The History of Agnosticism

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism

The History of Agnosticism

The intellectual father of agnosticism is the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 481-411 bce), considered to be the “most gifted and original brain among the sophists.”[159] He is supposed to have written a book “On the Gods” as a result of which he was prosecuted for blasphemy.[160] Protagoras is well-known for the sentence “man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that are not that they are not.”[161] He regarded all morals and laws as only relatively valid, and binding only in the human community which formulated them.[162] According to Protagoras there is no absolute religion, no absolute morality, and no absolute justice. His agnosticism appears in his conviction that certain matters are too lofty for human beings to form a valid opinion about.[163] The agnostic attitude is well illustrated by another of Protagoras’ sayings:

I am unable to reach knowledge about the gods, either that they exist, or do not exist, or of their essential nature. Among the many factors which prevent me from knowing are the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.[164]

Like agnosticism, atheism was also a well-known position in antiquity. Atheism was associated with Diagoras of Melos. He was surnamed “the godless” and convicted on a charge of impiety. The arguments that Diagoras used are unknown.

Other classical philosophers standing in the agnostic or atheist tradition are Prodicus of Ceos (dates uncertain) and the Athenian Critias (c. 460-403 bce). In one of his plays Critias made a character argue that the notion of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity was simply a fiction invented by some clever statesman to put the fear of god into wrong-doers.[165]

Because we do not have more than fragments from the pre-Socratic philosophers we can only guess what they thought exactly. Did Protagoras, for instance, referring to the “shortness of human life,” think that if human life would have been longer or even infinite we would be able to acquire more knowledge about the gods? If that were the case, this would presuppose that in this life we are able to gather at least some information about the nature of the gods. And if this is possible it might follow that we could bequeath this information to succeeding generations. So why should not our knowledge of the gods grow, just as scientific knowledge grows? Or is the agnostic doomed to be and stay “agnostic”?

Although this remark by Protagoras about the shortness of human life frustrating our knowledge of the gods is intriguing, most self-confessed agnostics seem to consider their agnosticism to be something that is founded in the limited capacity of the human mind. Man is inherently unable to gauge the depth of the divine mind.

The Oxford philosopher Anthony Kenny (1931- ) discusses agnosticism in his autobiography A Life in Oxford. He comments on the work of the poet Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861). Clough was an agnostic poet struggling with language to say something about God in his poetry. In a poem from 1851, “Hymnos, Aumnos” (“a hymn, yet not a hymn”), Clough started with the statement that we should search for God in the inner dimension of our soul. But we should never presume that we can gauge his qualities.

O thou, in that mysterious shrine
Enthroned, as we must say, divine!
I will not frame one thought of what
Thou mayest either be or not.
I will not prate of “thus” and “so”
And be profane with “yes” and “no.”
Enough that in our soul and heart
Thou, whatso’er thou may’st be, art.

This is the agnostic position as formulated by a poet. Kenny, who wrote a monograph on Clough, characterizes agnosticism as follows: “Not only can we not say of God what he is, we are equally impotent to say what he is not.”[166]

Kenny and Clough fail to notice, however, that presupposed in this question are at least two – highly controversial – characteristics. Apparently God is a “he” (so male) and a “person.” But the question arises, what exactly is the difference between agnosticism and atheism for practical purposes? Does the agnostic “sometimes pray,” for instance? Just to be sure?

Huxley and Russell

It was T.H. Huxley (1825-1895) who actually coined the term “agnosticism.” He may be familiar to the public at large nowadays as the grandfather of the novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and the biologist and broadcaster Julian Huxley (1887-1975). “T.H.” was an important character in nineteenth-century Britain, engaged in the struggle for the supremacy of the evolutionist point of view (which brought him the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog”).[167] But a third contribution “T.H.” made to Western cultural heritage is less well known. He was the father of “agnosticism.”

Huxley coined the concept in 1869. He used it to designate his own stance toward knowledge of the transcendental realm. Huxley said: “Agnosticism is not a creed but a method.” The essence of this method was characterized as follows: it is “the vigorous application of a single principle.” This principle has a positive and a negative side. “Positively,” Huxley said, “the principle may be expressed in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can take you without other considerations.” And negatively: “do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”[168]

Twenty years later he characterized agnosticism in more or less the same way in his essay Agnosticism and Christianity (1889). He wrote: “That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and, in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism.”

As I have said, agnosticism is widely popular nowadays. It can boast great adherence in intellectual circles. About the cause of this popularity one can only speculate. Perhaps agnosticism is considered attractive because it scorns dogmatism. Agnosticism has an air of liberal-mindedness, of tolerance about it.

