Agnosticism Defined

Professor Thomas Henry Huxley created the term Agnostic in 1869. As he points out below, he was entitled to state what was originally meant by Agnosticism since he created it. This was in spite of the confused expansion of the meaning for it back then that continues to occur today. The greatest confusion today usually centers on its relation to anti-theology and/or Atheism with many people saying its the same as Atheism or that Agnosticism means you don’t know what you believe. So I present his explanation here to remind everyone what Agnosticism really means from the person that invented the term to describe this concept and belief. Section 3 is the true heart of this belief for me; the notion of “the not dreamt of in our philosophy” that Atheism does not have and is the true core of Agnosticism for me.

Some twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence; and it has been a source of some amusement to me to watch the gradual acceptance of the term and its correlate, “Agnosticism” (I think the Spectator first adopted and popularised both), until now Agnostics are assuming the position of a recognised sect, and Agnosticism is honoured by especial obloquy on the part of the orthodox. Thus it will be seen that I have a sort of patent right in “Agnostic” (it is my trade mark); and I am entitled to say that I can state authentically what was originally meant by Agnosticism. What other people may understand by it, by this time, I do not know. If a General Council of the Church Agnostic were held, very likely I should be condemned as a heretic. But I speak only for myself in endeavoring to answer these questions.

1. Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.

2. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.

3. I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions. On trial of any so-called miracle the verdict of science is “Not proven.” But true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which “are not dreamt of in our philosophy.” The theological “gnosis” would have us believe that the world is a conjuror’s house; the anti-theological “gnosis” talks as if it were a “dirt-pie” made by the two blind children, Law and Force. Agnosticism simply says that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena.

Agnosticism: A Symposium

Belated Happy New Year

Here is a belated Happy New Year to everyone! My laptop was out for service for nearly a month getting the hinges fixed and we visited my family for the holidays so I’ve been less inclined to post than usual. I know I think enough of my Agnosticism to provide this website for the hopeful benefit of my fellow humans, but I find that I don’t always have as much to say about Agnosticism itself that I thought I did when I started this project.

The truth is that my family lives a wonderful and happy life almost completely devoid of religion. My wife and 2 children very rarely talk about religious topics and we are rarely exposed to religion in our lives. I guess we’re just fortunate to not have to deal with such things. My wife’s family would call themselves Christians but they never go to church and never talk about it. If you told them they should go to church, they would be insulted by the idea that they have to do such a thing to be a believer. They just believe because that’s what they’ve always done and there’s nothing more active about their faith than that.

We live somewhat far away from my family, so like I mentioned, we visted them for a few weeks over the holidays. My mom is (was?) Catholic (and loosely raised me that way). I believe my dad is an Agnostic that just plays along with whatever my mom wants. My sister is a Christian that doesn’t go to church much. Come to think of it I’m not sure what church she’s a part of now that she’s out on her own. My brother joined some sort of nondenominational bible church and has recently talked my mother into joining him. I jokingly asked her “I thought you were Catholic” and she replied that she can go to whatever church she wanted to. I thought about pointing out that if you can pick and choose what you believe then it must not really matter what is right, but I just left it alone. She’d probably just say that God and Jesus are the only things that matter and the specific details aren’t important. What a wonderful basis for belief to not have specific details that matter.

The only time any of this believing caused any trouble or was visible to us was in two cases. One was the saying of “Grace” at dinner (not lunch). I noticed we did it when my brother was around but when he wasn’t there for dinner we conveniently just started eating as we had always done during past visits. My wife, 2 kids, and I sat quietly as my brother or nephew said a little prayer. My kids may have closed with their amen response but my wife and I just simply and respectfully remained quiet without bowing our heads. Nothing was said of any of this and we were just accepted as we are without question. The dinner prayers were somewhat new to the family and only happened on a few special occassions in past years like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners. Those were also from the prompting of my brother now that I think about it.

The other case that caught me off guard as completely new was the request that we all go “as a family” to church for Christmas Eve. This was to my brother’s bible church and not to the Catholic church that we grew up with (for Christmas and Easter). I simply said “no thank you” and my wife said something like “have fun but we’re definitely not going.” My mother seemed disappointed and did a little attempt at making me feel guilty for not being part of this “family” event and implied that it destroys our family concept or bond in some way. I wasn’t buying it of course. We are not defined together by our belief, particularly if it appears to mean we follow my brother to this new church he found. If my mom was true to her belief she would be going to the Catholic church as my brother went to his bible church.

Then my mom asked if she could take my children. I said that it was entirely up to them and she could ask them herself. I told her my son probably would not be interested (I was correct) and that my daughter might (she went). So off they went with our 10-year-old daughter who hasn’t come to us with the same conclusion that our 12-year-old son has. He’s already decided that religion and its various stories are complete fiction. Our daughter came back from church saying she didn’t care much for it and she got bored. All I said was to remind her that she doesn’t have to go. When Sunday came around they asked again if they wanted to go to church and this time they both declined the offer. Fortunately my mom and brother are not trying to push them into it. I like to think that they are refraining from doing that out of respect for me as their father. Even if they were to try to push them into religion I wouldn’t mind so much because they might experience such pressure at some time in their life. Right now with conflicting information coming from their own family should remind them that nobody has the answers and it is best to question everything. They still seem to respect my answer the best still: “I don’t have all of the answers because nobody has all of the answers. It is good to question everything.”

I do my best to raise my children as good human beings and as good members of the society we live in. I’m finding it easy to do this without the crutch and threats of religion to explain to them what good and bad is.