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What is Agnostic Theism?

Believing in God, but not Knowing God

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Many people who adopt the label of agnostic assume that, in doing so, they also exclude themselves from the category of theist. There exists a common perception that agnosticism is more “reasonable” than theism because it eschews theism’s dogmatism. Is that accurate or are such agnostics missing something important?

Unfortunately, the above position isn’t accurate - agnostics may sincerely believe it and theists may sincerely reinforce it, but it relies upon more than one misunderstanding about both theism and agnosticism. Whereas atheism and theism deal with belief, agnosticism deals with knowledge. The Greek roots of the term are a which means without and gnosis which means “knowledge” — hence, agnosticism literally means “without knowledge,” but in the context where it is normally used it means: without knowledge of the existence of gods.

An agnostic is a person who does not claim [absolute] knowledge of the existence of god(s). Agnosticism can be classified in a similar manner to atheism: “Weak” agnosticism is simply not knowing or having knowledge about god(s) — it is a statement about personal knowledge. The weak agnostic may not know for sure whether god(s) exist but does not preclude that such knowledge can be obtained. “Strong” agnosticism, on the other hand, is believing that knowledge about god(s) is not possible — this, then, is a statement about the possibility of knowledge.

Because atheism and theism deal with belief and agnosticism deals with knowledge, they are actually independent concepts. This means that it is possible to be an agnostic and a theist. One can have a wide range of beliefs in gods and also not be able to or wish to claim to know for sure whether those gods definitely exist.

It may seem strange at first to think that a person might believe in the existence of a god without also claiming to know that their god exists, even if we define knowledge somewhat loosely; but upon further reflection it turns out that this isn’t so odd after all. Many, many people who believe in the existence of a god do so on faith, and this faith is contrasted with the types of knowledge we normally acquire about the world around us.

Indeed, believing in their god because of faith is treated as a virtue, something which we should be willing to do instead of insisting on rational arguments and empirical evidence. Because this faith is contrasted with knowledge, and in particular the sort of knowledge we develop through reason, logic, and evidence, then this sort of theism cannot be said to be based upon knowledge. People believe, but through faith, not knowledge. If they really do mean that they have faith and not knowledge, then their theism must be described as a type of agnostic theism.

One version of agnostic theism has been called “agnostic realism.” A proponent of this view was Herbert Spencer, who wrote in his book First Principles (1862):

    By continually seeking to know and being continually thrown back with a deepened conviction of the impossibility of knowing, we may keep alive the consciousness that it is alike our highest wisdom and our highest duty to regard that through which all things exist as The Unknowable.

This is a much more philosophical form of agnostic theism than that described here - it is also probably a bit more uncommon, at least in the West today. This sort of full-blown agnostic theism, where belief in the very existence of a god is independent of any claimed knowledge, must be distinguished from other forms of theism where agnosticism may play a small role.

After all, even though a person might claim to know for sure that their god exists, that doesn’t mean that they can also claim to know everything there is to know about their god. Indeed, a great many things about this god may be hidden from the believer — how many Christians have stated that their god “works in mysterious ways”? If we allow the definition of agnosticism to become rather broad and include a lack of knowledge about a god, then this is a sort of situation where agnosticism is playing a role in someone’s theism. It is not, however, an example of agnostic theism.

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