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.
  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.
  1. of or relating to agnostics or their doctrines, attitudes, or beliefs.
  2. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge.
  3. not taking a stand on something, especially not holding either of two usually strongly opposed positions (often used in combination): to take an agnostic view of technological progress; fuel agnostic energy policies.
  4. (especially of digital technology) not limited or dedicated to a particular device, system, etc. (often used in combination): platform agnostic software.

Origin of agnostic

< Greek ágnōst(os), variant of ágnōtos not known, incapable of being known (a- a-6 + gnōtós known, adj. derivative from base of gignṓskein to know) + -ic, after gnostic; coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869
Related formsag·nos·ti·cal·ly, adverb
Can be confusedagnostic atheist (see synonym study at the current entry)

Synonym study

Agnostic, atheist, infidel, skeptic refer to persons not inclined toward religious belief or a particular form of religious belief. An agnostic is one who believes it impossible to know anything about God or about the creation of the universe and refrains from commitment to any religious doctrine. An atheist is one who denies the existence of a deity or of divine beings. Infidel means an unbeliever, especially a nonbeliever in Islam or Christianity. A skeptic doubts and is critical of all accepted doctrines and creeds.

Word story

The word agnostic was coined by the English biologist T.H. Huxley in the late 1860s as a member of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, in response to what he perceived as an abundance there of strongly held beliefs. The original usage of the term was confined to philosophy and religion, and referred to Huxley's assertion that anything beyond the material world, including the existence and nature of God, was unknowable. Today the word can be seen applied to questions of politics, culture, and science, as when someone claims to be a “political agnostic.”
In a more recent trend, one can be agnostic simply by not taking a stand on something. In 2010, President Obama called himself “agnostic” on tax cuts until he had seen all available options. At a forum on sustainable energy in 2008, GE CEO Jeff Immelt said he was “fuel agnostic fundamentally.” In technology, software or hardware can be said to be agnostic as well. Computer code that can run on any operating system is called “platform agnostic,” and such services as phone and electric may be considered “agnostic” if not dedicated to a particular carrier, device, or user interface.

Popular references

—Agnostic Front: A New York punk band, considered at the forefront of the New York hardcore music scene. Founded in 1983, in existence for over 25 years.
Related Quotations
  • "It [agnostic] came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history who professed to know so much."
    -T. H. Huxley Agnosticism Collected Essays, Volume V; Science and Christian Tradition: Essays (1894)
  • "In theory he [Prof. Huxley] is a great and even severe Agnostic,–who goes about exhorting all men to know how little they know."
    -R. H. Hutton Spectator (January 29, 1870)
  • "Militant Agnostic: I don't know, and you don't either"
    -Bumper sticker Northern Sun (Accessed 2010)
  • "Melville is a political agnostic in Billy Budd—he ‘doesn't know’ with finality—not because he is indifferent, but because he sees too much."
    -Robert Midler Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine (2006)
  • "The whole point of it is to make sure that all ideas are on the table…So what I want to do is to be completely agnostic, in terms of solutions."
    -President Barack Obama by Rich Miller Obama ‘Agnostic’ on Deficit Cuts, Won't Prejudge Tax Increases Bloomberg Businessweek (Feb. 11, 2010)
  • "Our view has always been technology agnostic."
    -Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila by James Aley and Ann Harrington Heads We Win, Tails We Win As cellphones continue their takeover of the world, one company is certain to succeed: Here's how Qualcomm does it. Fortune Magazine (March 3, 2003) Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for agnostically

Historical Examples of agnostically

British Dictionary definitions for agnostically


  1. a person who holds that knowledge of a Supreme Being, ultimate cause, etc, is impossibleCompare atheist, theist
  2. a person who claims, with respect to any particular question, that the answer cannot be known with certainty
  1. of or relating to agnostics
Derived Formsagnosticism, noun

Word Origin for agnostic

C19: coined 1869 by T. H. Huxley from a- 1 + gnostic
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for agnostically



1870, "one who professes that the existence of a First Cause and the essential nature of things are not and cannot be known" [Klein]; coined by T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), supposedly in September 1869, from Greek agnostos "unknown, unknowable," from a- "not" + gnostos "(to be) known" (see gnostic). Sometimes said to be a reference to Paul's mention of the altar to "the Unknown God," but according to Huxley it was coined with reference to the early Church movement known as Gnosticism (see Gnostic).

I ... invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of 'agnostic,' ... antithetic to the 'Gnostic' of Church history who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. [T.H. Huxley, "Science and Christian Tradition," 1889]

The adjective is first recorded 1870.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper