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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Before moving on to a consideration of some twen-
tieth-century formulations of agnosticism and to a
critical examination of all forms of agnosticism, let us
consider briefly a question that the above charac-
terization of Huxley and Stephen certainly should give
rise to. Given the correctness of the above criticisms
of Judaism and Christianity, do we not have good
grounds for rejecting these religions and is not this in
effect an espousal of atheism rather than agnosticism?

We should answer differently for Huxley than we
do for Stephen. Huxley's arguments, if correct, would
give us good grounds for rejecting Christianity and
Judaism; but they are not sufficient by themselves for
jettisoning a belief in God, though they would require
us to suspend judgment about the putative knowledge-
claim that God exists and created the world. But it must
be remembered that agnosticism is the general claim
that we do not know and (more typically) cannot know
or have good grounds for believing that there is a God.
But to accept this is not to accept the claim that there
is no God, unless we accept the premiss that what
cannot even in principle be known cannot exist. This
was not a premiss to which Huxley and Stephen were
committed. Rather they accepted the standard agnostic
view that since we cannot know or have good reasons
for believing that God exists we should suspend judg-
ment concerning his existence or nonexistence. More-
over, as we shall see, forms of Jewish and Christian
fideism when linked with modern biblical scholarship
could accept at least most of Huxley's arguments and
still defend an acceptance of the Jewish or Christian

Stephen's key arguments are more epistemologically
oriented and are more definitely committed to an
empiricist account of meaning and the limits of con-
ceivability. As we shall see in examining the conten-
tions of some contemporary critics of religion, it is
more difficult to see what, given the correctness of
Stephen's own account, it could mean to affirm, deny,
or even doubt the existence of God. The very concept
of God on such an account becomes problematical. And


this makes what it would be to be an agnostic, an
atheist, or a theist problematical.

The cultural context in which we speak of religion
is very different in the twentieth century than it was
in the nineteenth (cf. MacIntyre, Ricoeur). For most
twentieth-century people with even a minimal amount
of education, the authority of science has cut much
deeper than it did in previous centuries. The cosmo-
logical claims in the biblical stories are no longer taken
at face value by the overwhelming majority of edu-
cated people both religious and non-religious. Theolo-
gians working from within the circle of faith have
carried out an extensive program of de-mythologizing
such biblical claims. Thus it is evident that in one quite
obvious respect the nineteenth-century agnostics have
clearly been victorious. There is no longer any serious
attempt to defend the truth of the cosmological claims
in the type of biblical stories that Huxley discusses.

However, what has not received such wide accept-
ance is the claim that the acceptance of such a de-
mythologizing undermines Judaism and Christianity
and drives an honest man in the direction of agnos-
ticism or atheism. Many would claim that such de-
mythologizing only purifies Judaism and Christianity
of extraneous cultural material. The first thing to ask
is whether or not a steady recognition of the fact that
these biblical stories are false supports agnosticism as
strongly as Huxley thinks it does.

Here the new historical perspective on the Bible is
a crucial factor. The very concept of the authority of
the Bible undergoes a sea change with the new look
in historical scholarship. It is and has been widely
acknowledged both now and in the nineteenth century
that Judaism and Christianity are both integrally linked
with certain historical claims. They are not sufficient
to establish the truth of either of these religions, but
they are necessary. Yet modern historical research—to
put it minimally—places many of these historical
claims in an equivocal light and makes it quite im-
possible to accept claims about the literal infallibility
of the Bible. Conservative evangelicalists (funda-
mentalists) try to resist this tide and in reality still
battle with Huxley. They reject the basic findings of
modern biblical scholarship and in contrast to mod-
ernists treat the Bible not as a fallible and myth-laden
account of God's self-revelation in history but as a fully
inspired and infallible historical record. Conservative
evangelicalists agree with modernists that revelation
consists in God's self-disclosure to man, but they further
believe that the Bible is an infallible testimony of God's
self-unveiling. Modernists by contrast believe that we
must discover what the crucial historical but yet divine
events and realities are like by a painstaking historical
investigation of the biblical material. This involves all
the techniques of modern historical research. The vari-
ous accounts in the Bible must be sifted by methodical
inquiry and independently acquired knowledge of the
culture and the times must be used whenever possible.

