views updated May 21 2018


The heyday of agnosticism was in Victorian Britain between the 1860s and the 1890s. Its leading exponents were Herbert Spencer (18201903), Thomas Henry Huxley (18251895) (who coined the term), Leslie Stephen (18321904), John Tyndall (18201893), and William Kingdon Clifford (18451879). This group all shared a disillusionment with orthodox Christianity; an opposition to the dominance of British science and education by the Anglican establishment; belief in the theory of evolution and in the importance of science more broadly; and an aspiration to replace dogmatism and superstition with a freethinking, scientific, and ethical religion (see Lightman, 1987, 1989, 2002; Pyle; Turner, 1974, 1993). While agnosticism may have been an antitheological and secularist movement, it was certainly not antireligious. The Victorian agnostics were intensely moralistic people who had a deep sense of the spiritual, especially as evoked by the wonders of the natural world.

The Philosophical Sources of Agnosticism

The term agnosticism, as it is used in common parlance, normally refers to a neutral or undecided position on the question of the existence of God. It is shorthand for a rejection of religious faith on the one hand and of outright atheism on the other. The philosophical sources and Victorian expositions of agnosticism, however, reveal it to signify a much broader set of arguments about the limits of human knowledge, whether religious or scientific.

Bernard Lightman's definitive study, The Origins of Agnosticism (1987), places particular emphasis on the concept's Kantian origins. It is true that Kantian views about the limits of speculative reason, the relativity of knowledge, and the active role of the categories of the mind in constituting that knowledge formed an important part of agnosticism. Lightman argues convincingly for the influence of two writers in particularWilliam Hamilton (17881856) and Henry Longueville Mansel (18201871)on later Victorian agnostics. Hamilton was a Scottish metaphysician who, as well as seeing himself as a defender of the Scottish "common sense" philosophy of Thomas Reid (17101796) and Dugald Stewart (17531828), was probably the most important expositor of Kantian philosophy in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Mansel drew heavily on Hamilton's particular version of Kantianism in his controversial 1858 Bampton Lectures, entitled The Limits of Religious Thought. In these lectures, Mansel argued that speculative reason on its own led to all sorts of contradictions if allowed free rein in the area of theology. His conclusion was that only relative knowledge was possible and that the absolute (or the unconditioned, to use Hamilton's term) was not knowable through the faculties of sense and reason. Mansel's conclusion was that in the realm of theology, final authority must rest with revelation rather than reason. While Mansel believed that he had used Kant's philosophy constructivelyto demonstrate the necessity of revelation and the authority of the Biblecritics from all sides felt that his arguments constituted, in effect, a complete capitulation in the face of rationalism and modern science and a retreat into an extreme form of fideism.

The idea that Kantian philosophy was at the heart of agnosticism needs to be qualified in a couple of ways (as Lightman himself acknowledges). First, Hamilton and Mansel were far from being simply followers of Kant. They tried to make use of his ideas for their own polemical purposes and certainly did not agree with or reproduce his entire system. The attempt to use philosophy to undermine reason in the realm of theology and establish the necessity and authority of revelation is certainly not "Kantian" in the sense of being a teaching of Kant. Second, a recognition of the influence of Kant on Victorian agnostics should not obscure the very important contributions of David Hume (17111776), to whom Kant himself famously acknowledged an important debt, and of other philosophers in the Scottish tradition. These included Reid and Stewart, in whose footsteps Hamilton was following, as well as Hamilton's principal philosophical antagonist, the empiricist John Stuart Mill (18061873). The agnostic philosophy of Thomas Huxley, for instance, was based on a teaching central to the Scottish school, namely that "mind" and "matter" were merely shorthand terms for unknown realities that underlie the world of experience (which is the only domain in which we can have knowledge).

Victorian Agnosticism

Herbert Spencer's First Principles (1862) laid the groundwork for the hugely ambitious, multivolume Synthetic Philosophy, finally completed in 1896, which articulated Spencer's vision of how philosophy, biology, sociology, ethics, religion, and society itself needed to be reconceptualized and transformed in the light of the doctrine of evolution (see Peel). The first part of the First Principles, entitled "The Unknowable," was considered the Bible of agnosticism for the rest of the Victorian period. Spencer argued that science and religion could be reconciled if they recognized that both, ultimately, were concerned with realities whose foundations were beyond the grasp of human knowledge. However, while science could get on with measuring, analyzing, and interpreting observable phenomena, nothing was left for theologians but total silence in the face of the unknowable. There was no role for revelation in Spencer's proposed scientific and agnostic religion, and Mansel's conservative critics saw

Thomas Huxley and the Coining of Agnostic

Thomas Henry Huxley (18251895) rose to prominence in Victorian Britain as a man of science and a brilliant and combative essayist. His polemical defenses of the theory of evolution against its theological detractors, especially in a legendary debate with Samuel Wilberforce (18051873), the bishop of Oxford, in 1860, earned him the nickname "Darwin's Bulldog." His writings covered topics in philosophy and politics as well as natural sciencehe was a passionate advocate of better and more widely accessible state education, especially in the sciences. His writings, which included a book on the philosophy of Hume, also reveal the depth and breadth of his learning in the areas of philosophy, religion, and theology. The following excerpt from his 1889 essay "Agnosticism" is Huxley's own account of how and why he had come to coin the term agnostic some twenty years earlier.

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. Like Dante,

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, but, unlike Dante, I cannot add, Che la diritta via era smarrita.

On the contrary, I had, and have, the firmest conviction that I never left the "verace via"the straight road; and that this road led nowhere else but into the dark depths of a wild and tangled forest. And though I have found leopards and lions in the path; though I have made abundant acquaintance with the hungry wolf, that "with privy paw devours apace and nothing said," as another great poet says of the ravening beast; and though no friendly spectre has even yet offered his guidance, I was, and am, minded to go straight on, until I either come out on the other side of the wood, or find there is no other side to it, at least, none attainable by me.

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes. To my great satisfaction, the term took; and when the Spectator had stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people, that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened was, of course, completely lulled.

source: Thomas Huxley, "Agnosticism," in his Collected Essays, 9 vols. (London: Macmillan, 18931894), pp. 237239.

in Spencer's system exactly the conclusions they had feared would follow from Mansel's teachings on the impotence of human reason in the theological realm.

Although Spencer was later generally considered to be the leading representative of agnosticism, the terms agnostic and agnosticism did not themselves come into use until about ten years after the publication of the First Principles. The terms gained currency through their use by Spencer but also by the theologian and journalist R. H. Hutton, the editor of the Spectator in the 1870s, and the lapsed Anglican minister Leslie Stephen, who, after leaving the Church of England, wrote An Agnostic's Apology (1876).

