The Future of Agnosticism from 1907

I found another historical writing to add here to the Agnostic Universe Library. It’s from Frederic Harrison and was published in 1907 in his book The Philosophy of Common Sense. The essay is titled The Future of Agnosticism.

Here are some selected excerpts that I found interesting for understanding a view of Agnosticism from over 100 years ago…

It is not at all necessary to frame an exact definition of Agnosticism, a task that is far from easy. It may embrace a variety of different opinions, ranging through many types of Pantheistic and humanitarian belief, to the religion of the Unknowable, and so on down to a convenient screen for cynicism or a simple state of mere indifferency. The forms of Agnosticism may be almost as many as the forms of Theism, for it includes in the widest sense all those who consciously avow Ignorance to be the sum of their reflections on the origin of the Universe, the moral government of the world, and the future of the spirit after death.

…thousands of busy men, men of pleasure, of ambition, the selfish, the vicious, and the careless, have no definite opinion and no perceptible interest. But they are not properly Agnostics. To be undecided, indifferent, or callous is not to be convinced of one’s own ignorance. The Agnostic proper is one who, having honestly sought to know, acquiesces in Ignorance and avows it as the best practical solution of a profound but impenetrable problem.

Whether the universe be itself living and conscious (Pantheism), whether it be self-existent and purely material (Atheism), or whether it be created and directed by a Supreme mind (Theism) — all this is a matter of religious and philosophical speculation. But in any case there are always at least three elements — the man, mankind, and the world. The most profound thought, like the experience of every day, always comes back to this, for it is a matter of morality and of conduct quite as much as of intellect and sympathy. Morality, the very possibility of morality, depends on this: that a man feels the pressure over him of conditions. There can be no true duty without a sense of the limits, possibilities, and aim of human life. Life is an endless caprice, where there are no definite lines of duty, recognised as set by the order of things, and a possible end which effort can reach. And so the bare knowledge of the laws of nature, with no supreme conception of what nature means, such as can fill the imagination, with no dominant idea whereon the sympathy and the reverence can expand itself, is mere dust and ashes, wholly incompetent to sustain conduct or to give peace. The Agnostic is willing to trust to science as an adequate answer to the intellect, to ethics as a sufficient basis for conduct. He might as well trust in the rule of three and the maxims in a copybook to deal with the storms and trials of life.

The essay digs into a human need for religion and how agnosticism doesn’t just reject religion, but helps evolve our views of things beyond the physical world…

Agnosticism is consequently a mere step, an indispensable step, in the evolution of religion, though, by its very nature, a step on which it is impossible to rest. Intellectually it is quite as impossible to remain an agnostic as politically it would be to remain an anarchist. And for precisely the same reason. Society is such that only the most vapid and uneasy spirit can permanently acquiesce in the negation of all government. And society is likewise such that only a dry, mechanical soul can permanently rest in the negation of all religion. A thousand commonplaces have shown that unless the first place in the imagination and the heart be duly filled, the mind and character are perpetually prone to improvise worthless ideals of love and reverence, under the force of which mind and character are liable to be violently carried away.

The orthodox and the Agnostic view of religion are not at all the true antithesis one of the other. The only true antithesis to a religion of figments is a religion of realities, not a denial of the figments. The Agnostic reply to the theologians is but half a reply, and a reply to the least important half. Orthodox theology asserts, first, the paramount need for religion, and next it asserts that this need is met by a particular creed and a specific object of worship. To the first of these assertions Agnosticism has no reply at all; to the second it replies “Not proven.” The question is a double one, and no single answer can at all cover the ground. It is quite possible that the orthodox view might be partly right and partly wrong, and the Agnostic view may be partly right and partly a mere blank. And this is just what has happened. The theologian is on ground unshaken whilst he contends that true religion is the sole guide of human life. The Agnostic is on ground as firm when he contends that theology concerns itself with a world where knowledge is impossible to man. But the Agnostic has yet to carry the argument to a world where knowledge is possible to man.

