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What do Agnostics Believe?

What do Agnostics Believe?



I started questioning G-d around the time of my Bar Mitzvah. I identified as an agnostic shortly after, an ideology that I still hold today. But I still feel Jewish. And this leads me to my question: Would you consider a self-proclaimed agnostic Jewish?


Let's start with this idea that you are an agnostic. This is a term coined by Thomas Huxley in the middle of the 19th century. It is the "doctrine that humans cannot know of the existence of anything beyond the phenomena of their experience." Bertrand Russell wrote a sort of manifesto of the agnostic in these words:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspirations, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins-all these things, if not beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

Is that really what you believe? I guarantee that Russell himself never believed it -- because he was a champion for human rights and ethics to his last day. Neither could any human being truly believe it and continue to breath for even a moment. We are, all of us, creatures of hope. We live, we work, we marry and have children because we all believe there is purpose -- also those of us who overtly deny holding to such a belief.

As the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), told one self-proclaimed atheist, "We are all believers in G-d. It is just a matter of definition."

You need to come to a deeper understanding of what exactly it is that you don't believe. And more importantly, what it is that you do believe. Not through philosophy or introspection, but by simply examining the way of life towards which you are naturally moving and determining the implications of such a life. Why do you love your spouse? Why are you so concerned about your children's identity? Why do you hold this conviction that there is more meaning to life than making another buck and buying a bigger house? More than any course of study or spiritual searching, this will tell you who you are and in what you truly believe.

And I believe you will discover that you believe in your heart all that every Jew inherently knows and believes.

May G-d be with you as you return your father's heritage to its rightful place.

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Discussion (35)
February 20, 2015
Questions for Rabbi Freeman: You describe Bertrand Russell as a champion for human rights and ethics. Russell was an atheist. How is it possible for an atheist to have morals or empathy for their fellow man? You've stated these things are only derived from belief in God. Wouldn't that make atheists what we call "sociopathic"? Wouldn't a high percentage of atheists therefore be in jail? [Actually, it is a very low percentage. Lower than for religious people.] How is it possible for them to be "humanists"?
Levi Tribesman
February 10, 2015
If God is "supernatural", and we live in a "natural" world, then there is no way to prove or disprove God's existence. We accept God's existence on "faith". Faith is defined as the belief in an idea which has no evidence for or against. Therefore, why can't we have faith in Zeus, or Thor, or the Green Lantern, for they have the same validity as our God? If we say we believe based on faith, then we can make up any type of deity we want, as we acknowledge there is no evidence! The most logical point of view is to say, "there is no God", and then to ask those who believe to convince us that there is a reason to believe. In actuality, we can live a good and moral life without using the idea of God. So, then, why bother with all of the rituals? Why not just live a good, moral life, based on humanistic values and compassion for every sentient being, not just the chosen ones? Can a Gentile be holy? Chabad says no, humanists say we are all equal, no one is holier than another.
January 29, 2015

