When Thomas Huxley created the term agnostic, he considered atheist to mean anti-theological “gnosis” while the religious side was theological “gnosis”. Agnosticism was meant to be anti-dogmatism more than anything else. Huxley was not agnostic regarding the Bible which he criticized heavily, nor was he agnostic regarding the evolutionary work of his dear friend Charles Darwin. Huxley had no doubt that scientific criticism would prove destructive to all forms of supernaturalism that served as the foundation for all existing religions. Agnosticism was never intended to be an in-between position of atheist and Christianity. For Huxley it was the “I know that I know nothing” philosophy of Socrates and the very foundational creed of modern science. The creed of no absolute authority of false gods or men, the creed of following empirical evidence and reason as far as they will take you without regard to any other consideration.
The time of Thomas Huxley is long gone. Today people commonly define atheism the way that Huxley defined agnosticism. Today atheism is not considered a dogmatic stance against any possibility of a greater intelligence currently beyond our perceptions and philosophies, which is the only definition of god that Huxley was agnostic about. In today’s world agnostic and atheist are used interchangeably and the difference is merely a matter of semantics. Whichever “a” word you choose, you are an infidel, heathen, heretic, non-believer and likely a secularist and a humanist. You live without worship, prayer or any regard for something interactive and godlike in your life.
“No” is a word that implies an absolute stance. “Lack” is a word that implies doubt due to some deficiency, but does not imply an absolute stance. Defining atheism as “lack of” god rather than “no” god is a shift in dogmatism, and a good one. Many people blame Thomas Huxley for muddying the waters with his promotion of the agnostic term. Huxley should be thanked as someone who positively influenced the definition of atheist as we perceive it today.
The following quotes from Thomas Huxley were stated well over a hundred years ago. You will find much common ground between these statements made long ago and those by current warriors in the battle of reason over superstition.
“The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”
“It is not who is right, but what is right, that is of importance.”
“The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.”
“It is not to be forgotten that what we call rational grounds for our beliefs are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts.”
“That which is unproven today may be proven by the help of new discoveries tomorrow.”
“do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”
“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”
“There are two things I really care about–one is the progress of scientific thought, and the other is the bettering of the condition of the masses of the people by bettering them in the way of lifting themselves out of the misery which has hitherto been the lot of the majority of them. Posthumous fame is not particularly attractive to me, but, if I am to be remembered at all, I would rather it should be as "a man who did his best to help the people" than by other title.”
"Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it."
"Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain."
“I have no doubt that scientific criticism will prove destructive to the forms of supernaturalism which enter into the constitution of existing religions.”
"For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols."
“True Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which "are not dreamt of in our philosophy."
This is what Robert Green Ingersoll said of Huxley.
“No man ever had a sharper sword -- a better shield. He challenged the world. The great theologians and the small scientists -- those who had more courage than sense, accepted the challenge. Their poor bodies were carried away by their friends.
Huxley had intelligence, industry, genius, and the courage to express his thought. He was absolutely loyal to what he thought was truth. Without prejudice and without fear, he followed the footsteps of life from the lowest to the highest forms.”
It is time to stop any bickering of words and embrace the commonality that all non-religious people have. Possessing the wits to reject ancient superstition is something to celebrate and take pride in no matter what “a” word you choose as your label.
James Kirk Wall
The Huxley File hosted by Clark University, http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley
Bank of Wisdom, Robert Green Ingersoll, http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/why_i_am_agnostic.html
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