Agnosticism and the Eternal Triangle of Beliefs


Agnostics are often seen as half-hearted people. Atheists ask them why they don’t go the whole way and openly deny the existence of God. Other people often just regard them with suspicion, thinking they are Atheists without the courage to come clean. I am going to outline the relationship of Agnosticism to other religious positions, and try to show that Agnostics have indeed gone the whole way and are not Atheists.

The Triangle

Draw a triangle. One of the corners represents all the people that I will call Supernaturalists. These people believe in the existence of some supernatural entity or entities – God and/or various other kinds of spirit. Such entities are not part of the natural (or material) world, which, for this exercise is presumed to exist, but they may somehow be involved in it.

Another corner of the triangle represents the Atheists. These are people who believe there is nothing supernatural, nothing but the material world. Everything we are, everything we see, do, feel or think, everything that exists, is part of a material process in the material world. There can be nothing else.

The third corner of the triangle is for the Agnostics, who don’t agree with either the Supernaturalists or the Atheists. Agnostics think, or believe, that it is not possible to know whether there is anything other than the material world.

In other words, if there seem to be "spooky" aspects to everyday life and/or to science, then Supernaturalists believe they really are spooky, Atheists believe they are not at all spooky, and Agnostics think its impossible to tell.

I am now going to suggest what those at each corner of the triangle see when they look across towards the other two.

From a supernaturalist point of view, atheism and agnosticism look very much the same. Neither will affirm the existence of any kind of supernatural entity.

From an atheistic point of view, supernaturalism and agnosticism look very much the same. Neither will deny the existence of any kind of entity beyond the material world.

From an agnostic point of view, supernaturalism and atheism look very much the same. Neither will acknowledge that it may be impossible to know whether any supernatural entity exists.

The symbol of the triangle suggests there are only possible kinds of belief about the supernatural and that they are distinguishable from each other. This will now be tested by closer examination of their similarities and differences.

The concept of the Supernatural – God, gods and spirits

As suggested above, the supernatural may be thought of as some entity that might exist separate from and independent of the material (or natural) world, but which might be capable of affecting it.

To meet these conditions, the supernatural would avoid some of the constraints that are usually thought to govern material phenomena, eg, the natural laws or the rules of logic. It should be said that this is my concept (or definition) of the supernatural, which in other writings I have referred to as spirit. Most Supernaturalists would probably regard it as unduly abstract, but I think it covers the spectrum, from God to ghosts.

God is usually thought of as the supreme being, presiding over both the supernatural and the material worlds. To at least some Supernaturalists, the material world might be part of God. The powers of God might be regarded as unlimited (and usually are) or, alternatively, shared with one or more similar entities in either harmony or opposition.

The great majority of people believes in the existence of some supernatural entity, be it God, gods, angels, fairies, souls, demons or other kinds of spirit. People and other living organisms (in the material world) may or may not contain, in addition to material bodies, supernatural components that are generally thought to separate out from the body when the body dies.

Some supernaturalists regard consciousness to be a supernatural entity. Indeed, they may regard the identity of each person (or sometimes member of another species) to reside in the, usually undying, supernatural component rather than in the material body.

For Supernaturalists, belief in the existence of the supernatural is a matter of faith. This is often bolstered by what they regard to be factual or persuasive circumstantial evidence. Those of a philosophical bent may include faith (in God) as one of the necessary foundations on which philosophy must be built, regarding it as an enrichment of life.

More specifically, supernaturalism, in all its forms, is founded on one or more separate and independent grounds. These are:

Supernaturalists tend to regard feelings of awe and some emotions as being "spiritual", ie, somehow related to the supernatural. In general, religious practices include rituals that enhance such feelings. Supernaturalists expect intervention in their lives from supernatural entities, which they may trust to help them out of difficult or dire situations, and/or punish them for wrongdoing.

Supernaturalism is a conglomeration of different systems of belief, ranging from those with extensive detailed descriptions of supernatural entities, to those with only vague ideas that there is something else beyond the material world. In most of its forms it prescribes sets of morals and religious practices. These can include loving and altruistic attitudes and practices, or cruel and punitive ones. The morals can often include prohibitions of apparently innocuous things that are said to displease a supernatural entity.

