Ask Ivor

Marcelle asks:

"I would like to understand what the definition of agnostic is—and/or if there is a word that defines simply a belief in belief, or a belief in faith. What do you know?"

An agnostic is literally "one who knows not" (from Greek agnostos, not known).

Thomas Huxley, the English biologist and philosopher, invented the term (in 1869), to put a label upon his reaction to dogmatism: "It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts... it is all that is essential to Agnosticism. That which agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the... doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions."

Huxley felt that the existence or nature of any ultimate reality is unknown and probably unknowable, and that people should maintain a continuing doubt about the existence or knowability of a god or any ultimates.

Huxley had doubts about religious belief: "There is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians"; and, on the other hand, he also had doubts about unbelief: "Atheism is on purely philosophical grounds untenable."

Many of those identifying themselves as agnostics subscribe to materialism (the philosophy that physical matter is the only reality), but this is certainly not a requirement of agnosticism. Huxley himself vigorously rejected charges of materialism, saying, "I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything."

Is there a word for belief in belief?

If you mean respect for various or all belief systems (such as that practiced by Universalists, ecumenists, Unitarians, Bahais, and liberal-minded people in general), then the word could be pantheism, one of whose definitions is: the worship of gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently. (The other, more familiar, definition of pantheism is: the doctrine that God and the universe are one and the same.)

If you mean, more basically, a belief in the importance and value of people exercising belief and faith, there is the word fideism (from Latin fides, faith): reliance upon faith alone accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason. There is also the adjective pistic (from the Greek word for faith, pistis): pertaining to faith or trust rather than to reason. But these terms overstate the case. People of faith understand the limitations of reason, but they have no cause to abandon reason.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and philosopher, recognized the need for a balance: "If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous"; "If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural." Pascal understood that the mystery of faith involved the heart: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of"; "It is the heart which is aware of God and not reason. That is what faith is: God perceived intuitively by the heart, not by reason...."

The existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, in the 1840's, also appreciated where faith went beyond reason. He argued that "the movements of faith must constantly be made by virtue of the absurd." But, unlike Pascal, he saw faith as something more complicated than simply a perception of the heart: "Faith... is not an immediate instinct of the heart, but is the paradox of life and existence."

Jacques Ellul, a contemporary theologian, expounds upon this paradox: "Belief is directed only toward uncertain, fragile, improbable things. If I believe, that's because I have no proof, no assurance, no guarantee that what I believe will come about—far from it.... Being a believer doesn't mean that one is entrenched in a fortress and overpowers one's adversaries from behind its walls. It means rather to be put in the most vulnerable of situations, to hang in the most delicate equilibrium, to expose oneself to assault from all sides.... I know deep down that what I believe is uncertain, fragile, unstable, that that belief can change at the slightest pressure, that I have no proof and no certainty, that I'm defenseless, and at the same time I know existentially that this belief is a vital necessity for me, that it's the vital center of my life, which will be threatened if I lose it.... If I really believed in it, I could enter upon a life of freedom, flexibility, and humanity; I could expose myself without fear...."