Definition of Agnosticism

So my recent verbal spar with the Socratic Gadfly moves on. It seems that due to the linkbacks I made to Austin Cline and Adrian Hayter, they were apparently curious enough to see what the post was about and ended up defending my position on Gadfly’s blog (appreciated).
This in turn triggered him to contact me via email and also write about it on his second blog.

During our email conversations, Gadfly did have a more amiable attitude (albeit a bit condescending occasionaly) and we managed to have some progress in finding out exactly what the gist of our disagreement is. In turns out that it is a simple definition issue on the word “Agnosticism” and I will attempt in this post to explain.

Now, I guess the secod post of his was written while tempers were still high and this is why the language is still a bit strong.  Since I have been unbanninated already, I think there’s no point in feeding the flames any more so I’ll keep a more respectful tone.

Gadfly maintains that Agnosticism cannot be logicaly combined with theism. Indeed, by looking at some of the analogies he made on email:

“Agnostic theism” is like “Democratic Republicanism” and “theistic agnosticism” is like “Republican Democratism.” (Allow the neologism for the noun parallel.)

It is obvious that for him an agnostic theist is an oxymoron.

As I mentioned in the previous post. The etymological meaning of the word is “Without Knowledge”. Agnosticism however does not define what you do not have any knowledge about but it is commonly understood that it is about deities. One could very well argue that he is agnostic about abiogenesis or the creation of the universe and that would be a perfectly acceptable phrase.

As pertaining to theism however, agnosticism can easily take one of two common definitions.

  • One can be agnostic about the existence of god(s). This classifies them as Agnostic Atheists. The defining quote would be “I don’t know if gods exist
  • One can be agnostic about the nature of god(s). This classifies them as Agnostic Theists and the defining quote would be “I don’t know what or which gods exist“.

The difference is small but significant. On both of these definitions, one could even apply various scales of knowledge. Thus an agnostic atheists can verge closer to atheism with “I don’t know if gods exist but there is no reason to believe that they do” and an agnostic theist can approach a religion “I believe the Christian god exists but I don’t know his exact nature (and thus follow no denomination)” – an Agnostic Christian (The group I think most liberal Christians really belong to).

Due to the open nature of the word “Agnostic”, many people default it to either of the two cases described above. In my personal experience, I’ve had far more people who thought of “Agnostic Theist” when hearing “Agnostic” – which is, incidentally, why I started calling myself simply Atheist in the end. This is also why in the article that triggered this approximately half the agnostics go either way.

And this is where I believe Gadfly is wrong. He defaults to “Agnostic Atheist” but he then takes it a step further and asserts that his take on it is the correct one (and gets annoyed that others use it differently).
This is what I have been trying to explain via email but we seem to have reached the “Agree to dissagree” point.

The thing is, at the end of the day, what matters is that we know what we are talking about. It does not matter a bit if we call someone as “Agnostic Atheist”, “Agnostic”, “Fideist” or even “Purple Banana” as long as we are understanding the same thing. It is a fact that just “Agnostic” can mean different things to different people. And by definition, these people are correct.

All we can do when uncertain is simply ask: “Theistic or Atheistic?”. It’s certainly no reason to get upset about.

3 thoughts on “Definition of Agnosticism

  1. Excuse me, "Agnosticism" is a term coined by a specific person to have a specific meaning. If you just look it up in an encyclopedia you can find out all about it. (It was Thomas Huxley, by the way.) Now, it is true that there is a popular understanding of the meaning of this term which does not take into account its original intended meaning, but in a debate, when it gets down to what the word actually means, a reference to an encyclopedia settles it in just one sentence, you do not need to philosophize about it for long.

  2. Word meanings change over time Diagora. It doesn't matter what the original one was but what the common understanding of the word is.

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