Belief in the supernatural promotes unity among those of a similar persuasion, often resulting in the production of great works and philanthropic endeavours in the name of their particular religion. It also tends to create a feeling of certainty about what must be believed and about correct behaviour, which certainty can lead to great hostility towards dissenters and to social repression. Supernaturalists often say they "know" there really is a God or spirit. Some proclaim their religious adherence by wearing distinctive items of clothing or symbols, by having religious texts or artefacts displayed in or outside their homes, and by making allusions to their belief in their conversation and other communication.


In denying the existence of anything beyond the material world (with particular concern about God) Atheists regard themselves to be very rational. They are disposed to want evidence, doubting anything that is not evidently true. They are very sceptical of claims of evidence or arguments of proof of the supernatural. They do not accept that coincidences or miracles are supernatural events. They reject faith and emotions as valid evidence or of metaphysical significance.

None of this stops them from having feelings or awe and great wonderment, but these arise from aspects of the material world – which, of course, contains an enormous range of things to inspire awe and wonder.

Atheism is not a single or agreed system of beliefs, but it is much less diverse than supernaturalism. It is founded on one or more separate and independent grounds. These are:

A person might come to Atheism on any one of these grounds and yet reject others.

Atheism has no need for rituals. It does not provide a foundation for goals or morality, but does not prevent or discourage the adoption of secular equivalents. In practice, Atheists generally agree with Supernaturalists on many moral issues. They may passionately engage in political activities, or in movements supporting civil or animal rights, etc., sometimes alongside Supernaturalists and Agnostics. Belief in some secular ideals and goals, such as those of nazism and communism, can have destructive or suppressive effects.

Atheists may meet to discuss or promote their beliefs and sometimes denounce belief in God and the supernatural generally, or organised religion. But they do not build temples or do good works in the name of atheism. They may, however, do these things in the name of some other secular belief or organisation.

Atheists are usually confident that they "know" there is no God or anything supernatural.


Agnosticism rejects all justification for affirming or denying the existence of anything beyond the material world. It is founded on one or more separate and independent grounds. These are:

  1. feelings or reasoning that is not possible to know whether anything exists beyond the material world;
  2. reasoning that there is (as yet) no known way of knowing;
  3. inability to see any way of knowing (which does not equate with claiming the impossibility of knowing);
  4. inability to come to a conclusion about the great diversity of beliefs about the supernatural, or unwillingness to pursue the matter;
  5. examination and rejection of the beliefs and rationales of those who claim to know.
As with supernaturalism and atheism, there is no single agnostic viewpoint. Some Agnostics firmly believe that is inherently impossible to know whether there is anything beyond the perceived world. Others would, if inclined, consider arguments invoking the supernatural. Others see no point in taking the matter further.

While some accept the possibility of things that we as yet can’t know about, they are very sceptical about detailed descriptions of purported supernatural entities or processes. For the supernatural to be distinct from the material world but yet interact with it, it must, of necessity, have a logic, and possibly constraints, distinctly different from those of the material world. Therefore, to describe the supernatural only in terms of the material world - and even things like intelligence are manifestations of the material - is to deny that it is supernatural.

Like atheism, agnosticism does not provide a set of beliefs or rituals, nor a particular system of morality, nor a basis for a sense of purpose. But, like Atheists, Agnostics can feel awe and wonder at the material world and become actively engaged in secular movements.

In contrast to Supernaturalists and Atheists, Agnostics deny themselves the confidence of "knowing they are right".

is agnosticism really different from atheism?

There are different stances among Agnostics Some have a very similar outlook to some Atheists, just as, for example, some high Anglicans hold very similar beliefs and practise similar rituals to some Catholics. So they are similar but different.

They share several outlooks, such as:

  1. a reliance on scientific method;
  2. a rejection of feelings or emotions as evidence of the supernatural;
  3. a rejection of the significance of coincidental experiences;
  4. a rejection of the truth of religious texts (except where independently confirmed) and of claims of paranormal powers or occurrences;
  5. scepticism of religious or other philosophy that assumes or purports to prove the existence of supernatural entities;
  6. the ability to experience awe and wonder without associating supernatural characteristics with it;
  7. conducting of their everyday life without reference to religious or devotional practices.

