/ag-NAW-stik/. noun. One who maintains that an answer, often to the question of the existence of God, is impossible to know with certainty.
I spent many important adolescent years shuttling between two households with radically different ideas about religion: one located in a tiny Alaskan community of 600 that we’d landed in because my mom had agreed to “pioneer” there in order to establish a religious community, the other with my adopted father, who never mentioned religion at all but made the occasional statement—and certainly gave me evidence through his actions—that led me to believe he didn’t believe in any kind of deity.
So it’s not surprising, given the normal stew of adolescent hormones and teen rebellion, that in my own beliefs, or lack of them, I would try to thread a needle more or less in opposition to both of these. I wasn’t quite at the “plague on both your houses,” stage, but I took challenges to both believing and not believing seriously enough take a position that lasted for the next 30+ years and counting—finding myself in the oft-troubled and sometimes troubling position of claiming to be an agnostic.
The trouble was, I had only a vague notion of what the word agnostic actually meant. Like many, I confused it with (and suffered accusations of) ambivalence of various sorts, from the softest kind of wishy-washy logic of convenience to a dismissive lack of attention.
But if we look more closely at the word and its history a different view emerges.
T.H. Huxley, a biologist known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” because of his tenacious defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution, coined the term in 1869, combining the negative prefix a- with the Greek gnosis (GNOSIS), or knowledge. Local yokels—I mean Rasmuson Library patrons—who date back to the 90s might also remember GNOSIS, the library catalog system there. But even more classically, gnosis refers to a special kind of received knowledge, even revelation. Gnosis is the foundation of a variety of early religious traditions (collectively called gnosticism) sharing a belief that the world is an emanation from god and everything in it thus contains a divine spark that can be revealed by gnosis.
As Huxley wrote:
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. […]
Most of those other people, the non-freethinkers, he observed, “were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.”
And finally we get to the coinage itself:
Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. […] 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~~.
Understood in this historical sense, agnosticism is far from feeble fence sitting, or ambivalence, and certainly not to be confused, as it often is, with atheism, that other paradoxically faith-based system, but is an ongoing, rigorous, challenging way to be in the world, and one I no longer feel any need to be ashamed of.
But a frozen language is a dead language, and the word agnostic is now common in less lofty contexts. People reluctant to engage in debates about political and environmental issues like climate change claim to be agnostic. Computer programmers claim their software, and sometimes themselves, to be “platform agnostic.” I once had someone tell me they were agnostic on the question of Coke vs Pepsi, a religious debate of its own kind. All of these seem less like claims of so-far demonstrated unknowability than just another way of saying they, like the soon-to-be proverbial honey badger, just don’t care, and while Darwin’s Bulldog might be challenged by this casual use of his heartfelt linguistic creation, language too, evolves.