Read SUBSTITUTES FOR ATHEISM: CHAPTER XIII of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on ReadCentral.com.

AGNOSTICISM.

The primary difficulty in dealing with Agnosticism is its elusive character. It is a word of various and vague meanings, and many of those who use it seem to have no great anxiety to fix its meaning with any degree of precision. It is used now in a philosophic and now in a religious sense, and its use in the one connection is justified by its use in another. It has become, in the half century of its existence, as indefinite as “religion,” and about as enlightening. On the one side it appears as a counsel of mental integrity with which everyone will agree, and on the other, the religious side, it will vary from a form that is identical, with that much-dreaded “Atheism,” to a religious or “reverent” Agnosticism that reminds one mentally and morally of Methodism minus its creed. Indeed, to say that a man is an Agnostic nowadays tells one no more than calling a man religious indicates to which one of the world’s sects he gives his adherence.

The only aspect of Agnosticism that we are here vitally concerned with is its relation to religion, or specifically with the god-idea. But it will be necessary to say a word, in passing, on at least one other phase.

And first as to the origin of the term. The credit for the first use of the term has always been given to the late Professor Huxley. Mr. R. H. Hutton says that Huxley first suggested the word at a meeting of friends in the house of Mr. James Knowles in 1869. Professor Huxley says that he deliberately adopted it because, “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, a 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.... So I took thought and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic.’” And he goes on to explain that the term was used as antithetical to the “gnostic” of Church history who knew all about things of which Huxley felt himself in ignorance. To all of which one may say that Huxley appears to have given himself a lot of needless trouble. In philosophy there was the term “Sceptic,” and in relation to religion the term “Atheist” was ready to hand. The latter term certainly covered all that Huxley meant by Agnosticism as applied to the god-idea. The plain, and perhaps brutal truth, is that Huxley was just illustrating the fatal tendency of English public men to seek for a label that will mark them off from an unfashionable heresy even more clearly than it separates them from a crumbling orthodoxy. It is certainly suggestive to find, in this connection, a French writer of distinction, M. Emile Boutmy, pointing out that in France, Spencer, Mill, and Huxley would all have been professed atheists. (The English People, .) But France is France, and has always possessed the courage to follow ideas to their logical conclusion.

When it comes to a definition of Agnosticism Professor Huxley’s position becomes still more difficult of understanding. Agnosticism, he says, is a method the essence of which may be expressed in a single principle. “Positively the principle may be expressed; in matters of the intellect follow your reason so far as it will take you without regard to any other consideration. And negatively; in matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” So far as this goes we have here perfectly sound advice. But why call it Agnosticism? It is no more than the perfectly sound advice that we must be honest in our investigations, and make no claim to certainty where the conditions of certainty do not exist. But we have no more right to call this Agnosticism than we have to give the multiplication table a sectarian or party label.

Nor do we believe for a moment that what Huxley had in view, or what other agnostics have in view, is no more than a counsel of intellectual perfection. What is really at issue here is one’s attitude of mind in relation to the belief in God. It is in pretending to know about God that the theist finds himself at issue with the Agnostic, and it is to mark himself off from the theist that the Agnostic gives himself a special label. And the trouble of the Agnostic is that so soon as he begins to justify his position, either he states the atheistic case or he fails altogether to make his case good.

There is, perhaps, one other topic on which agnosticism may be professed, and that is in connection with the question of what is known as the problem of existence. We may profess our belief in the reality of an external world, but deny that any knowledge of it is possible. Here we assert that what “substance,” or “reality,” or “thing in itself,” is we do not know and cannot know. But while many attempts are made under the name of “the Absolute,” etc., to identify this with “God,” it is really nothing of the kind. The belief or disbelief in an external “reality” is a problem in philosophy, it has no genuine connection with theology. To identify the two is a mere dialectical subterfuge. Mere existence is an ultimate fact that must be accepted by all. It is only on the question of its nature that controversy can arise.

Whatever may be claimed on behalf of Agnosticism, it certainly cannot be claimed that it carries a clear and a definite meaning. As we have seen, Professor Huxley used the word to indicate the fact that he was without knowledge of certain things. But what things? To answer that we have to go beyond the word itself that is, we have to define the definition. As it stands we may profess agnosticism in relation to anything from the prospects of a general election within a given period to the question of whether Mars is inhabited or not. If, then, it is said that what is implied is that the Agnostic is without a knowledge of God, or without a belief in God, the reply is that is exactly the position of the Atheist. And there was no need whatever to coin a new word, if all that was wanted was to express the atheistic position. Still less justifiable was it to proceed to misinterpret Atheism in order to justify a departure that need never have been made.