I totally get what you are saying. I would only be a bit more precise; rabbis do not say they are more or less holy than any other Jew. Unlike in Catholicism where there is a hierarchy from the Pope down to bishops etc., not comparing, Judaism has no hierarchy and the only authority a person has is derived from their Torah, not their "holiness" and anyone can have that Torah if they just will it. Even a gentile can, although they have to accept the Torah (what is known as "conversion" because people equate it to a conversion to other religions - but in the Torah a convert is not called a "convert" but a "ger", meaning something like a "foreigner" who is welcome, but is still allowed to have their identity like Ruth haMoavia, Ruth the Moabite as long as they accept the Torah). In any case, I'm just explaining that. But I am not arguing against anything you said. Also, there are many more problems to fix that are not about theocracy; like the far more dangerous cult to money.
January 29, 2015
Two sides of the same coin
Eric, as an atheist, deeply "knows" there is no God. Religious people deeply "know" there is a God. This "knowledge" of God seems to be about subjective values, belief and faith. That's perfectly fine, but objective proof about God's existence can't be built on such things. Is it possible there is a God or no God? Absolutely. As an agnostic, I have no indication God exists or doesn't exist. The Bible is about God proving his existence to people. If the Bible reported current events, I would be a believer. It may be mythology though. As an agnostic I would never say a person's belief or non-belief in God is not valid. Their belief doesn't change my values of truth or become proof though. Let's say I found the answer to the existence of God. If it reached the level of "truth", I would be open-minded enough to change my belief, and choice of agnosticism.
Levi Tribesman
January 28, 2015
I am a Jew, and in my heart, I deeply know that there is no God. I deeply know that one human cannot be holier than another. I deeply know, that a Gentile is just as good as a Jew. I deeply believe, that there is no such a thing as a chosen people, for we are all equal. I deeply believe that the Rabbis try to maintain their position of "being holy" and this is at the expense of equality in the human race. If there were no "holy people", Rabbis, Priests, Imams etc., we would all be free and equal and be able to have peace and a good life. And... there are many Jews who believe this too, and there are more and more every day who are saying no to "holy Rabbis".
January 11, 2015
Please listen to what we agnostics are saying
We are not saying we don't have convictions, and for God, we are not asking you if we are agnostic (because the person who wrote the article above seems to have a hard time accepting what we are saying), we are reporting to you that we are and that's that. You want to believe me that in my "heart of hearts" or whatever I am agnostic? Fine. You don't? Fine.

Imagine that we have the "conviction" that the world is flat. Is it? Wait! I have that conviction! I "believe" it, so it's flat! No?

It's irrelevant what a person believes in. What matters is how it affects us. Belief is a psychological defense mechanism made to stop reasoning. That's why the Ramba"m must have mentioned "knowing" God in the first Mitzvah in Deot. I for one can tell you that I have no way of fulfilling this Mitzvah up to as much I've tried. Up to know I've been able to "believe", not to know. Belief is enough in Christianism, but not in Judaism. Belief is a conviction. That's not enough!
January 9, 2015
I don't care if Huxley defined "agnostic" as quoted above. Most of that description sounds atheist not agnostic.
A true agnostic would venture no more than claiming that there is no objective evidence for G-d. The entire question of human mortality and life having any meaning over and above the purely atomic and energy level is also an open one to the true agnostic. It is not knowable at this time to say one way or the other he would say.
The lack of objective data of course is irrelevant since it is in the higher dimension of mind that G-d exists. And that is purely subjective.
December 3, 2013
For scientists who believe in God, their intellect can move forward, but for atheist and agnostic scientists, their intellect cannot take a single step forward? This is an odd claim & stands up to no scrutiny. Its another example of "our path is the only path"--subscribed to by almost all of the world's religions. What if the true path is expressed only in how you live your life and relate to your fellow humans?
Judaism is one way, but there are many others.
Levi Tribesman
Boston MA. USA
December 3, 2013
Re: What is "faith"?
Yes, there is faith just simply arises out of emotion. That's stupid faith. But there is also a kind of faith that is a conviction that something must be so—and without that sort of faith, the intellect cannot take a single step forward.

The scientist, for example, has a conviction that the universe is intelligible, and in a very elegant way.

A good parent is one who has a conviction that his or her children will succeed, if only they will get the right guidance and encouragement.

A leader, an athlete, a visionary—all these are people of faith. If humanity would follow their power of reason alone, we would be likely still be hunting mammoths. But not large mammoths.
Tzvi Freeman
December 2, 2013
What is "faith"?
The comment was made that we are not "knowers", we are "believers".

What is to "believe"? To cling to a conviction with no reason whatsoever just based on feelings? To make oneself blind?

I think in that sense "to believe" is no different than that which Christianity and other religions prescribe. I would like to "believe" that Judaism is not like that but too often I find that when encountering the really hard questions people tend to at the end go back to just... blindly believing or blindly rejecting.

That is why I think we are all really agnostic. Because this concept of "believing" to me has no real importance other than what it really does; it's a self mechanism to stop the questioning by looking the other side. It's like "OK, that's too much for me! OK I know how I'll take care of it... I'll just 'pretend' and say that in a deep level if I pretend it then it must be 'true' not as facts but as 'belief'. Awesome!"
That is to self deceive oneself. We all do it.
Tel Aviv
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