The Future of Agnosticism (1907)

Frederic Harrison

1907

from The Philosophy of Common Sense


The central and pressing problem that awaits Christianity in the future, if we are to trust its official and orthodox teachers, is how shall it overcome that paralysis of religious faith which passes under a convenient solecism as Agnostic? Agnosticism is a vague and elastic phrase to describe the state of mind of large and growing sections of all cultured and thoughtful minds. It is almost assumed that the philosopher, the man of science, the man of great practical experience, is more or less an Agnostic, until he declares himself a convinced Christian, and then the fact is widely proclaimed and heartily welcomed. I propose to ask whether a phase of mind so largely prevailing in the higher intellectual ranks is permanent, creative, final. Is Agnosticism a substantive religious belief at all? Can it grow into a religious belief? Can it supersede religious belief?

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.

In one sense this represents the conclusion of Auguste Comte; it was that of Charles Darwin, as he says, in a far less steady way ; it is certainly that of Herbert Spencer, and of most of those who rest in a philosophy of evolution. An eminent politician who was once pressed by an equally eminent critic to formulate his views on these, as most think them, all-important problems, replied: “My dear fellow, those are matters whereon I never could feel the slightest interest !” But this is not the true faith of the Agnostic — indeed, this eminent politician counted himself a Churchman. 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.

Such is the mental attitude of a very powerful and growing order of intelligences; who, if far from a majority in numbers, include a heavy proportion of the leaders of thought. Is this mental attitude a religious creed in itself ? Can it become the substitute for all other religious creeds ?

The true Agnostic by conviction puts forward his ignorance as the central result of his views about religion. A man may incline to the agnostic frame of mind, or he may be agnostic with respect to given metaphysical problems, without being fairly and truly an Agnostic by profession. The Agnostic takes his stand by principle on ignorance, just as the Protestant takes his stand on protesting against the errors of Rome, and makes that the badge and test of religious belief. Many other churches, schools, and creeds abjure and reject the errors of Rome quite as much as Protestants can, without becoming Protestants. Deists, Atheists, Jews, Positivists, Buddhists, Mussulmans, and Brahmins reject the Pope and all his works quite as thoroughly as any Protestant. But it would be ridiculous to class them as Protestants, because they do not make the differing from the Church of Rome the central result of their views about religion. They are each properly described by the name which connotes the main body of their positive beliefs and practices. The Protestant is a Christian who protests against the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. The Atheist is one who protests against the theological doctrine of a Creator and a moral providence. The Agnostic is one who protests against any dogma respecting Creation at all, and who takes his stand deliberately on ignorance. All these put some specific denial into the forefront of their deepest convictions. But the Agnostic is far more distinctively a denier than the Protestant. In spite of this unhappy name, of which large sections of the Protestant world are heartily ashamed, the term Protestant still means something substantive, something more than one who protests. Protestant still means Evangelical Christian. And so the name Dissenter implies much more than one who dissents from the Established Church. In spite of all the gibes and flouts of a great Agnostic, the “dissidence of Dissent” marks those who hold to a Biblical and Presbyterian type of Christianity, much as “the protestantism of the Protestant Religion” includes all types of Christians who look to the Bible rather than the Church of Rome as the source of faith. The Agnostic, as such, has no positive religious belief apart from the assertion of his ignorance, for if he had, he would be named from such belief. He is rather in the position of the Atheist, whose religious position is based on a denial of God, or of the Anarchist, whose political aim is directed towards the suppression of all government, not the establishment of any new government, socialistic or otherwise. The Agnostic, the Atheist, and the Anarchist concentrate their opinions respectively on opposition to creeds, opposition to Providence, and opposition to governments.