  8. Given these similarities, Atheists are bemused that Agnostics should entertain the notion that anything supernatural might exist. But that is not the issue. Agnosticism is different from atheism in that it:

  9. is reluctant to accept the absolute truth of rationales, atheistic as well as supernatural, because the assumptions behind them seem open to question;
  10. concentrates on ways of knowing, finds none of them absolutely reliable, but considers that the inductive knowledge we normally have to rely on is unable to be extended beyond the material world in the absence of any reproducible data;
  11. allows the (remote?) possibility of a supernatural entity, but does not have any concept of what it might be like;
  12. is less likely to induce a feeling of certainty in its outlook, or superiority over or hostility towards those who believe in the supernatural.
Agnosticism looks hard at the significance of Occam’s razor, noting that from time to time scientists need to accept such concepts as the extra dimensions of space, the multiverse, dark matter and energy. Atheists would argue, and Agnostics accept, that each new entity that scientists propose is necessary to logically explain observed phenomena, whereas there are no observations whose explanation require a supernatural entity. Agnostics point out that there still seems to be much to discover, and there is no reason to expect that all mysteries will soon be resolved.

Since the end of the 19th century science (thinks it) has discovered:

  1. curved space-time;
  2. the equivalence of matter and energy;
  3. quanta, uncertainty, super-position and entanglement;
  4. a great range of particles and anti-particles;
  5. a great range of characteristics of particles (eg, spin and the varieties of quarks);
  6. nuclear forces, dark matter and dark energy.
So what else is there? Will we ever find out, and how will we know whether there is still more to discover?

Atheists commonly assert that science will progressively resolve all mysteries, including the existence or otherwise of the supernatural. For this reason they say that agnosticism must be nothing more than a provisional position pending scientific resolution. Agnostics say it is only faith that makes Atheists believe that not only will science eventually establish whether there is a supernatural, but that the finding will be in the negative.

Agnostics are often cautious about the reliance of logic when applied to metaphysical issues. This is reinforced by apparently illogical aspects of the material world, such as are described by relativity, quantum mechanics, and other theories. Some of these have been demonstrated repeatedly by rigorous observation. The proposition that there are supernatural entities seems no more outlandish than these concepts and theories.

Some scientists postulate the evolution of universes. There is even a version that purports to answer the "ultimate" question, proposing a sequence by which something (which then starts evolving) arises out of nothing - nothing being different from and much less than what scientists refer to as free space. It would be hard to see how such a theory could be tested.

Agnostics may be aware that science is dependent on induction, ie, that there might always be a new, "anomalous", discovery that casts doubt on an accepted scientific law. They have seen so many belief systems and scientific laws overthrown or "corrected". They are aware of intractable issues in philosophy and science, such as ultimate causes, whether causality must always be consistent, and the nature of such things as space and time. And they are aware that the inherent capacity of human understanding is very limited, and appears great only in comparison with other species.

Indeed, science seems to be facing philosophical barriers in such areas as fundamental physics and consciousness. This is not to underrate science, merely to indicate that despite its enormous success in explaining the material world, that success is far from complete. It might be argued that some as yet unknown (non-material?) discipline could explore the supernatural. Until this is decided, Agnostics reserve their judgment.

Atheists wonder why Agnostics don’t completely dismiss the idea of the supernatural, given that few, if any, would think there just might be a Santa Claus. But the supernatural doesn’t need to have the kind of characteristics attributed Santa Claus, or God. Human subjectivity seems to be continually haunted by the idea, or indeed the conviction, of the existence of "something else". This may well be merely a side effect of the operation of the brain, but that has yet to be shown. And the issue of subjectivity itself has yet to be resolved, despite the protestations of those on both sides of the argument.

What this boils down to is that Agnosticism differs from Atheism on three issues:

  1. the limitations of human beings to apprehend and understand reality, particularly a reality using different rules from the material world we know;
  2. the possibility that there is a "supernatural of the gaps" - a less specific version of the idea of the "God of the gaps" – such as the underlying nature or origin of the material world, or of subjectivity;
  3. the logical stalemate that is reached when philosophical arguments are taken to their limit.

why eternal?

Perhaps this description of three distinct types of belief and believers is a bit too pat. Might there be an additional type of belief? Some people believe in extra-terrestrials – the von Daniken visitors who "built the pyramids", those who abduct people at night and return them in the morning, and the ones who the Raelians believe made the human race and who will come and collect the faithful in their spaceships when Earth becomes uninhabitable. But there seems to be no reason to regard either of these as anything but part of the material world, along with the extra-terrestrial entities that SETI and other scientific endeavours are trying to discover. These, like superstrings and dark energy, are invoked in attempts to account for what cannot be explained or to widen the boundaries of the known world. So my three, admittedly arbitrary, categories of belief seem to cover the range.

