Over at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has penned a manifesto for the “new agnosticism,” which he sees as an alternative to credulous theism on the the one hand and strident atheism on the other. Rosenbaum’s position deserves considerable merit and has some appeal, but I am not sure I can agree with him on this definition:
Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.
This sounds to me more like philosophical skepticism; radical skepticism it is not — the latter often approaches nihilism.
Nor does Rosenbaum’s formulation sound quite like the original definition of agnosticism, which Thomas Henry Huxley provided in 1869 during the early evolution debates:
This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that 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.
The definition I prefer derives from a methodology:
All metaphysical claims should be evaluated using the full array of concepts provided by positivist inquiry, which include (but are not limited to) things or ideas such as facts, data, evidence, measurements, statistics, experience, logic, and reason.
Using this broad and open-minded methodology, I arrive at this definition of agnosticism:
There is little to no evidence supporting the idea that supernatural agents or forces exist, but this does not foreclose the possibility that such agents or forces exist. Also, this does not foreclose the possibility there are things or forces that exist in the universe of which we are unaware or do not understand.
In terms of conceptual affinities, these various definitions usually align agnosticism more closely with atheism than with theism. The primary difference is that agnostics do not proclaim that theists are delusional, infantile, credulous, ignorant, psychotic, or stupid. This is where Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris go off the rails.
Supernatural and religious claims can be evaluated without deploying any of these derogatory and normative terms.