Although he made some use of the term in his writings from the 1870s onward, it was only in 1889 that Thomas Huxley revealed himself as the inventor of the terms agnostic and agnosticism and explained how and why he had come to coin them (Lightman, 2002). One of Huxley's earlier essays that gained him much attention (and much criticism) was entitled "On the Physical Basis of Life" (reprinted in Collected Essays, vol. 1). This essay, based on a lecture delivered in Edinburgh in 1868, just a year before he coined the term agnostic, is one of the most helpful illustrations of the essence of Huxley's agnosticism. Although the essay was criticized for espousing a materialistic view of life (the idea that all living things are made up of the same substance"protoplasm"), in fact it defended a nescient or radically empiricist understanding of science as producing nothing more than a set of symbols with which to describe and organize observable phenomena. Huxley rejected materialism on the grounds that it was impossible for empirical science to determine anything at all about the nature of any putative substance or substances underlying the phenomena or of any supposed laws or causes. "In itself," Huxley said, "it is of little moment whether we express the phænomena of matter in terms of spirit; or the phænomena of spirit in terms of matter: matter may be regarded as a form of thought, thought may be regarded as a property of mattereach statement has a certain relative truth" (18931894, vol. 1, p. 164). (The materialistic terminology was to be preferred, however, for the pragmatic reason that it connected with other areas of scientific investigation, which were expressed in the same terms, and for the reason that spiritualistic terminology was entirely barren.) Huxley denied that this was a "new philosophy" and especially that it was the invention of the positivist Auguste Comte (17981857), as some supposed. Comte, he said, lacked entirely "the vigour of thought and the exquisite clearness of style" of the true author of this philosophy, "the man whom I make bold to term the most acute thinker of the eighteenth centuryeven though that century produced Kant" (18931894, vol. 1, p. 158). The man Huxley had in mind, of course, was Hume.

The closing pages of "On the Physical Basis of Life," then, show several important things about Huxley's agnosticism. They show that Huxley felt the need for a new labelagnostic not in order to distance himself from Christianity (everyone already knew he was an opponent of theological orthodoxy) but primarily in order to repudiate the labels materialist, atheist, and positivist. They also show that Huxley considered Hume to be at least as important as Kant, if not more important, in the historical pedigree of agnosticism. And finally, they show that agnosticism involved admitting ignorance about the fundamental nature of the physical universe as well as about the existence and attributes of the divine.

Agnosticism in the Twentieth Century

The scientific and religious creed of agnosticism died with Leslie Stephen in 1904. However, the philosophical and theological questions around which it was based, especially about the relationship between the observable and the unobservable, persisted into the twentieth century (although not generally under the banner of agnosticism).

The logical positivism of the earlier twentieth century, along with more recent antirealist philosophies of science (such as Bas van Fraassen's "constructive empiricism" as developed in his 1980 book, The Scientific Image ), have contained some of the radically empiricist elements of agnosticism as endorsed by Huxley (and derived from Hume and Mill). These philosophers have insisted that all true knowledge must be grounded in experience and that since we cannot have direct experience of unobservable substances, entities, laws, or causes, we must treat them as, at best, useful fictions that serve as shorthand for empirical generalizations. Logical positivists dismissed all "metaphysical" discourse, which claimed to describe underlying realities, as meaningless. In this they agreed both with Comtean positivists and with agnostics.

In the realm of religion and theology, the problems that were central to the agnosticsespecially the difficulty of reconciling religion and morality with a scientific worldviewcontinued to occupy religious thinkers (see Dixon). Some, such as Thomas Huxley's grandson Julian Sorell Huxley (18871975), put forward "evolutionary humanism" as a scientific religion based on reason and morality but without revelation. Others took a similar approach but while remaining within the Christian tradition. Don Cupitt, for instance, in books such as Taking Leave of God (1980) and The Sea of Faith (1984), adopted a "nonrealist" metaphysics and articulated a post-theological version of the Christian religion. For Cupitt, himself a minister in the Church of England, the claims of Christian theology should not be taken to refer to unseen supernatural realities, such as a personal God, but to be expressions of human values and aspirations.

So scientists seeking to give expression to a religious impulse while retaining their intellectual integrity along with theologians looking for an interpretation of the gospel that will resonate in a secular and scientific world have both continued the religious project that the Victorian agnostics had begun.

See also Atheism ; Christianity ; Gnosticism ; Skepticism .



Blinderman, Charles, and David Joyce, eds. "The Huxley File." Available at This is an invaluable online resource at Clark University, providing information on Huxley's life and works and access to hundreds of Huxley's published and unpublished writings.

Cupitt, Don. Taking Leave of God. London: SCM, 1980.

Huxley, Thomas H. "Agnosticism," "Agnosticism: A Rejoinder," and "Agnosticism and Christianity." Nineteenth Century 25 (1889): 169194, 481504, 937964. Reprinted in Thomas H. Huxley, Collected Essays, vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition. London: Macmillan, 1894.

. Collected Essays. 9 vols. London: Macmillan, 18931894.

Pyle, Andrew, ed. Agnosticism: Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley. Bristol: Thoemmes, 1995.

Spencer, Herbert. First Principles. London: Williams and Norgate, 1862. Especially pt. 1.

Van Fraassen, Bas. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.


Budd, Susan. Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 18501960. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Cockshut, A. O. J. The Unbelievers: English Agnostic Thought, 18401890. London: Collins, 1964.

Desmond, Adrian. Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. London: Penguin, 1998.

Dixon, Thomas. "Scientific Atheism as a Faith Tradition." Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 33 (2002): 337359.

Helmstadter, Richard J., and Bernard Lightman, eds. Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Lightman, Bernard. "Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: The Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy." British Journal for the History of Science 35 (2002): 271289.

. "Ideology, Evolution, and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers." In History, Humanity, and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, edited by James Moore. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

. The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Peel, J. D. Y. Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Turner, Frank M. Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

. Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

White, Paul. Thomas Huxley: Making the "Man of Science." Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thomas Dixon


views updated May 11 2018


An attitude of mind toward man's knowledge of God; namely, that God is humanly unknowable. Etymologically, agnosticism (Gr. agnostos ) means an unknowing, a profession of ignorance. Historically, the word "agnostic" was first used by T. H. Huxley in 1869. Having joined the Metaphysical Society, a society whose members professed knowledge on all kinds of mysteries, and wishing to show his opposition to such extravagant claims, Huxley adopted the name "agnostic." Since his time, the term has been used to designate anyone who denies a knowledge of immaterial reality, and especially of the existence and nature of God.

Kinds of Agnosticism

An agnostic is not an atheist. An atheist denies the existence of God; an agnostic professes ignorance about His existence. For the latter, God may exist, but reason can neither prove nor disprove it. Agnostics have been divided into two groups: those who deny that reason can know God and make no judgment concerning that existence and those who deny that reason can prove it but nonetheless profess a belief in God's existence. A well-known contemporary instance of the first group is Bertrand russell; a famous example of the second is Immanuel kant. With few exceptions, modern and contemporary agnostics belong to the second group.

Another division of agnosticism may be made in terms of the philosophical commitments that cause their adherents to deny the possibility of knowing God. These commitments are many and varied, but the principal ones in the history of thought may be enumerated as nominalism, empiricism, Kantianism, the theory of the unconditioned, logical positivism, and existentialism. The remainder of this article explains the philosophical grounds for agnostic attitudes within these schools and gives a critical evaluation of each.


william of ockham, the father of philosophical nominalism, denied that the human intellect could with certitude demonstrate the existence of One, Infinite God. For Ockham, universality or community is only a condition of thought and in no sense a truth about being. There is nothing in things that allows the mind to transcend from them to God.

