Agnosticism Revisited

Neil H. Petrie

Agnosticism, Thomas Henry Huxley’s venerable coinage from Victorian England, has fallen on hard times. Over a century has passed since Huxley did battle with what he called the “ecclesiasticism” of his time, and the term he used to describe the process by which belief should be judged has suffered from widespread misunderstanding and debasement.

Suspecting that the word no longer carried much weight in our times, I took a poll in a senior-level class that I taught just before retiring as a professor of English from Colorado State University a few years back. I asked thirty-four presumably bright seniors, all English majors assembled for a capstone course in a major nineteenth-century author, to define the term agnosticism (or agnostic if they preferred). This rather unscientific survey would, I hoped, give me some sense of their understanding of Victorian religious debates before we entered into more detailed discussions of the issues presented by a study of an author from that period.

The results were not unexpected but nevertheless surprising in the range of the responses, which often proved to be diametrically opposed to one another. To my relief, only three students claimed total ignorance of the topic, and one of those promised to immediately do some research to fill the gap in his knowledge. One claimed to have no clue, while another ventured that the term has “something to do with religion, but, unfortunately, I have no idea what.”

A larger category, consisting of sections from eight answers, thought that lack of belief was the key to agnosticism. One student stated flatly that it is “a belief in the meaninglessness of the world,” thus reducing agnosticism to nihilism. My favorite phrase from this group called it “Atheist Lite. Diet Atheism.” Other designations largely agreed that an agnostic is “one who believes in no higher being or power,” or one who “does not believe in anything spiritual.” One answer in this group seemed to confuse atheism and agnosticism, claiming that the latter is “people’s [sic] belief that there is no god, unlike atheists who are unsure, maybe.” Maybe, if lucky, this student got something out of the class.

A more startling result, to me, was the number of people, ten in all, who equated agnosticism with faith, albeit of a nondogmatic kind. As one student put it, “The idea of God is understood” as part of a belief in a creator or higher power. Most of these responses recognized that while the agnostic does not “practice or believe in any particular religion,” he or she retains a “sense of there being a ‘greater force’ out there.” This group used phrases such as “governing agent,” “some sort of spiritual/ Greater force in the universe” or “a higher being, but not sure who/what it is.” From the diction that dominantly appears in these answers, I suspect that some or all of these students were conflating agnosticism with deism, a concept that they would have encountered in any of their eighteenth-century history or literature courses.

An equally large group of ten respondents thought of agnostics as your basic fence-sitters when it came to questions of faith. This perception is one of the more insidious contemporary debasements of the agnostic idea. It is easy to scorn those who lack the gumption to take a stand, especially on something as basic as the existence of God. Or so these young modernists seem to think. Agnosticism is a position “somewhere between . . . an organized religion and atheism,” a place for those who are “undecided as to whether or not there is a higher power, or God.” Agnostics are “ambiguous about their belief,” with a “lack of a clearly defined religious belief.” Perhaps most disturbing of the misunderstandings represented in this group is the equation of agnosticism with indifference. Several respondents thought that the agnostic “doesn’t really care one way or another” about the possibility of God’s existence and lacks any “strong feelings” about the issue. I think this category of responses sums up a broad misconception that holds the agnostic to be a trivial thinker who doesn’t want to be disturbed in his or her complacent secularism. One student claimed that the agnostic puts aside the question of God’s existence “because of a lack of intellectual enthusiasm.” Thus the agnostic is reduced from a rigorous thinker to the status of a lazy one.

Only four students in the class seemed to have any sort of grasp of the concept. These all mentioned the notion of knowledge or evidence as a criterion for belief. Perhaps the best definition was this: “A true agnostic is one who rejects an idea on the basis of lack of evidence, or a lack of knowledge.” Another definition went beyond this to indicate that an agnostic is “one who wishes to believe in god but demands proof before doing so.” At least the members of this group recognized the root of the word and therefore came to the conclusion that the agnostic is “one without knowledge” and that agnosticism is “a condition of not knowing.”

 

The time has come, I concluded after stumbling through this thicket of misconceptions and downright errors, to revisit Huxley’s venerable notion of the legitimate approach to an understanding of our world and restore some of its bedrock intellectual honesty to a younger generation separated from the nineteenth century by a gulf of time and a widening gap in cultural perceptions. Two main points should be of interest to us: the first is a reiteration of the notion that agnosticism is less a position of belief than the laying out of a process for determining whether any belief is justifiable; the second is to recall that Huxley added starch to his discussion of agnosticism by framing his argument in a moral context, one that countered the accusations of immorality that he endured from his critics. All that follows is taken from Huxley’s essay “Agnosticism and Christianity,” originally written as a reply to critics who charged agnostics with being infidels (reprinted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, 6th ed., New York, 1993, pp. 1450–1453).

Huxley begins by asserting that agnosticism is not properly defined as a creed of any kind, much less a negative one, “except insofar as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle” that “may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.” To Huxley, this is the essence of agnosticism. The implications for us haven’t really changed in the century-plus since he wrote the words. By insisting on evidence, we cast our lot with reasoning and scientific observation over a leap of faith into the realm of uncertainty and superstition. Far from taking a lackadaisical approach to knowledge, Huxley asked for rigor in adherence to a logical process. He was, of course, engaged in a heated battle with the ecclesiastical establishment over the curriculum of his day, with Huxley fighting to include empirical science among the classical subjects studied in the universities. He wanted to replace “the attainment of faith” with “the ascertainment of truth” as the “highest aim of mental life” (here he was directly taking on John Henry Cardinal Newman). Quite simply, Huxley sought to direct intellectual effort away from the rarefied air of metaphysical speculation toward what he thought to be the more rewarding study of empirical science. Huxley deserves our respect to this day for giving us the model, as “Darwin’s bulldog,” of a champion of reason over superstition, of logical thinking over airy speculation.

The moral dimension of Huxley’s argument should be of considerable interest to our time. Huxley was responding to critics who, in a moral age, accused him of immorality. Rhetorically, he turned the tables on those accusers by pointing out that a faith with no logical basis can itself be seen as “an abomination.” Here is the crux of his reply: “That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions.” I believe that this aspect of his definition of agnosticism is the most overlooked today. Not a single student in my survey thought the agnostic was taking a moral stance by insisting on evidence for belief. The main outline of this argument is relatively simple: if rationality provides us with the most accurate guide we have to the nature of reality, then to abandon it in affirming a faith in a metaphysical construct is unethical. It is true that Huxley was addressing a culture that figured everything from trade to art in moral terms (see the essays of Ruskin, for example, and his legal dealings with Whistler) and thus had a vested interest in appealing to his public in a similar vein. It is equally true that today we seem to shrink from assessing a moral judgment against those so quick to judge the skeptics and nonbelievers. Perhaps it is time to once again appreciate the value of Huxley’s efforts at rigorous, logical thinking in all areas of life and fearlessly embrace the moral judgments that can consequently be levied against the religious zealots of both Huxley’s time and ours.

Neil H. Petrie

Neil H. Petrie is professor emeritus of English at Colorado State University. Before his retirement, Dr. Petrie taught numerous courses in nineteenth-century English literature and culture, including one that examined pre-and post-Darwinian ideas in Victorian England.


Agnosticism, Thomas Henry Huxley’s venerable coinage from Victorian England, has fallen on hard times. Over a century has passed since Huxley did battle with what he called the “ecclesiasticism” of his time, and the term he used to describe the process by which belief should be judged has suffered from widespread misunderstanding and debasement. Suspecting …

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