Conservative evangelicalism is still strong as a cul-
tural phenomenon in North America, though it is
steadily losing strength. However it is not a serious
influence in the major seminaries and modernism has
thoroughly won the day in the intellectually respect-
able centers of Jewish and Christian learning. Huxley's
arguments do come into conflict with conservative
evangelicalism and his arguments about the plain fal-
sity, utter incoherence, and sometimes questionable
morality of the miracle stories and stories of Jesus'
actions would have to be met by such conservative
evangelicalists. But the modernists would be on
Huxley's side here. So, for a large and respectable
element of the Jewish and Christian community,
Huxley's arguments, which lead him to reject Christi-
anity and accept agnosticism, are accepted but not
taken as at all undermining the foundations of Judaism
or Christianity.

Huxley's sort of endeavor, like the more systematic
endeavors of David Strauss, simply helps Christians rid
the world of the historically contingent cultural trap-
pings of the biblical writers. Once this has been cut
away, modernists argue, the true import of the biblical
message can be seen as something of decisive relevance
that transcends the vicissitudes of time.

However, this is not all that should be said vis-à-vis
the conflict between science and religion and agnos-
ticism. It is often said that the conflict between science
and religion came to a head in the nineteenth century
and now has been transcended. Science, it is averred,
is now seen to be neutral concerning materialism or
any other metaphysical thesis and theology—the en-
terprise of attempting to provide ever deeper, clearer,
and more reasonable statements and explications of the
truths of religion—is more sophisticated and less vul-
nerable to attacks by science or scientifically oriented
thinkers. Still it may be the case that there remain some
conflicts between science and religion which have not
been overcome even with a sophisticated analysis of
religion, where that analysis takes the religions of the
world and Christianity and Judaism in particular to
be making truth-claims.

Let us consider how such difficulties might arise.
Most Christians, for example, would want to claim as
something central to their religion that Christ rose from
the dead and that there is a life after the death of our
earthly bodies. These claims seem at least to run
athwart our scientific understanding of the world so
that it is difficult to know how we could both accept
scientific method as the most reliable method of settling


disputes about the facts and accept these central
Christian claims. Moreover, given what science teaches
us about the world, these things could not happen or
have happened. Yet it is also true that the by now
widely accepted new historical perspective on the
Bible recognizes and indeed stresses mythical and po-
etical strands in the biblical stories. And surely it is
in this non-literal way that the stories about demons,
Jonah in the whale's belly, and Noah and his ark are
to be taken, but how far is this to be carried with the
other biblical claims? Are we to extend it to such
central Christian claims as “Christ rose from the
Dead,” “Man shall survive the death of his earthly
body,” “God is in Christ”? If we do, it becomes com-
pletely unclear as to what it could mean to speak of
either the truth or falsity of the Christian religion. If
we do not, then it would seem that some central Chris-
tian truth-claims do clash with scientific claims and
orientations so that there is after all a conflict between
science and religion.

Given such a dilemma, the agnostic or atheist could
then go on to claim that either these key religious
utterances do not function propositionally as truth-
claims at all or there is indeed such a clash. But if
there is such a clash, the scientific claims are clearly
the claims to be preferred, for of all the rival ways
of fixing belief, the scientific way of fixing belief is
clearly the most reliable. Thus if there are good empir-
ical, scientific reasons (as there are) for thinking that
people who die are not resurrected, that when our
earthly bodies die we die, and that there is no evidence
at all, and indeed not even any clear meaning to the
claim that there are “resurrection bodies” and a “res-
urrection world” utterly distinct from the cosmos, we
have the strongest of reasons for not accepting the
Christian claim that “Christ rose from the Dead.” The
scientific beliefs in conflict with that belief are ones
that it would be foolish to jettison. But it is only
by a sacrifice of our scientific way of conceiving of
things that we could assent to such a central religious
claim. Thus it is fair to say that our scientific under-
standing drives us in the direction of either atheism
or agnosticism.