The more universally we apply agnostic logic, the more rare agnosticism will be looked on as a creed… is this why some atheists contend that agnosticism is useless for disbelief? Agnostic logic can appear to be synonymous with common sense among those that lack religion. Agnosticism is very much needed by those that continue to cloud their minds and logic with dogma. I continue to feel the need to point out what should be considered common sense to evolve away from the religions of mythology to a possible religion of humanity for those that need such a thing…

Agnosticism is a stage in the evolution of religion, an entirely negative stage, the point reached by physicists, a purely mental conclusion with no relation to things social at all. It is a stage as impossible for a social philosophy to rest in as it is for a statesman to proclaim his policy to be “no law” and “no government.” But if Agnosticism cannot rest as it is, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it can go back. Agnosticism represents the general conclusion of minds profoundly imbued with the laws of physical nature, minds which find the sum of the physical laws to be incompatible with the central dogmas of theology. And since the physical laws rest on an enormous mass of experimental demonstration, and the dogmas of theology upon the unsupported asseverations of theologians, the Agnostic, as at present advised, holds by the former, and, without denying the latter, treats them as “not proven.” But the laws of physical nature show no signs of becoming less definite, less consistent, or less popular as time goes on. Everything combines to show that natural knowledge is growing wider, more consolidated, more dominant year by year; that the Reign of Law becomes more truly universal, more indefeasible, more familiar to all, just as the reign of supernatural hypotheses retreats into regions where the light of science fails to penetrate.

Whatever, therefore, has fostered the Agnostic habit of mind in the past seems destined to extend it enormously in the future. And, when the entire public are completely trained in a sense of physical law, the Agnostic habit of mind must become the mental state, not of isolated students and thinkers, but of the general body which forms public opinion. There is no weak spot about the Agnostic position per se, no sign of doubt or rift in its armour, as a logical instrument. All that is objected to is, that it is simply one syllogism in a very long and complex process of reasoning, not that the syllogism itself has any vestige of error. The result is that the Agnostic logic shows every sign not of failure, but of ultimately becoming an axiom of ordinary thought, almost a truism or a commonplace, as minds are more commonly imbued with the sense of physical law. But to accept the Agnostic logic is not to be an Agnostic, any more than to accept the protest against the Papal infallibility or the Council of Trent is to be a Protestant. Hence, the more universal becomes the adoption of the Agnostic position, the more rare will Agnostics pure and simple become, and the less will Agnosticism be looked on as a creed. When Agnostic logic is simply one of the canons of thought, Agnosticism, as a distinctive faith, will have spontaneously disappeared.

As social science and the laws of social evolution more and more engross the higher minds, and become the true centre of public interest, Agnosticism, the mere negation of the physicists, will have left the ground clear for the rise of a definite belief. That belief, of course, like everything destined to have a practical influence over men, must be positive, not negative. It must also be scientific, not traditional or fictitious. And it must further be human, in the sense of being sympathetic and congener to man, not materialist and homogeneous with the physical world. Its main basis obviously must be social science, the larger, more noble, and dominant part of science in the sum. And its main instrument and guide will be the history of human evolution, which is to physical evolution all that man himself is to the animal series. To collect these suggestions in one, what we have is this. Agnosticism must be absorbed in a religious belief, for which it will have cleared the ground. That belief will necessarily have these characters. It will be at once positive, scientific, human, sociologic, and evolutionary or historical.

The future of agnosticism isn’t a permanent mindset of agnosticism…

Agnosticism, indeed, has no future, unless it will carry out its scientific principles to their legitimate conclusion. It offers no locus standi by itself. As Charles Darwin so pathetically tells us in his diary, it affords no permanent consolation to the mind, and is continually melting away under the stress of powerful sympathies. It destroys but it does not replace.

That which alone can take the place of the mighty mysteries and the grand moral drama created by the imagination of the prophets and priests of old is the final scheme of moral and social life which social science shall finally elaborate for man, which shall be the fruit of science as a whole, with physical science for its foundation and social science for its main gospel, a scheme which shall be entirely positive and entirely human; and its main characteristic will be, that it explains the history of humanity as a whole and points to the future of humanity as the inevitable sequel of its history. In whatever form such a view of religion may approve itself to the ages to come, it will only be Agnostic in the sense that it is ready with the Agnostic answer to all idle and irrelevant questions.

This essay aligns fairly well with my own move away from Christianity. I first embraced atheism as a specific rejection of the religion of my ancestors. All atheism tells me is that I shouldn’t believe in the unproven using only blind faith. Christianity is clearly a product of primitive people instead of the divine word of a god demanding our worship so this was easy to agree with and accept as correct. I next embraced agnosticism as the only apparent grand truth — we don’t really know anything beyond the physical world concerning where it all came from or why it all came to be. My answer to questions about what I know instead of religious beliefs is to honestly say “I don’t know.” Unknown is the answer. Finally, I have looked at humanism as possibly becoming that “final scheme of moral and social life which social science shall finally elaborate for man.” This essay predicts for the future of religions something that will replace the primitive religions humanity clings to for comfort and guidance. Atheism and agnosticism can’t serve as guides for moral and social life, so I agree with this idea that something else must fill the void when primitive religions lose their hold on superstitious minds. Agnosticism is the path to honest truth and some form of humanism is probably the correct destination.