Whatever the logical strength of Agnosticism as a philosophical position, as a moral and social creed, it must share the inherent weakness of every mere negation. In the realm of ideas, quite as much as in the realm of action, it is forever true : — “He only destroys who can replace.” The reaction in living memory against all forms of mere unbelief such as, from Voltaire to Richard Carlile, awakened the passions of our ancestors, shows no signs of abatement. The net result of the whole negative attack on the Gospel has been perhaps to deepen the moral hold of Christianity on society. Men without a trace of theological belief turn from the negative attack now with an instinctive sense of weariness and disgust. Just as even radicals and revolutionists look on the mania of pure anarchism as the worst hindrance to their own causes, so all who have substantive beliefs of their own, however unorthodox, find nothing but mischief in militant atheism. Auguste Comte found not only mischief, but folly, in accordance with his profound aphorism, “Atheism is the most irrational form of metaphysics” ; meaning that it propounds as the solution of an insoluble aenigma the hypothesis which ‘of all others is the least capable of proof, the least simple, the least plausible, and the least useful. And although Comte, in common with the whole evolutionist school of thought, entirely accepts the Agnostic position as a matter of logic, he is as much convinced as any Ecumenical Council could be, that everything solid in the spiritual world must rest on beliefs, not negations; on knowledge, not on ignorance.

So clear is this now that Mr. Herbert Spencer, the most important leader of the pure Agnostic school, has developed the Unknowable, about which nothing can be conceived or understood, into an “Infinite and Eternal Energy, by which all things are created and sustained.” As every one knows, he has tried to make out the Unknowable to be something positive and not negative, active and not indifferent. So much so that his most important follower, Mr. John Fiske, of America, has declared that this Energy of Mr. Spencer’s “is certainly the power which is here recognised as God” (Fiske’s Idea of God, p. xxv.). This, however, is a subject which there is no need to pursue farther, at any rate until some one has appeared on this side of the Atlantic to contend that Mr. Spencer’s idea of the Unknowable is certainly the power which is here recognised as God. I shall not farther argue this point. But this abortive paradox of an eminent thinker suffices to show how sterile a thing he recognises a bare Agnosticism to be.

What is the source of all religion? Religion means that combination of belief and veneration which man feels for the power which exercises a dominant influence over his whole life. It has an intellectual element and a moral element. It includes both faith and worship — something that can be believed and something that can be reverenced. These two are fundamental, ineradicable facts in human nature. And what is more they are the supreme and dominant facts, which will ultimately master or absorb all others in the long run. For this reason what men ultimately believe and venerate — their religion — is very rightly assumed to be the characteristic fact in every phase of civilisation. We talk of the Mahometan, the Buddhist, the Catholic, the Pagan world; of the years of the Hegira, of Anno Domini.

Our deepest and our widest thoughts, our earliest and our latest, about human nature, life, and the visible world, bring us always back to this: — “Here am I, and millions such as I am, surrounded, as it seems, in a huge universe of outward activity, distinct from it, but unable to exist an hour without it, able in many ways to act upon it, being acted upon by it in ways far greater and more constant. What is it? Is it well disposed to me, is it ill disposed? Is it disposed at all? Has it any will or any feeling at all? Is it the instrument of any being with will and feeling, and if so, of what being? What is that relation between Man and the World?”

Our hearts, like our brains, are ever stirring us with wonder, fear, love, admiration, and awe as we watch the forces around us, sometimes so cruel, so terrible, so deadly, sometimes so lovely, so beneficent, so serene. All we enjoy, and love, all we can produce, or look for, all we suffer, and fear : pain, death, bereavement, life, health, and protection from torture, all alike come to us through the visible forces of the earth, or of beings on the earth. Our entire existence, material, emotional, practical, depends on them. Do they seek to help us or do they seek our ill, or are they absolutely indifferent ? The individual by himself is as absolutely powerless in their presence as the minutest winged thing before the summer breeze which may gather into a tornado. But man in his helplessness and his blind terror or keen hope turns ever to the reason, and those who seem to reason best, saying — “Tell us something about this World in its relation to Man : tell us something of the living Spirit which is within it, or above it, or behind it : or if there be no such Spirit, tell us something about the workings of this world and how to get the good from it and avoid the evil.”

