Collected Essays, vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition
Collected Essays, vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition
"Agnosticism and Christianity," from Collected Essays, vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition, available online from the Huxley File, http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn-X.html
Published in 1894 by D. Appleton and Company
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) was a biologist and one of the leading English intellectuals of the nineteenth century. A biologist is a scientist who studies plant and animal life in the environment. Huxley is perhaps best remembered in the twenty-first century for coining the terms agnostic and agnosticism. These terms have since been used to refer to uncertainty about the existence of gods, an afterlife, the soul, and similar religious concepts. For Huxley, however, the words had a more complex meaning. He outlined this meaning in his essay "Agnosticism and Christianity," written in 1889. Put simply, Huxley was not prepared to accept the existence of a creator-god who made the world in a period of "days."'
"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."
Agnosticism, for Huxley, was an intellectual position. It implied skepticism, meaning a refusal to take anything on faith without logical examination of evidence. He began to show his skepticism even as a child, when he recorded in his diary doubts and uncertainties about such matters as the soul, morality, and the church. The Huxley File Web site explains that, as a young adult, Huxley quoted approvingly in his diary the German poet and playwright Johann Goethe: "An active skepticism is that which unceasingly strives to overcome itself and by well-directed research to attain to a kind of conditional certainty." In other words, a skeptic is someone who tries to discover the truth through research. A skeptic also arrives at conditional certainty, meaning that his or her belief could change with new evidence.
As an adult, Huxley was an active participant in the debates that surrounded the appearance in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. This book introduced readers to the theory of natural selection. This theory states that animals on Earth, including humankind, slowly changed, or evolved, over time through a random process and that those who were the most fit adapted and survived, while the weak died out. Darwin's theory was controversial because it eliminated the need to believe in divine, or godlike, intervention to explain the emergence of different species of animals. Along with other nineteenth-century books about biology (the study of plant and animal life and their processes) and geology (the study of the history of Earth and its processes, mainly through the evidence of rocks), it shook the foundations of religious faith. It cast into doubt the traditional Judeo-Christian view of creation as described in the biblical book of Genesis, the view that God created Earth and all things on it. The theory of natural selection challenged this by proposing that living creatures changed randomly over time, influenced only by their environment.
Because of Darwin's works and the interpretations of scientists like Huxley, it seemed that nineteenth-century science was turning away from the concept of a creator-god or gods and seeing natural processes as the way in which the world and humankind came into being. The suggestion that humans may have evolved over time from apes into the beings they are today challenged the basic Judeo-Christian belief that God created humankind in His own image. Science seemed to be replacing the faith in creation.
At the height of Huxley's career, from the 1860s through the 1880s, the findings of modern science and the teachings of religion seemed to be at war with each other. Religion insisted that there was a creator-god. Science seemed to be denying that claim. Huxley was on the front lines of this war. As a strong supporter of Darwin he came to be called "Darwin's bulldog." In 1860 Huxley took part in a debate with the Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford University. Wilberforce, along with many members of the clergy, opposed Darwin's ideas. At one point he turned to Huxley and asked disapprovingly, "Is it on your grandfather's or your grandmother's side that you claim descent from a monkey?" Huxley gave an equally disapproving reply, scolding Wilberforce for interfering in scientific areas about which he knew little and distracting attention from the real issues of the debate.
In 1869 Huxley was invited to join a new group called the Metaphysical Society, created to discuss "metaphysical and theological matters in a scientific manner." Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, especially reality that cannot be perceived by the senses. At an early meeting of the group, each member was asked to state his religious or philosophical affiliation or membership. Huxley had none, so he replied "agnostic," the opposite of gnostic (one who claims to understand divine mysteries), and the word was born.
Agnosticism, as Huxley defined it, was a form of intellectual honesty, a demand for evidence and rational thought, a refusal to accept ideas on faith. Toward the end of "Agnosticism and Christianity," he summarized his position by saying that agnosticism "is not a creed 'statement of belief', but a method." He went on to say that at the basis of agnosticism is a single principle. That principle says that in intellectual matters, a person has to follow reason as far as it will go, "without regard to any other consideration." Another way of putting it is that a person should not say that conclusions about God are certain when they cannot be demonstrated. Huxley concluded, "That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole …, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him."
