29 Mar 2005

Agnosticism

UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

Definition of Agnostic:
Agnosticism is a concept, not a religion. It is a belief related to the existence or non-existence of God.
An agnostic is a person who feels that God's existence can neither be proved nor disproved, on the basis of current evidence. Agnostics note that theologians and philosophers have tried to to prove, for millennia, either that God exists or that God does not exist. None have convincingly succeeded.
Are they Theists? No, because Agnostics do not believe in a God, or a Goddess, or in multiple Gods, or multiple Goddesses or in a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses.
However, some Agnostics consider themselves to be Atheists. That is because the term "Atheist" has two meanings:


A person who positively believes that no God(s) or Goddess(es) exists. E. Haldeman-Julius suggests that "The atheist perceives that history, in every branch of science, in the plainly observable realities of life and in the processes of common sense there is no place for the picture of a God; the idea doesn't fit in with a calmly reasoned and realistic view of life. The atheist, therefore denies the assumptions of theism because they are mere assumptions and are not proved; whereas the contrary evidences, against the idea of theism, are overwhelming." 1
A person who has no belief in a God or Goddess. Just as a newborn has no concept of a deity, some adults also have no such belief. The term "Atheist" is derived from the Greek words "a" which means "without" and "Theos" which means "God." A person can be a non-Theist by simply lacking a belief in God without actively denying God's existence.
Some Agnostics feel that their beliefs match the second definition, and thus consider themselves to be both Atheist and an Agnostic. Such confusion is common in the field of religion. We have found 17 definitions for the term "Witch," eight for "cult," and six for the "Pagan." -- all different. A lack of clear, unambiguous definitions for religious terms is responsible for a great deal of confusion, hatred, and inability to dialog.
An agnostic usually holds the question of the existence of God open, pending the arrival of more evidence. They are willing to change their belief if some solid evidence or logical proof is found in the future. However, some have taken the position that there is no logical way in which the existence or the non-existence of a deity can be proven.

Famous Agnostics:
Francois M. Voltaire, the French 18th century author and playwright is often considered the father of Agnosticism.
Thomas H. Huxley, a well known English religious skeptic, invented the term Agnostic in the 1840's. He combined "a" which implies negative, with "gnostic" which is a Greek word meaning knowledge.
In 1899, he wrote:
"...every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. 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. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him." 7
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..." 2
Robert G. Ingersoll is perhaps the most famous American Agnostic of the 19th century. He commented on the problem of theodicy:
"There is no subject -- and can be none -- concerning which any human being is under any obligation to believe without evidence...The man who, without prejudice, reads and understands the Old and New Testaments will cease to be an orthodox Christian. The intelligent man who investigates the religion of any country without fear and without prejudice will not and cannot be a believer....He who cannot harmonize the cruelties of the Bible with the goodness of Jehovah, cannot harmonize the cruelties of Nature with the goodness and wisdom of a supposed Deity. He will find it impossible to account for pestilence and famine, for earthquake and storm, for slavery, for the triumph of the strong over the weak, for the countless victories of injustice. He will find it impossible to account for martyrs -- for the burning of the good, the noble, the loving, by the ignorant, the malicious, and the infamous. " 3
Charles Darwin, a 19th century British biologist and writer wrote in two places in his book "Life and Letters":
"The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."
"I think an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind. The whole subject [of God] is beyond the scope of man's intellect."
Bertrand Russell was a well known British philosopher of the 20th century. He was arrested during World War I for anti-war activities, and filled out a form at the jail. The officer, noting that Russell had defined his religious affiliation as "Agnostic" commented: "Ah yes; we all worship Him in our own way, don't we." This comment allegedly "kept him smiling through his first few days of incarceration." 4

Further definitions:
George Smith, the author of "Atheism" divides agnostics into two types:
Agnostic theists: those who believe that a deity probably exists;
Agnostic atheists: those who believe that it is very improbable that a deity exists. 5
Another category of Agnostic is "empirical Agnostics." They believe that God may exist, but that little or nothing can be known about him/her/it/them.
Some agnostics who feel the need for religious discussion, fellowship or ritual join a congregation of the Unitarian-Universalist Association or an Ethical Culture group.

How many Agnostics are there?
The number of agnostics is unknown. Most data sources lump together agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, persons of no religion and skeptics. Some Agnostics identify themselves as Humanists, Unitarian Universalists, or Ethical Culturalists.
The Graduate Center of the City University of New York conducted a massive study of over 50,000 adults in 2001. 6 They estimate that there are 991,000 Agnostics in the U.S.; 0.5% of the total population. There are more Agnostics than Atheists in the U.S. The number of Agnostics exceeds the number of followers of all of the organized religions, except for Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. If one were to count the number of Agnostics among the Humanists, Unitarian Universalists, and those who refused to answer the pollster, they would probably outnumber all of the organized religions, except for Christianity and Judaism.
The 1996 Canadian Census only counted 21,975 Agnostics. The 2001 census data will not be released until 2002 or 2003.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"An agnostic is a person who feels that God's existence can neither be proved nor disproved, on the basis of current evidence."

Notice that this excludes neither also believing in some god (for example, on faith) nor also disbelieving in some god. The former is theism, the latter is atheism.

Agnosticism is about knowledge - agnostics don't claim to know for sure if god(s) exist or not. Theism and atheism are about belief. Those are related but separate concepts.

AZ said...

indeed

Wael said...

Agnosticism as a concept is understandable. Though sometimes it turns into a paradigm rather than an individualistic declaration of unability to reach a conclusion ...

WeOs