There is, however, much more than the World. There is Mankind, the most powerful, the most numerous, the most noble, the most universal living force visible upon the planet, through whom and in whom alone real life is possible for an individual. The individual man, when we think out the real meaning of civilised life, is just as completely dependent on mankind for everything he has, or does, or knows, or hopes for, as the infant is dependent on its parent or nurse for every hour of existence. Withdraw them and it perishes in a day. Withdraw from the mightiest intellect or the most potent character the co-operation of men past and present, and it sinks to the level of the fox or the tiger; and being neither so fleet nor so strong, would perish in less than a week. At every turn of human life, in activity, in thought, in emotion, there are always three powers perpetually in contact — the living soul which is thinking, acting, or feeling; the mass of the world outside man, touching him at every point; and between these two the sum of mankind past, present, and to come, through which alone he lives and acts. 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.

All that has been said by preachers and prophets from Moses and Isaiah down to Keble and Cardinal Newman as to the importance of religion to life, as to the paramount necessity of a central object of reverence, devotion, and faith, is not by one word in excess of the truth. On the contrary, it is still lamentably short of the truth, for it has been based by all theological preachers on a very narrow and imperfect conception of religion. Not one word of all this has ever been shaken by the infidel or Agnostic schools. It is true that they have not only shaken to their foundations, but in our opinion finally annihilated, the particular type of religion which theology presents, the actual doctrines, the assertion of supposed historic fact, the gratuitous assumptions which theological religion teaches under a thousand contradictory forms. But criticism has never shaken, nay, has never even addressed itself to weaken, the dominant place of religion in life. For some two centuries criticism has exhausted itself in battering down the doctrines and methods of the current religion. But not a rational argument has ever been put forward to show that religion of some kind is less necessary than before, less inevitable, less dominant. Agnosticism says to the Churches: “I decline to believe in your religion.” But the necessity for some religion remains just as it did before.
And until Agnosticism has told us what religion we are to believe, or why religion is henceforth superfluous, it will remain the private opinion of isolated and cultivated minds in more or less comfortable surroundings.

This explains the mysterious fact that, in spite of the hailstorm of destructive criticism which is incessantly poured on every bastion, fort, and outwork of the churches, they still continue to reply to the fire of the enemy, and are still full of enthusiastic defenders. “He only destroys who can replace.” And the Agnostic position is ex hypothesi a pure negation. The profound instinct of all healthy spirits recognises that a state of no-religion, of deliberate acquiescence in negation, of non-interest on principle in these dominant questions, is weak, unworthy, even immoral. It is in vain that the man of science and the man of affairs ask to be left alone, to do their own work in their own way, to leave these ultimate problems to those whom they concern, or to those who care for them. The instinct of all good men and women feels that a man without a genuine religion — a man to whom the relation of Man to the World, Man to his fellow Men, is a mere academic question, a question to be put aside — is a source of danger and corruption to his neighbours and the society in which he lives; that selfishness, caprice, anti-social self-assertion, or equally anti-social indolence are his sure destiny, and his besetting weakness. The appeals and reproaches of the older religious creeds as to the folly and danger of stifling the eternal religious instincts, are as
true and as powerful now as ever, though every single dogma of religion were shivered to dust.

It would be idle indeed to attempt to repeat in the feeble tone of a far-away echo, the arguments, the appeals, the yearning cry of the great religious minds for thousands of years as to the hollowness of life, the feebleness of man, without an object of awe and love. The sayings of an army of preachers crowd upon the memory as we think upon this, from Job, David, Solomon, and the prophets. “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” And so on, through the prophets to the words of the Gospel and of Paul, of Augustine’s vision of the City that cannot be destroyed, and down to Gregory and Bernard, a Kempis and Bunyan, Bossuet and Taylor, Wesley and De Maistre, from countless voices, Jewish, Christian, Mussulman, Confucian, and Buddhist, Protestant, and Catholic, and Deist. However much they differ in the form, they all agree in this — the supreme importance of religion to man. Not a word of all this has ever been shaken : not a word of it has even been impugned. All that Agnosticism has done is to assert that Theology has not solved the religious problem. It has not offered a shadow of a suggestion as to what the solution is, nor has it cast a doubt on the urgency of the problem itself.

