What's an Agnostic?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Some words I simply despair of ever hearing people use correctly. I just shrug when an airline pilot announces we're flying over the "Sierra Nevada Mountains." In the winter, if you're lucky, he may even say you're flying over the "snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains" (get a Spanish dictionary). So if you want to use “prodigal” to mean “wandering” instead of “wasteful," I can’t stop you. Have your steak “with au jus,” and go ahead and have a slice of pie “with a la mode” while you’re at it, and a cup of coffee “with au lait.” Have a side order of chili "with con carne" if you're really hungry. If you think “apropos” means “appropriate,” go right ahead. If you want to take a hike in the woods and “orientate” yourself on a map, knock yourself out. Ilitterissy roolz!

In religion especially, it seems to be widely assumed that people without a shred of knowledge can speak with authority. When I hear an atheist say he doesn’t see how anyone could believe Jesus was born by “Immaculate Conception,” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Ditto when I hear people announce pompously that they don’t believe in primitive concepts like “an eye for an eye.” For those who care about technicalities, the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary being born without Original Sin (but conceived the same way everyone else was). “Immaculate Conception” does not mean the same thing as “Virgin Birth.”

“Eye for an eye” is actually a very advanced concept; it means that retaliation is limited to the extent of the original injury. The headlines from Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq show that large parts of the world are not yet up to this “primitive” level. If you have any doubts, go into a rough bar, pick a customer at random, and punch him in the mouth. See if he is satisfied to throw only one punch in retaliation. Or go to the Middle East, insult someone’s family honor, and see if he’s content merely to hurl an insult back.

But there is one term that is certainly the most misunderstood in theology and likely the most misunderstood in English as well. Not one person in a thousand can define the term accurately. That term is agnostic.

T.H. Huxley, inventor of the term, said this:

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"..

Bertrand Russelldefined the term thus:

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.

Finally, Walt Kelley's immortal Pogo had this to say:

An agnostic is someone who doesn't know, and di- is a Greek prefix meaning "two," so diagnostic means someone who doesn't know twice as much as an agnostic doesn't know.

At least Pogo is speaking in jest, which is more than you can say for most of the people who "don't know twice as much as agnostics don't know" because they can't even define the term correctly.

Consider these three positions on global warming:

Technically, all three people “don’t know,” but the third person’s reasons are quite different from the first two. The first two can’t decide because of some limitation of their own. The data are there, but they’re ignorant, indifferent, indecisive, or unqualified. The third person’s reasons are based on limitations in the evidence.

Now consider these three positions on the existence of God:

The difference between “not knowing” and “the evidence does not justify a decision” may seem subtle but it’s very significant. Many of the people who define an “agnostic” as “someone who doesn’t know” make it all too clear from their writings that they simply cannot see the distinction.“Not knowing” puts the burden on the individual. The person doesn’t know because of insufficient interest, effort, or reasoning ability. But “the evidence does not justify a decision” puts the burden on the evidence and the people that advance it. They, not the agnostic, have failed to put forth enough effort.

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Created 26 July, 2005,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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