On Being Agnostic

“We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.”

– Robert G. Ingersoll

To some, the commonest interpretation of Agnosticism places it somewhere between Atheism and various types of Theism, of which Judaeo-Christian sects, again, comprise the primary cognitive focus. But it is this very misinterpretation within the traditional lexicon which corrupts the original and intended meaning to merely represent a weaker branch of Atheism. In truth, Agnosticism is merely an honest statement of ignorance, and in its strongest forms, an adamant refusal to arrogantly claim knowledge where it is otherwise unavailable. In part, it’s the predominance of Atheism and Christianity which marginalizes an agnostic stance, even when they’re mutually compatible concepts. This unfortunate tendency of individuals to uncritically accept incomplete lore cheapens all belief systems into being nothing but proximal cognition by inheritance.

But what then, does an Agnostic believe? Gnosis is Greek for knowledge, and from our elementary educations, we know the ‘a’ prefix denotes negation. So then, an Agnostic is, by definition, without knowledge. This does not suggest Agnostics embrace some mysterious philosophy espousing ignorance above all else. The term and those who use it refers instead to knowledge beyond what can be proven or otherwise illustrated as inferred from the material world, i.e. science. So, technically, an Agnostic can apply his or her belief to anything unknown or unknowable. Someone who ascribes thus will merely assert he does not know, with the possibility implied that this statement may change as time and analysis render more laws and theorems available.

When applied directly to theology, an Agnostic can actually be Atheistic or Theistic. How is this possible? Tragically, this is the intended humility several religions tend to espouse, though conceptually more compatible with Hinduism, Buddism, and other highly interpretive canons. For instance, an Agnostic Atheist might state they know of no proof or knowledge an ultimate deity exists, and take this at face value. While perhaps more importantly, an Agnostic Theist–and this includes any religion linked to faith–would acknowledge this lack of proof of God is insubstantial to his belief He exists, that he has faith in The Almighty. Hence unless a follower believes the literal accounts for various interpretations of universe’s origin, he must have faith his book or theology is correct. So Agnosticism is not a category of theology, but a kind of pedantic taxonomy which can be applied to any theology, though strict adherents to mainstream doctrines may be ignorant of this.

Yet there’s yet another delineation which helps to confuse this issue. Some Agnostics are absolute in their seeming disdain for explanations of the unknowable. These Agnostics are the ones wrongly placed between Atheist and Christian, for example. A strong Agnostic may conjecture any Deity a mere corollary for the universe’s origin, and thus render himself incompatible with any organized religion, excepting that all explanations are equally plausible. But why? The belief presented here suggests that the universe itself is infinitely or fundamentally beyond our understanding, and so any and all attempts to specify its nature are equivalently invalid. Such an Agnostic will absolutely refuse to debate the existence of God, though he may personally allow for the possibility.

It’s this personal aspect which really provides the underpinnings of Agnostic ideals. Since no answer is forthcoming, an Agnostic is free to theorize, adopt a new faith, or ultimately embrace oblivion. Since many avenues of proof exist, from a legion of sources, driven by varyingly convincing advocates, the decision is ultimately up to the practitioner. But it’s also true that several religions proselytize, and as a natural consequence, indoctrinate children born to parents who believe its tenets. These children gain insight into that particular religion as an accident of birth, and given the vehemence and righteous trust behind these inherited beliefs, often never question them, and indeed accept each as absolute fact instead of a matter of faith. This cheapens religions in general, as any strong belief system should be capable of withstanding scrutiny; the variance Agnosticism provides strengthens religion by encouraging analysis over rote doctrine. Otherwise religions become an exercise in attrition: who can birth and indoctrinate the fastest, not which has the most convincing or appealing explanation given our current knowledge of the world.

Some practitioners feel directly threatened by belief structures which do not parallel their own. Agnosticism can vary the gamut, but is commonly interpreted as a person too uncommitted to claim full Atheism. As such, Agnostics, like Atheists are often received as opponents, since here the mainstream religions can ascribe a common enmity, as both presumably reject the most symbolic core axiom: God exists. As a strong Agnostic, I often encounter this reception of dubious suspicion from other Theists, which is mainly frustrating because it’s completely unnecessary. All religions would find themselves strengthened by honest discourse, and I personally make no claim about God in any aspect. It is my assertion that we simply do not know, can never know, and that indignation or zealous testimony–stating belief as fact–is ultimately destructive.

We’re like ants striving to appreciate the finer points of quantum physics by quibbling over how many grits of sand comprise an atom, or who provided the dirt we farm; we don’t even possess the capability of phrasing the question of the universe’s origin, except through whatever tiny fragments lie within our limited perception. Of course, the real question: what kind of Gnostic are you; how do you apply your knowledge, or lack thereof to your beliefs? That is fundamental, and should be answered by everyone before any debate is possible.