Doing Justice To Agnosticism

"I was raised among people who knew -- who were certain. They did not reason or investigate. They had no doubts... In their creed there was no guess -- no perhaps." These words by Robert G. Ingersoll, the celebrated American orator and political thinker, appear in his 1896 essay "Why I Am an Agnostic," and they help remind us that in the 19th century the word agnostic had a much-stronger meaning than it does today. At a time when the term infidel (or unbeliever) was still the accusation of choice, the rejoinder that one was a-gnostic -- literally, "without gnosis" -- meant that he or she was taking a principled stand against ancient systems of belief.

To Ingersoll, a Republican freethinker justly dubbed "The Great Agnostic," his parents' and relatives' certainty sparked anguish and contention in him. "I examined maps of the heavens," he recalls in the essay, a searing account of lost faith, and "found that, compared with the great stars, our earth was but a grain of sand -- an atom." On turning from Calvin to Thomas Paine and other freethinkers, he adds, "the old belief that all the hosts of heaven had been created for the benefit of man" came to seem "infinitely absurd."

Today, with Republican freethinkers more of a rarity and agnosticism often derided as timid fence-sitting, Ingersoll's vigorous defense of both (freethought and agnosticism) makes clear that agnosticism was conceived as a form of healthy skepticism that questions everything, including itself. Standing capably and forcefully for the benefit and necessity of doubt, it dealt a blow to dogma and certainty, whether about faith or unbelief.

Rereading Ingersoll and other 19th century doubters today suggests that our assumptions about them have become caricatures, based on a misunderstanding of what in fact they doubted. Ingersoll's "Why I Am an Agnostic" does more than refute those caricatures: In recapturing the term's original meaning as a-gnostic, it underlines how far we've drifted from that earlier, 19th century focus. His essay also prompts us to wonder whether there's enough room for doubt in cultures such as ours that are increasingly polarized between belief and unbelief. When people are expected to stake a position regarding their belief (or lack of it) and defend it to the letter, is agnosticism of the kind that Ingersoll imagined possible? If not, is it not therefore all the more necessary?

Anyone who assumes that Ingersoll's agnostic stance implied a tepid handling of religious controversy is in for a big surprise. He was scathing about zeal and sanctimony, calling biblical accounts of hell not just "frightful dogma," but also an "infinite lie" that was, he thought, tied to a sadistic "belief in eternal pain." Nor did he concede any high ground to the devout. Instead, he railed at the presumption that they had attained one. He saw life in terms of integrity and civitas (citizenship), without religion. Yet "to live a moral and honest life -- to keep your contracts, to take care of wife and child -- to make a happy home -- to be a good citizen, a patriot, a just and thoughtful man, was," he wrote, about those presuming to judge and caricature him, "simply a respectable way of going to hell."

Still, Ingersoll did not embrace atheism, or belief in no God, and he was quick to explain why. "I do not deny," he writes in the essay, published three years before his death at age 66. "I do not know." Despite vehemently rejecting Christianity, then, he did not close the door on religious belief. Instead, like many other agnostics at the time -- including Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley (who coined the term agnostic three decades earlier, in 1869) -- he thought belief should rest on evidence, not faith, but also that evidence itself was in some key instances wanting.

That stance irks absolutists on either side who have come to consider agnosticism as spineless and wishy-washy, and agnostics as people who can't or won't make up their minds. According to Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, for example, the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but "reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle." Richard Dawkins not only repeats the same line in his recent book, The God Delusion, but prefaces it with similar invective from a "robust Muscular Christian" preacher of his schooldays, for whom agnostics were "namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters."

Open Ingersoll's "Why I Am an Agnostic" at almost any page, however, or trace the vast literature it cites. Over and again the same biting criticism of theology appears right alongside an urging that humanity not replace one form of dogmatism with another. "Man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute," Stephen warns similarly in "An Agnostic's Apology" (1876), with "apology" meaning justification or formal defense rather than being an expression of regret. "Knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance." He was using the phrase "knowing nothing" in a broadly metaphysical sense, not as a way of discrediting science and scientific evidence, which he unequivocally supported.

Like Ingersoll, Stephen was the son of an influential Evangelical, carefully schooled in its intricate theology. His essay, appearing in England's Fortnightly Review, is distinguished by its being the first on agnosticism by someone who applied the term to himself. He did so, moreover, after solemnly renouncing holy orders as a deacon -- an act grave enough at the time to push him to the brink of suicide.

"Whilst you trumpet forth officially your contempt for our skepticism," he writes of orthodox critics, "we will at least try to believe that you are imposed upon by your own bluster."
Heated? Indeed. "Weak tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitting"? Hardly. Like Ingersoll's essay, Stephen's is a bracing polemic -- a powerful stand against certainty and what had come to seem to him credulity.

We need more, not less, discussion about such doubts. A sense that agnosticism can be entertained and vigorously defended as a serious expression of such doubts, rather than endlessly demeaned and dismissed as an expression of weakness. As Ingersoll, Stephen, Huxley, and so many others have shown us, agnosticism is both a powerful critique of religion and a principled way of acknowledging when one doesn't have all the answers.