Huxley was not opposed to religion. As a member of London's board of education, for example, he proposed that students be required to read the Bible, the holy book of Christianity, for its moral and ethical instruction, as well as for its literary value. He did not reject the miracles recorded in the Bible; he asked whether evidence showed that they could have and did happen. He also had little use for atheists (those who did not believe in God), and he rejected charges that he was a "materialist," someone who believes only in the physical, material world and not in abstract concepts such as morality and ethics, or a code of principles. He did not oppose the study of theology as long as it was conducted in a scientific manner.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Collected Essays, vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition
- Huxley coined the word agnostic as the opposite of gnostic, or one who claims to understand divine mysteries.
- The definition of "agnosticism" is stated by Huxley "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." He does not say that he does not believe in God or religion. His point always was that the existence of God cannot be proved rationally.
- Huxley refers to a "metaphysical Nifel-heim" when he talks about the realm of spiritual matters where, over history one doctrine slays, or replaces, another. Nifelheim, often spelled Niflheim, refers to the outer region of cold and darkness in Norse mythology. It is the abode of Hel, the goddess of the dead. His allusion suggests that the realm of religion is a mysterious, frightening realm where belief systems come and go.
Huxley's Letter to Darwin
Huxley was immediately impressed with the views that Charles Darwin expressed in On the Origin of Species and wrote the following letter to him on November 23, 1859:
I finished your book yesterday…. No work on Natural History Science I have met with has made so great an impression on me & I do most heartily thank you for the great store of new views you have given me….
As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the stake if requisite [required]….
I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse & misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you…. And as to the curs [mongrels] which will bark and yelp—you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked [scolded] it) may stand you in good stead—
I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.
University of California Museum of Paleontology, "Thomas Henry Huxley," http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/thuxley.html.
Excerpt from Collected Essays, vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition
"Agnosticism and Christianity"
The present discussion has arisen out of the use, which has become general in the last few years, of the terms "Agnostic" and "Agnosticism." The people who call themselves "Agnostics" have been charged with doing so because they have not the courage to declare themselves "Infidels." It has been insinuated that they have adopted a new name in order to escape the unpleasantness which attaches to their proper denomination. To this wholly erroneous imputation, I have replied by showing that the term "Agnostic" did, as a matter of fact, arise in a manner which negatives it; and my statement has not been, and cannot be, refuted. Moreover, speaking for myself, and without impugning the right of any other person to use the term in another sense, I further say that Agnosticism is not properly described as a "negative" creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: 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. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism. That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions. The justification of the Agnostic principle lies in the success which follows upon its application, whether in the field of natural, or in that of civil, history; and in the fact that, so far as these topics are concerned, no sane man thinks of denying its validity.
Still speaking for myself, I add, that though Agnosticism is not, and cannot be, a creed, except in so far as its general principle is concerned; yet that the application of that principle results in the denial of, or the suspension of judgment concerning, a number of propositions respecting which our contemporary ecclesiastical "gnostics" profess entire certainty. And, in so far as these ecclesiastical persons can be justified in their old-established custom (which many nowadays think more honoured in the breach than the observance of using opprobrious names to those who differ from them, I fully admit their right to call me and those who think with me "Infidels"; all I have ventured to urge is that they must not expect us to speak of ourselves by that title.
The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as "unknowable." What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty—the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities—is far more extensive than I could wish. Materialism and Idealism; Theism and Atheism; the doctrine of the soul and its mortality or immortality appear in the history of philosophy like the shades of Scandinavian heroes, eternally slaying one another and eternally coming to life again in a metaphysical "Nifelheim. " It is getting on for twenty-five centuries, at least, since mankind began seriously to give their minds to these topics. Generation after generation, philosophy has been doomed to roll the stone uphill; and, just as all the world swore it was at the top, down it has rolled to the bottom again. All this is written in innumerable books; and he who will toil through them will discover that the stone is just where it was when the work began …. More and more eyes have been cleansed of the films which prevented them from seeing it; until now the weight and number of those who refuse to be the prey of verbal mystifications has begun to tell in practical life.