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 positivist point of view thus stands midway between theology and Agnosticism, recognising the strength of each and offering to both a modus vivendi, a basis of conciliation. It not only earnestly maintains all that theologians have ever urged as to the paramount place of religion, as to the universal part of religion in every phase of life, as to its power to transfigure the individual man and human society, Large or small, but it vastly extends the scope of religion beyond the wildest vision of theology. On the other hand, it adopts without reserve the whole of the Agnostic logic as against the theological creeds, very greatly reinforcing it by making this Agnostic logic the outcome of a complete philosophy of science, and an organized scheme of morality and society.

No Agnostic reasoner can more inexorably insist on eliminating from thought and life whatever philosophy and science reject as “not proven.” No theologian can more passionately insist on the wilderness that is left in the heart of the man and the life of society which is without the guidance of religion.

Strangely enough, it is this latter point which theology in our day most miserably neglects. It is so strictly absorbed in its own special creed, that it abandons the defence of the infinitely greater cause, the meaning of religion, the relation of religion to life, conduct, happiness, and civilisation. All this is totally distinct from any particular creed, and may stand untouched by the downfall of a dozen creeds. So completely have theologians identified this eternal truth with their own formularies, that the Agnostic is allowed to suppose that when the formularies are disposed of the religious problem is at an end. And the result of it is, that the cause of religion as an institution is to-day seriously jeopardised by theologians, who are far more concerned about particular Books and sectarian dogmas than about the central principle of human life.

It is therefore quite natural, however much it may surprise some, that the first task of Auguste Comte was to show how religion was a force, deeper, wider, and more omnipresent than theology had ever described it; what are the eternal bases of religion in the heart and in society; and what are the indestructible elements of religion, and function of religion. It is not in the least a paradox, but a truth capable of easy proof, that no theologian in ancient or modern times, neither Paul nor Mahomet, neither Aquinas nor Bernard, neither Bossuet nor Calvin, neither Hooker nor Butler, have ever penetrated so profoundly into the elements, the function, and the range of religion in the abstract as does Auguste Comte. All this, his philosophical analysis of what religion can do for life and society, is entirely detached from any given religious creed, and it is quite as much applicable to Pagan, Mussulman, Catholic, or Calvinistic theology, as it is to the religion of the Fetichists, Buddhists, or Confucians. It is so because Comte was the first who exhaustively considered religion apart from any creed, on a social analysis of human nature and society, by the light of history, and social philosophy at once. When so viewed religion is found to have a meaning far more varied and certain than appears in the sacred writings of any confession, and to be capable of infinite applications to life, undreamt of yet by the most ecstatic mystics and the most ardent spirits of the Catholic or Protestant communions.

It is not, however, the purpose of this essay to put forwards Comte’s answer to Theology, but merely to consider the Agnostic answer and the future of Agnosticism. The question of the place of religion as an element of human nature, as a force in human society, its origin, analysis, and functions, has never been considered at all from the Agnostic point of view. What eminent Agnostic has ever attempted to grapple with the problem, except by the unmeaning phrase of Mr. Spencer, that the business of religion is with the consciousness of a mystery that cannot be fathomed? This meagre formula about a very real and vast power is obviously only the flourish of a man who has nothing to say and who wishes to say something. Apart from this, what Agnostic has ever told us what religion is, what it ought to be, what part it plays in life and in civilisation? Agnosticism has not, in fact, carried out its own principles. Both Agnosticism and Atheism are still so completely under the glamour of the older Theology and its creeds, that they take it enough has been done for religion when some definite assertion has been formulated about the central theological dogmas, even though that definite assertion be a negation, as the atheist contends, or a mere assertion of ignorance, as the Agnostic contends. But when these have been asserted, the whole question of religion still remains open as a factor in human existence. If the Agnostic and the Atheist would fairly face this problem from the solid ground of human history, social philosophy, and moral analysis, and would entirely put aside all further thought of smashing theology hip and thigh, they would come to see that everything yet remains to be said and done in the matter of religion, assuming their specific denials to be perfectly logical and finally proved.

