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Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term agnosticism decisively.

Agnosticism ( neologism to ancient Greek γνωστικός gnōstikós "skillful for knowing, understanding, knowledgeable, insightful" and negating alpha privativum ἀ- a- ; meaning about "doctrine of unknowability") is the philosophical view that assumptions - especially theological , which the existence or Affect the non-existence of a higher authority, for example a god - are unclear or cannot be clarified. Representatives of agnosticism are called agnostics .

Agnosticism is a worldview that particularly emphasizes the fundamental limitations of human knowledge , understanding and comprehension. The possibility of the existence of transcendent beings or principles is not denied. Agnosticism is compatible with both theism and atheism , since belief in God and rejection of God is possible even in the absence of certainty of its existence or non-existence. Likewise, the view that atheistic theses are more likely than theistic is compatible with agnosticism. Agnostics do not answer the question “Is there a God?” With “Yes” or “No”, but with “I don't know”, “It is not cleared”, “It cannot be answered” or the like.


The term agnosticism was largely coined by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895). Although it is still a young term, the concept behind it is much older and can be found in the Rigveda , Laozi (Chinese philosopher in the 6th century BC) as well as Sophists and some other Greek pre-Socratics .

Already in the 5th century BC BC Protagoras , one of the pre-Socratic sophistic philosophers of ancient Greece , explained his agnostic point of view with the words:

“However, I have no way of knowing about the gods, neither that they are nor that they are not, nor what shape they are; because there are many things that hinder knowledge: imperceptibility and that human life is short. "

A - less reflected - basic agnostic mood seems to have been widespread in parts of the people in the early Roman Empire (parallel to the beginning of early Christianity ); In his satirical novel Satyricon (in the scene of the banquet of Trimalchio ) the writer Petronius puts the words in the mouth of the fictional character Ganymedes :

"Nobody believes in heaven anymore, nobody keeps the fast, nobody cares about Jupiter, everyone closes their eyes and only counts their cash."

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the philosophers David Hume , Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard presented critical opposing positions to the various proofs of God , in which they expressed their doubts that there could be definitive, unassailable evidence for or against the existence of God. The American speaker Robert G. Ingersoll is also known as "the Great Agnostic" because of his well-worded texts on this topic .

In the 20th century, Bertrand Russell's essay Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) is a classic document of agnosticism. A later work by the same author is called Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? ("Am I an atheist or an agnostic?").

Variants of agnosticism

Agnostic atheism
Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they have no belief in the existence of one or more deities and agnostic because they do not claim to know that no deity exists.
Agnostic theism
Agnostic theists claim to have no knowledge of the existence of a deity; nevertheless, they believe in one (or more) such.
Apatheism (also "apathetic" or "pragmatic agnosticism")
The view that the question of the existence or non-existence of God is uninteresting and meaningless. Even if one or more deities existed, their existence does not seem to have much significance for the life of mankind. Apatheism is based on the views of the Greek philosopher Epicurus .
The view that the question of the existence or non-existence of “God” is meaningless unless there is a coherent definition of the term “God”. An ignoramus says: "I do not know what you mean by the word 'God' and can therefore make no statement about its existence or non-existence." The term ignorance was coined by Rabbi Sherwin Wine (1928–2007), the Founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism . However, origins can already be found in late antiquity.
Strong agnosticism (also "hard", "closed", "strict" or "permanent agnosticism")
The view that the existence or non-existence of gods is in principle unknowable, for all people and for all times.
Weak agnosticism (also "soft", "open", "empirical" or "temporal agnosticism")
The view that the existence or non-existence of gods is unknown to the utterer himself and at the time of utterance.
Undogmatic agnosticism
The condition that arises for the believer when he falls away from a belief (which can also be any form of atheism) and is now looking for a new belief.

Agnosticism and theism

In principle, agnosticism and theism are compatible with one another, because one can believe in a god even without considering his existence to be certain ( epistemic logic , e.g. belief as “believing as likely”).

In practice, however, many agnostics are critical of belief in (concrete) deities. The proofs of God in theism (e.g. in Judaism , Christianity or Islam ), the knowledge of revelation and the miracles and other arguments for the existence of higher beings handed down in religions do not stand up to scientific scrutiny according to the judgment of agnostics. A theory of God that cannot be refuted is considered unscientific in the eyes of many agnostics because of the lack of falsifiability , as is illustrated in the analogy of “ Russell's teapot ”. At first this says nothing about their truth. However, according to the rule of thought known as Occam 's razor , it should be avoided, as it is an unnecessarily complicated attempt at an explanation. In particular, many agnostics reject anthropomorphic ideas of God because they seem to them to be too closely tied to human culture and imagination.

