My new favorite word

I was sitting on the bus on the way to work this morning, just spacing out and looking around. The person in front of me was reading a book that caught my eye because tons of notes had been scribbled in the margins in different handwriting and colors of ink. I was absentmindedly staring at it just because it looked neat, but then a word someone scrawled larger than the others popped out at me:


It was beautiful. I don’t know what they intended it to mean, or if it was really just a vaguely N-shaped scribble that happened to occur in front of “agnostic.” But I instantly knew how I would define the term:

nagnostic (noun) – A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena, and takes that belief to such extremes that they persistently annoy others with assertions that their position is obviously the most philosophically sound and that they too are actually agnostic.

Susie: So I went to this atheist meetup the other day and –
How can you be an atheist? Can you prove god doesn’t exist?
Susie: Well, no, but-
Billy: Then you’re really an agnostic!
Susie: That small margin of doubt is effectively insignificant. And you can’t prove a negative…
Billy: There’s still technically doubt! You’re agnostic!
Susie: But that’s impractical. Are you agnostic about unicorns because they’ve never been proved not to exist?
Billy: Yes.
Susie: …You’re such a fucking nagnostic.

As a former nagnostic, I apologize. And plan to use this slang wherever applicable. …Which is unfortunately pretty often.


  1. rjohnston says

    This is the exact line of reasoning that convinced me long ago that agnostics don’t really exist. The blatantly selective solipsism of agnosticism is clearly a philosophical evasion adopted either in ignorance, to avoid the stigma of atheism, or to adopt a tribalistic superiority over the atheist that very much resembles religion.

  2. says

    Hi Jen,

    I believe I read somewhere that you’re a theological noncognitivist (and it looks like this post concurs with that to some degree). Have you written anything about that position and why you hold it? I’ve always thought it was fascinating, though my own position is different: I believe the word ‘God’ is meaningful but almost certainly not descriptive of anything real.

  3. says

    Wait… but do you really know FOR SURE that it’s your new favourite word? How do you know FOR SURE there aren’t other better words you’re just forgetting about right now? :P

  4. Decnavda says

    rjohnston –

    You are as wrong as the nagnostic. The nagnostic is claiming that because there is a spectrum of plausibility in an uncertain situation, you cannot call something “black” or “white” because it is all just shades of grey. You are turning around and claiming that, for the exact same reason, anyone who claims they see grey is just a coward unwilling to take a stand on whether it is black or white. No, I cannot prove unicorns do not exist. Nor can I prove there is no technilogical civilization in the Andromeda galaxy. But I think I can take a stand and say that I do not believe in unicorns. I also think I am not a coward for stating that I can not a stand on whether or not there is a technilogical civilization in Adromeda.

    I like the word “Nagostic”. Can I call someone like rjohnston who claim that agnostics do not exist a “Naytheist”?

  5. Rieux says

    Oh, I’m so in.


    Can I call someone like rjohnston who claim that agnostics do not exist a “Naytheist”?

    No, that word (though it flows better as “Nätheist”) already means “One who lacks a belief in people named Nathan.”

  6. Eric O says

    I came across the term “college agnostic” in some comments a while ago, which seems to mean the same thing. It seemed apt – almost all the insufferable agnostics that I’ve met, I met during my first and second years at university.

    That said, “nagnostic” has a nicer ring to it. I think I’ll incorporate it into my vocabulary.

  7. Decnavda says

    So I just Googled “naytheist” and it turns out to already has a couple of slightly different meanings, but tey both refer to someone who *refuses* to worship, regardless of whether or not a god or gods actually exist. So I need another word for rjohnston et al.

    I also Googled “nagnostic”. It turns out that already also has an entry in the Urban dictionary that is basically the same as what Jen just made up.

  8. karmakin says

    The best way to look at it is that Agnosticism/Gnosticism are on a separate axis from Atheism/Theism, at least I find. So myself, and most other atheists are Agnostic Atheists.

