Debates About Agnosticism Are as Old as the Concept Itself

"Agnostics ... have no creed," Thomas H. Huxley famously declared in his 1889 essay on the subject. "Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method," the English biologist explained. It stems from "honest disbelief" in religious creeds and tenets, and concerns all who share "a pretty strong conviction that the problem [of existence is] insoluble."

A fierce defender and popularizer of Darwinism, and a thinker who famously debated (and, it must be said, completely wiped the floor with) the Bishop of Oxford (Samuel Wilberforce) over Darwinism's merits and social consequences, Huxley coined the adjective agnostic in 1869, largely because he foresaw its strong philosophical need. By calling agnosticism "a method, ... not a creed," he felt able to suggest that agnostics follow the same principle as a "fundamental axiom of modern science." "In matters of the intellect," to wit, "follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration." At the same time, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable."

I'll return to that key distinction soon. For the moment, it needs to be said that Huxley was responding belatedly to his erstwhile friend, sociologist and polymath Herbert Spencer, who had quickly adopted and run with Huxley's term, pairing it with the Victorian concept of relativity to argue, in a positive way, that religion, science, and many other disciplines endlessly encounter and grapple with "the Unknowable." To Spencer, that meant a blind spot in human understanding that faith once seemed to fill. One couldn't dismiss the Unknowable, he writes (and caps) in "First Principles" (1862), as merely an outgrowth of religious mythology. To do so would be to fall into a new trap (a different kind of absolutism), which sees everything as driven or explained by material forces. For science as for religion, the unknowable therefore remains a quandary. It serves as a reminder, Spencer says, of what is "utterly inscrutable" to us and likely to remain so. In their different ways, he thought, religion and science implicitly concede that human understanding is built on "relative" knowledge. They also imply that such gaps in understanding will remain.

Spencer, we should stress, did not think focusing on the unknowable would lead to a simple truce between religion and science. On the contrary, he recognized that Christianity (like most other religions) chafes against the idea that uncertainty extends beyond man, to encompass also the existence of God. As he writes in "First Principles," "Religion secretly fears that all things may some day be explained; [it] betrays a lurking doubt whether that Incomprehensible Cause of which it is conscious is really incomprehensible."

It took Huxley a full two decades to respond to his friend's adjustment of his term agnostic, but when he did respond he tried to put Spencer right on at least one key point about the risks of mythologizing the unknowable, of turning it into a kind of negative Absolute. As Huxley put it to friend and political cartoonist F. C. Gould, the unknowable in Spencer's hands had morphed into "the Absolute [revived], a sort of ghost of an extinct philosophy, the name of a negation hocus-pocused into a sham thing." True agnosticism of the kind Huxley favored would instead "knock this tendency on the head whenever or wherever it shows itself."

To those who've forgotten that the man who coined the term agnostic was also Darwin's self-appointed "bulldog," fiercely defending his work and discovery against the jibes of a derisive, behind-the-times Church of England, it's worth remembering that Huxley in turn criticized Spencer for not only making agnosticism require a static, permanent doubt, but also for failing to underline some of the worst social consequences of religion. As Huxley puts it in "Agnosticism,"

"People who talk about the comforts of belief appear to forget its discomforts; they ignore ... the harm done to the citizen by the ... uncharitableness of sectarian bigotry; ... by the spirit of exclusiveness and domination of those that count themselves pillars of orthodoxy; ... by the restraints on the freedom of learning and teaching which the Church exercises, when it is strong enough; ... [and] by the introspective hunting after sins," to say nothing of "the fear of theological error, and the overpowering terror of damnation, which have accompanied the Churches like shadow."

The "Churches" is in plural because Huxley meant to include all denominations of Christianity.

Considering his substantial differences with Spencer, why didn't Huxley do more to intervene over what he saw as misuse of the term agnostic? I've often wondered about that in researching and writing about their dispute and the longer history of religious doubt in Britain and the U.S. "Perhaps I have done wrong in letting the thing slide so long," Huxley acknowledged in his 1889 letter to Gould, "but I was anxious to avoid a breach with an old friend." He had "wanted to present a united front," clarifies historian Bernard Lightman, "until 1889 when he was in the middle of an acrimonious quarrel with Spencer."

When that united front finally broke, Huxley did not merely clarify his position, but claimed for agnosticism the relevance of a "fundamental axiom of modern science": "In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration." At the same time, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable."

We're no longer living in the same age as Huxley, of course, and many of the conclusions he thought "not demonstrated or demonstrable" in the late 1880s are far more easily settled today, as he would no doubt be the first to concede. Since the nineteenth century, we can point to staggering advances in medicine, genetics and all the hard sciences. However, on the big, burning questions that still preoccupy many of us -- not so much "what are we?" as "why are we?"--I'd wager that we haven't exactly left the Victorians in the dust.

For reasons I argue more fully in "The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty," Huxley's lucid warning -- "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable" -- remains as pertinent today as it was in the final years of the nineteenth century, when agnosticism flourished as a movement, and agnostics joined and influenced a large, motley mass of atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists, and of course interested, open-minded theists.