Agnosticism: A Symposium (1884)

Thomas Henry Huxley

The Agnostic Annual

[5] [In order to make the Symposium more interesting and instructive, the Editor invited the opinion of leading scientists and accredited thinkers on the following questions, to which the contributions of Professor Huxley, Mr. P. A. Taylor, M.P., Professor F. W. Newman, Professor Ernst Haeckle, and Mr. J. Beal are replies:–1. Is Agnosticism in accord with modern science? 2. What is its relation to popular theology? 3. Is Agnosticism destined to supplant religious supernaturalism?]

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.

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