Agnosticism also exerted a great attraction on one of the most anticlerical minds of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell. In his long life, which encompassed almost a century (1872-1970), Russell wrote many articles on religious matters. His discussion with Father Copleston (1907-1994), author of a monumental History of Philosophy, on the BBC in 1948 is well known. His essay Why I am not a Christian (1927), published twenty years earlier, also caused much controversy. Russell gained the reputation of a freethinker and an atheist mainly on the basis of these two publications.[169] But although he wrote disparagingly about God, he did not adopt the term “atheist” to designate his own position. Russell called himself an “agnostic.”[170]

In 1953 he gave a clear indication of what he thought was the essence of the agnostic position. He responded to the question of whether an agnostic was an atheist, and said: “No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds for affirmation or for denial.”[171]

From these words it appears that Russell and Huxley were in agreement. Theism and atheism are rejected for the same reasons. Theists and atheists alike pretend to have knowledge about matters one cannot have knowledge of.

It is clear that when two of the most critical minds in the history of freethought – or what is presented here as the secular outlook – prefer the position of the agnostic above that of the atheist, this is cause for serious concern. Agnosticism has always attracted people who scorn the straightforwardness of the atheist position.

Paradoxically, this can again be the basis for a reaffirmation of the theistic position on professed pragmatic grounds. A notorious argument in this direction was presented by the great French seventeenth-century thinker Blaise Pascal.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal (1623-1662) was many things: a brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and scientist, but also a Christian apologist. Mathematicians recognize him as the inventor of Pascal’s Triangle and the calculating machine. Physicists and historians of science acknowledge his pioneering work on the vacuum. In his Provincial Letters (1657) we get to know him as a brilliant theological polemicist.[172] The word “Jesuitical” owes its pejorative sense to Pascal’s satirical attack on the Society of Jesus.[173] Here I only want to address his ideas on the existence of God. A striking feature of the argument developed in his Pensées [Thoughts] (1669)[174] is that, just like Huxley and Russell, Pascal denied that we can know for certain whether God exists or not. That does not lead to a position of permanent agnosticism, however, because, he argued, we should bet on God.

Pascal’s argument is included in almost every anthology of the philosophy of religion.[175] It is designated as “The Wager.”

Somewhat shortened it can be presented thus. According to Pascal, we can never know for certain whether God exists or not.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.

So far Pascal seems inclined towards agnosticism, just like Huxley and Russell. But his argument takes a different turn when he introduces the idea that we have to wager. We cannot avoid the choice for or against God. “We are embarked,” Pascal wrote. In this situation the choice for God is the most reasonable. Because what do we have to lose and what do we have to gain in making a choice for God? If we gain, we gain all. If we lose, we lose nothing.

Is Pascal convincing? This argument, it would seem, could be contested on several grounds. Many people will retort that we cannot simply start believing – on command – and merely because this will have favorable consequences. Either you believe or you do not. Belief can be compared with love. You cannot love someone because this would have favorable results. Love, like the choice for God, is not possible on the basis of a utilitarian calculus.

Another criticism of Pascal’s idea focuses on the moral viability of his pragmatic approach. This matter has also been discussed with regard to the question of whether religious belief is useful for upholding the moral order. We find this in the following contention by Richard Neuhaus (1936-2009): “Religious belief was seen as reinforcement, a backstop, if you will, to the public ethic. Religion, especially in its insistence upon ultimate rewards and punishments, was the motivating force for good behavior.”[176] Shouldn’t this be an important argument for accepting religious belief?

This is Richard Robinson’s answer to this question. After dissecting the proposition that religion is an important reason for moral behavior, Robinson treats the question of whether religion can be a cause that does in fact make people obey moral laws. His answer is straightforwardly this:

The first and most important point to make about this proposition is that, whether it is true or false, to use it as an argument in favor of religious belief is a disgraceful thing to do. To do that is to commit the pragmatic dishonesty of arguing that a creed is true because it is useful that people should believe it. I know that this argument is used extremely frequently, and in the most respected quarters. Nevertheless, it is self evidently null both in logical effectiveness and in common decency.[177]

In short: “To preach a false doctrine, or to preach a doctrine without considering whether it is false or true, is base and beneath human dignity.”[178]

But let us leave these moral objections for a moment and concentrate on the question of whether Pascal’s argument is convincing purely on a factual basis. According to Pascal, we miss out on something that we would otherwise acquire: eternal happiness. The idea is familiar. He who believes in God (and makes the right choice) will earn heaven. He who does not believe (and makes the wrong choice) will be punished.