Argument. The line of reasoning for Ockham and his followers is clear. Unless there resides in the beings of man's experience a relation that orders them to God, the mind cannot demonstrate the existence of God from the existence of these beings. For the nominalist no such relation exists. Relation bespeaks an order between two things. And since order must include the things ordered, it implies a pattern of inclusiveness, or universality. Universality, however, cannot be part of the structure of being, but only of the signification of words. Nominalism thus erases universality from being. Each individual is simply itselfa singular instance of existence. To put universality in things, argue the nominalists, is to confuse the order of being with the order of signification. Things may be really dependent on God, but the mind could know this only if it could intuit some relation between things and God. But because of the atomistic (nonuniversal) nature of the singular, this is impossible. The singular can reveal to the intellect no illative force, no moment of trancendence. Analysis of the singular never uncovers objective universality. Thus does nominalism block off any philosophical ascent to God by way of intellectual inference. The fruit of nominalism in natural theology is agnosticism (see ockhamism; universals).

Evaluation. What the nominalists fail to recognize is that, while each being is indivisibly singular, the intellect has the power to consider one aspect of the singular while leaving others out of consideration. Thus the intellect can attain universal notions, such as man, animal, substance and so forth. Universality is in the thing, in the sense that the perfection that is considered is in the thing; but as in the thing, the perfection is inseparable from the very singularity of the thing. Moreover, the order that results from received existence is an intelligible datum that can be grasped by the intellect, though not by the senses. Change, imperfection, limitation, compositionthese are all intelligible facts about the things of man's experience that spell out for his intellect the contingent condition of their being. Contingency, and hence order and dependence, may be impervious to his senses, for they are not sensible facts; but they are open to his intellect, because they are facts of existence. Thus the intellect is not only justified but necessitated to make an inference from caused to Uncaused Being.


The central teaching of empiricism is that all knowledge comes through experience. While such a truism need not lead to agnosticism, historically it did so, because of the empiricists' quarrel with rationalism.

Argument. rationalism maintained that such terms as "contingent" and "necessary" were both true in what they defined and actually descriptive of the real world. For the empiricist this is impossible. Man experiences what happens in the world, not that it must so happen, that is, happen contingently or necessarily. "Necessity," writes D. hume, "is something that exists in the mind, not in objects." And since man does not experience necessity, he cannot say that the causal proposition, "every event has a cause," has been gained from experience. The necessity and universality found in the causal proposition is not grounded in objects, but in some condition of man's thinking about objects. Empiricism explains the origins of the causal proposition in terms of human habits of thought. Repeatedly experiencing B following A, one comes to anticipate B whenever he experiences A. But since he does not experience a connection between them, he cannot say that B must follow A.

This obviously means that the human mind can never reason with certitude to the existence of God. For this would be asserting a necessary connection between mundane events and a supramundane Being, a connection that falls outside human experience. To assert this connection is to commit the fallacy of rationalism; one inserts a necessity derived from his concepts into the world of events. As with nominalism, empiricism precludes a transcendence from effect to cause by rejecting for knowledge the objective value of the causal principle or of causality.

Evaluation. The empiricists are guilty of a one-dimensional interpretation of human experience. As has been seen, imperfection, limitation, composition, relations, differences and so forth, are just as clearly facts about a thing as are its color, size, shape, motion, etc. While the former are not sense data, it would be arbitrary to argue that they are not facts of human experience. To

limit experience to what is directly perceptible by the five senses is to eliminate a large part of experience and to go against experience itself. It is true that man does not sense causality, that he does not sense relations; but he does experience them, not with his senses but with his intellect. Sense experience is only one kind of experience. The activities one experiences among beings is attended by the intellectual insight that these beings are really related and hence are true causes and effects. The demonstration for the existence of God is grounded, above all, in an intellectual, rather than sensible, experience of reality (see experience).


Kant subscribed to the Humean critique of causality. Yet he viewed the construction of his critical philosophy as the proper synthesis of rationalism and empiricism. The importance of Kant in the history of agnosticism cannot be overstressed. In the minds of most non-Catholic thinkers, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason has given the coup de grâce to any possible proof for the existence of God.

Kant's criticism. In removing necessity from things themselves, Hume seemed to be destroying the objective value of the necessary truths of the physical sciences, mathematics, and metaphysics. To justify the necessity and universality of such truths (at least for science and mathematics), Kant proposed his theory of the synthetic a priori judgment. A judgment is synthetic, rather than analytic, when its content refers to empirical reality; and it is a priori when it involves elements not drawn from that reality. "Every event has a cause," is an example of a synthetic a priori judgment. It is a judgment that deals with events and hence refers to empirical reality; but it has elements not drawn from empirical reality, namely, universality (every event) and necessity (has a cause ), and so is a priori. For as Hume had correctly pointed out, universality and necessity are not concepts drawn from the object (see criticism, philosophical; kantianism).

The important fact about such a judgment is that, though not drawn completely from empirical reality, it is always applicable to it. This is so because the judgment "every event has a cause" expresses a condition for the very experiencing of events, at least in a unified way. In a word, a synthetic a priori judgment contains two elements: one formal, the work of the understanding; the other material, the product of experience. Since such judgments express the very conditions that make knowledge of the world possible, they have objective validity whenever applied to this world. The way man knows empirical reality, and must know it, is as objective as the thing known. It now remains to be seen how this view of knowledge leads of necessity to agnosticism.

Argument. In order to be perceived, a thing must be experienced here and now. The here and now, or space and time, are not intrinsic properties of the thing, but necessary conditions for perceiving the thing. In like manner, cause, substance, and relation are not intrinsic properties of the thing, but necessary conditions for understanding it. And only those things that can be perceived in space and time can be understood. But God is a reality that is entirely outside space and time and so there are no conditions that could make any knowledge of Him possible. There is no way for the intellect of man to have an objective knowledge of God.

But obviously, says Kant, man can form an idea of God. The mind forms such an idea whenever it seeks for the cause of causes, for the ultimate unifying principle of all beings and of all thought. But God as a unifying principle is merely an idea, that is to say, a concept formed by the transcendental activity of human reason with no guarantee of an objective correlate outside the reason. To form an idea of God, then, is in no way to prove that there is a God. For as not subject to the conditions of space and time, God is not perceivable; and as unperceivable through sensibility, He must remain forever unknowable to understanding.

If all Kant were saying is that God in His own Being is in no way subject to the senses or intellect of man, so that one can never have any direct natural knowledge of Him, he would be no more agnostic than the most orthodox Catholic philosopher. His agnosticism consists in his absolute refusal to give to the understanding of man even an indirect knowledge of God. God cannot be known either in Himself (which all admit) or through creatures. The objective reality of God can never in any sense become a term for human understanding. Since God is out-side all the conditions for human understanding, no category of the mind can be applied to Him. Thus the category of cause cannot be applied to Him. The application of causality is valid among the beings of empirical reality (phenomena), but not among those of transempirical reality (noumena). God's existence cannot be inferred or concluded to; for the reason in passing from phenomenal reality to noumenal steps outside the conditions of human understanding. Hence this transition results in no objective knowledge of reality, but only in empty concepts.

