By Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
There’s quite a lot of confusion about what is an agnostic as opposed to an atheist. While there are similarities, there are also important differences that create different viewpoints. Here is what you should know about agnosticism and what sets it apart from other religious views.
What Is an Agnostic?
Historians have described various philosophers throughout time whose beliefs can be described as agnostic. However, the term “agnostic” seems to have originated in the 1860s with T.H. Huxley, a scientist involved in the early evolution debate who was nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog.” In an 1884 letter Huxley wrote to The Agnostic Annual, he described the term this way:
“Some twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I invented the word ‘Agnostic’ to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence.”
Huxley goes on to say that he’s not entirely sure how everyone understands the term, and that “If a General Council of the Church of Agnostic were held, very likely I should be condemned as a heretic.” However, since he’d been asked how he defined an agnostic, he explained it as follows:
“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.”
So, for Thomas Huxley, agnosticism was a state of not claiming to understand things he could not back up scientifically. Over time, the definition has shifted from “what can be proven?” to “can God’s existence can be proven?” This stance on God’s existence may sound similar to atheism, but it leads to different places.
What Do Agnostics Believe?
Like atheism, there’s debate about whether agnosticism can really be seen as a belief system or a philosophical view. Generally, philosophies or religions are built on “what do we believe exists?” as opposed to “what are we not sure exists or don’t believe exists?” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes some philosophers have argued that atheism and agnosticism are not so many philosophical views as much as psychological states, attitudes that people hold.
Granting there are many views on what defines agnosticism, there are generally two schools of thought within it:
First, there’s open agnosticism (also known as “soft agnosticism” or “temporal agnosticism”). This is the view that we can’t be sure God exists, but it’s possible we will figure it out in the future.
Then, there’s closed agnosticism (also known as “strong agnosticism” or “absolute agnosticism”). This is the view that we can’t be sure God exists and in fact, we can’t ever figure that out.
This helps us to further see what makes an agnostic’s beliefs different from an atheist’s beliefs: by and large, atheists place a strong emphasis on science’s ability to figure out the universe and whether there is something else out there. The New Atheism movement particularly highlighted this idea, with writers like Richard Dawkins talking about religion as being unscientific and irrational. Some have argued that atheism and “scientism” go together, with faith in scientific inquiry taking the place of faith in God.
Atheism argues that based on what we know or can prove, we can honestly say, “We are sure gods of any kind do not exist.” Agnosticism instead says, “We’re not sure and maybe can never be sure that gods exists.”
Charles Templeton, an early ministry partner of Billy Graham who later left Christianity, was interviewed by Lee Strobel for his book The Case For Faith. Templeton described himself as an agnostic, and Strobel asked him to define that, Templeton said, “I never would presume to flatly say that there is no God. I don’t know everything; I’m not the embodiment of wisdom. But it is not possible for me to believe in God.”
In practice, agnostics’ beliefs about morality and a higher purpose can be fluid. They may argue it’s possible to find objective morality without believing in God, or they may argue that all morality is subjective. They may hold that there is a higher purpose people should all be moving toward, or that there is no one higher purpose and people just need to individually find what works for them. It depends heavily on whether they describe themselves as closed or open agnostics, and how much they believe that the idea of God impacts our daily lives.
Does the Bible Say Anything about Agnosticism?
The Bible starts by describing how God created the world. It describes it as something God did on purpose, not an accidental action or (as Gnostics argue) something that other beings did for him. God decided to make animals, earth and water, and human beings, and he is Lord over all of them. As Colossians 1:16 says, “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” This means that a personal being was involved in the world from its very start, and claims ownership over it.
The Bible also affirms that the world’s creator speaks through the world. Job 12:7-10 says the animals teach us that someone made them. Psalm 19:1-4 says that while the heavens don’t literally speak, they declare God’s glory (“their voice goes out into all the earth”). Perhaps most overtly, Romans 1:20 says “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
At the same time, the Bible affirms that humans can be foolish. The Old Testament is full of stories about people disobeying God, which God often describes as them not having or seeking wisdom (“my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge”). When Job asks God for an answer to his suffering, God reminds Job how little he knows about the world (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand”). Proverbs 2:6 affirms that the Lord is the one who gives wisdom, which means we need to humble about how much we can figure out on our own.
So, agnosticism gets one thing correct: we humans are much smaller and much less knowledgeable than we think we are. We aren’t given any guarantees in the Bible that we can figure it all out with enough research or enough hard work. Instead, it tells us we are inherently foolish, and that God deliberately put hints of his existence into the world he carefully crafted. Without those deliberate messages, we might not know whether God exists or not. We know because God makes himself known—or as Francis Schaeffer put it, God is there and he is not silent.
The whole Bible is set on the idea a personal God decided to create life, he leads humanity toward him and entered our world to reconcile us to him. This undercuts the implicit idea in agnosticism that we can look at the natural world, history, and other subjects and ultimately come away shrugging our shoulders. There is something else going on.
How Can You Share the Gospel with Someone Who Is Agnostic?
Anytime we try to share the Gospel with someone—an atheist, an agnostic, whatever—we need to have a respectful attitude that communicates this is a conversation, not a shouting match. As you start that conversation with an agnostic friend, here are three things that will help:
Ask about their experience with other Christians. We’ve talked a lot about apologetics in the last few years, and sometimes that causes us to forget that we are relational beings. We don’t just pick our religion based on seeking out the facts, we pick it based on our experiences of humans who adhere to that religion. As a result, people who’ve had bad experiences with Christians have a hard time embracing Christianity, and you’ll have to change your approach. People who’ve had good experiences with Christianity will be much more open to talking about its value, which means you can make certain connections in the conversation based on that.
Ask about their opinions of nature. Since the Bible affirms that nature speaks to us, showing us a hint of God’s existence and his divine control, asking agnostics what they think and feel about nature can be a great starting point. Does nature really leave us with the sense that it’s just doing its own thing, or does it operate more like a well-designed intricate machine… and can you have a well-designed machine with someone who designed it?
Ask their views about right and wrong. If we take the view that we don’t (or can’t) know whether God exists, it follows that we can’t see God as the basis for how we define right or wrong. Believing there is an objective morality that every human can know and must follow assumes there is something out there that creates that moral standard. Therefore, without believing in God, we’re going to have a hard time believing in objective morality, which seems to be something we all crave at some level. Can we justify that craving for morals if there’s nothing out there that feeds it?
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/avemario
G. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
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