Understanding agnosticism

2003-10-25 22:22

Thomas Henry Huxley coined the word “agnostic”, describing it as follows:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as 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. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

It is widely assumed that this is incompatible with religious belief. Huxley himself made this assumption, however, it is not obvious at all. In fact, the “contradiction” stems from a hidden premise; that to believe something is to consider it certain. In fact, agnostic theism is perfectly reasonable; it is belief without the claims of certainty that are so popular in mainstream religions.

I’ve seen people argue at great length against this, but I think they do so mostly because it’s unsporting for theists to admit to the possibility that they are in error; it spoils many of the arguments against religion which first crop up in gradeschool, and to people who have never found any of the good arguments, this makes it very hard to argue at all.

Peter Seebach



  1. Send the boy to Hawaii for a week and all he does is think about TH Huxley.

    — seebs_lawyer · 2003-10-27 06:30 · #

  2. You were quite ahead of your time, seebs. I just read a blog post today by a Presbyterian minister who says that a Progressive Christian is an agnostic Christian. He only recently discovered the use of “agnostic” as an adjective.

    Of course I thought of you right away and decided to see if you had written about agnosticism in the past. 2003 is certainly the past.

    Here’s the blog, you may find it interesting. This guy is coming to terms with ideas you were writing about when I first met you online in 2004.



    — Janice Rael · 2015-01-16 09:32 · #