  9. Decnavda says

    I just clicked through to the full entry and it apears that while the urban dictionary deffinition is the same as Jen’s, it is from a Christian’s point of view. Apparently the nagnostics annoy everyone the same way.

  10. says

    from the Urban Dictionary

    A person who vehemently denies that any of us can truly know anything spiritual. An anti-religious nag who is every bit as annoying as bible beaters.

    Typically, this person is a pain in the ass and harps on the same discrepancies in the Christian bible that every is well aware of.

    “I just felt so inspired, like God was guiding me.”
    “You can’t say that! You don’t know God is real! Prove it!”
    “Stop being such a nagnostic, you jerk.”

  11. rjohnston says

    There is no gray when it comes to gods. Gods are either defined to be trivial and uninteresting entities, too poorly defined in order for evidence to even be possible, or have absolutely no evidence in favor of their existence.

    Saying you don’t know whether or not a god exists is unadulterated and blatant solipsism. Gods have considerably less evidence in their favor than unicorns. A claim that you don’t know whether or not god exists is no different than a claim that you don’t know whether or not jumping off of a skyscraper is hazardous to your health.

    There is plenty of room for gray in the world, but if there’s gray about gods then the entire world is gray. People claiming not to know whether a god exists or not are lying or deluded about their own beliefs. That delusion takes the form of failure to recognize that they are engaged in special pleading that claims about the existence of gods are subject to different rules for evaluation than are all other claims of existence.

  12. Sophia Dodds says

    Wait a minute, isn’t agnosticism a completely separate position from both atheism and theism, and theoretically compatible with either?
    Theism = belief in gods
    Atheism = lack of belief in gods
    Agnosticism = We -cannot- know if gods exist

    So therefore you could be atheist and agnostic – “We cannot know if gods exist, and no evidence exists for the existence of gods so I do not believe in gods”
    or theist and agnostic – “We cannot know gods exist, but my personal belief is that they do”

    Is this nonsense, or am I just being horribly pedantic?

  13. Sophia Dodds says

    Running the ol’ brain over this a little more and with help from a few online dictionaries, it seems the vernacular usage of “agnostic” as an adjective to denote an undecided position is a secondary meaning, but only according to some sources.

    Also, my first atheist/agnostic example there might be a bit nonsensical – if one thinks the existence of god(s) is unknowable, an evidence-based position might be a bit moot. Not quite sure about that one now!

    Then again, I could go in mental circles with this sort of pedantry forever and still agree that nagnostic is a wondrous word :P

  14. rjohnston says

    I’ll add that I’ve never actually met or even heard of a so-called agnostic who actually lives his-or-her life as though in meaningful doubt about whether or not gods exist. There are agnostics who fall prey to Pascal’s wager; there are agnostics who, aside from a tendency to bleat about how their “open” minds make then morally superior to atheists, live their lives as atheists; but the evidence for the existence of agnostics who believe that the question of gods’ existence is a meaningful question to ask and who believe that they don’t have enough information to live with a firm but tentative conclusion about the answer to that question is on a par with the evidence for the existence of gods.

    An agnostic who sincerely believed the gods’ existence question to be coherent, important, and unanswered would, in fact spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question, and, of course, a self-labeled agnostic who believes the question is unanswerable is by definition an atheist as any workable scientific definition of existence excludes the existence of objects for which evidence is impossible.

  15. Decnavda says

    The technical philosophic meanings are different from their vernacular usage. Your 1st post is correct about thetechnical meanings, your 2nd is correct about the vernacular. Most people who call themselves atheist or agnostic are technically agnostic atheists, but chose different lables in the vernacular depending on whether they see more black or grey.

  16. Decnavda says

    “There is no gray when it comes to gods.” So you disagree. Fine, a legitimate position.

    Gods have less evidence than unicorns, it is just special pleading. If we are talking about Zeus or Jehovah, yes. If we are talking about a deistic creator god, no. I happen to be atheistic about SETI, I think their chances of finding anything approach the infinitely improbable. But if I were to say that Carl Sagan was engaging in special pleading by supporting SETI while being skeptical of alien abductions, that would be comparable to claiming that it is special pleading to believe in the possibility of a deistic creator god while denying the existence of unicorns and Jehovah.

