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I thought I knew the meaning of the word agnostic until I read this in an article about the Common Core State Standards:

Some teachers were angered, not by his pedagogical vision per se but by the fact that the author of the standards seemed to be telling them how to teach, even when the standards themselves are agnostic about pedagogy.

Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) coined the word agnostic to describe his attitude towards God and religion. He felt he lacked sufficient knowledge to determine if God existed or not. He formed the word by adding the prefix a- to the word gnostic. The prefix added the sense of “without, not, -less.” Gnostic means “knowledge.” Agnostic means “lack of knowledge.”

The word agnostic can be a noun or an adjective. An agnostic is a person who withholds an opinion as to whether or not God exists. As an adjective, agnostic means “relating to the belief that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (as far as can be judged) unknowable.”

The use of agnostic in a nonreligious context led me to uses I’d been unaware of. Here are some examples:

Progressive adherents defend the Common Core State Standards Initiative as culturally and morally agnostic. 

I had to [think of] a recipe that would be apple agnostic—it had to work no matter if they were sweet or tart, red or green, tender or crisp.

“Political agnostics” are people who ignore politics and current events.

“The rescues I knew that did foster homes were mostly purebred rescues, like for collies or Persian [cats],” says Wootton,…”I didn’t know of any that just took dogs, or just took cats…We are breed-agnostic — we don’t discriminate.”

I am coming round to a sugar-agnostic position.

The burgeoning use of the word agnostic in nonreligious contexts may derive from its use in the world of technology. A software program that will run on any computer operating system is said to be “platform agnostic.”

In extended use, agnostic can mean “not committed to a particular point of view, “non-partisan,” or “equivocal.”

To me, the use of agnostic to refer to apples, sugar, and dogs seems more than a little inapt. And a word that can mean “equivocal” doesn’t seem the best choice to describe educational standards.

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5 thoughts on “Agnostic”

  1. The use of any word, used in any way, in the English language is acceptable if the reader understands what the author is communicating.

    During my first, and only, college level English class, our professor expressed this opinion.

    I had always believed that clear communication depended on correct grammar, punctuation, and word usage. In technical writing that is true.

    But, in artistic writing, it is not true. For example, take “The Color Purple.” It is written from the point of view, and in the words, of an uneducated black woman. This little book breaks all the rules, and has a massive impact.

    So, I say, if the words express what you intend to say, correct or incorrect, leave them alone. Writing is, after all, an artistic endeavor. Often, in art, much of the beauty is in the imperfections.

  2. I believe the root usage from which we get constructions like “platform agnostic” is the term “model agnostic” by which quantum physicists avoid being drawn into metaphysics.

  3. Although we can, of course, understand what someone means when uses the word agnostic in a “fancy” way, I think the use of it to describe any other meaning than the attitude towards God and religion is inappropriate.

  4. I love it…you have found my niche! What a relief! People have long thought that since I appear to have no political leanings, I can be pulled to support one side or another…but lo! I do have political leanings…I lean waaaay back…until I’m horizontal and asleep…I am a political agnostic!

  5. I have always taken agnostic connotatively to mean “unbelieving” or “without conviction”, while aware that its etymology comes from gnosos (sp?). So a religious agnostic is a person who has no conviction or belief re the existance of a God one way or the other. By extention, political agnosticism as bluebird describes, or being morally “agnostic” would make sense– although what the difference there would be between moral agnosticism and amorality becomes a pressing question.

    But to use the word to mean simply “lacking”, e.g. sugar or apple agnostic, or even simply to mean without a preference like a breed agnostic dog lover, seems improper and overly extended to the point of “definition agnostic”, also known as “useless”, when it comes to words.

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