SPEAKING PHILOSOPHICAL | An atheist with a big hat: the forgotten story of agnosticism
One sometimes gets the impression that both religious and non-religious consider agnosticism to be a more rational and sophisticated creed than atheism. On the contrary, agnosticism differs from atheism only in name. The distinction between the two is really a question of class and politics, not of substance.
The term “agnosticism” appeared in the mid-19th century in Britain. At that time, atheism was most prevalent among the lower classes, where radical and democratic politics also found the most support. Voting rights were always reserved for men who were sufficiently wealthy, and the elites feared that the poor, unwashed and ungodly masses would seize power. These atheists often supported other taboo topics, like birth control education, which were simply not discussed in polite circles and were seen as a sign of questionable morality.
As more and more middle and upper class people began to abandon Christianity around this time, they needed a term for their worldview that would stand out from their disrespectful atheist cousins. “Agnosticism” turned out to be the perfect vehicle.
The term was coined by TH Huxley, the evolutionary scientist and one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of Charles Darwin. Huxley came from a humble background but had made his way into the scientific establishment, then dominated by Anglican clerics and upper class gentlemen. He eventually became one of his central figures as he and his friends took control of leading scientific institutions like the Royal Society.
To maintain his hard-fought respectability, Huxley unveiled the term in 1869 at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, an eclectic group of prominent believers and non-believers in Victorian Britain. He argued that Christians and atheists both shared a belief in the certainty of their views and that this certainty was unwarranted. For Huxley, rather than claiming particular knowledge, to be agnostic was to profess his lack of knowledge.
This only seems to be a new position if we understand by “atheism” a positive defense of the non-existence of God. But that was not the meaning that many 19th century atheists accepted. Perhaps the most prominent atheist at this time was Charles Bradlaugh, an outspoken working-class agitator who would become the first openly atheistic Member of Parliament in 1880. Bradlaugh defined his own definition of his preferred term in an 1864 pamphlet entitled “A plea for atheism”. There he writes:
The atheist does not say “There is no God”, but he says: “I do not know what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word “God” is to me a sound which expresses no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny what I have no idea of, and whose conception, by its affirmation, is so imperfect that it is incapable of defining it for me.
For Bradlaugh, there could be no positive negation of God, since the concept of “God” was inconsistent. This position, adopted by other atheists at the time, differs little from agnosticism. JM Robertson, a 19th century journalist and layman, wrote in his biography of Bradlaugh that the man “sometimes got impatient (and it was not surprising) with people who wrote to him to point out that atheism was wrong. and that agnosticism was right. They never bothered to try to figure out what he meant by atheism.
Huxley and other agnostics rejected this framing of atheism and withdrew from the label for the sake of their own respectability. Edward Aveling, another well-known atheist of this period, recounted a discussion with Charles Darwin, who, like his friend Huxley, identified himself as agnostic. Darwin was a rich and rich man, reluctant to associate with atheists. When Aveling tried to explain that there was no substantial difference between “atheism” and “agnosticism” except for connotations of respectability, Darwin agreed in principle but replied, “Why should you be so aggressive? Is there anything to be gained from trying to impose these new ideas on the mass of humanity? It is very good for educated, cultured and thoughtful people; but are the masses still ripe for this?
Naturally, the agnostic posture aroused the wrath of working-class atheists, who saw the label as a deceptive attempt at facade. GW Foote, a prominent British atheist and later president of the National Secular Society, lamented that agnosticism just sounded less offensive. “An atheist is without God; an agnostic does not know anything about God, so he is also without God, ”argued Foote. “An agnostic is simply an atheist with a big hat. The difference then was a class difference: While many atheists came from the working class, agnostics like Huxley and Darwin were part of the emerging elite and frequented polite society.
Today, agnosticism continues to have connotations of sophistication and nuance, unlike the supposed crudeness of atheism. Indeed, religious critics of atheism often patronizely suggest that atheists should really follow the lead of their more rational counterparts, the agnostics. Reza Aslan, for example, criticizes the controversial nature of the New Atheists, smugly writing that “[t]it is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. … Nor is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Henry Huxley or Herbert Spencer.
Alister McGrath, the Oxford theologian and frequent training partner of Richard Dawkins, similarly writes, somewhat deceptively, about the impossibility of resolving the atheism / theism debate: “The belief that there is no no God is as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. … The jury is out on this: the final adjudication on the question of God is beyond reason and experimentation. Maybe TH Huxley was right: agnosticism is the only credible option here.
Again, this idea that agnosticism is somehow the most rational option has its roots in the politics of respectability in Victorian Britain. The definition of “atheism” as a positive negation of the existence of God is convenient for the religious because it seems to make the atheist position impossible to prove. But that ignores other definitions, like Bradlaugh’s, who argue that the burden of proof is not on atheists at all, but on theists.
By reviving this forgotten history, I hope those who call themselves agnostics will shed the etiquette and all the historical baggage (and high hats) that come with it.