    I consider the question about whether there is a technological civilization in the Andromeda galaxy to be coherent, important, and unanswered but I do not in fact spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question, because it is impossible for me to do so. I would challenge the claim that a workable scientific definition of existence excludes the existence of technological civilizations in Andromeda simply because it is impossible to gather evidence for or against the hypothesis. I believe that science would claim that such a civilization either does or does not exist, and our ability to gather the evidence does not affect its existence one way or the other.

    As for your statements about how agnostics keep claiming their position is morally superior to the atheists’, have you noticed that in this discussion, I am the one arguing that the positions of atheists and agnostics (and deists) are all ones that reasonable people can all hold and disagree about, and you are the one calling the people who disagree with you solipsist, ignorant, cowardly, or tribalistic. That is why you are the atheist version of the nagnostic.

    “the evidence for the existence of agnostics who believe that the question of gods’ existence is a meaningful question to ask and who believe that they don’t have enough information to live with a firm but tentative conclusion about the answer to that question is on a par with the evidence for the existence of gods.”

    I disagree. For example: Hi, here I am! Ever seen a god do that? I haven’t. Unless you wish to accuse me of lying about my beliefs. But that would make you the atheist version of the nagnostic.

  17. says

    There ought to be a word for someone who vociferously objects when they hear the word “agnostic” used to mean “weak atheist”. (If there is such a word, I’m afraid it probably describes me.)

  18. Riptide says

    I don’t know about people who object to “agnostic” being synonymous with “weak atheist”–maybe Hitchians?–but English has a perfectly serviceable word for those kinds of agnostics.

    “Milquetoast” works just fine.

  19. penn says

    If we are talking about a deistic creator god, no.

    I’m pretty sure deistic creator gods were considered when rjohnston said “Gods are either defined to be trivial and uninteresting entities, too poorly defined in order for evidence to even be possible”. Deism is atheism, but saying “imagine some supernatural entity caused all this”, and it’s completely unprovable. No hypothetical observation could ever rule out a deistic entity, so whether or not it exists has no bearing on reality or our universe, so it’s a useless and unnecessary concept.

    Your Andromeda example also misses the point entirely.

    I consider the question about whether there is a technological civilization in the Andromeda galaxy to be coherent, important, and unanswered but I do not in fact spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question, because it is impossible for me to do so.

    You’re talking about whether it is currently technologically feasible to answer the question, not whether there is any hypothetically possible evidence to answer the question. I can come up with plenty of observations that would lead me to accept the existence of a civilization in Andromeda. If someone says there is no hypothetical evidence for the existence of some proposed deity (as many agnostics do), then the existence of that deity has no bearing on the universe and is a useless concept that should be discarded.

  20. says

    I’m at a lack for words of how unbelievably disrespectful that is to his father-in-law’s memory. I mean, the man is dead and unaware of whatever magic words people might be saying at his grave or however this process wroks, but his living friends and family members must be furious, right? I certainly would be.

  21. says

    I definitely like the word nagnostic, and I think they annoy theists and atheists equally.

    A nagnostic I knew in real life got less obnoxious after this xkcd strip came out. He honestly hadn’t realized how he came across to atheists. (For all I know, he still annoys theists.)

  22. says

    Amusingly enough, this thread has overtaken one subentry at the Urban Dictionary in Google’s rankings — and is now behind only five other Urban Dictionary entries — for “nagnostic.”

  23. I amafreeman says

    EE: Hahahahahaha

    MachI: Hahahahaha

    I am now officially starting the day with a couple of good chuckles! Thanks!

  24. I amafreeman says

    Sophie, Your queries make perfect sense, and they also demonstrate (at least to me) the completely unnecessary “discussions” that so many (christians and “egg-heads”) feel compelled to have on these matters – present company excluded as we are being neither “nagnostic” nor “natheist” – militant or otherwise! (I am laughing so hard right now!)