One cannot at this point forbear a word on Mr. afterwards Sir Leslie Stephen’s curious justification of his choice of the word Agnosticism. After the enlightening remark that the word “Atheist” carries with it an unpleasant connotation, he says:

Dogmatic Atheism the doctrine that there is no God, whatever may be meant by God is to say the least of it a rare phase of opinion. The word Agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to imply a fairly accurate appreciation of a form of creed already common and daily spreading. The Agnostic is one who asserts what no one denies that there are limits to human intelligence. (An Agnostic’s Apology; .

And he then goes on to assert that the subject matter of theology lies beyond these limits.

Now putting on one side this perversion of the meaning of Atheism, was it really worth while to coin a new word to affirm what no one denies? Theists do not deny the limitations of knowledge, on the contrary, they are always affirming it. Neither do all theists deny that “God” is unknowable. That has been affirmed by them over and over again. What they have claimed is that “God” is apprehended rather than known, and they affirm his existence on much the same grounds that others assert the real existence of an external world. Professor Flint’s comments on Stephen’s performance are quite to the point, and the more noteworthy as coming from a clergyman. He says:

The word Atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less. It implies neither blame nor approval, neither desert of punishment nor of reward. If a purely dogmatic Atheism be a rare phase of opinion critical Atheism is a very common one, and there is also a form of Atheism which is professedly sceptical or agnostic, but often in reality dogmatic or gnostic. (Agnosticism; .

The more carefully one examines the reasons given for the preference for the word Agnosticism, the clearer it becomes that the real motive is not the wish to obtain mental clarity, but the desire to avoid association with a term that carries, religiously, disagreeable associations. The care taken by so many who call themselves Agnostics to explain to the religious world that they are not atheists, is almost enough to prove this. Indeed, the position is well summed up by Mr. John M. Robertson:

The best argument for the use of the name Agnostic is simply that the word Atheist has been so long covered with all manner of ignorant calumny that it is expedient to use a new term which though in some respects faulty, has a fair start, and will in time have a recognised meaning. The case, so stated, is reasonable; but there is the per contra that whatever the motive with which the name is used, it is now tacked to half a dozen conflicting forms of doctrine, varying loosely between Theism and Pantheism. The name of Atheist escapes that drawback. Its unpopularity has saved it from half-hearted and half-minded patronage.

So that, on the best showing, we are to take “Agnostic” on the professed ground that it is more exact than “Atheism,” but on the real ground that it is less unpopular, waiting meanwhile for the time when it shall have become more exact than it is by becoming accepted in the same sense as the Atheism that has previously been rejected. Courage and straightforwardness saves a lot of trouble.

Mr. Bailey Saunders (Quest of Faith, calls agnosticism “a plea on behalf of suspended judgment,” and this is a favourite expression. It gives one an air of impartiality, with the comforting reflection that it will please the socially stronger side. But suspended judgment on what? To hold one’s judgment in suspense implies that we have at least a workable comprehension of the subject in dispute, and that judgment is suspended because the evidence produced is not adequate to command decision. But is that the case here? Does the Agnostic claim that the evidence produced by the theist is merely inadequate, or that it is irrelevant? Surely he holds the latter position. And if that is the case, then he does not suspend judgment, for the simple reason that there is no case made out concerning which judgment is to be suspended. There is simply no case before the court. For the Agnostic, no more than the Atheist, can attach no intelligible meaning to “God.” He must have it defined to understand it, and when it is defined he rejects it without ceremony. And it is quite obvious that when an Agnostic says, “I know nothing about God,” he means more than that; otherwise it would not be worth the saying. He really means that no one else knows either. He asserts that a knowledge of god is impossible to anyone, because it does not present the possibility of being known. “God,” standing alone is a meaningless word, and how can one suspend judgment concerning the truth of an unintelligible proposition?

For here are the plain facts of the situation. If we ask the Agnostic whether he suspends judgment concerning the existence of the gods of any savage peoples, the reply is in the negative. If we put the same question concerning the god of the Bible, or of the Mohammedan, or of any other of the world’s theologies we receive the same answer. There is nothing here to suspend judgment about, the characters and qualities of the gods being such that there admits of no doubt as to their imaginary character. Or if it is said that the Agnostic, while dismissing the gods of the various theologies, savage and civilised, as being impossible, suspends judgment as to the existence of a “supreme mind,” or of a “creative intelligence,” the reply is that one cannot suspend judgment as to the possible existence of an inconceivability. For “mind” must be mind, as we know it. And it is a downright absurdity to speak of the possible existence of a “mind” while divesting it of all the qualities that characterise mind as we know it. Really between the statement that A. does not exist, and the affirmation that A. does exist, but differs in every conceivable particular from all known A.’s there is no difference whatever. We are denying its existence in the very act of affirming it.