It is true that Kant, on moral grounds, saw the necessity for postulating a belief in God (or in the idea of God), but since such a postulate has no cognitive content and does not guarantee the actual existence of God, this aspect of Kant's critical philosophy in no way mitigates his agnosticism.

Evaluation. An analysis of Kant's epistemology makes it clear that he equated being with "being-sensible." If an absolute condition for knowing anything is that it be first perceived in human sensibility, then, of course, only sensibles are knowable. This would mean that all other facts in man's knowledge of being, for example, its distinction from other beings, its limitations, its composition, and so forth, belong not to the thing but only to the way man knows the thing. He could not predicate them about the thing itself, but only about the thing as in his knowledge. He could not say "man is limited," but only "man must be known as limited." In the view of Kant, one cannot say that limitation, imperfection, and composition (all the facts of being that lead one to God) are facts about being independent of the knowing process. And this is to equate being with "being-sensible." Admittedly, to grasp these facts (including the fact of existence itself) an intellect is needed; the senses are not enough. But to say that therefore they are the product of the intellect, they are due merely to the way the intellect knows, is a false conclusion. The way the eye sees color or the ear hears sound is certainly not the way color or sound is present in objects; but no one denies that there is in the object, the proper and sensible correlate of color and sound. So, too, with the intelligible elements of being. They will yield their presence only to an intellect, and in an intellectual way. But they are as much facts about a being as are its sensible facts. To deny this is to deny the very existence of things, for existence is not a sensible fact.


Under the influence of Kant, agnosticism began to assume the form of a philosophical theory, the theory of the unconditioned. The two names most commonly associated with this theory are Sir william hamilton and Herbert spencer. The former develops it in his main work, Philosophy of the Unconditioned (Edinburgh 1829), and Spencer devotes the first 100 pages of his First Principles (London 1862) to "The Unknowable." While neither man is read much in the mid-20th century, their influence during their lifetime was considerable, and their views on man's knowledge of God have become accepted teaching.

Argument. The theory of the unconditioned is in its essentials, Kantian, and briefly it comes to this. To think of an object is to condition it, either by putting it into some class, as when one says "God is a substance," or by relating it to some other object, as when one says "God is a cause." Since all knowledge goes from the known to the unknown, every object must be known in terms of something else. An object that cannot be conditioned by either classification or relation is unknowable. For, to know, is to condition. But God, as Infinite and Absolute Being, transcends every condition. Thus God is unknowable and is the very negation of thought. To classify the infinite is to make it finite; and to relate the absolute is to make it relative. To say, therefore, that God is a substance, or a cause, or a being, are so many meaningless statements. There is only one meaningful statement that can be made about the unknowableit cannot be known.

If this teaching simply meant that man can have no direct knowledge of God, in the sense that God in Himself can never be grasped as a term within man's knowledge, it would be acceptable. But it means more than this. For in an indirect knowledge of God through creatures, either God becomes a term of knowledge or not. If He does not, man does not know God, but only creatures; if He does, then He has been conditioned by a relation (cause), and so once more it is not God man is thinking about but only some subjective notion he calls God.

Evaluation. How does one break through the dilemma presented by this theory? By a close look at the act of existing of a finite being and a closer look at what it means to know. The very contingency of an imperfect act of existing demands that it has grounds for existing that are outside itself. Its existence is received existence. Contingent existence is a contradiction in terms unless it has its source in Necessary Existence. But can man know this Necessary Being? He cannot know it in itself, but he can know that there must be such a Being. In affirming the necessity of such a Being, what terminates his knowledge is not the being of God but the truth of the proposition "There must be a God." Thus the being of God is left unconditioned, but man's knowledge has been conditioned and determined to a truth about God, namely, that He exists. Moreover, this is a truth about an actually existing being (and not an empty concept), for man's knowledge has been determined by actually existing beings precisely as caused by God. And in this sense one can say that God is the indirect object, and the object that logically terminates one's thinking, for it is through His being that the things that determine one to know Him exist. The error of the theory of the unconditioned is that it equates conditioning in knowledge with conditioning in being. Man can know God through creatures without affecting God's being. In fact, though this is not the present concern, even a direct vision of God such as the angels and saints have in heaven, leaves the divine being completely unconditioned, unaffected; for the whole act of knowledge as such is in, and hence affects, the knower. Conditions concern the way one knows, not what one knows. The agnostics fail to make this important distinction.


A fashionable form of contemporary agnosticism, especially in the United States and Britain, is logical positivism. This school, whose methodology is linguistic analysis and whose theory of knowledge is empiricism, teaches that a proposition is true if its language elements are reducible to, or verifiable in terms of, some direct or indirect sense experience. Propositions that make no claim to describe reality, such as those of logic and mathematics, are true if consistent with themselves. Factual propositions belong to the empirical sciences and formal propositions to the logical and mathematical sciences. Both sets of propositions can be either true or false and both have their proper meaning; for they can be seen as either reducible to sense experience, as in the case of factual propositions, or as self-consistent, as with formal propositions.

Argument. Statements about God are neither factual nor formal. Since the subject of such propositions falls outside both direct and indirect sense experience, the elements of such propositions are not verifiable in terms of any knowable experience. They can be shown to be neither true nor false. Thus they are empty of all meaning; they are meaningless, "nonsensical" bits of language. Nor are they formally true, since they claim to bear upon a real object. If no such claim were made, the logical positivists would grant that statements about God would have formal (not factual) truth. For they could be viewed as instances of a consistent use of language or a possible way that ideas could be related.

Evaluation. As is clear, the agnosticism espoused by the logical positivists is simply a restatement, in terms of the analysis of language, of the basic positions of Hume on the origin of knowledge and of Kant on the noncognitive value of "transcendental ideas" (see verification).


The most important philosophical movement of the mid-20th century is undoubtedly existentialism. Briefly, this doctrine teaches that the only essence the individual man has is that which he freely creates for himself through the decisive realization of his human possibilities. Man in his existence is free tendency. He makes himself what he is. To say that he possesses a stable and determined essence is to rob him of his freedom and to make his being a fixed and formalized unfolding of a predetermined pattern. Moreover, as a continual flux of existential tendencies, man cannot grasp himself through any conceptual knowledge; for a concept immobilizes and so falsifies, reality. Man's being, rather, is grasped by an encounter of experience with himself and others, and not by an insight into intelligible patterns, for there are none.

Argument. Existentialism is agnostic for several reasons. First, it refuses to man any rational or conceptual understanding of God. Second, even when some awareness of a ground of Being is suggested, one can never identify this ground with God. For these objects of "transcendence" (the All-Embracing in K. Jaspers, Being Itself in M. Heidegger, Nothingness in J. P. Sartre) are described in terms philosophically incompatible with a personal and genuinely transcendent God. Furthermore, one can never be sure, because of the type of awareness involved in phenomenology, that these objects are not the product of one's own consciousness. Third, existentialism is agnostic because in the horizontal movement of phenomenological awareness one never attains a moment of seen inference to a source of being. The roots of intelligibility having been removed from being, nothing remains in the flux of existential moments by which man can grasp a relationship to a Being that transcends the flux. In spite of their great concern for the freedom and openness of the human spirit, existentialists are still the victims of Humean empiricism; but now it is an inverted empiricism, the empiricism of consciousness.