Like many modern believers, Pascal did not much emphasize the last aspect. He avoided speaking about the bad news and concentrated on the good news. But it is clear that as important a religious authority as Jesus Christ pointed out the punishments for those who do not believe. Nonbelievers will be thrown “into the furnace of fire” where “men will weep and gnash their teeth,” just as “the weeds are gathered and burned with fire” (Matthew 13:40-42). For Ezekiel, the people of Jerusalem had brought their destruction and exile upon themselves by profaning the temple of the Lord, and failing to live up to their obligations as God’s people.[179] Under these circumstances the choice for God seems reasonable.

Yet there is a fundamental flaw in Pascal’s Wager that was not very obvious in his time, but invalidates his argument in ours. The problem with Pascal’s argument is that he only includes the Christian God in his wager. This may have been comprehensible and excusable in the seventeenth century, but in the twentieth century it is not. We live, in contrast to Pascal, in a religiously pluralistic society. Many gods compete for our attention. We not only have to wager for or against the Christian God, but we have knowledge of the gods of the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, the Huns, the Hindus, the Muslims, and all kinds of new gods.

When we further speculate about the character of these gods, we might perhaps presume that the other gods, just like the theist god, are jealous and in a state of competition with their divine rivals.

Under these circumstances betting on one specific god is tricky business. First, we do not have a 50% chance of making the right choice, but a much lower percentage. And second, the wrong choice may cause heavy penalties from the gods who are offended by our wrong choice. (Perhaps Pascal currently lives in the hereafter as a Christian Prometheus, being eternally punished by the gods of the Vikings for the wrong choice he made.)

So what would be the most reasonable choice under the circumstance of religious pluralism? It seems to me, the most reasonable choice would be not betting on any god at all. And would that not bring us close to “atheism” in the sense outlined before? That is the concept of “negative atheism” as defended by Ernest Nagel, Charles Bradlaugh, and other authors. The atheist in that sense does not prove that God does not exist but simply does not engage in believing in Him because the evidence is not convincing.

Pascal’s Insight

So far, I have been critical of Pascal’s argument as developed in his Wager. I have also dwelled on Pascal’s mistake in neglecting the non-Christian religions. But there is something appealing about his approach as well, and this point has great relevance for the viability of agnosticism. The strong point in the argument of Pascal’s Wager is that we cannot suspend judgment on the transcendental realm. “Il faut parier” – we have to bet, Pascal wrote. This “we have to” can be seen as an exhortation to bet, but also as the proclamation of the inevitability of a choice.

That last element is the one that is most important to emphasize. As living beings, acting in this world, we all make choices, every day, every moment. We either pray or we do not. We either thank God for our dinner or we do not. We either listen to his moral councils or we do not. We either give sense to life by reference to the religious tradition or we find meaning in life without recourse to the religious dimension. We simply cannot avoid these choices. What we can do, is say that we suspend judgment. But every time that we do not pray, do not give thanks for our dinner, we make a choice. So every human being is a living manifesto of what he or she believes in or not. This is the first dimension of “we have to choose.” It is for this reason that I concluded the section on the history of agnosticism with the question: does the agnostic pray sometimes? Choosing is inevitable and is what we actually do.

But Pascal’s Wager also (and perhaps mainly) stresses that we should make the choice consciously. Make the leap. Take your stance deliberately. Of course, for Pascal this was an exhortation to make the theistic choice. But what he says about the choice for God and therefore for theism can also be employed for the atheistic choice. Live consciously and rationally “for the unexamined life is not worth living for men,” as Socrates told us.[180] Try to give a justification, as well as you can, for the choices you implicitly make, every day, every hour.

This is what both theists and atheists do. Theists try to explain why they believe in God, atheists try to explain why they do not believe in God. Between theism and atheism there is – given the fact that we have to act – no middle ground, at least not an attractive intermediary position, so it seems to me.