    Regarding “original definitions” someone mentioned: If anyone finds an OLD (more than 50 years old) dictionary (Webster’s or OED) with the ORIGINAL definitions of words like anarchy -ist, lady, etc, please let me know and I will purchase it.

    As a student of the English and American-English languages I understand that language changes over time, but when BAD started meaning “good”, and “(No)new taxes” began being called “Revenue enhancements” I began having recurrent nightmares of “1984” and The Ministry of Truth! Someone please wake me up!

  25. I amafreeman says

    Charles, Thank you for the site post. One page that explains so much and yet leaves much to be absorbed!

  26. says

    I agree as well. I’m one of those annoying people that insists that everyone is an agnostic (unless there is a god and some really does know for sure, which I doubt), and that the question is whether you believe or you don’t (a digital position).

  27. says

    I know! That’s what I’m saying! We can’t know for sure either way!

    But wait… I don’t know for sure that I know and that that’s what I’m saying…

  28. spdoyle17 says

    How is an agnostic who bases their beliefs on a lack of conclusive data in either direction an atheist? I hope you do realize that this can come across as offensive.

  29. antialiasis says

    I’ve had the misfortune of talking to an agnostic who was kind of the opposite – when I tried to explain weak atheism to her, she insisted that since I called it atheism I clearly had faith in God’s nonexistence. I told her exactly what I believe – Russel’s teapot, the possibility is remote enough to ignore – and she responded with “No, you’re an atheist, so you really have an active belief in God’s nonexistence and are just deluding yourself.” When I tried to explain she’s not defining the word “atheist” the way most self-proclaimed atheists define it, she said “But this is what the word means, so that’s what you believe.” It is the most frustrating internet argument I have had in my entire life, and I’ve had some pretty frustrating ones.

  30. Decnavda says

    Wow, an atheist using the “You can’t prove there is no god” argument is exactly like the nagnostic. Again, this is not about proof, this is about assessing plausibilities in the absence of proof. You say my Andromeda example misses the point because of what “some” agnostics believe, but this was about whether any agnostics really exist. I do not know if it will forever be impossible to gather actual evidence to support or contradict a creator god. I admit I cannot imagine what that evidence might be, but I would not presume that evidence can not exist just because I lack the ability to imagine it. I have heard atheists respond to the “universe designed for life” argument by proposing a multiverse of an infinite variety of universes. I have never heard a proponent of a multiverse offer examples of types of evidence that could support or contradict it, and I cannot imagine what such evidence might consist of, but I would not throw out the concept of a multiverse for that reason. I hope humanity will one day be able to gather evidence on whether or not there is a multiverse, a deistic god, or a technological civilization in Adromeda. Until then, I would not attack the intellectual legitimacy of anyone who rates any of these three ideas as likely, unlikely, or indeterminate.

  31. says

    I don’t think it’s pedantic at all.. and it’s something that I often like to distinguish.

    Agnostic comes from a=not/no gnostic=having knowledge… and Aristotle defined knowledge as information that is 100% certain.

    Thus–to me–an agnostic is someone who doesn’t claim 100% certainty for their beliefs–usually within the realm of religion.

    atheism, on the other hand, comes from a=not/no theism==belief in god.. Therefore an atheist merely claims that they have no belief in gods. That is much more of a subjective statement than “there are no gods and I have proof”.. which is what we often get lambasted with…

    Anyway.. I’m an agnostic atheist–I don’t believe because I haven’t found any evidence to make me believe–but I don’t claim 100% certainty in objective reality for my beliefs.