It was inevitable that a conflict should arise between Agnosticism and Theology; or rather, I ought to say, between Agnosticism and Ecclesias-ticism. For Theology, the science, is one thing; and Ecclesiasticism, the championship of a foregone conclusion as to the truth of a particular form of Theology, is another. With scientific Theology, Agnosticism has no quarrel. On the contrary, the Agnostic, knowing too well the influence of prejudice and idiosyncrasy, even on those who desire most earnestly to be impartial, can wish for nothing more urgently than that the scientific theologian should not only be at perfect liberty to thresh out the matter in his own fashion; but that he should, if he can, find flaws in the Agnostic position; and, even if demonstration is not to be had, that he should put, in their full force, the grounds of the conclusions he thinks probable. The scientific theologian admits the Agnostic principle, however widely his results may differ from those reached by the majority of Agnostics.
But, as between Agnosticism and Ecclesiasticism, or, as our neighbours across the Channel call it, Clericalism, there can be neither peace nor truce. The Cleric asserts that it is morally wrong not to believe certain propositions, whatever the results of a strict scientific investigation of the evidence of these propositions. He tells us "that religious error is, in itself, of an immoral nature." He declares that he has prejudged certain conclusions, and looks upon those who show cause for arrest of judgment as emissaries of Satan. It necessarily follows that, for him, the attainment of faith, not the ascertainment of truth, is the highest aim of mental life. And, on careful analysis of the nature of this faith, it will too often be found to be, not the mystic process of unity with the Divine, understood by the religious enthusiast; but that which the candid simplicity of a Sunday scholar once defined it to be. "Faith," said this unconscious plagiarist of Tertullian, "is the power of saying you believe things which are incredible."
Now I, and many other Agnostics, believe that faith, in this sense, is an abomination; and though we do not indulge in the luxury of self-righteousness so far as to call those who are not of our way of thinking hard names, we do feel that the disagreement between ourselves and those who hold this doctrine is even more moral than intellectual. It is desirable there should be an end of any mistakes on this topic. If our clerical opponents were clearly aware of the real state of the case, there would be an end of the curious delusion, which often appears between the lines of their writings, that those whom they are so fond of calling "Infidels" are people who not only ought to be, but in their hearts are, ashamed of themselves. It would be discourteous to do more than hint the antipodal opposition of this pleasant dream of theirs to facts.
The clerics and their lay allies commonly tell us, that if we refuse to admit that there is good ground for expressing definite convictions about certain topics, the bonds of human society will dissolve and mankind lapse into savagery. There are several answers to this assertion. One is that the bonds of human society were formed without the aid of their theology; and, in the opinion of not a few competent judges, have been weakened rather than strengthened by a good deal of it. Greek science, Greek art, the ethics of old Israel, the social organisation of old Rome, contrived to come into being, without the help of any one who believed in a single distinctive article of the simplest of the Christian creeds. The science, the art, the jurisprudence, the chief political and social theories, of the modern world have grown out of those of Greece and Rome—not by favour of, but in the teeth of, the fundamental teachings of early Christianity, to which science, art, and any serious occupation with the things of this world, were alike despicable.
Again, all that is best in the ethics of the modern world, in so far as it has not grown out of Greek thought, or Barbarian manhood, is the direct development of the ethics of old Israel. There is no code of legislation, ancient or modern, at once so just and so merciful, so tender to the weak and poor, as the Jewish law; and, if the Gospels are to be trusted, Jesus of Nazareth himself declared that he taught nothing but that which lay implicitly, or explicitly, in the religious and ethical system of his people….
I trust that I have now made amends for any ambiguity, or want of fulness, in my previous exposition of that which I hold to be the essence of the Agnostic doctrine. Henceforward, I might hope to hear no more of the assertion that we are necessarily Materialists, Idealists, Atheists, Theists, or any other ists, if experience had led me to think that the proved falsity of a statement was any guarantee against its repetition. And those who appreciate the nature of our position will see, at once, that when Ecclesiasticism declares that we ought to believe this, that, and the other, and are very wicked if we don't, it is impossible for us to give any answer but this: We have not the slightest objection to believe anything you like, if you will give us good grounds for belief; but, if you cannot, we must respectfully refuse, even if that refusal should wreck morality and insure our own damnation several times over. We are quite content to leave that to the decision of the future. The course of the past has impressed us with the firm conviction that no good ever comes of falsehood, and we feel warranted in refusing even to experiment in that direction.
What happened next …
Huxley was pleased that his invention of the term agnostic took hold and was used by others. The word appeared in print in a journal the same year he first used it (1869), and numerous writers used it in their books and essays.
