Why exactly do we say that we’re “agnostic,” when we could instead say “I don’t know,” or “I don’t care,” or “I am undecided?” Surely those are fitting, sometimes?
It could be that there is an element retained from the idea of a “gnostic,” that a self-described agnostic doesn’t want to be entirely rid of.
We know that the prefix a- means opposition. “Atheist” means one opposed to theism. “Apathy” means one emotionally opposed to pathos for another’s situation or condition. We might say we are “apolitical” if we are opposed to interest in matters political. In the same way, “agnostic” would mean opposition to gnosis.
In the early days of Christianity, Gnostics were thought to be heretics to the developing orthodoxy in systematic theology. Those Gnostics’ beliefs took some interesting turns. At their root, however, was the notion that through Christ they could achieve gnosis; a special “knowing” available to His followers. This was not mere persuasion based on revelation and arguments from reason. This was a confident, subjective, and intuitive knowledge of truth.
Now there was much more to Gnosticism, of course, but this central element of knowingness is key to understanding what people mean by using a word that plays off of “Gnostic.” When someone says that he is “agnostic,” he doesn’t mean merely that he doesn’t know whether God exists or not. He means that he doesn’t have a special sense of confident, intuitive knowledge of the fact that God exists, or that He doesn’t.
Skew to agnosticism
This matters. It’s not just an exercise in idle semantics. Use of this particular word, “agnostic,” substantively affects how we approach the big question of God’s existence. If we categorize the available positions as being belief, non-belief, and agnosticism, then we’ve ruled out the possibility of simply becoming persuaded by the rational weight of evidence to either the belief or non-belief position.
Here’s how that works. If someone considers the God question and demands not merely persuasion of His existence, or of His non-existence, but rather a special knowing; a gnosis concerning that question, then in the absence of that special knowing, he defaults to agnosticism.
What this means is that among all the big and small questions we wrestle with in the course of a lifetime, our question about the reality of God is made especially difficult, even though it is the most important. It requires not merely a higher threshold of persuasion than any other, it actually requires a qualitatively superior type of evidence. It requires a subjective, felt experience of truth. And yet, this is the most important question of all, if He is real, and the consequences of getting it wrong are the most significant.
Now one can say that this cuts both ways; that is, that one is less likely to end up at atheism, too. Perhaps so. Perhaps a person would think: “I don’t have a special knowing that God doesn’t exist, so I am an agnostic.” Well there’s no harm in that if there is no God. But there’s grave harm if there is. From God’s perspective, agnosticism is equivalent to atheism.
Proper evaluation of evidence
Many people achieve a mystical, special knowing about God. Perhaps they had a religious experience of some kind. But not everyone does. The absence of a mystical “knowing” doesn’t mean there is no God. We should still look to the evidence. And while we’re at it, we should look at all the evidence – that which is revealed to us by common experience within the natural world; that which is revealed to us specially; and that which is accessible by faculties of reason.
And we should not yield to the temptation to sideline the whole question because it is not answered by gnosis.