What is agnosticism?

The word comes from the Greek for “knowledge”- gnosis and the application of an a to mean “without”. Therefore an agnostic is someone who is without knowledge (or can’t come to a conclusion) about a particular issue. When applied to God they are without knowledge of God, or more correctly doesn’t know if they believe in God. The word was first coined by T. H. Huxley (1889)[1]— in a later defence of his word he argued:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good”; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that 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.


HuxleyKey Person: Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)


Huxley was a biologist who argued for Darwin’s theory of evolution, indeed he became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”. He had famous arguments with Wilberforce about evolution. Coined the term Agnostic in a debate with Wace but seemed to be an atheistic leaning Agnostic.

One of the problems with agnosticism is that it is attacked from both sides. Huxley was attacked by “Christian polemiscists and by Friedrich Engels as ‘shamefaced atheists’” (Flew, 1984: 32). Dawkins, himself quotes a Christian of his acquaintance who “admitted a sneaking regard for atheists. They at least had the courage of their misguided convictions. What this preacher couldn’t stand was agnostics: namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence sitters. He was partly right…” (2006: 46 emphasis added).Whilst admitting that there is no certain conclusion at the moment Dawkins suggests that agnosticism about the existence of God is temporary. “Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the possibility” (ibid: 48).

The probability of God existing is a question with which theists, atheists and agnostics need to contend. Is an agnostic someone who is 50% either way and is an atheist at 49% and a theist at 51%? It could be argued that everybody is really agnostic as surely nobody could be 100% certain either way. Dawkins establishes a spectrum of belief on which he believes everyone can place themselves- this ranges from 1-7.

Useful questions to consider about Dawkins’ scale

  1. Where would Dawkins place himself? Why?
  2. How does Dawkins describe his agnosticism?
  3. Why do you think he argues that there are more people on point one than point 7?
  4. Are there such things as theism and atheism? Explain your answer.

Further reading:

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (2006) “The Poverty of Agnosticism” in Chapter 2.

Anthony Flew God, Freedom, and Immortality. A Critical Analysis (1984) Chapter 2.

[1] Also available at www.infidels.org/library/historical/thomas_huxley/huxley_wace/part_02.html