Evaluation. The error of the existentialists is twofold. First, they fail to recognize that a finite being without an essence is a contradiction. For finite existence is always the existence of something, and this from its very beginning. Man without an intrinsic limit or essence would be an act of infinite existence. The second error is their failure to recognize that unless human freedom is grounded in intelligence and dependent upon it, man cannot know the possibilities among which he can choose. Finally, these possibilities of man are really surreptitiously reintroduced essences; for an essence is a potency that can be realized (made actual) through existence. There are many excellent and profound things in existentialism. But the suppression of the human essence and the apotheosis of freedom are not among them.


An interesting phenomenon attends the writings of an agnostic. He describes the Unknown God in the same terms as the theist: infinite, absolute, necessary, transcendent, and so forth. The impression is given that the agnostic knows no less about God than the theist and the theist no more than the agnostic. If God is unknowable, why does the agnostic know so much about Him? The touchstone of an agnostic is not what he says about God, but what he intends these statements to mean. The all-important difference is this: the theist claims his statements about God legitimately bear upon an existing object and give him true and valid knowledge of this object. The agnostic denies that his statements about God have any of these characteristics. They are not statements about an existing object at all, but only about an idea wholly constructed by his mind.

See Also: god 2; god, proofs for the existence of; god in philosophy; atheism; deism; humanism, secular; naturalism; theism; theology, natural.

Bibliography: Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 1:214220. r. flint, Agnosticism (London 1903). j. ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism, 2 v. (New York 1899). j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959). h. de lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, tr. e. m. riley (New York 1949). r. jolivet, The God of Reason, tr. m. pontifex (New York 1958). New Essays in Philosophical Theology, eds. a. g. n. flew and a. macintyre, (New York 1955). a. e. taylor, Does God Exist? (New York 1947). e. s. brightman, The Problem of God (New York 1930). a. c. cochrane, The Existentialists and God (Philadelphia 1956). f. e. england, Kant's Conception of God (New York 1930). t. h. l. parker, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (London 1952). f. r. tennant, Philosophical Theology, 2 v. (New York 192830). c. c. j. webb, Studies in the History of Natural Theology (Oxford 1915).

[m. r. holloway]


views updated Jun 11 2018


In the most general use of the term, "agnosticism" is the view that we do not know whether there is a God or not. Although the history of agnosticism, in this general sense, is continuous with that of skepticism (thus reaching back to the ancients), the term itself was coined by T. H. Huxley and its distinctive philosophical bearings emerged in the course of the nineteenth-century debate on religious belief. Participants in that debate often used the word in a strong and specific sense: To be an agnostic was to hold that knowledge of God is impossible because of the inherent, insuperable limitations of the human mind. To assert confidently either the existence or the nonexistence of a deity with definite and intelligible attributes was to transgress these limits.

This consciousness of limitation is classically expressed in the "Transcendental Dialectic" of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). There is a continual temptation, Kant stated, to raise questions about the totality of things; but these questions, he argued, are demonstrably unanswerable. Contradictions are encountered, for instance, whether it is assumed that the world is finite in space and time or infinite in space and time. Or, in another instance, one event may properly be called the cause of another event, but such a concept cannot be used to assert that something (a First Cause) is the cause of the universe as a whole. Of this "whole" one has, and can have, no experience. The main line of agnostic argument in the nineteenth century followed Kant closely in his criticism of cosmological reasoning, although many agnostic writers were not thoroughgoing Kantians. Nor did they have to be Humeans to have their metaphysical assurance called in question by David Hume's famous (or notorious) criticism of speculation in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748): "If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

A person who calls himself agnostic commonly judges that he cannot have both agnosticism and, say, Christian belief. Yet the main positions of nineteenth-century agnosticism were in fact worked out and held by "religious agnostics," writers who argued that a very high degree of ignorance concerning the deity was nonetheless compatible with a religious commitment of some kind. In fact, if not in name, this view was also found in the twentieth century; it is essentially the view of those who disclaim metaphysical knowledge of God, but yet stake all upon "faith," "authority," or Christianity as a practical way of life. Kant may again provide the archetypal model: Having denied that theoretical reasoning could furnish arguments for the existence of God, he nevertheless claimed that God had to be "postulated" in order to make sense of moral experience.

In his most influential article, "Philosophy of the Unconditioned" (Edinburgh Review, 1829), Sir William Hamilton tersely introduced themes that were to be developed, refined, and repudiated by writer after writer to the end of the century and well beyond. "The mind," he wrote, "can know only the limited, and the conditionally limited. " To attempt to think the unconditioned or absolute is to think away "those very conditions under which thought itself is realized." "Loath to admit that our science is at best the reflection of a reality we cannot know, we strive to penetrate to existence in itself; But, like Ixion, we embrace a cloud for a divinity."

H. L. Mansel, in his Bampton Lectures, The Limits of Religious Thought (1858), tried to show in detail that alleged knowledge of the Absolute is self-contradictory at many points. One attributes personal qualities to God, for instance, and yet one cannot think through the notion of personality without the idea of limitation; thought must be distinguished from thinker, and so on. But limitation is incompatible with infinite and absolute deity. The conclusion, however, is not a total religious skepticism. For although speculation about the divine nature is a vain attempt to escape the inescapable conditions of human thought, yet through the "feeling of dependence" and in moral conviction faith may still operate where speculative reason cannot.

Herbert Spencer in his First Principles (1862) accepted this picture of a limited human reason, aware of its limits and yet (in his view) aware also that those limits are decidedly not the limits of the real. Science and religion could, in fact, be reconciled by realizing that each of them testifies to a mystery, to an inscrutable Absolute, quite beyond the frontiers of knowledge or conception but yet not mere negation or nothingness.

The sources of nineteenth-century agnosticismparticularly the agnosticism of those who abandoned organized religionwere, however, more numerous and complex than has been indicated so far. It is rare indeed that a single line of philosophical argument produces by itself either religious conviction or disillusionment. At least three additional sources should be mentioned.

First, a growing mass of data and theory supplied by the physical sciences was prima facie at variance with biblical history and cosmology. There was the new time scale of geology, the impersonal and amoral Darwinian evolutionary theory, and the radical textual, historical criticism of the Bible itself.

Second, once the strong initial resistance to systematic and searching criticism of Christian teaching had been overcome, it was possible to express openly a good many moral misgivings about the Christian conception of God and his governance of the world. J. S. Mill declared it was impossible for a thoughtful person to ascribe "absolute perfection to the author and ruler of so clumsily made and capriciously governed a creation as this planet" (Three Essays on Religion, 1874). He found "moral difficulties" also in "the recognition of the object of highest worship, in a being who could make a Hell" and create creatures whom he foreknew to be destined to suffer in it eternally. No less morally repugnant to many writers was the insistence of the orthodox that their dogmas required sheer unswerving acceptance, and that breakdowns in argument or intelligibility were simply occasions for the exercise of an intensified faith. T. H. Huxley was forthright. In "Agnosticism and Christianity" (1889) he wrote, "I, and many other Agnostics, believe that faith, in this sense, is an abomination." In "Agnosticism" (1889) he said, "I verily believe that the great good which has been effected by Christianity has been largely counteracted by the pestilent doctrine that honest disbelief in their more or less astonishing creeds is a moral offence, indeed a sin of the deepest dye."

