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What is agnosticism?

What is agnosticism? A definition

Etymology: from Greek agn˘stos (ignorant), gnosis = knowledge.

The word agnosticism was created in 1869 by Thomas Huxley, British naturalist (1825-1895) who took inspiration from the ideas of David Hume and of Emmanuel Kant. Agnosticism is a philosophy that declares absolute, divine, metaphysics, and more generally what cannot be grasp by experiment, is inaccessible to the human mind and to perception. Consequently, the existence of God cannot be proven. Agnosticism professes a complete ignorance about the profound nature, the origin and the destiny of things. It is a form of skepticism applied to metaphysics and theology.

Already present in the Ancient Greece, agnosticism developed much in the 18th and 19th centuries because of the progress of science that provided experimental results contradicting the religious dogmas and the Holy Scripture like Bible.

God being unknowable, the agnostic cannot come to a conclusion about his existence and consequently considers that it is useless to worship him or to submit to revealed morals that should have been dictated to men.

Buddhism and Jainism are agnostic religions. Protagoras, Democritus, Hume, Emmanuel Kant, William James, Herbert Spencer, Albert Einstein were agnostic.

Some reflections about agnosticism

Examples of formulations of agnosticism

These remarks of Net surfers are classified according to a progress of thought from belief to atheism.
  • "God? I don't know. Religions? Why not. I am not sure that they are right on all, but there is perhaps some truth."

  • "The question of God is present in man because it is on a par with the self-awareness. This question exceeds what is understandable and cannot obtain answer."

  • "I would like to believe but I was disappointed in God and science / skepticism have destabilized me. I have an atheistic mind, but my soul wants that the eternal life exists. I continue to hope, but without certainty and being torn by the doubt and my scientific mind."

  • "Any idea about the next world, in the sense of supernatural, transcending the perception and the intellect of man, is inaccessible and will remain like that.

  • "There are things that one can know, there are others that one cannot know. I call "unknowable" the whole of the things that one cannot know. Replace "unknowable" by "God", for me, it is the same word."

  • "To look for proves of the existence of God or refutations of these proves, all that is fruitless."

  • "I am sure that I can say nothing as for a hypothetical finality of Universe or as for the hypothetical existence of any divine entity."

  • "Agnosticism is the only possible process for a healthy man: impossibility of affirming or invalidating the existence of God. The rest is only poetry."

  • "I am agnostic by humility, unbeliever by state. Faith or belief is irrationality. I acknowledge my ignorance and I stick more to the acts and to coherence than to ideologies."

  • "It seems to me rather obvious that there is no God. However I cannot prove it rationally. Therefore, I place me like an agnostic from a purely rational point of view, while being atheistic in my foundation, from a subjective point of view."

  • "I very quickly found surrealist the religious ceremonies and the masses. I have just defined me as agnostic but the more I go on and the more I think that agnosticism is a form of irresolution. Still a small effort and I will be atheistic."

  • "Sometimes even, it happens to me to doubt about my doubt and to lean towards atheism.

View from believers

Believers often consider that agnostics are in a phase of doubt, that they are looking for God without being aware of it. Believers are convinced that, in their search of Truth, agnostics will end up finding God. That can be meet of course, but in my opinion, agnosticism is rather the consequence of a questioning about one's beliefs and the result of a personal reflection.

View from media

For the right-thinking media, the term "agnostic" is often used as an euphemism to qualify, in addition to the true agnostics, all people which do not believe, unbelievers, infidels, atheists, as if one does not have to shock the readers or spectators by revealing the existence of this "venereal disease" that is called atheism.

Agnosticism, a way of wisdom?

The principal argument of agnostics is that of wisdom. For them, the existential questions like "Has universes a sense?", "What is at man's origin?", "What is his destiny?"... cannot have the true answers with religions because they are inaccessible. Man will never know the answers. Theology and metaphysics cannot prove the existence of God; science cannot prove his non-existence. The wisest position consists in recognizing that one does not know if God exists or not and, consequently, to respect the beliefs and the opinions of each one.

This position of agnostics is sometimes criticized, both by believers and by atheists:
"Agnostics don't commit themselves!"
"They don't take position."
"They are undecided."
Can one reproach them for not being able or not wanting to choose? By what right could one reproach them for not taking a position? Undecidability is one of the possible solutions to a problem.

The torn agnostics

These agnostics are those which are torn between the voice of reason and that of their conscience (or subconscious). An example:
"Not only I doubt, but I also doubt about my doubt and I would like to believe but I was disappointed in God and science / skepticism have destabilized me. I have an atheistic mind, but my mind wants that the eternal life exists. I continue to hope, but without certainty and being torn by the doubt and my scientific mind. I am a schizophrenic, conscious of my schizophrenia."
For these people, agnosticism is an unstable, uncomfortable and even intolerable position. We should hope for them that this form of agnosticism is a transitory one, that it will be transformed into a calmed agnosticism (that of "wisdom") or will evolve to belief (deism, Buddhism) or to atheism.

Agnosticism as a refusal to choose one's camp

This form of agnosticism is asserted as being a refusal, on principle. It is the refusal to "think God", to "select a box" (believer / unbeliever), to choose one of the two camps considered as absolutist... So this agnostic does not regard himself as an indecisive and he is aware of the risk to feel isolated.
This position seems to consider that nobody can be a believer or an unbeliever without being an absolutist, what is wrong. Moreover, to refuse a choice, it is already to take a choice.

Atheists which not know themselves

Some agnostics do not believe in God and consider that God was created by man, that he forms part of the human imaginary and culture. They do not nevertheless exclude God from the field of the metaphysical reflection. However they define themselves as agnostics, because for them to be atheistic it is to deny the existence of God.
It seems to me there is a problem of definition. To be atheistic, it is above all not to believe in God and in the existence of the supernatural phenomena. The position of these agnostics is, in this case, close of the one of atheists and more particularly of negative atheists.

To complete this vision, here is an extract of a text of Jean Bricmont, professor of theoretical physics in Belgium, published in French on this site: Science and religion, unyielding antagonism.
    "Actually, there are two kinds of agnostics: on the one hand those which note that there is no valid reason to believe in an unspecified divinity and who use this word to indicate their position, which is not really different from atheism. No atheist thinks of having arguments proving the non-existence of the divinities. They note simply, faced with the multiplicity of beliefs and opinions, that they should well have to sort out (unless accepting the ontological pluralism of subjectivists) and that to say there is no reason to believe in the existence of a being is the same that to deny its existence. But other people who declare themselves agnostic think that the arguments in favor of deism are not completely convincing but are perhaps valid, or make a distinction between the ancient religions and a contemporary religion, and this attitude is indeed very different from atheism."

Often wrongly perceived like a compromise, indecision or comfort, agnosticism is a full-qualified philosophical position that would deserve to be more recognized. Agnosticism is however relatively close to atheism insofar as the arguments are often the same ones, only conclusions change. It is just a question of personal choice.

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