In his 1879 autobiography Darwin himself described himself as an agnostic. In the twentieth century one of the most prominent persons to carry on the agnostic tradition in England was the philosopher Ber-trand Russell (1872–1970). He outlined his position in a 1927 pamphlet called Why I Am Not a Christian, a 1947 pamphlet called Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas, and a 1953 essay entitled "What Is an Agnostic?"
Agnosticism is now used to describe a series of related beliefs. While agnosticism still is used to describe a state between belief and disbelief, modern thinkers blur the distinctions that Huxley tried to make between agnosticism, atheism, and other forms of questioning dogmatic beliefs.
Did you know …
- Agnosticism was a logical consequence of the development of the scientific method, the set of principles and procedures scientists follow to increase knowledge, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One example of the newfound reliance on the methods of science was the philosophical movement called Positivism. Positivism was an effort to apply the methods of science not just to the study of physical matter but to social and historical problems as well.
- Huxley was a well-known biologist. He was the first to propose that birds evolved from dinosaurs and was England's leading expert on reptile fossils.
- Huxley's grandson was Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), the British author of Brave New World, a 1932 novel about the dehumanizing effects of scientific progress.
Consider the following …
- Explain the difference between agnosticism and atheism. Respond to the belief that agnostics are really atheists but do not want to admit it.
- How would Huxley respond to the idea that science and religion are always going to be in conflict with one another?
- Explain what Huxley meant when he wrote that "agnosticism is not a creed but a method."
For More Information
Flint, Robert. Agnosticism. Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2004.
Huxley, Thomas. "Agnosticism and Christianity" In Collected Essays, vol. 5, Science and Christian Tradition. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1894. This excerpt can also be found online at http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn-X.html.
Huxley, Thomas. Collected Essays of Thomas Huxley: Science and Christian Tradition Part Five. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
Nielsen, Kai. "Agnosticism." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 2003. This article can also be found online at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv1-03.
White, Paul. Thomas Huxley: Making the "Man of Science." Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Blinderman, Charles, and David Joyce, "Verbal Delusions: The Bible." The Huxley File. http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/guide15.html (accessed on June 5, 2006).
Smart, J. J. C. "Atheism and Agnosticism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism (accessed on June 5, 2006).
Infidels: People with no religious beliefs.
Denomination: Identifying term by which someone is classified.
Erroneous imputation: Incorrect attribution or suggestion, often offensive or insulting.
Negatives: Shows to be false.
Refuted: Proved incorrect.
Creed: System of beliefs or principles.
Profession: A statement of opinion.
Justification: A defense, a statement in explanation.
Ecclesiastical: Associated with a church.
More honoured in the breach than the observance: Widely ignored.
Opprobrious: Scornful, critical.
Faculties: Powers of perception or understanding.
Theism: Belief in the existence of a god.
Nifelheim, or Niflheim: The home of the dead in Norse mythology.
Tell: Become apparent.
Theology: The study of religion and religious truth.
Ecclesiasticism: Excessive devotion to church practices.
Idiosyncrasy: A quirk, a way of thinking or behaving that is particular to a person.
Impartial: Neutral, not having an opinion for or against something.
Arrest: Holding off, slowing down.
Ascertainment: Discovering with certainty.
Enthusiast: Strong supporter.
Plagiarist: A person who uses another's ideas as his or her own.
Tertullian: An early Christian church leader (c. 155–230).
Abomination: Something that is unbearable and without acceptance.
Indulge: Give oneself freely to, allow free rein.
Delusion: A mistaken belief.
Antipodal: Directly contrasting or conflicting.
Lay: Not belonging to the clergy.
Contrived: Labored or struggled.
Distinctive: Helping to distinguish, or tell apart, one thing from another.
Jurisprudence: A branch of philosophy that has to do with the law.
In the teeth of: Despite or in defiance of.
Despicable: Offensive, repulsive.
Implicitly: Understood without being stated outright.
Explicitly: Clearly expressed or stated.
Doctrine: A set of guidelines or beliefs.
Henceforward: From now on.
Materialists: Those who value money and possessions or who believe that the physical world is the only one there is.
Idealists: Those who live by high standards or believe that the material world does not exist on its own, apart from the mind, or consciousness, of persons who live in the world.
Conviction: Firmly held belief.