Some contemporary theologians have responded to
such contentions by arguing that there are good con-
ceptual reasons why there could not be, appearances
to the contrary notwithstanding, such a conflict.
“Christ” is not equivalent to “Jesus” but to “the son
of God” and God is not a physical reality. Christianity
centers on a belief in a deity who is beyond the world,
who is creator of the world. But such a reality is in
principle, since it is transcendent to the cosmos, not
capable of being investigated scientifically but must
be understood in some other way. God in his proper
non-anthropomorphic forms is beyond the reach of
evidence. Only crude anthropomorphic forms of
Christian belief could be disproved by modern scien-
tific investigations.

To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to be
committed to a belief in miracles. But, it has been
forcefully argued by Ninian Smart, this does not com-
mit us to something which is anti-scientific or that can
be ruled out a priori (Smart [1964], Ch. II; [1966], pp.
44-45). A miracle is an event of divine significance
which is an exception to at least one law of nature.
Scientific laws are not, it is important to remember,
falsified by single exceptions but only by a class of
experimentally repeatable events. Thus we can believe
in the miracle of Christ's resurrection without clashing
with anything sanctioned by science. It is a dogma,
the critic of agnosticism could continue, to think that
everything that can be known can be known by the
method of science or by simple observation. A thor-
oughly scientific mind quite devoid of credulity could
remain committed to Judaism or Christianity, believe
in God, and accept such crucial miracle stories without
abandoning a scientific attitude, i.e., he could accept
all the findings of science and accept its authority as
the most efficient method for ascertaining what is the
case when ascertaining what is the case comes to
predicting and retrodicting classes of experimentally
repeatable events or processes.

Christians as well as agnostics can and do recognize
the obscurity and mysteriousness of religious claims.
The Christian should go on to say that a nonmysterious
God, a God whose reality is evident, would not be the
God of Judeo-Christianity—the God to be accepted
on faith with fear and trembling. It is only for a God
who moves in mysterious ways, that the characteristic
Jewish and Christian attitudes of discipleship, adora-
tion, and faith are appropriate. If the existence of God
and what it was to act in accordance with His will
were perfectly evident or clearly establishable by hard
intellectual work, faith would lose its force and ration-
ale. Faith involves risk, trust, and commitment. Judaism
or Christianity is not something one simply must be-
lieve in if one will only think the matter through as
clearly and honestly as possible.

What is evident is that the agnosticism of a Huxley
and a Stephen at least—and a Bertrand Russell as
well—rests on a philosophical view not dictated by
science. James Ward saw this around the turn of the
century and argued in his Naturalism and Agnosticism
that agnosticism “is an inherently unstable position”
unless it is supplemented by some general philosophical
view such as materialism or idealism (p. 21). Yet it is


just such overall views that Huxley and Stephen were
anxious to avoid and along Humean lines viewed with
a thoroughgoing skepticism.

In sum, the claim is that only if such an overall
philosophical view is justified is it the case that there
may be good grounds for being an agnostic rather than
a Christian or a Jew. The overall position necessary
for such a justification is either a position of empiricism
or materialism and if it is the former it must be a form
of empiricism which in Karl Popper's terms is also a
scientism. By this we mean the claim that there are
no facts which science cannot explore: that what can-
not at least in principle be known by the method of
science cannot be known. Where alternatively scien-
tism is part of a reductive materialist metaphysics,
there is a commitment to what has been called an
“existence-monism,” namely, the view that there is
only one sort of level or order of existence and that
is spatiotemporal existence. That is to say, such an
existence-monist believes that to exist is to have a place
in space-time. In support of this, he may point out
that we can always ask about a thing that is supposed
to exist where it exists. This, it is claimed, indicates
how we in reality operate on materialist assumptions.
And note that if that question is not apposite, “exists”
and its equivalents are not being employed in their
standard senses, but are being used in a secondary sense
as in “Ghosts and gremlins exist merely in one's mind.”
Besides existence-monism there is the even more per-
vasive and distinctively empiricist position—a position
shared by the logical empiricists, by Bertrand Russell,
and by John Dewey—referred to as “methodological-
monism”: to wit “that all statements of fact are such
that they can be investigated scientifically, i.e., that
they can in principle be falsified by observation”
(Smart [1966], p. 8).