In other words, Agnosticism as a religious philosophy per se rests on an almost total ignoring of history and social evolution. History and social evolution force all competent minds which grasp them to frame some positive type of religion, and to recognise the indestructible tie between religion and civilisation. A strong mind, really saturated with the historical sense, turns from Agnosticism and Atheism, with the same weariness and pity with which it turns from the Law of Nature and the Rights of Man. They are all as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. History and a theory of social evolution based on history of social statics, compels us to think upon the past of religion, the need for religion, and the future of religion.

Agnosticism is thus found to be simply the temporary halting-place of those scientific men who have not yet carried their scientific habits of mind into the history of humanity as a whole. It marks indeed the physicists, and the thinkers about physics, using physics in the widest sense as the study of Nature rather than of Man. It would be difficult to name a single known Agnostic who has given to history anything like the amount of thought and study which he brings to his knowledge of the physical world. The Darwins, the Huxleys, the Tyndalls, have been absorbed in other labours which have left them no opportunity to enter on the vast field of universal history. They would, of course, admit that social science is quite as legitimate, quite as indispensable to the human intellect, as is natural science; though they recognise its present condition as far less advanced and far more obscure. But the field of natural science is itself so gigantic that they may very fairly claim to limit their labours to that. In so doing, and missing in social science and in historical evolution the precision of proof which they justly seek for in physical studies, they are somewhat inclined to overrate the proportion which natural science bears to the whole field of knowledge and to forget that physical laws are only a part, and the smaller part, of science in the sum. Nothing is more common than to hear an eminent savant say — “So far as I understand anything of science,” meaning by science our knowledge of nature exclusively, when perhaps he has given as little attention to social science, to history, and social evolution as the first man he meets in the street. As to the great discoverers in the physical realm, from the Darwins, the Huxleys, the Tyndalls, the Lyells, the Hookers, it would be preposterous to expect them to withdraw precious hours from their special pursuits; as Aristotle says, it would be ridiculous to ask a geometrician to reason persuasively, or to ask an orator to prove his points by geometry. Mr. Spencer, on the other hand, is not a specialist observer, but a philosopher, and no English philosopher before him ha> ever so forcibly insisted on the supreme place held in the intellectual synthesis by social science. This, therefore, is all the more a disappointment to those who most admire his genius and most carefully study the development of his “Synthetic Philosophy,” that he has not been able to turn his extraordinary powers of coordinating ideas to the systematic study of universal history. It is difficult, indeed, to recall a passage in which he has contributed to this grand task of the future a single reflection that does justice to his eminent position. Yet, without a systematic conception of history, a synthetic philosophy of human nature is as utterly futile as a synthetic philosophy of physical nature would be without biology.

We may now form some general forecast of the future course of Agnosticism. 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.

These five characteristics are all, it is plain, distinctive marks of the system for the future that Auguste Comte propounded as the religion of Humanity. Indeed, taken together, they would be a very good description of it. But it is no part of my present purpose to pursue that topic further, or to insist on Positivism as the inevitable solution of the problem. The object to which this essay is confined is to examine what, upon the principles of Agnosticism itself, would be the natural development of Agnosticism in the future, when its protest against the assumptions of theology shall have done its work, when antagonism to theology has become an anachronism, and when the world has realised how completely religion has yet to create its future. There is no reason to think that thoughtful Agnostics would very much dispute the general line of this reasoning. Very many Agnostics already have recognised in a general way, and for a distant future, some kind of humanitarian ideal as the ultimate basis of the religious sentiment. And this has been done most definitely by those Agnostics who are the most interested in social science, and especially by those who have the keenest grasp on the laws of historical evolution. Every student of social philosophy, who combines a knowledge of physical laws with a dominant interest in history, is already a humanitarian in embryo, though he choose to maintain an attitude of mental suspense on the religious problem as a whole.

Further than this I have no wish now to carry the argument. I am not in this essay advocating Positivism, but am examining the future 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.

One thought on “The Future of Agnosticism (1907)

  1. Pingback: The Future of Agnosticism from 1907 | Agnostic Universe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*


*