    Do I think my belief is probably objectively true–sure–but I’m not a dick about it to others–they can believe what they want–as long as they don’t try to force others to believe it or to impose their religious reasoning on others…

    BTW–I think Nagnostic is awesome. I’ve encountered many of them… :)

  32. Georgia Sam says

    It isn’t what you can prove; it’s what you believe. Fundamentalists sometimes use that argument, too: There’s really no such thing as an atheist because nobody can PROVE no god exists. By that same logic, there is no such thing as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc., etc., etc., because believers in those faiths can’t PROVE what they believe, either. No, I can’t prove there is no god, but I firmly believe it. I’m with Penn Jillette on this point: Not only do I NOT believe in god; I positively believe that no god exists. That makes me an atheist, and neither agnostics nor believers in any religion can convince me otherwise.

  33. Sophia Dodds says

    Thankyou! It’s nice to know that my poor tiny brain isn’t just churning rubbish around and actually does, sometimes, spit out a coherent thought or two.

    I love the 100% certainty definition – it makes us all inherently agnostic about… uh, everything. I actually like that position, incomplete knowledge means nigh on infinite room for learning and improving! The more we learn, the more we find that we really know bugger-all for certain. :)

    @I amafreeman
    Oh, I agree so hard about the – shall we say, “broadening” to be diplomatic – of the definitions of words. We’re almost having to make up entirely new words to clarify what has become an increasingly muddily defined term, and that is ridiculous. Agnostic means, as Joshua said, a-gnostic: a lack of knowledge. Whilst that can technically be used to define someone as fence-sitting on any issue, it still has no bearing whatsoever on belief. Belief and knowledge (or evidence, for that matter) are separate and often non-intersecting concepts.

    I’m an odd person in that I love to pick apart arguments in my head. I so often find that the basis of an argument is a trivial discrepancy in definitions; when you pare away the layers of rhetoric to find out exactly what a person is trying to communicate, you invariably find that the conflict arises from linguistics rather than the issue at hand! It’s hard to focus on any issue when the parties discussing it are on opposite sides of a wall of words.

  34. says

    “I definitely like the word nagnostic, and I think they annoy theists and atheists equally.”

    I like the direction you’re headed here — that is, steering the conversation back to Jen’s original topic — and only add this: nagnostics are to atheism what Jehovah’s Witnesses are to Christianity. They’re compelled to knock on our (metaphorical) door while we’re hiding in the shadows hoping they’ll go away. Of course, there is one big difference between nagnostics and JWs; nagnostics don’t have an equivalent of Watchtower to distribute in laundromats.

  35. uBjoern says

    While I too agree that this two-axis-approach is the best, I wouldn’t call the opposite of agnosticism “gnosticism”.

    Gnosticism already means something else, and while words can have different meanings in different contexts, in this case the context doesn’t seem to be distinct enough to me.

  36. Tualha says

    And plan to use this slang wherever applicable. …Which is unfortunately pretty often.

    How nannoying.

  37. J. J. Ramsey says

    Oh, sure, “milquetoast” totally describes T. H. Huxley, Robert G. Ingersoll, or Bertrand Russell.

  38. TSA says

    Despite it’s endless repetition, the notion that you can’t prove a negative is a fallacy. Just think about the logic of what you are saying when you make the claim.

  39. Connor says

    This highlights, I think, our never-ending search for how we can be better than those who hold different views. People tend to label those who identify as “agnostic” as nagging or snobby. Those people who tend to do that, nearly inevitably, come across as nagging or snobby, as if they’re somehow more “extreme” or “down-to-Earth” or “cooler” than those who identify as agnostic.

  40. curtnelson says

    These people who think one has to be an agnostic about anything that isn’t proven don’t understand language (like I do!). If we apply that logic to the god issue we would have to insist that the pope is agnostic because he can’t prove god exists. We would all have to be agnostic about everything that isn’t proven one way or the other.

    Questions like the god one are about belief not fact, so the pope gets to say he’s a theist and Richard Dawkins gets to say he’s an atheist. And those who just haven’t made up their minds yet can call themselves agnostics.

