Let’s start with a closer look at agnosticism, since agnosticism is a very good place from which to start. Many atheists begin with agnosticism, but it is a term which still generates some confusion. In common usage, people often use the term agnostic to indicate a middle-ground position on the question of their own personal belief in any god or gods, or –possibly- to just evade the question altogether.
One problem with this is that actually locating that middle ground is questionable. Some define belief as a binary choice –one either does or doesn’t believe; others allow that there may be a period of uncertainty in one’s own mind. Either way, it’s not a point over which I’m interested in arguing, as -either way- agnosticism is not a position of belief. It is my argument that people should stop using the word in an improper context.
What is Agnosticism
Those who have studied ancient religion or early Christianity in their Bible study classes, perhaps, will have some familiarity with Gnosticism. Early Christian Gnostics –possibly evolved from pre-existing mystery cults- believed that knowledge of their god could be had via ritual initiation and revelation. In the ancient Greek language, the term gnosis referred to knowledge, but in reference to mystery cults common at the time the term is meant to signify a hidden knowledge of the gods, obtainable only through transcendence. It is a spiritual knowledge, not gleanable by tainted physical matter, and so one must transcend the shackles of the physical world in order to obtain it, guided of course by your all-knowing local cult leaders.
Agnosticism on the other hand is a term coined in the latter half of the 1800’s by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley appreciated agnosticism’s contrast with gnosticism, and derived the new label from the ancient Greek word agnotos meaning not knowing. As the prefix a- in atheism signifies without gods, the a- in agnosticism signifies without hidden knowledge claimed by gnostics.
To Huxley, knowledge obtained through ancient writings, “authority,” or transcendental experience isn’t knowledge at all, even if the person claiming it says he is a prophet/preacher/anointed one/magician/seer/witch. Knowledge is that which can be tested and verified, knowledge is empirical or it isn’t knowledge.
It should be made understood, however, that despite the rather late date of the coining of the term agnosticism, the spirit of scientific skepticism in regards to the question of gods dates back throughout recorded history –some of the Greek philosophers were famous for it. Written evidence of agnostic principles in the Rigveda sanskrits predates the existence of Muslims, Christians, and the Torah. Agnostic thought is nothing new, when properly defined.
The contemporary dictionary definitions of agnosticism vary only slightly. The recurrent theme is “a position that knowledge of the gods’ existence [some include “or nonexistence”] cannot be known.” This is the current and valid definition. While one can and should take an agnostic approach to a great many things -unicorns, bigfoot, aliens- the specific label refers specifically to the question of existence of any gods.
Everyone Should Be Agnostic
Since agnosticism is merely about acknowledging the lack of such conclusive evidence, anyone can be an agnostic regardless of their religious beliefs, and should be. To not be agnostic is to be in a state of denial regarding reality. As the popular meme below shows, theism and atheism indicate one’s belief status in regards to the question of any god’s existence, while gnosticism and agnosticism refer to what we think can be known in regards to the question of any god’s existence, and even theists can be rational and confess that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of any gods.
Agnostic atheists hold the most consistent and I believe the most logical ground as well. “Until somebody proves that these extraordinarily far-out claims are real, I’m gonna pass on believing in them, thanks.” Seems rational, right?
Gnostic atheists missed the lesson, and will claim to know that no gods exist, or will assert it is a fact, or close enough to such to call it one. Like the gnostic theists, gnostic atheists may seem to stretch the definition of falsifiable scientific evidence.
Agnostic theists (moderates, we can probably expect) might say “I believe in God, but I admit no one really knows.”
Gnostic theists are more likely to opine something along the lines of “Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible/my pastor/the Holy Spirit tells me so” -none of which are valid examples of empirical evidence. The gnostic theist has very low standards for what he considers evidence, all the while insisting that what he has is irrefutable. Gnostic theists may be more likely to lean towards fundamentalism than the more reasonable agnostic god-believers.
Where gnostic atheists have at least a preponderance of all the evidence and lack thereof to offer some support to their argument of empirical fact, gnostic theism requires a great deal of often willful ignorance, promoting gullibility and denial as values. Understanding the fuller forgotten lesson of agnosticism helps to put these things into a healthier perspective.