Recently, there has been a rise of the terms like "Agnostic Theism" and "Agnostic Atheism" which one rarely comes across in philosophical literature. To me, these terms seem more of a mockery of the original ideologies adopted by debaters so they don't have to provide any strong claim and consequently entertain any burden of proof.

The reason I consider them paradoxical is that they are logically inconsistent positions.

An agnostic theist maintains that God cannot be known but he nevertheless exist.

An agnostic atheist maintains that God cannot be known but he nevertheless doesn't exist.

Any attempt to substantiate the latter part of the claim will necessarily contradict with the first part of the claim. However, if left unsubstantiated would be philosophically absurd.

Is such a concern/argument valid?

  • 2
    Your interpretation is too crude. Agnostic theist admits that God's existence is in doubt but finds it more likely than not, agnostic atheist leans the other way. There is nothing contradictory about these positions, or even new (other than names). People who called themselves agnostics often did so to avoid fruitless debates, some were just indifferent, but others did lean one way or the other, just not strongly enough to defend any assertions.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 22:23
  • An agnostic theist must have some justifications on which he bases his likelihood. If there exist some justifications then it would contradict the agnosticism part. However, if the likelihood is just an unsubstantiated belief it doesn't have any epistemic value. Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 22:25
  • 2
    No one "must" have anything, people do not owe other people justifications, debates, or even a conversation about their judgment calls, nor do they need "epistemic value". Most ordinary decisions are based on calls without justifications, ones that people can articulate anyway, sometimes "intuition" or "hunch" are invoked. And if people stopped to justify every call they make they would have no time for anything else. Debates over God are so irrelevant practically that investing into developing justifications is only worth it for a few.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 22:37
  • An agnostic theist is not sure God exists but prefers to be ready that God exists and accept him as God rather than be ready that God does not exist. Try by your own understand what agnostic atheist means.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 2:14
  • The notion of God's ineffability or inaccessibility is not a form of agnosticism. Sufis aren't agnostic, nor are Deists. You cannot be an agnostic theist in the form you propose. Your notion of agnostic atheism is just redundant -- if God does not exist, then of course he cannot be known. As defined, these are not positions people hold.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 11:45

6 Answers 6


The phrases, 'agnostic theism' and 'agnostic atheism', are puzzling on the surface. But if we dip below the surface, can we give them coherent sense ? Work out what they might reasonably mean ?

'Agnostic theism' might just mean that one is agnostic about theism. Take theism to involve the proposition, 'There is a God'. If one thought that there was slightly more but not decisive evidence for this proposition than against it and so felt it was right, because of this minimally slight edge of 'for' over 'against', to suspend judgement on the question whether there is a God, then one would be one's position would be one of agnostic theism.

Just the same evidential situation might hold good with regard to atheism. Take atheism to involve the proposition, 'There is no God'. By parity of reasoning, if one thought that there was slightly more evidence for this proposition than against it and so felt it was right, because of this minimally slight edge of 'for' over 'against' or even to suspend judgement on the question whether there is no God, then one's position would be one of agnostic atheism.

The shadow of etymology

I had better deal in advance with a matter that will unavoidably come up : the role of 'a' as a prefix in classical Greek. As a prefix, 'a' can mean 'without' or 'lacking'. On that reading an atheist (a-theist) would be someone who does not have the belief that there is a God. This might be because s/he has never come across the word or the concept. A one-year-old child could be an atheist in this sense, as could an adult into whose mind the concept of God had never entered.

I have no quarrel with this reading of 'atheist' and correspondingly of 'atheism' but I do not believe that it is accurate to the sense of these terms in present-day philosophy of religion. The Greek prefix, 'a', can also carry the sense of denial, or opposite meaning, of the word to which it is attached. In this application of the prefix, atheism (a-theism) involves the proposition that there is not a God; and an atheist is someone who rejects (and does not merely not hold) the proposition that there is a God.


A lot hinges on precise definitions. Let me offer some technical definitions for some of these terms:

  • "to know" - to know something is to have justified true belief. Relevant for this discussion, to have a justified true belief, someone must be "justified" in a belief for it to be a justified true belief.
  • "to believe" - there are many potentially useful definitions of belief. Some equate belief without knowing as superstition; a Bayesian might simply say that something is more likely than not, but not 100% certain; CS Lewis described belief/faith as something that for all intents you can trust even if you can't verify (he used the example of someone having faith in the surgeon before surgery: "It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. … The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other"). There are probably many useful definitions.

