The Dissent Of Man

By JF Derry

Exploring the influence of Darwin on everyone: atheists, Christians, biologists and entrepreneurs

Saturday, 18 August 2012

An Aside: Agnosticism

Core to the book is the polemic exhibited by all sides in the science-religion debate. People really know their own minds, and often claim to know the minds of their opposition. The version put forward all seems very black and white.

One point of view that hardly gets represented is agnosticism. In fact agnostics are if anything derided for being stuck in the middle, unsure and usually depicted astride a fence. The irony here is that agnosticism, as it was originally introduced by Huxley, is a far stronger, more self-aware position than either of the extremes who seem to take up antagonistic positions for the sake of contridiction. It is more akin to modern day atheism, but without the acerbity. 

Here is an excerpt from my previous book on Darwin, Darwin in Scotland, that defines what agnosticism is, a bit better:



Agnosticism has become a bit of a dirty word for being non-committal in the arenas of strongly held views and bullish opinion. Well, there was nothing irresolute about Huxley who introduced the term in 1869 to describe his firm rejection of Natural eology while still being able to accept biblical moral teachings. Like his friend and colleague Darwin, Huxley also strove for truth and understanding through Hume’s scientific method; he considered Hume’s "Natural History of Religion", one of the first robust naturalistic analyses of faith as a human behaviour, to have ‘anticipated the results of modern investigation’. Thus, it was not a cowardly escape by Huxley, to admit to there being gaps in his understanding: without (Greek: a-) knowledge (Greek: gnosis). It was a confident and courageous salute to the complexity in nature, and complexity in our intelligence, as a part of nature. From Huxley’s later essay "Agnosticism" in 1889:

"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 […] 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 […] 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."

Hume’s empiricism demands that an idea must be demonstrable before becoming a known Matter of Fact, and Huxley’s agnosticism was an admission to gaps in that knowledge. He was making a move away from Creationism, whereas Intelligent Design is seen as a political ‘God of the gaps’, and a return to Creationism.

The tragedy is that Intelligent Design advocates are honestly trying hard to integrate science and religion, ulterior more political motives aside. The travesty is that it is presented purely as a science, whereas in fact it doesn’t fully match Huxley’s agnosticism as an exacting and discerning methodology for truth.


Back to project page
Share on social


James Smith
 James Smith says:

It is late and I am tired but I want to make a point.

Agnosticism is by definition the furthest one can go when stating a doubt in the existence of a god(s) within the bounds of scientific reasoning. So we can say that we're 99.99% sure that there is no god according to our best evidence.

This next point may sound facetious or puerile but the final push to saying "I am an atheist" can easily come from simply reading a religious text or listening to a sermon.

Some people do prefer to use the term atheist to show a sort of stand against religion. Personally I find the word a bit odd. Why do we need a word for something I am not? As deGrasse Tyson said "I don't play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players?".
I think probably it is more helpful to use the word anti-theist. This is a word I better identify with. Anti-theist: Not only do I reject the idea of all-powerful deities but I actively stand against religion.

I hope when I wake up tomorrow this makes sense.


posted 18th August 2012

JF Derry
 JF Derry says:

Hi James,

makes very good sense.

I can only add that the problem with "anti-" nomenclature is the barrier to discourse that it suggests. Agnosticism does not suffer from that, while still allowing a healthy level of uncertainty as dictated by the scientific method. But this much you essentially say above.

Atheism is really a child of agnosticism, as the current view, while you are still open to evidence base proof either way: god or no god. But, I can see how the modern sceptic is forced into making that claim when they feel that society is dominated by religion, and that they remain unrepresented. However free-thinking we like to think we are, we are still animals, and so exhibit herding and tribal instincts.

The situation to avoid within groups is closing oneself off from the persuasion of evidence. This is ridiculously blinkered, and I don't see why anyone would want to restrict their information resources.


posted 18th August 2012

Top rewards

£20  + shipping
180 pledges


1st edition hardback

ebook edition and your name in the back of the book

Choose this reward
114 pledges


ebook edition and your name in the back of the book

Choose this reward