Another objection may be that pantheism and some strands of Buddhism, which regard the material universe to be itself some kind of supernatural entity, should be a fourth category. My answer is that these are either atheistic or supernaturalist beliefs, depending on the attitudes of individual believers.

I acknowledge that my three categories of believers are too rigidly typecast. Some believers hold their beliefs more firmly than others. Most hold some beliefs more firmly than others. Most have inconsistencies between their beliefs. Nevertheless there is a "heartland" of each that makes me think that all three will persist, possibly in different forms from the present and possibly for different reasons.

People each have their own reasons for what they believe. I think we each construct, out of sensory inputs, emotional disposition and processing power, our individual criteria for (intuitively) deciding what are reliable sources of "truth". In other words, what we believe depends on:

  1. our experiences, probably beginning from before birth;
  2. those factors that determine our personality;
  3. and those factors that determine how we arrive at conclusions in the light of experience and personality.
Most people are compelled, by the necessities of everyday life, to form beliefs on inadequate evidence. Most practical beliefs continue to be demonstrably true. So believing in the supernatural without complete "scientific" evidence is not much different from most practical beliefs, and may often be indistinguishable from them. There is no shortage of occurrences, some very significant, in most people’s lives to support a feeling of some unseen process or entity being responsible.

Most people like to have a rationale to justify their beliefs. The rationales for Atheism are persuasive for many who are willing to consider them.

For those who like to be cautious or rigorous in their thinking, the rationales of neither the Supernaturalists nor the Atheists seem watertight. That leads to Agnosticism.

In societies with strong cultural beliefs, religious or other, there are always those of a contrary persuasion, such as unbelievers in supernaturalist societies and believers in secular. Although Supernaturalists, Atheists and Agnostics each have their own reasons for their beliefs, from time to time some of them change their minds.

Some Atheists and Agnostics become Supernaturalists because, having previously found a purpose in life through some personal or secular interest, they start to find it no longer satisfying and are attracted to something that appears to be more noble or enduring – which usually has a supernatural element. They then set about examining the evidence for and against that, and may find they are able to believe in it.

Some Supernaturalists become Atheists or Agnostics because some event or chain of reasoning conflicts with some aspect of their image of their particular supernatural entity. Rather than adjusting their image, which is the usual reaction, they discard it entirely. Whether they settle on Atheism or Agnosticism will probably depend on the rest of their beliefs and their personality.

Indeed, there is quite a bit of traffic between all three corners of the triangle, and a lot more within the Supernaturalist corner. And if we were to consider our own beliefs at different stages of our lives we would probably find many changes, resulting from significant experiences, or from thinking things through in different ways. So attitudes of mind, as described in the table above, can change through life.

New experiences, either significant or accumulations of small ones, and new thoughts continue to test our beliefs. As long as we continue to have new experiences and new thoughts we will each continue to modify our own unique conclusions. I think (and hope) this is inherent in the human condition. So the triangle, if not eternal, will outlast all of us here.


Summary of the three positions

Differences between three positions
Supernaturalists Atheists Agnostics
believe in God and/or lesser supernatural entities  deny the existence of supernatural entities doubt or deny the possibility of knowing
willing to rely on faith. demand evidence before believing demand justification before totally accepting or rejecting
expect supernatural intervention and/or help or anger no expectation of supernatural intervention no expectation of supernatural intervention

Attitudes of mind behind the three different positions?
Supernaturalists Atheists Agnostics
may accept some philosophical or scientific reasoning, but include faith as part of philosophy accept supporting philosophical or scientific reasoning, and typically science method may acknowledge, but reserve judgment on philosophical or scientific reasoning
accept confirmatory experiences of the supernatural reject all claimed evidence of the supernatural doubt all claimed knowledge concerning the supernatural
accept selected authority sources, sometimes in preference to science accept selected, mainly scientific, authority sources use, but are wary of, authority sources
intuitive convictions of the supernatural intuitive convictions of absence of the supernatural feelings or reasoning that is not possible to know whether there is any supernatural
feel a need for some "higher" purpose, belonging, identity or certainty no special need for purpose, belonging, identity or certainty, but may find some in secular no special need for purpose, belonging, identity or certainty, but may find some in secular
confidently "know" they are right about their belief confidently "know" they are right about their belief accept they may be wrong about whether there is "something else"

This is the text of the talk given to the Atheist Society, Melbourne
on 13 March 2007 by Graeme Lindenmayer
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