A fair percentage of my community college world religions students (and also of the general public, whom my students probably represent a fairly representative sample of) often exhibits some confusion or uncertainty over the precise meaning of such terms as atheism and agnosticism.
As discussed in previous blog entries, atheism can refer either to a belief in the unreality or non-existence of any God or gods, or to a mere lack of belief in any God or gods. (There’s a subtle but important difference.) But what about agnosticism?
If theism refers to a belief in God or gods, and atheism (note the critical presence of that “a-” prefix) refers to its opposite, then likewise agnosticism refers to the opposite of gnosticism. And “gnosticism” refers not to matters of belief, but to matters of knowledge. One who is gnostic (from the Greek gnosis, “knowledge”) is one who claims to “know”; conversely, therefore, one who is a-gnostic (or “agnostic”) is one who does not claim to “know.”
In a religious context, a gnostic would be one who claims to know (not just “believe”) whether or not God exists; by extension, a gnostic would obviously also affirm that it is indeed possible, in principle, to know this (not just to “believe” it, but to actually have certainty regarding the matter — to “know it for a fact”).
By contrast, an agnostic would be just the opposite: one who neither claims to know, one way or the other, whether or not God exists — and one who also, again by extension, would also go so far as to assert that it is impossible, in principle, to know or have factual certainty one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of God (in other words, nobody knows, and nobody can know, for sure).
A couple of caveats: firstly, some readers may know that there was an ancient religious movement called Gnosticism, whose members believed in the reality of a special kind of esoteric “knowledge” regarding divine matters which it was possible to obtain; however, that’s a sidebar issue not really relevant to the matter at hand, which has to do with defining agnosticism in the broader sense.
Secondly, in contemporary colloquial or popular usage, the meaning of the term “agnosticism” is most commonly identified with a somewhat “softer” position regarding the existence or non-existence of God: instead of flatly asserting that it is, in principle, impossible to know the answer to that question, many who self-identify as “agnostic” merely mean by it that they themselves, personally, are unsure or remain uncertain or unconvinced, one way or the other, as to whether or not God exists.
They do not necessarily assert, like a “hard” agnostic might, that it is simply impossible for anyone to ever know; instead, they merely take the position of “soft” agnosticism, which simply says that, for themselves at least, “the jury is still out.”