  41. John Horstman says

    Hmm, I self-identified as ‘agnostic’ for a while and moved on to atheist (well, antitheist: there’s probably no ‘god’ of any sort, religion is an active harm that must be actively opposed, and on that incredibly miniscule off-chance that there is something that could be called a ‘god’, and especially a theity, such a being exerting unchecked influence over sapient species is unethical to the maximum and the theity must be deposed or killed, Amber-Spyglass-style), due to exactly the reasons in that conversation. The Skepticon 2011 presentation on Bayes’ Theorem (why the absence of evidence can, in fact, be very good evidence of absence) is a good place to point ‘agnostics’ if one wishes to demonstrate why there’s good reason to believe that there is no god, using fancy mathematical models.

  42. jerthebarbarian says

    Except that the point of the agnostic badgering the atheist is that the atheist is saying that they have rational reasons to not believe in gods (or a particular god) and the agnostic is playing “gotcha” with the atheist to try to prove that she isn’t really being rational and that the only true rational choice is the agnostics.

    I find it annoying. I’m actually agnostic about the existence of gods in general. I find them unlikely, but hey I can neither find evidence of the lack of existence of Thor, nor do I care to go out looking, so like the Loch Ness Monster I’ll continue to doubt that Thor is real but am open to the idea that if you show up with a Thor-like superbeing he might actually be Thor. Sure why not.

    On the other hand – I’m completely atheistic about the existence of the specific Christian God of most flavors of Christianity. It is self-contradictory that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing entity exists and lets the world continue in the way that it does (animals slowly bleeding to death alone in the woods is enough to make the whole idea self-refuting before we even have to get into thornier issues of the whole “Fall Of Man” question). I’m willing to make a damn strong statement about the non-existence of that.

    (The God of Calvin on the other hand I’m more weakly atheistic about. But if I ever became convinced of his existence I would work day and night to find a way to capture him and try him under international law for Crimes Against Humanity and make sure he stops doing what he does. Because THAT God is manifestly evil and I can’t imagine why anyone with any sense would want to bow down in worship of something like that.)

  43. says

    atheist: lacks belief in existence of deity.

    strong atheist: believes in non-existence of deity.

    weak atheist: lacks belief in existence or non-existence of deity.

    agnostic: believes knowledge re deity is unattainable.

    (hence, agnostics are a proper subset of weak atheists)

    I’m still looking for a good word for annoying people like me who point out the difference between agnosticism and weak atheism, but my best current candidate is “pedagognostic” — a bit long, but “pedagnostic” makes it harder to identify the first half of the portmanteau.

  44. Caravelle says

    Thank you for that word. As a former nagnostic myself, and one who’s constantly amazed at how many nagnostics she still runs across even among people who should be old enough to know better (seriously people, we’ve all seen The Matrix, do you really think that radical solipsism hadn’t occurred to us ?)… that is definitely a word I will be using.

    @John Shutt: Nope, in your classification “agnostic” is completely orthogonal to all other classes. Note that the atheist categories are about *beliefs* in a deity while the agnostic one is about *knowledge* of a deity.

    If you take “knowledge” to mean “100% certainty” (which is what a lot of people who haven’t thought it through do, even though when they use the word in everyday life it obviously doesn’t mean that – Matrix, remember ?) then beliefs and knowledge are very different things, hence why the categories are orthogonal. So you get people calling themselves “agnostic weak atheists” (“We can’t know whether gods exist or not, but I don’t believe in any”) and so on. Problem is it makes “agnostic” completely devoid of meaning because 100% certainty is unattainable on anything. “Agnostic” comes to mean “person who’s heard of the word ‘solipsism’… or has seen The Matrix“. People who talk about “agnostic atheists” aren’t quite as obnoxious as nagnostics (at least they don’t imply that you hadn’t noticed you couldn’t prove a negative), but I still think the label is superfluous.

    If you don’t take “knowledge” to mean “100% certainty”, then “knowledge” and “belief” are just two different ranges on the certainty spectrum. That makes it possible to have some meaningful definitions of “agnostic”, but it also means the boundaries between “agnostic” and the different kinds of “atheist” become quite fuzzy at the margins.

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