Third, the same authors were vehemently critical of the standards of evidence and reasoning normal in theology, and contrasted them with the severe, rigorous, and dispassionate criteria of the sciences. To Mill, "The whole of the prevalent metaphysics of the present century is one tissue of suborned evidence in favour of religion." If one considers the nature of the world as one actually observes it, the very most one could dare to hazard is the existence of a good but finite deity; and Mill put forward even this possibility with a characteristically agnostic tentativeness. For Huxley agnosticism was "not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle": Reason should be followed "as far as it can take you," but undemonstrable conclusions should not be treated as if they were certain. "One may suspect," he said, "that a little more critical discrimination would have enlarged the Apocrypha not inconsiderably." In a similar vein, Leslie Stephen protested against theologians who ventured to define "the nature of God Almighty with an accuracy from which modest naturalists would shrink in describing the genesis of a black beetle" (An Agnostic's Apology, 1893).

It is not the purpose here to estimate how far theologians remedied, or could ever remedy, the deficiencies in their arguments that offended their agnostic critics. Some permanently valuable lessons can be learned, however, from the course of the controversies. An obvious one is the odd instability or ambiguity of certain agnostic positions. Let us supposeas did many of the writers just quotedthat one ceases to find convincing the arguments for the existence of a deity. Experience, one now judges, is limited to the observable world; and reason, although it may lay bare the conditions and presuppositions of that experience, cannot extend our experience of what is. A religiously minded person, in this situation, is tempted to divide reality into the knowable and the unknowable and to attribute to the latter many of the lineaments of deity. Thus, "negative theology" and a religiously toned agnosticism can be the closest of relatives. No sweeping philosophical criticism can demonstrate that all such positions are untenable or involve a cryptotheism; each case must be scrutinized individually. Certain religious attitudes toward the unknown or unknowableattitudes, for example, of wonderment and awecan be perfectly appropriate and invulnerable to criticism, whereas otherssuch as the expectation of personal encounter with the unknownare obviously most vulnerable. One can turn to history for some examples.

In 1896 James Ward delivered his Gifford Lectures, Naturalism and Agnosticism (published in 1899), at Aberdeen University. These contained a vigorous attack on the basic presuppositions of the Hamilton-Mansel-Spencer approach. The sciences, Ward said, do not form a whole that floats in a surrounding "nescience." The world we know does not consist of "appearance" concealing an "ultimate reality" that lies behind or beyond it. In any case, nescience is nescience. "Where nescience is absolute, nothing can be said; neither that there is more to know nor that there is not." Spencer and like-minded writers had, however, said a good many mysterious things about their Absolute, things that, by their own account, were strictly unsayable.

R. Flint (Agnosticism, Croall lectures, 18871888, published in 1903) also denounced the equivocations (as he saw them) of a religious agnosticism. "All that the mind can do on the side of the Unknowable is to play at make-believe, to feign faith, to worship nothingness." "Call your doubts mysteries," said Stephen, satirizing the complacent, "and they won't disturb you any longer."

Is it possible for a reflective person to be an agnostic in the present time? Logical positivists have answered "No." In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), A. J. Ayer claimed that since "all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical," the agnostic's statements about God are no less nonsensical than the theist's. Both assume, wrongly, that "the question whether a transcendent God exists is a genuine question." According to positivism and postpositivist logical analysis, the theological problem is not a problem of evidence and argument, but a problem of meaningfulness. If "God" is a meaningless word, the sentence "Perhaps God does not exist" is also meaningless.

In stating the situation thus, positivism was dramatically drawing attention to what it believed to be distinctive in its approach, but it simultaneously obscured some important lines of continuity with the earlier debate on agnosticism. Before the nineteenth century had ended, Flint had written, in criticism of Hamilton, "Credo quia absurdum can be the only appropriate motto of a philosopher who holds that we may believe in a God the very idea of whom we can perceive to be self-contradictory." The possibility of internal illogicality in the very notion of deity, the risk of the absurd and nonsensical, were well enough recognized. Spencer, wrestling with the problems of the world's origin and beginning, said that the questions here are not questions of credibility but of conceivability. Notions such as self-existence and creation by an external agency "involve symbolic conceptions of the illegitimate and illusive kind." The logical positivist tethered his theory of meaning to the demands for observational verification and falsification of our claims about existents. Compare Spencer once more, writing in 1899: "Intellect being framed simply by and for converse with phenomena, involves us in nonsense when we try to use it for anything beyond phenomena." It must, of course, be added that the positivists and later analysts carried out their austere program with far greater thoroughness and consistency than did their predecessors. But the lines of continuity are there; and they areonce morethose same lines that reach back to Kant's "Transcendental Dialectic" and to David Hume. They justify the use of "atheist" to describe one who rejects the performances and attitudes of religion on the grounds that talk about God is unverifiable talk, or that the concept God contains inner illogicalities.

But is there still room for agnosticism as undogmatic dubiety or ignorance about the existence of God? A case for saying that there is still room can be made on the following lines. Where one gives an account of an expression in our language, and where that expression is one that refers to an existent of some kind, one needs to provide not only a set of rules for the use of the expression, but also an indication of how the referring is to be donethrough direct pointing, perhaps, or through giving instructions for an indirect method of identifying the entity. Can this be done in the case of God? Pointing, clearly, is inappropriate, God being no finite object in the world. The theologian may suggest a number of options at this point. He may say: God can be identified as that being upon whom the world can be felt as utterly dependent, who is the completion of its incompletenesses, whose presence is faintly adumbrated in experience of the awesome and the numinous. Clear direction-giving has here broken down; the theologian may well admit that his language is less descriptive or argumentative than obliquely evocative. Does this language succeed in establishing that statements about God have a reference? To persons susceptible to religious experience but at the same time logically and critically alert, it may seem just barely to succeed, or it may seem just barely to fail. Some may even oscillate uneasily between these alternatives without finding a definite procedure of decision to help them discriminate once for all. A person in this last category is surely an agnostic. His agnosticism takes full account of current linguistic criticisms of religion; it is in the course of his reflections upon meaning that he sees the necessity of relating the linguistic to the extralinguistic, and his answers to this problem, the problem of reference, plunge him into the deepest uncertainty.

The temper of mind just outlined, with all its inner turbulence and anxiety, is probably the most creatively fruitful of the many varieties of agnosticism. Where there is no temptation to believe, there can be little philosophical interest in not believing. Where there has been little or no religious experience, no sense of the haunting strangeness that makes the believer wittingly violate language and logic to express it, there can be little incentive to explore minutely the possible interpretationstheistic, pantheistic, naturalisticof that experience. As a matter of history, agnostics of this temper are to be found far more rarely today than at the height of the agnosticism controversy a century ago. For the great writers of that controversy were in most cases brought up within the Christian faith, had identified themselves with it, and subsequently suffered a bewildering disorientation. Yet, if one is to take seriously today the problems of philosophical theology, there must be some suspension of disbelief, at least an imaginative venture, in order to see why the believer feels compelled to use the extraordinary language he does use. He knows well enough that it is extraordinary; but he deems that it is ordinary language that is found wanting, and not his experiences and the interpretations he puts upon them. The agnostic knows that sometimes ordinary language needs to be violated, as a poet often violates it. He knows also that to disturb our linguistic apparatus in so radical a way can obscure some movements of thought of a very questionable (or downright invalid) logic. Has this happened in the particular case of theism? Searching in this obscurity, the agnostic reports that he cannot tell. For the health of philosophy and theology, it is well that he should continue to search.

