1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.
Synonyms: disbeliever, nonbeliever, unbeliever; doubter, skeptic, secularist, empiricist; heathen, heretic, infidel, pagan.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.
3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic:
Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality.
“Agnostic” comes up a lot in apologetics debates. Of the three definitions above, there is a divide along partisan lines with atheists claiming that only the first (meaning 1) is “right” and theists claiming that only the last (meaning 3) is. Atheists often say that anyone who does not positively believe that God exists is an atheist. It is not necessary, they say, to have a belief that God doesn’t exist in order to qulalify as an atheist. You can be both atheist and agnostic, because agnosticism (meaning 1) refers to what you know, atheism to what you believe. Apologists, on the other hand, are apt to insist that if you call yourself an atheist you must believe that God doesn’t exist. Unless you sign up to that, you are an agnostic (meaning 3).
Dictionaries are not “top down” sources of definition. Words are defined by their use and dictionaries aim to reflect how a word is in fact being used, not to prescribe how a word “ought” to be used. If enough people use the word in a particular way, that way of using it becomes correct. That is why all of the above definitions, although each is slightly different, are correct. It may be necessary to clarify which definition we are using but there should be no need to engage in long debates about whether anyone “must” use the word in one way rather than another.
Thomas Huxley, who coined the word, intended to emphasise the “gnosis” root and to distinguish himself from those who claimed to have knowledge of what he considered to be unknowable. But it would be fallacious to argue from the word’s root or it’s genesis that it “must” be interpreted as the first definition.
Why does any of this matter? (To the two sides, I mean. Whether and why any of this matters in the larger scheme of things is a different question).
I think that a lot of it is to do with the burden of proof. Both sides tend to approach the God debate as a game of tactics. The atheist is determined to place the burden of proof on the apologist. That way the apologist has to make all the running and the atheist’s job is just to react to whatever the apologist puts forward. If the apologist fails to prove their case, then the atheist can claim victory. Apologists find this irksome and wish to proceed on the basis that their opponent must also do some of the leg-work. That way, unless the atheist can prove God’s non-existence, then the aplogist can claim at the very least, a draw.
Atheists are wary of being bounced into taking on a burden which they instinctively (and in my view, rightly) feel isn’t theirs. When the apologist says “So, if you’re an atheist, you must believe there is no God” the atheist thinks: “Ah ha! I see your game. But you shan’t succeed…..” And from that point, even atheists who in their hearts believe that there is not, cannot be a God, will refuse to be pinned down on the issue. Apologists feel that their opponent is being deliberately evasive and they become understandably frustrated. Thereafter much heat and little light is generated in an “Oh yes you do!” “Oh no I don’t!” type exchange.
Of course, some atheists may genuinely have no belief either way on God’s existence, however I suspect most of them believe he doesn’t exist, but they are unwilling to admit as much, thinking that they will be painting themselves into a corner.
I think there is a way forward which might provide for a more honest and more productive exchange. I suggest that we start by recognising that “I believe x” is first and foremost a claim about me, not about x. A belief is a state of mind. Like an emotion, it is something we have, not something we choose.
When I say “I believe x” that does not of itself impose a burden of proof on me any more than saying “I like chocolate” does. It is simply a report about my state of mind. A challenge “Prove it!” would be an invitation to me to demonstrate that I truly believe x, not to prove x to be true.
By now you may be thinking that I am being disingenuous. Surely it is implicit in “I believe x” that I am saying “X is true”? Well, yes, but that by itself does not create a burden of proof.
All burdens of proof are self-imposed. In simple terms, only those who want to prove something bear a burden of proof. Being a theist does not impose a burden of proof. But being a theistic apologist does.
Being an agnostic will impose a burden of proof – if you want to argue that agnosticism (on whichever definition you use) is the most rational position to take.
Being an atheist can impose a burden of proof, if you wish to persuade others, but what you are obliged to prove will depend on what you are trying to persuade them of. If your argument is limited to the assertion that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God, then all you need to do is to refute the apologist arguments that purport to establish his existence. The fact that you may personally believe that there is no God has no bearing on your burden of proof. But of course if you want to go further and persuade people that God does not exist, then start arguing your case, because you just took on a burden.