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What does agnostic mean?

Other uses of the word "agnostic"

Sometimes you'll hear the term "platform-agnostic" or "browser-agnostic", or other variations in the domain of technology. It simply means it doesn't matter which platform or browser you're using; it's set up to work across all of them. For example, a browser-agnostic application will work on Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera or any other browser equally well.

An agnostic believes that the nature of God and/or supernatural are unknown and unknowable by human beings, if they exist at all. An agnostic thinks it is impossible (at least now, with our current understanding of the nature of the world) to conclusively know the truth about the existence of God and the afterlife which Christianity and other religions are concerned with.

If you ask an agnostic "Does God exist?", possible replies might include:

I don't personally know. I can't give an opinion because we can't prove the existence or non-existence of God given currently available knowledge. I can't give an opinion because there's no real way to know, with certainty, anything about God. Anything's possible, but we can't assert that God definitely does exist, or that God definitely does not exist. It is beyond our capabilities to prove anything about God.

An agnostic is different from an atheist, who believes, with certainty, that God does not exist. Agnostic means, literally, "does not know" (from Greek: the prefix a- means "not/without" + gnosis means "knowledge"

Thomas Huxley - the inventor of the term agnostic

Thomas Huxley - the inventor of the term agnostic

Famous historical agnostics

Thomas Huxley, an English biologist (1825-1895), coined the word "agnostic". In a letter written in 1860, he wrote:

"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."

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..."

Bertrand Russell, and English philosopher (1872-1970) and author of Why I Am Not a Christian, wrote:

"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."

Read the entire interview here.

Another quote from Bertrand Russell that is apt here:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

Famous contemporary agnostics

Writers

Martin Amis

Piers Anthony

Margaret Atwood

Umberto Eco

Matt Groening

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Tony Kushner

Dan Savage

Ibn Warraq

Politicians

Michelle Bachelet

Winston Churchill

Scientists

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Hawking

Carl Sagan

Entertainers

Antonio Banderas

Monica Bellucci

Susie Bright

Richard Dreyfuss

Carrie Fisher

Bob Hoskins

Larry King

Dave Matthews

Larry Niven

Sean Penn

Roman Polanski

Keanu Reeves

Rod Steiger

James Taylor

Uma Thurman

Lawyers

Clarence Darrow

Alan Dershowitz

Businesspeople

Bill Gates

Ted Turner

Comments

Rand Zacharias from Vernon, British Columbia on August 06, 2013:

Actually...liljr...agnosticism is the wisest way to go as neither side can prove anything..."i don't know"...is the wise one's way...because neither side can be proven.

liljr on July 31, 2013:

it seems to me that being this way is taking the cowards way out by trying not to offend anyone ...........that's crap

Richard Ewald from Winston-Salem, North Carolina on June 09, 2013:

Agnostic is not a middle ground between theism/atheism, nor is it "fence sitting". Theism/atheism is a dichotomy, as such, the position "I don't know *what to believe*, is null- still a non-belief, thus atheist.

Interesting that you mention Huxley who coined the term, but not his concise definition. As such you are still misunderstanding the term somewhat, greenarcher's explanation is much closer than yours, though he makes the mistake of describing theism/atheism in terms other than existential "belief/non-belief" claims.

As well, your juxtaposing of "Gnostic" based on the roots of both words falls under the reasoning error - etymological fallacy.

Huxley's definition:

"Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle...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." ~ T.H. Huxley (April 1889). "Agnosticism". The Popular Science Monthly

While it is quite valid to hold a position of "agnostic atheist" as the two are compatible in every way (in fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find an atheist who wasn't also by definition; agnostic), if you claim to be a member of a religion (in your case, conversion to Judaism, not an ethnic or cultural Jew), and agnostic; any faith, belief or adherence to the existence of (even an unknowable) deity and respective mythos, while being consistent with the negative aspect of the principle, conflicts with the positive facet of:

"...follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration."

Negates, belief and faith claims to the affirmative - "without regard to ANY other consideration".

Note that this method does not necessitate the question of "gods", it does in fact also describe science to a "T". Further, many of the 2600+ versions of alleged creator deities are defined by claims that can be disproved. The whole "can't know whether god exists" ignores the reality that there are many that are believed in and described in contradictory terms, some with falsifiable qualities. Agnostic is not synonymous with; "solipsistic".