See also Ayer, Alfred Jules; Empiricism; Hamilton, William; Hume, David; Huxley, Thomas Henry; Kant, Immanuel; Mansel, Henry Longueville; Mill, John Stuart; Skepticism, Contemporary; Skepticism, History of; Stephen, Leslie.


hume and kant

Hume, David. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. London: Robinson, 1779.

Hume, David. Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. London: A. Millar, 1748. Especially sections X and XI.

Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781). In Berlin Academy, Complete Works. Berlin, 19021955.

See also the entries Empiricism; Skepticism, Contemporary; and Skepticism, History of.

nineteenth-century documents

Flint, R. Agnosticism. Edinburgh and London, 1903.

Hamilton, Sir William. "Philosophy of the Unconditioned." Edinburgh Review (October 1829).

Huxley, T. H. "Agnosticism and Christianity" (1889). In his Collected Essays, Vol. V. London: Macmillan, 1894. Entire volume is relevant.

Mansel, H. L. The Limits of Religious Thought. London, 1858.

Mill, J. S. Three Essays on Religion. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1874.

Spencer, Herbert. First Principles. London: Williams and Norgate, 1862.

Stephen, Leslie. An Agnostic's Apology. London: Smith Elder, 1893. First published as an essay in 1876.

Ward, James. Naturalism and Agnosticism. London: Macmillan, 1899; 2nd ed., with alterations, 1903.

secondary sources

Armstrong, R. A. Agnosticism and Theism in the Nineteenth Century. London: Green, 1905.

Britton, K. John Stuart Mill. London: Penguin, 1953.

Burtt, E. A. Types of Religious Philosophy. New York: Harper, 1951.

Collins, J. God in Modern Philosophy. Chicago: Regnery, 1959.

Garrigou-Lagrange, R. Dieu, son existence et sa nature; solution thomiste des antinomies agnostiques. Paris, 1915.

Hájek, Alan. "Agnosticism Meets Bayesianism." Analysis 58 (3) (1998): 199206.

Kenny, Anthony. Faith and Reason. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Lightman, Bernard. The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Marty, Martin E. Varieties of Unbelief. New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1964.

McGrath, P. J. "Atheism or Agnosticism." Analysis 47 (1987): 5457.

Morris, Thomas. "Agnosticism." Analysis 45 (1985): 219224.

Oppy, Graham. "Weak Agnosticism Defended." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 36 (1994): 147167.

Packe, M. St. John. John Stuart Mill. London: Secker & Warburg, 1954. Biography.

Passmore, J. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. London: Duckworth, 1957. Especially Ch. 2.

Pyle, Andrew, ed. Agnosticism: Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes, 1995.

Stephen, Leslie. English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. London: Smith, Elder & Company, 1876.

van Fraassen, Bas C. "The Agnostic Subtly Probabilified." Analysis 58 (3) (1998): 212220.

Willey, Basil. Nineteenth Century Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.

Ronald W. Hepburn (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


views updated May 23 2018



Agnosticism concerns the withholding of a persons judgment, or belief, on a matter. Such withholding entails neither believing in favor of nor believing against a phenomenon in question. With regard to the question of Gods existence, for instance, an agnostic would believe neither that God exists nor that God does not exist. Agnosticism can be directed toward any alleged phenomenon. It need not be limited to the issue of Gods existence. It thus is equivalent to skepticism. One might be agnostic about the external world, minds, God, non-physical entities, causal relations, and future truths, among other things. Sextus Empiricus (fl. c. 150 CE), David Hume (1711-1776), and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) have supported influential versions of agnosticism.

Cognitive agnosticism about an alleged entity (say, God) entails that, owing to counterbalanced or at least highly mixed evidence, one should withhold belief regarding the proposition that God exists. That is, one should neither believe that God exists nor believe that God does not exist. Doxastic agnosticism about God, in contrast, entails that one actually withholds belief regarding the proposition that God exists. A doxastic agnostic can consistently say: I withhold judgment whether God exists, but I have no commitment regarding the status of the overall available evidence on the matter. So a person could be a doxastic agnostic without being a cognitive agnostic. Cognitive agnostics about God, however, are logically required to recommend doxastic agnosticism about God, at least on cognitive grounds, even if they fail at times actually to withhold judgment regarding Gods existence.

A common motivation for agnosticism regarding an issue is a concern to avoid error or at least to minimize the risk of error in ones beliefs. The concern is that if relevant evidence is highly mixed, then in answering either yes or no to a question, one seriously risks falling into error, that is, false belief. The better alternative, according to agnostics, is to refrain from answering either yes or no, that is, to withhold judgment. Refraining from believing that something exists while refraining from believing that it does not exist can save one from mistaken belief. There is, however, a price to pay: One will then miss out on an opportunity to acquire truth in the area in question. For instance, it is true either that God exists or that God does not exist. Agnostics in principle forgo acquiring a truth in this area of reality.

Agnostics about the issue of Gods existence do not endorse atheism about God. They do not affirm that God does not exist; nor do they propose that our overall available evidence indicates that God does not exist. Agnostics hold that (at least for their own situation) atheism goes too far in the negative direction, just as (they hold for at least their own situation) theism goes too far in the positive direction. Theism, like agnosticism and atheism, can be either cognitive or doxastic. Doxastic theists hold that God exists. Cognitive theists hold that, owing to the overall available evidence, one should believe that God exists. Agnostics hold that, at least for their own situation, theism and atheism go too far, positively or negatively, in the area of belief.

An underlying assumption of cognitive agnosticism is that Gods existence would need to be more obvious to justify acknowledgment. This assumption has given rise to extensive contemporary discussion about divine hidden-ness and elusiveness. The discussion shows no sign of ending any time soon.

SEE ALSO Atheism; Monotheism; Reality; Religion; Theism


Copan, Paul, and Paul K. Moser, eds. 2003. The Rationality of Theism. London: Routledge.

Greco, John, ed. 2008. The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel, and Paul K. Moser, eds. 2002. Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moser, Paul K. 1993. Philosophy after Objectivity: Making Sense in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Paul K. Moser


views updated Jun 11 2018


Agnosticism is the belief that there is insufficient evidence to assert with confidence the existence or nonexistence of God. Although an agnostic outlook was evident in ancient Greek materialism and skepticism, the word itself was coined in 1869 by the noted British biologist and promoter of Darwinism Thomas Huxley. Agnosticism, according to Huxley, is a method of inquiry holding "that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty." Though agnosticism can pertain to any truth claim, it was immediately applied to belief in God's existence. The word itself stands in contrast to the ancient doctrine of "gnosis"—that positive knowledge of God's existence and His attributes is possible.