The agnostic says he suspends judgment while in every act he chooses in favor of or against God. As Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (1864-1937) says: “the emotional value of ‘no answer’ is equivalent to an answer in the negative.”[181] So the agnostic can be adequately defined as the man “who does not know,” but his lack of knowledge is not some superior position that goes back to the docta ignorantia of Socrates (470-399 bce) or Montaigne (1533-1592), but the ignorance of someone who is unable or unwilling to take intellectual responsibility for a philosophical outlook that he honors in his deeds. There surely is some ignorance here. But this is not ignorance of a sophisticated kind, as the agnostic himself considers it to be. This is the ignorance of the unexamined life. As the nineteenth-century lawyer and public intellectual Frederic Harrison (1831-1923) writes in his critique of agnosticism: what the religion of the agnostic comes to is “the belief that there is a sort of something, about which we can know nothing.”[182] Agnosticism is not a religion, nor the shadow of a religion; it is “the mere disembodied spirit of dead religion,” so Harrison writes in criticizing the work of some nineteenth-century agnostics who wanted to present agnosticism as a remplaçant for traditional religion.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

[158] Mavrodes, George I., “Atheism and Agnosticism,” in: Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford New York 1995, pp. 63.

[159] Zeller, Eduard, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, thirteenth edition, revised by Wilhelm Nestle, Dover Publications, New York 1980 (1883), p. 81.

[160] Ibid. Although this may be apocryphal, see: Dillon, John, and Gergel, Tania, eds., The Greek Sophists, Penguin Books, London 2003, p. 2.

[161] See: Dillon and Gergel, The Greek Sophists, p. 13.

[162] Plato, Theaetetus, 167c, in: Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1997, p. 186.

[163] Luce, J.V., An Introduction to Greek Philosophy, Thames and Hudson, London 1992, p. 82.

[164] Quoted ibid., p. 82.

[165] See: ibid., p. 85.

[166] Kenny, Anthony, A Life in Oxford, John Murray, London 1997, p. 230.

[167] Desmond, Adrian, Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest, Helix Books, Reading, MA 1994, pp. 195 ff. Karen Armstrong calls Huxley a “crusader.” See: Armstrong, Karen, A Short History of Myth, Canongate, Edinburgh 2005, p. 132.

[168] Agnosticism (1869) is included in: Huxley, Thomas Henry, Agnosticism and Christianity and other Essays, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1992. Commentaries on Huxley in: Pyle, Andrew, ed., Agnosticism. Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1995. Huxley’s Agnosticism is also included in: Stein, Gordon, ed., An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1980. On agnosticism see further: Stein, Gordon, “Agnosticism,” in: Gordon Stein, ed., The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Vol. I, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1985, pp. 3-4 and the excellent introduction by Pyle to the volume mentioned before.

[169] See: Copleston, F.C., A History of Philosophy, Vol. VIII, Part II, Image Books Edition, New York 1967, p. 241: “Technically speaking … he is an agnostic. At the same time he does not believe that there is any real evidence for the existence of God” and Berman, David, A History of Atheism in Britain. From Hobbes to Russell, Routledge, London 1988, p. 230: “For many people Bertrand Russell is the most formidable British atheist, if not the atheist.” But, so Berman writes, Russell’s criticism on religious matters is not “straightforwardly atheistic.”

[170] On the question of what his religion was, Russell answered: “I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist.” See: Russell, Bertrand, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, ed. Al Seckel, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1986, p. 85.

[171] Ibid., p. 73.

[172] Pascal, Blaise, The Provincial Letters, 1657, translated with an introduction by A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1982 (1967).

[173] Hammond, Nicholas, “Introduction,” in: Nicholas Hammond, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Pascal, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, pp. 1-3, p. 1.

[174] Published posthumously. See: Pascal, Blaise, Pensées, 1669, translated by A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin Books, London 1966.

[175] Pascal, “The Wager,” in: Louis Pojman, ed., Philosophy of Religion. An Anthology, Wadworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA 1994, pp. 420-422; Pascal, “The Wager,” in: Michael Peterson, et al., ed., Philosophy of Religion. Selected Readings, Oxford University Press, New York 1996, pp. 63-65.

[176] Neuhaus, Richard John, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, second edition, William B. Eerdmans, Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1997 (1984), p. 22.

[177] Robinson, An Atheist’s Values, p. 133.

[178] Ibid., p. 134.

[179] McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven, p. 45.

[180] Plato, Apology, 38a. Plato, Complete Works, p. 33.

[181] Schiller, F.C.S., “Pessimism in Philosophy,” in: F.C.S. Schiller, Humanism: Philosophical Essays, second edition, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT 1970 (1912), pp. 157-165, p. 162.

[182] Harrison, Frederic, “The Ghost of Religion,” The Nineteenth Century, Vol. XV, March 1884, pp. 494-506, also in: Andrew Pyle, ed., Agnosticism: Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1995, pp. 109-124, p. 111.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

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