The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Agnostic’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where did the word ‘agnostic’ come from, and what does it mean? Agnostic is a term that’s often misused and misunderstood, so let’s delve deeper into the word’s meaning and etymology to discover the truth about ‘agnosticism’ and what it means to be an ‘agnostic’.

We’ll also explore what connects Brave New World with the word agnostic. But first, the origins of that term …

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an agnostic as a ‘person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God.’ The OED also observes that the term should be distinguished from atheist.

It’s important to understand the nature of this distinction, however. The word agnostic is from the ancient Greek prefix a- meaning ‘without’ and ἄγνωστος or gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’. So an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know whether or not there’s a God.

This means that any honest, rational person is by definition an agnostic. A fervent believer may claim to ‘know’ there is definitely a God. A committed atheist may claim to ‘know’ there definitely isn’t a God. Or multiple gods. Or any ‘immaterial things’, to use the OED’s phrase.

But of course, neither the fervent believer nor the committed atheist technically knows. The only honest position on the question of knowledge, then, is an agnostic position.

But the pair of words theist and atheist refer not to knowledge but to belief. This is where the OED definition of agnostic isn’t as clear as it could be: by bringing in the word ‘believes’ (‘A person who believes that nothing is known’), the dictionary muddies the waters between belief and knowledge, which are two subtly distinct (but importantly distinct) things.

A theist is someone who believes there is a God. An atheist is one who doesn’t believe there is one (again, that a- prefix: atheist means ‘without belief in a God’). Atheism is an absence of belief, just as agnosticism is an absence of knowledge.

So, in summary: any reasonable person must admit (however reluctantly) to being an agnostic about the existence of God, or gods, or other deities. The only honest position for all of us is agnosticism. I may find all man-made accounts of the existence of God so implausible that I can confidently say I ‘know’ they’re all nonsense. But I don’t strictly know that for sure.

Similarly, a strong Christian, for instance, might feel they know God is definitely out there looking out for them. But they cannot know this for sure. It is a belief.

And belief is subtly different from knowledge. Indeed, belief only really exists in the absence of knowledge. If I know the author of Great Expectations was Charles Dickens, I don’t have to ‘believe’ in such a piece of information. We reserve beliefs for things which we don’t or cannot know, like the existence of a supernatural deity.

So, how did the word agnostic come into being? The OED notes, for the etymology of agnostic, that the word was ‘apparently coined by T. H. Huxley as an antonym for gnostic’. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) acquired the nickname ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ for his tenacious defence of Darwinian evolution. The other thing he’s most remembered for now is coining the word agnostic. But did he actually coin it?

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the word is the Spectator magazine in 1869:

All these considerations, and the great controversies which suggest them, are in the highest degree cultivating, and will be admitted to be so even by those Agnostics who think them profitless of any practical result.

This is interesting, as the blog Grammarphobia notes, because the chronology is suggestive. That Spectator quotation is from the May 29 1869, issue. In an 1889 essay titled ‘Agnosticism’, T. H. Huxley says he invented the term at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in London in 1869. But as Grammarphobia notes, this society didn’t hold its first formal meeting until June 2, 1869, four days after the word ‘Agnostics’ appeared in the Spectator. But as the authors go on to note, it’s possible that Huxley may have used the term at an organisational meeting of the Metaphysical Society that he attended on April 21.

So, in short, we cannot know for sure whether Huxley coined the term agnostic after all. We have no choice, fittingly enough, but to be agnostic on the matter, though we may choose to believe that the evidence, whilst ultimately somewhat inconclusive, is in his favour.

And as for what connects the word agnostic to the dystopian novel Brave New World: the author of that novel, Aldous Huxley, was T. H. Huxley’s grandson. Huxley (Aldous, that is) fittingly identified as an ‘agnostic’ on religious matters – although, as we’ve seen, really we all are.