Modern agnosticism emerged from two convergent intellectual and religious trends in Victorian culture. The first was the legacy of the eighteenthcentury German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant proclaimed that the limitations of human sense experience made knowledge of transcendental realities impossible. He argued against belief in God based on evidence and applied reason, but opened the possibility of such belief derived from faith. Many agnostics a century later proclaimed religious beliefs of some kind. Herbert Spencer's "Unknowable" and Matthew Arnold's "Power not ourselves that makes for righteousness" expressed religious reverence for a reality beyond the grasp of human understanding.

Kant's philosophical emphasis supported the growing prestige of science, especially in the decades after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Many defenders of science and empiricism felt that discoveries in biology, physics, geology, and in the new fields of anthropology and comparative religion had destroyed the foundations for belief in a supernatural God. Biblical criticism brought the doctrines of the historical religions, even when liberally interpreted, within the realm of scientific explanation. For these thinkers, including such philosophers and literary figures as John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, George Eliot, and Leslie Stephen, agnosticism supported the scientific naturalism of the day while avoiding identification with either the positivism of Auguste Comte or the atheism of the Marxists.

Agnosticism has had a rich tradition in the United States, often aligning itself with reform movements and the spirit of progressivism. Robert Ingersoll, Civil War captain, lawyer, and captivating orator, preached agnosticism to large audiences while issuing biting attacks on the evils of religious orthodoxy. Mark Twain and Clarence Darrow were among hundreds of figures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who joined their agnosticism to democratic and humanistic ideals.

Agnosticism is often interpreted as a midway position between atheism and theistic belief. From the standpoint of the traditional religious believer, agnosticism may appear as functionally identical to atheism, or as providing a safe haven for atheists wishing to hedge their bets.

An agnostic response is that both theists and atheists share a common error in making an unwarranted leap into positive assertions about the nature of ultimate reality. Rather than categorically denying God's existence, as atheists do, agnostics maintain that their view more successfully fulfills the demands of intellectual integrity. In addition, agnosticism provides a more promising framework than atheism for the development of humanitarian concerns. Defenders of agnosticism would assert that loyalty otherwise given to a Supreme Being can be readily transferred to the realm of social ideals. Agnosticism also opens the door to a sense of humility, natural piety, and cosmic reverence in its acceptance of mysteries beyond the reach of human powers.

Recent surveys indicate that more than 1.1 million Americans identify as agnostics. Of the 14 million Americans who claim "no religion," it may be assumed that many are agnostics in all but name. Furthermore, if account is made of people who formally affiliate with churches and synagogues for primarily social and not religious reasons, the number of agnostics may be considerably higher. Though contemporary agnosticism lacks the polemical spirit of its formative decades, it is broadly represented among the unchurched, in universities, in the scientific community, and in various humanistic organizations such as the American Humanist Association, the Ethical Culture Movement, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the Unitarian-Universalist Association.

See alsoAtheism; Creeds; Deathof God; Ethical Culture; Humanism.


Lightman, Bernard. The Origins of Agnosticism. 1987.

Stein, Gordon, ed. An Anthology of Atheism andRationalism. 1989.

Joseph Chuman


views updated May 18 2018


AGNOSTICISM, denying that human beings can know if God exists, emerged in the 1860s and 1870s as the opinion of a small but influential minority of religiously serious, well-read Americans. Many belonged to the class of writers, academics, and scientists soon labeled "intellectuals." They commonly enjoyed relatively high economic and social status. The word "agnosticism" itself was coined in 1869 (from Greek roots denoting "un-known") by the English scientist Thomas Huxley, and American agnosticism closely tracked similar, somewhat earlier tendencies among British bourgeois intelligentsia. Several of the most prominent early American agnostics—such as the scholar and cultural critic Charles Eliot Norton, the journalist E. L. Godkin, the historian Henry Adams, and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—were deeply entwined in transatlantic webs of friendships that linked the two countries' intellectual life. And as these names suggest, agnosticism first developed in the United States among urban northeasterners.

Agnosticism was not so much a positive belief as a negative conclusion. Victorian agnostics wished to apply to all questions of knowledge what they took to be the criteria of the natural and human sciences. To decide matters of fact by any other standard they characteristically regarded as immoral—a credo classically articulated in the 1870s by the English mathematician William Clifford: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." That agnostics readily carried this principle into religious issues can be explained not only by widespread faith in science but more specifically by the fact that for two centuries theological writers had enlisted science to prove religious belief. That this hoary scientific apologetic foundered after 1860 owed much to contraction by scientists of what counted as scientific evidence, a restriction associated especially with Darwinism. In ensuing decades, a growing number of Americans weighed the evidence for the existence of God and concluded that nothing approaching scientific evidence existed to prove a God.

Typically, agnostics bore no grudge against those who did retain faith in God. Although agnostics tended to see themselves as clearer thinkers and more rigorous moralists, they rarely trumpeted their unbelief or publicly attacked the churches. In this, agnosticism was unlike atheism, actively denying God. Atheism in both the United States and Europe flowed from dislike of organized religion, and atheists—their outrage at "priestcraft" often stoked by class resentment—were usually anticlericals. Lacking powerful established churches to resent, the United States proved much less fertile ground for atheism than did Europe, and agnosticism became the more common form of unbelief.

Agnosticism was entrenched in American culture by 1900, although the vast majority of Americans have continued to believe in God. Unbelief has probably remained chiefly an opinion of intellectual elites, especially academic ones. Unlike atheists, agnostics have rarely felt any need to institutionalize their views (the Ethical Culture movement was a rare exception, founded in 1876 by Felix Adler). To invent a structure to house a lack of beliefs perhaps seemed oxymoronic. Hence, agnosticism did not really evolve intellectually after establishing itself (except among academic philosophers) but rather in the twentieth century blended into low-key religious indifferentism.


Turner, James. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Un-belief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.


See alsoAtheism ; Science and Religion, Relations of .


views updated May 21 2018

Agnosticism (Gk., a + gnōstos, ‘not know’). A position distinguished from theism and atheism equally, by its view that neither in principle nor in fact is it possible to know God's nature or even whether he exists. In its broadest sense, agnosticism is compatible with deep religious commitment, as in the case of Nicholas of Cusa or of Henry Mansel (1820–71); in its narrower and more specific sense, however, it normally implies a certain detachment in matters religious. The term itself was coined by T. H. Huxley (1825–95), who defined its basic principles as repudiation of all metaphysical speculation and of most Christian doctrine as unproven or unprovable, and the application of scientific method to the study of all matters of fact and experience.


views updated Jun 08 2018

ag·nos·tic / agˈnästik/ • n. a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.• adj. of or relating to agnostics or agnosticism.DERIVATIVES: ag·nos·ti·cism / -təˌsizəm/ n.


views updated May 21 2018

agnosticism Philosophical viewpoint according to which it is impossible either to demonstrate or refute the existence of a supreme being or ultimate cause on the basis of available evidence. It was particularly associated with the rationalism of Thomas Huxley and is used as a reasoned basis for the rejection of both Christianity and atheism.


views updated May 21 2018

agnostic a person holding the view that nothing can be known of the existence of God or anything beyond material phenomena. The word is recorded from the mid 19th century, and comes from a- ‘not’ + gnostic ‘of or relating to knowledge’; it was coined by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95) to describe his own beliefs.