While all of the non-theisms get confused by believers, none are as regularly confused as agnosticism is. Many people believe that agnosticism is just a lighter form of atheism, and others believe that all atheists should actually call themselves agnostics. These misconceptions hurt atheists.
So what is agnosticism? The term ‘agnosticism’ was initially coined by Thomas Huxley while he was at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He was upset with the way atheists conducted themselves and believed the to be as irrational as theists. He defined agnosticism as those who believed that the question of whether gods existed was unsolved and insolvable. However, the word agnostic is much older than Huxley’s first use of it. Agnostic is a Greek word that comes from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge. Agnostic can be literally translated as meaning “not knowledge.” Some translate it as “without knowledge,” which is cleaner for the purposes of English. Somebody who is agnostic about religion is without knowledge about religion.
Today, the term agnostic is often used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against the existence of gods is inconclusive. People who call themselves agnostic are undecided about whether or not gods exist. Many people believe that agnosticism is a midway point between atheism and theism, but this is not the case. Theists believe that gods exist, but atheists believe that there are no gods. Theists also only hold beliefs about specific gods, or types of gods. Atheists believe that no gods exist. As such, while atheism and theism are opposites, they are not perfect opposites. They also don’t really contain an in-between. You are either an atheist or you are a theist. You either believe that gods exist or you don’t. Agnosticism is not in between these two because agnosticism doesn’t deal with belief. Agnosticism deals with knowledge. An agnostic is not strictly interested in gods either. They are more concerned with the idea that you cannot know something without suitable evidence.
The opposite of an agnostic would be a gnostic. People who are gnostic (Not to be confused with the Gnostics) are people who believe they can know facts about things. Today, that generally applies to gods. A gnostic is someone who knows whether or not gods exist. If someone says “I know there is a God,” they are a gnostic. If someone says “I know there are no gods,” they are also a gnostic. If they were to say “I believe that God exists, but I don’t know for sure,” they are an agnostic. And if they say “I don’t know if gods exist, but I don’t believe they do,”they too are an agnostic. The first and third person are theists, the second and fourth are atheists. Agnosticism is yet another layer piled on top of both theists and atheists. In fact, agnosticism has been said to be the reason why one is theist or atheist. I don’t entirely accept that, but, since agnosticism comes from a place of knowledge, I understand why someone would accept that idea. This gives four kinds of belief-holding (sentient) entities in the world:
There are thought to be different kinds of agnosticism. Some call the belief that we cannot know whether gods exist “strict agnosticism.” They call the belief that we merely do not know yet “empirical agnosticism.” I don’t quite see the point in these two qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, we either know if gods exist or we don’t. I would say that we can’t know whether we can know whether gods exist, because, if we could, then we would know whether or not gods exist. So the argument about whether we can know is futile and brings about unnecessary arguments. But some care more about our ability to know whether gods exist than I do, and who am I to destroy their fun?
It’s also important to understand why people call themselves what they call themselves. I’m an agnostic atheist because I don’t believe that gods exist, but I also don’t know for sure. I call myself an atheist when asked for multiple reasons. First, it would be silly to assume that the person asking me what I believe is interested in knowing whether or not I know gods exist. Answering “I’m an agnostic” when somebody asks me “what do you believe?” is basically answering the question “What god, if any, do you believe in?” with “I don’t know whether gods exist.” It’s answering a question that wasn’t asked. But saying “I’m an atheist” does answer the question. Another reason why I don’t say I’m an agnostic is because it gives people the wrong idea. If I say “I’m an agnostic,” the person I’m talking to may assume that I’m a theist who simply doesn’t know what god I believe in, or they may believe that I’m looking for the right god to believe in. And the third reason that I don’t tell people that I’m an agnostic is because of the stigma associated with being an atheist. By saying “I’m an agnostic,” I’m avoiding the title of atheist, a title that I know is mine, and allowing atheists to continue to be stigmatized. By wearing the title “atheist” people learn what an atheist truly looks like, and they realize that atheists aren’t crazy people who are out to destroy religion. Those are my reasons for not telling people that I’m an agnostic. Other people have their own reasons for either using agnostic as their title or avoiding it. As such, remember that words are slippery, and language isn’t exact. Be careful of assuming what someone else’s beliefs or positions are simply based on whether they call themself an atheist or an agnostic. Don’t assume that a person uses agnosticism to mean what is called “weak atheism,” or that they use atheism to mean “strong atheism.”