Agnosticism is an honest intellectual doubt about the existence of God. An agnostic does not say, "God does not exist" like the atheist, but rather an agnostic speaks only of his own experience and says, "I do not know if it is possible to know whether or not God exists."
The term "agnostic" is relatively new; it was coined by zoologist T.H. Huxley in the late 1800s. At that time people were generally members of some religious group or were ardent non-believers. Huxley tried to close that divide by suggesting that God was unfathomable and human reason was fallible, and that people could honestly say, from an intellectual and philosophical perspective, that they could not know if God exists, and thus they often remain neutral in traditional religious debates.
An Overview of Beliefs
Agnosticism is often positioned as the middle ground between theism (a general belief in God) and atheism (a denial that God exists at all). In this sense agnosticism is skepticism regarding all things theological. The agnostic holds that human knowledge is limited to the natural world, that the mind is incapable of knowledge of the supernatural. Following the view of Huxley, many agnostics are open to various religious beliefs though they themselves do not hold them. Many would be happy to have prayers offered on their behalf and other rites of faith communities with the hope, but not the assurance, that they would be efficacious.
Views on Death and the After-Life
Most agnostic people are just as undecided about the possibility of an afterlife as they are about the reality of God. If there is no after-life they will not be disappointed, but if there is one they will be glad to have a part in it. The middle position of the agnostic leads them to appreciate life as it is since they tend to live in the present rather than let their life be guided by what God may think of their actions or any expectation of life after death.
Mourning and Funeral Rites
While an atheist would probably be unhappy if there were prayers or other religious expression at his or her funeral, this is not so with an agnostic. Most would be open to religious observances if the family desired. Normally friends and family attend a service of remembrance at the funeral chapel where the focus is on eulogizing the deceased rather than on prayers or sermons. Family and friends may speak or the family may show a video or slideshow of key events of the deceased persons life. Often there is a more traditional committal service at graveside in addition to, or in place of, the the funeral chapel service.
How to Express your Condolences
Expressing condolences upon the death of an agnostic focuses on the sadness of the loss you feel with the family and an appreciation for the life of the deceased. This should be done in person if possible or by letter if necessary. A card of condolence is far better than a email, but a text message should be considered inappropriate. Condolences should be direct to a surviving spouse, the adult children of the deceased, of the family member you know best.
Important note: The statements made about beliefs and rites are general in nature and may vary by sect, denomination, country or ethnic group. The information provided here is intended as an overview, and if you have questions about specific matters you should contact the clergy or other person conducting the funeral service. If you read anything in this section that differs from the beliefs in your tradition, please contact us so we can update this page.