I'm not sure what precisely you mean by "maintains." If you mean "states with certainty" or "knows" then of course we have a contradiction - you can't state a fact with certainty while saying that it is impossible to be certain.

If however you mean "believe" where you say maintains, there's no issue at all: the speaker is simply saying that she has a belief but not a justified true belief. How exactly that works would be a matter of what definition one picks for "belief."


There is a third set of people who believe the universe could have been created in the instant of the big bang, and the creator is absent from the universe or unfathomable. For example the creator could have been an electron, or some form of energy. This is a bit 'god of the gaps' to a hard atheist, but to more agnostic atheists it is simply an admission that at various asymptotes the universe appears almost deliberately supernatural.


You miss a key aspect of the scope of agnosticism. A-gnostic is in conntradistinction to the gnostics, who sought or advocated direct communion with god. So, deists are a kind of agnostic, and those who talk about equations 'from the mind of god', or use the anthropic principle or quantum observation or first cause arguments to point to some vague notion of deity with no interest in us. If there is no possible intercession, no miracles, no response to praising god, you don't have a theistic religion.

In Buddhism, there is a sutra where Buddha goes to teach dharma to Brahman, who thought he is the great creator, the prime mover. But Buddha says he was only the first into this realm. And, that even with all his power, he cannot save us from the suffering we cause ourselves through ways we arange our minds. So, Buddhism is agnostically theist. Contact with deities may help with mundane matters, but is irrelevant really to the spiritual life.

Russell said in strict scientific terms he was agnostic - absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But he self-described as atheist to indicate not all theist hypothesees can be simultaneously correct, and they looked equally daft to him. Agnostic atheist.


Consider Pascal's Wager. Pascal says that one cannot know whether or not there is a God, and suggests that it's better to believe in Him rather than not. He says (Provincial Letters?) that participating in Church rituals will help one believe in God. (Exactly where the existence of God implies that Pascal's subgroup of the Roman Catholic Church was correct was apparently left as an exercise for the reader.) So, aware of the fact that God may not exist, Pascal has gotten himself to believe in God.

Alternately, consider Joe (to pick a name). Joe has had spiritual and/or religious experiences sufficient to convince him of the existence of God. Joe also realizes that these could be illusory experiences based on how the human brain happened to evolve. Joe, however, has been convinced by his experiences that there is a God, and decides he will trust these experiences.

Both Joe and Pascal admit that they can't know whether there is a God, and on that basis they're agnostics. They both believe there is a God, and act as if there is one, for somewhat different reasons, and on that basis they're theists.


Philosophy - love of wisdom - is ignostic. Similar to theological non-cognitivism, ignosticism recognizes the knowledge claim that deity is imponderable, incoherent, wholly a matter of what is "true to," and cannot be rationally assessed a truth value. Deity, like all abstract ideas, is only to be found in language and not the world.

As philosophy is respect for obtaining knowledge and knowledge regarding deity is limited to the previous statements, to disambiguate agnostic atheism and agnostic theism, consider the distinction between epistemic and ontological claims.

In short, agnosticism claims a lack of knowledge, or ignorance, regarding deity. Neither belief in nor lack of belief in deity require knowledge. Neither atheism, theism nor agnosticism make an ontological claim.

It will also help in assessing the position to distinguish the position from the person, e.g. the agnostic theist may claim or believe in an ontologically positive status regarding deity, however, the agnostic position claims ignorance of deity, including ontological status.

  • How is ignoticism relevant to agnosticism? Ignotic unlike agnostic can't be a theist or an atheist: [a]theistic ignoticism is an oxymoron.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 23:44
  • @rus9384 You appear to have the concepts reversed. Agnosticism is not tied to being strictly either theistic or atheistic, and the possibility of Ignosticism - an epistemological condition that avoids commitment to either position - confirms it.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 7:10
  • @Mr.Kennedy I would, however, disagree that Theism and Atheism do not make ontological claims, even where I agree that it is possible as an Agnostic to avoid doing so.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 7:13
  • @PaulRoss, I know what ignosticism mean. The question of existence of God is meaningless. If we define God as an ultimate authority it's not about existence, but about us.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 9:54

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