nature, Thomas Huxley, ISBN 0-375-75847-X
  • Why I Am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell, ISBN 0-671-20323-1
  • Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume, ISBN 0-14-044536-6
  • Language, Truth, and Logic, A.J. Ayer, ISBN 0-486-20010-8
  • Atheism, the Case Against God, George H. Smith, ISBN 0-87975-124-X
  • CIA estimate of religious affiliation by country uses "other", "none", or "unspecified" as descriptive terms


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