Philosophic Origins of Agnosticism

Agnostics Before Huxley

Although Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term agnosticism, it did not spring fully-formed from his mind. On the contrary, Huxley was relying upon a long philosophic tradition of religious and epistemological skepticism when he argued that we should approach the question of the existence of God in the “agnostic” fashion he described.

No one before Huxley would have described themselves as agnostics, but we can identify philosophers and scholars who insisted that either they didn’t have knowledge of Ultimate Reality and gods, or that it wasn’t possible for anyone to have such knowledge — both positions associated with agnosticism.

Perhaps the simplest and earliest statement of a basic agnostic position was made by Protagoras, who according to Diogenes Laertius said:

  • As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.

We can also find expressions of agnostic principles or at least inclinations among those ancient thinkers who were members of the skeptical school of philosophy. Skeptics like Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus argued that humans were unable to acquire knowledge of many, if not all, things — and this, by implication, included gods and any Ultimate Reality.

Many in the modern era who continued the tradition of skepticism also continued the promotion of agnostic principles. David Hume was an important skeptic when it came to religious matters and he argued that there isn’t enough evidence for anyone to believe in miracles, God, or immortality on purely empirical or logical grounds — arguments still used today in one form or another by agnostics.

Hume also made room for agnostic theism by arguing that faith in things like gods or immortality might exist even in the absence of independent evidence. Immanuel Kant furnished further support for agnosticism by arguing that belief in God must rest on faith and cannot be achieved through unaided reason and empirical investigation.

This, then, would assert that all theists must be agnostics.

When Huxley first coined the term agnosticism, he had in mind a methodology which limited our claims to knowledge to only those ideas which are adequately supported by evidence and logic. This did not last long as the only definition. R.H. Hutton, a colleague of Huxley and writer for the Spectator who helped make the term agnosticism popular, himself frequently misrepresented the concept in his writings by describing it as “belief in an unknown and unknowable God.” This might serve as a description of agnostic theism, but leaves out the possibility of agnostic atheism.

Herbert Spencer influenced the way we understand agnosticism by arguing that the term should be used to apply to the idea that the existence of God or any Ultimate Reality is unknowable in principle. Hence, we should not make any positive or negative statements about its basic nature. Because Huxley’s understanding of the term was already commonly described by the name rationalism, Spencer’s usage gained a great deal of popularity.

Spencer himself was influenced not only by Kantian agnosticism, but also by the arguments of Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton.

According to Hamilton, the limits of human philosophy serve to justify theology. Because the divine cannot be known through human reason and evidence, it must therefore be true that humans have to rely upon revelation, faith, and the fruits of theology. While Hamilton’s agnosticism was strongly religious and theistic, Spencer’s ended up being just as strongly secular.

It was inevitable that the term agnosticism would come to be used in so many different ways, given the social and intellectual context of the time. Those who adopted the label of agnostic for themselves were part of a cultural milieu in which the established Christian orthodoxy was fighting a desperate but losing battle against the march of science — in particular evolution as espoused by Charles Darwin.

It is no coincidence that Thomas Henry Huxley, originator of the term agnosticism, was also known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his fierce defense of evolution and attacks on Christian intolerance.

Intellectuals, philosophers, and people from all walks of life were finding the dominance of Christianity to be stifling, while the discoveries of science and technology were taking on their own air of transcendence and promised salvation.

Thus, those who were interested in giving a label to their opposition to Christian orthodoxy but who found the concept of deism outdated, and the term atheism to be carrying too much negative baggage, quickly leapt upon agnosticism. It was fashionable for a while to be called an agnostic because it expressed an intellectual and philosophical rejection of Christian doctrines in a manner which was considered safe and respectable — even if the actual definition was variable and indistinct.