You know what really grinds my gears? When people say they’re not sure whether they believe in God or not, so they’re agnostic.
The defining principle of gnosticism is communicated by its Greek root, “gnosis” which means “knowledge.” The concept is one of mystical knowledge, and that by gaining knowledge, we grow closer to the divine.
To contextualize this within Christianity, the community at Qumran represented Christian gnostics who felt that salvation was attained through knowledge of God. That what a person needed to do was learn as much as they could, come to really understand what and who God was, and that by gaining this knowledge a person could enter heaven. This was later declared a heresy, but its appeal is understandable because it creates a measurable and definable goal for salvation.
Agnosticism, conversely, is essentially the statement that mystical knowledge is impossible to attain. It is a reasoned viewpoint declaring that humans cannot know one way or the other about the divine, the afterlife, or anything pertaining to them, and therefore we must maintain a stance founded in doubt and skepticism.
Where atheism is the belief that no deity exists, agnosticism is the belief that we cannot know one way or the other.
It’s not a compromise
It seems like a lot of people got the impression that agnosticism is actually a belief that falls somewhere between theism and atheism and is the label for anyone who can’t make up their mind. If you believe in god, you’re a theist, if you don’t you’re an atheist, and if you can’t decide, you’re agnostic. That is simply not true.
Agnosticism is a commitment to skepticism and doubt. It is a commitment, not to science and reason necessarily, but to the recognition that humankind has limited faculties with which to comprehend the universe. If there is a spiritual plane about which we are unaware, one that can be neither measured nor interacted with, how can one believe? Equally, how can one disbelieve?
It’s a cop-out to say that because you don’t know, you’re agnostic. That’s not the point. The point is that you can’t know, and therefore you’re agnostic.
Stop perverting our language
If you don’t know, just say you don’t know. It’s important to use words appropriately and accurately, and by not doing so, you not only water-down definitions and confuse the issues, you also denigrate true agnostics. How can anyone take an agnostic seriously when the prevailing definition is “someone who hasn’t bothered to think this through and make up their mind?”
St. Paul admonishes Christians to study and learn about God so they can always give an accounting of their beliefs if called upon to do so. I’m not going to change how I treat you one way or the other based on your beliefs, and that goes for politics as well as religion or any other ideological issues. What I do care about is that you can give thoughtful reasons for why you believe what you do, and it frustrates me when someone can’t.
So don’t cop-out and call yourself agnostic when you’re not. Take the time to think things through and stop perverting our language.