A form of theism that is accepted by some schools of agnosticism is pantheism , which describes the world, nature and the universe as "divine" without postulating any further deities. However, some philosophers, such as Schopenhauer , only referred to pantheism as subtle atheism.

Agnosticism and atheism

Sometimes agnosticism is mistakenly equated with atheism . However, they are two different theories. Agnosticism is about the fundamental (imp) possibility of final certainty in view of certain questions (e.g. that of the existence of God), while atheism is about the conviction that verifiable evidence of the existence of God has not yet been provided, or that God does not exist. Therefore agnosticism is above all a philosophical basic view, while atheism sees itself above all as the opposite pole to theism .

Attitudes toward atheism are twofold among non-theistic agnostics:

  • The rejection of both (strong) atheism and theism. In view of the limitation of human knowledge about the universe and the limitation of our imagination, it is just as irrational to assume a "general belief in non-existence" as a concrete or unspecified belief in the existence of a god. Representatives of this position emphasize that it is fundamentally unnecessary to commit oneself to a "position of belief" on this issue - for example by means of an assessment of probabilities or based on a philosophical worldview.
  • The synthesis of agnosticism and (weak) atheism. It is referred to as agnostic atheism or atheistic agnosticism , depending on the perspective - there is disagreement about the order of precedence of the concepts. This position takes the view that the existence of a god is unknown, but on the basis of Ockham's razor the non-existence is more plausible.

Extended term

The word agnosticism is used in a broader sense not only in theological but also in general in metaphysical or epistemological contexts, for example in relation to the question of whether there is life after death or reincarnation . Here, too, an agnostic position can be adopted that admits or emphasizes the uncertainty.

The term agnosticism is seldom used synonymously with skepticism to denote epistemological doctrines that doubt the knowability of the world as a whole or in essential areas.


From a theistic point of view, natural theology fundamentally criticizes agnosticism. This claims that one can prove that God exists without recourse to divine revelation by the means of human reason alone. Thomas Aquinas dedicated the 12th chapter of the 1st book to agnosticism (without using this word) in his summa contra gentiles . In it he comes to the conclusion that, although one cannot prove what God is, one can prove that God exists. This point of view was later  rejected by many philosophers - including Kant - because the existence of God (see proof of God ) can neither be verified nor falsified. For Joseph Ratzinger , agnosticism is only a theoretical, but not a practical option: "As a pure theory it appears highly plausible, but agnosticism is essentially more than theory". It slips like a soap bubble if you try to "practice" it within its real reach. Before asking about God, “neutrality is not granted to man” and he can only “say yes or no and this with all the consequences down to the smallest things in life”.

Agnosticism is also criticized on the part of atheism . The British biologist Richard Dawkins says in his book Der Gotteswahn that “a certain agnosticism is [the] appropriate attitude in many scientific questions”, but with God this is not the case, since the existence or non-existence of God is not the same probable options are. He describes himself as "de facto atheist": He considers the existence of a god to be very unlikely and leads his life under the assumption that he does not exist - a procedure that he attests to people in general. In everyday life we ​​would tend to talk as if they didn't exist about things whose existence, strictly speaking, we could never completely rule out, such as the tooth fairy , Russell's teapot or the flying spaghetti monster .


Web links

Wiktionary: agnosticism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b agnosticism. In: Digital dictionary of the German language .  ( Etymology section ).
  2. ^ William L. Rowe: Agnosticism . In: Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Routledge, London 2000, ISBN 978-0-415-22364-5 , p. 17. “ In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist. In so far as one holds that our beliefs are rational only if they are sufficiently supported by human reason, the person who accepts the philosophical position of agnosticism will hold that neither the belief that God exists nor the belief that God does not exist is rational.
  3. What's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? - Atheist Community of Tulsa. Retrieved October 17, 2017 (American English).
  4. What's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? - Atheist Community of Tulsa. Retrieved October 17, 2017 (American English).
  5. ^ Atheism and Agnosticism. In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , March 9, 2004.
  6. ^ Joseph Ratzinger: Agnosticism - a viable option? From: Look at Christ. Practice in faith, hope, love. Herder, Freiburg 1989, pp. 16–18, in: Secretariat of the German Bishops' Conference (ed.): The faith of the church. A theological reader based on texts by Joseph Ratzinger. Bonn, 2011 (Arbeitshilfen; No. 248; Arbeitschilfe Der Glaube der Kirche A theological reading book from texts by Joseph Ratzinger p. 12 (13-14) ).
  7. Richard Dawkins : Der Gotteswahn , 6th edition, Ullstein, Berlin 2007 (2006), p. 68 f.
  8. Richard Dawkins : Der Gotteswahn , 6th edition, Ullstein, Berlin 2007 (2006), p. 73.
  9. Richard Dawkins : Der Gotteswahn , 6th edition, Ullstein, Berlin 2007 (2006), p. 75 f.