By Karla Fetrow
The middle ground between believers and non-believers, the religious and non-religious is a school of thought known as agnostic people. Under formal definitions, an agnostic contends that there is not enough empirical evidence to prove the existence of a deity or deities, but that to dismiss the possibility also requires a leap of faith. Their philosophy is based on separating beliefs from certain knowledge. Agnostics have been defined in a number of ways and the term is sometimes used to describe a skeptical approach to questions. It is also sometimes used by people who express a spiritual rather than religious belief, but still have doubts.
As agnostics do not believe humankind has enough knowledge to prove or disprove the existence of a God, they are generally highly secular in their views on religion. To such ones, none of the religions can prove the tenets of their belief beyond a doubt, but they all carry the characteristics of possibilities. As early as ancient Greece, there were agnostic thinkers, among them Pyrrho, Protagoras and Sextus Empiricus. Socrates encouraged a skeptical approach to epistemology, which is basically a theory of knowledge. Ancient Hindu scripts reflect a great deal of agnosticism among its thinkers, such as the philosopher from the fifth century B.C.E., Sanjaya Belathaputta, who expressed doubts about the belief in an after-life, and the Rig Veda, which questions the origin of the Universe.
The Enlightened Thinkers
The Age of Enlightenment, which brought such thinkers as Thomas Paine, John Locke and George Berkeley, also brought philosophers who examined the concepts of free will. David Humes, whose psychology was stated in the “Science of Man”, concluded that desire rather than reason governed human behavior. Contrary to reformist thinking, he proposed that, “reason is and ought only to be the slave to passions.” Amending Humes’ skeptical views, Immanuel Kant argued that reason was the source of our morality. His hope was to bring reason together with experience, ending the age of speculation about objects that do not conform to our cognition.
Thomas Henry Huxley first used the word in the 1860s as a means of defining his own religious philosophy. Stating as he could not be considered an atheist, pantheist, materialist, and idealist or a Christian, his closest affiliations to any of the denominations was to a free thinker. It occurred to him that the antithesis of the Christian Gnostic, absorbed in spirituality, would be agnostic, he coined the phrase to help clarify his position. The Gnostics, he explained, professed to have certain knowledge of the very things to which he was very ignorant. To his immense satisfaction, the word came to mean those who questioned answers given to metaphysical issues that were basically unknowable.
The Development of the Term
An exemplary orator of the late nineteenth century followed in the path of Huxley with lectures explaining his views of agnosticism. In America, he was referred to as the “Great Agnostic”. He elaborated on his beliefs, he stated he did not know if there was a supernatural power governing the movement of humankind, but he did not believe. His belief was that nature was supreme. Nature, he argued, left nothing to chance; that every event is necessary, with countless causes and countless effects.
The Agnostic Believer
Not all agnostic people were willing to express doubts about a creator. Author Bernard Russell, when expanding on his views centered around his 1927 thesis, “Why I Am Not a Christian” reveals his strong agnostic leanings in his objections to the arguments for the existence of God. He also had moral objections to Christian teaching. At one point in his career as a lecturer, he stated he was an atheist, for to question the existence of God negates the question concerning the nature of God. Yet later he concluded that a benevolent, omnipotent God could not be disproved just because he believed it could. Perhaps this was the dawn of the so-called Agnostic-Atheist, which is a relatively new hybrid of two opposite philosophies.
Agnosticism is not a statement of belief or disbelief but one of declaring that human understanding does not yet have the knowledge to call certain things true. Although the term agnosticism is fairly recent, agnostics have lived in every society under every type of religious beliefs. It has developed as both a philosophy and a psychology. As agnostics are encouraged to use free thought, it could be said that agnostics are searchers for the truth.