inessential by Brent Simmons


I was at Microsoft yesterday, at the Hailstorm Design Preview. I'm under nda, so I can't talk about it. When I can, I probably will. It's a story worth following, even if you're not a Microsoft-watcher, because it's a Web story, there are larger themes involved.

In the meantime, Robert Scoble has some reporting about it.

I'm going to write about religion, but I'm not going to say anything controversial, so it's safe to read on. I'm also not going to reveal anything about my personal religious beliefs.

The word agnostic interests me -- it seems to me that the meaning of the word is drifting.

The common meaning is that an agnostic is one who neither affirms nor denies the existence of a deity.

But the word means something different than that -- an agnostic is the opposite of a Gnostic. A Gnostic believes that God is knowable.

An agnostic believes that God is not knowable.

Agnosticism is a statement about knowledge of God, not about God itself.

In other words, an agnostic is not someone who says "I don't know if God exists or not." An agnostic says "It's impossible to know if God exists or not."

That's a much bolder statement than a statement of being unsure. An agnostic is very sure.

There are several subtly different meanings for the word agnostic even at Dictionary.Com. But note the Word History section: "The term agnostic was fittingly coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge. He made up the word from the prefix a-, meaning 'without, not,' as in amoral, and the noun Gnostic."

So if you've been calling yourself an agnostic, you might want to double-check. Do you deny the very possibility of knowledge of God? If not, then perhaps you're a skeptic, Deist, or simply undecided.

(I first became interested in this word when reading the later works of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick -- a modern-day Gnostic. Good stuff, definitely worth reading.)