Further, we quite agree with Mr. F. C. S. Schiller (Riddles of the Sphinx, p. 17-19) that in practice such suspense of judgment is impossible. We suspend our judgment as to whether we shall die to-morrow or at some indefinite future date, and for that reason we make our arrangements in view of either contingency. We suspend judgment as to the honesty of an employee, and our attitude towards him is governed by that fact. And so with the question of a god. In one way or another we are bound to indicate our judgment on the subject. We must act either as though we believe in the possibility or in the impossibility of “divine” interference. If the mental hesitancy of the respectable Agnostic were accompanied by a corresponding timidity in action life would be impossible.

A less common plea on behalf of Agnosticism, but one on which a word must be said, is that the agnostic attitude is more “reverential” than that of atheism. But why in the name of all that is reasonable should one profess reverence towards something of which one knows nothing? Reverence, to be intelligible, must be directed towards an intelligent object, and we must have grounds for believing it to be worthy of reverence. Reverence towards our fellow creatures is a reasonable enough sentiment, but what is there reasonable in an expression of reverence towards something that can only be thought of and even this is unwarranted as a force? The truth is that this expression of reverence is no more than the flickering survival of religion. Numbers have reached the stage at which they can perceive the unreasonable nature of religious beliefs, but they have not yet managed to achieve liberation from the traditional emotional attitude towards these beliefs. In other words, the development of the emotional and the intellectual sides of their nature have been unequal, and for these the “Unknowable” has simply served as a peg on which to hang religious feelings that have been robbed of all intellectual support. The semi-religious Agnostic thus represents a transition form, interesting enough to all who observe how curiously decaying types strive to perpetuate themselves, but which is bound to disappear in the process of intellectual evolution.

Finally, one would like from the Agnostic some authoritative announcement as to his position in relation to what is known concerning the origin of the god-idea. So far as professed theists are concerned one expects this to be ignored. On the part of non-theists one expects a more logical attitude. In this case it is common ground with the Atheist and the Agnostic that the idea of god owes its beginnings to the ignorance of primitive man. We know the facts on which this idea was based, and we know that all these are now differently explained. The belief that there is a god governing nature is just one of those blunders made by primitive man, and is on all fours with the numerous other blunders he makes concerning himself and the world around him. Knowing this, and accepting this, believing that “god” springs from the same set of conditions that gave rise to fairies and spirits of various kinds, one would like to know on what ground the Agnostic definitely rejects the grounds on which the idea of god is based, while professing a state of suspended judgment about the existence of the object created by this primitive blunder. It is certainly surprising to find those who accept the natural origin of the god-idea, when they come to deal with current religion talk as though it were merely a question of the inconclusiveness of religious arguments. It is nothing of the kind. The final reply to the arguments set forth on behalf of Theism is, not that they are inconclusive, but that they are absolutely irrelevant to the question at issue. We cannot remain undecided because there is nothing to remain undecided about. We know that the idea of god is pure myth, and was never anything but myth. A belief that began in error, and which has no other basis than error, cannot by any possible argument be converted into a truth. The old question was, “Can man by searching find out God?” The modern answer is an emphatic affirmative. Substantially we have by searching found out God. We know the origin and history of one of the greatest delusions that ever possessed the human mind. God has been found out. Analytically and synthetically we understand the god-idea as previous generations could not understand it. It has been explained; and the logical consequence of the explanation is Atheism.

Ultimately, then, we come to this: (1) The Agnosticism that concerns itself with a confession of ignorance concerning the nature of “existence,” has no necessary connection with religion, and is only made to have such by a confusion of two distinct things. (2) The plea of a suspended judgment is invalid, since there is nothing about which one can suspend a decision. (3) The Agnosticism that professes a semi-religious feeling of reverence towards the “Unknowable” is fundamentally upon all fours with the religious feelings of the ordinary believer. Worshipping the Unknowable is more ridiculous than worshipping Huxley’s “wilderness of apes.” The apes might take some intelligent interest in the antics of their devotees; but to print our hypostatised ignorance in capital letters and then profess a feeling of veneration for it is as ridiculous a proceeding as the world has seen. After all, an absurdity is never quite so grotesque as when it is tricked out in scientific phrases and paraded as the outcome of profound philosophic thinking. (4) The only Agnosticism that seems capable of justifying itself is an Agnosticism that is indistinguishable from Atheism. To again cite Professor Flint, Atheist “means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less.” The Agnostic is also one who is without belief in a god, every argument he uses to justify his position is and has been used as a justification of Atheism. Atheist is really “a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term,” it admits of no paltering and of no evasion, and the need of the world, now as ever, is for clear-cut issues and unambiguous speech.