However, critics of agnosticism have responded, as
has Ninian Smart, by pointing out that these philo-
sophical positions are vulnerable to a variety of fairly
obvious and long-standing criticisms. Perhaps these
criticisms can be and have been met, but these positions
are highly controversial. If agnosticism is tied to them,
do we not have as good grounds for being skeptical
of agnosticism as the agnostics have for being skeptical
of the claims of religion.

Some samplings of the grounds for being skeptical
about the philosophical underpinnings for agnosticism
are these. When I suddenly remember that I left my
key in my car, it makes sense to speak of the space-time
location of my car but, it is at least plausibly argued,
not of the space-time location of my sudden thought.
Moreover numbers exist but it hardly makes sense to
ask where they exist. It is not the case that for all
standard uses of “exist” that to exist is to have a place
in space-time. Methodological-monism is also beset
with difficulties. There are in science theoretically
unobservable entities and “from quite early times, the
central concepts of religion, such as God and nirvana
already include the notion that what they stand for
cannot literally be observed” (Smart [1962], p. 8).
Moreover it is not evident that we could falsify state-
ments such as “There are some graylings in Michigan”
or “Every human being has some neurotic traits” or
“Photons really exist, they are not simply scientific
fictions.” Yet we do recognize them (or so at least it
would seem) as intelligible statements of fact. Such
considerations lead Ninian Smart to claim confidently
in his The Teacher and Christian Belief (London, 1966)
that “it remains merely a dogma to claim that all facts
are facts about moons and flowers and humans and
other denizens of the cosmos. There need be no general
embargo upon belief in a transcendent reality, pro-
vided such belief is not merely based on uncontrolled
speculation” (p. 51). Smart goes on to conclude that
“the exclusion of transcendent fact rests on a mere
decision” (p. 52). So it would appear, from what has
been said above, that agnosticism has no solid rational

The dialectic of the argument over agnosticism is
not nearly at an end and it shall be the burden of the
argument here to establish that agnosticism still has
much to be said for it. First of all, even granting, for
the reasons outlined above, that neither the develop-
ment of science nor an appeal to scientism or empiri-
cism establishes agnosticism, there are other consid-
erations which give it strong support. David Hume's
Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779) and Immanuel
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781) make it quite
evident that none of the proofs for the existence of
God work, i.e., they are not sound or reliable argu-
ments. Furthermore it should be noted that their ar-
guments do not for the most part depend for their force
on empiricist assumptions and they most certainly do
not depend on the development of science.

The most rigorous contemporary work in the philos-
ophy of religion has not always supported the detailed
arguments of Hume and Kant but it has for the most
part supported their overall conclusions on this issue.
Alvin Plantinga, for example, in his God and Other
(1967) rejects rather thoroughly the principles
and assumptions of both existence-monism and metho-
dological-monism and he subjects the particulars of
Hume's and Kant's views to careful criticism, yet in
the very course of giving a defense of what he takes
to be the rationality of Christian belief, he argues that
none of the attempts at a demonstration of the exist-


ence of God have succeeded. He is echoed in this claim
by such important contemporary analytical theologians
as John Hick and Diogenes Allen. This lack of validated
knowledge of the divine or lack of such warranted
belief strengthens the hand of the agnostics, though
it is also compatible with fideism or a revelationist view
such as Barth's, which holds that man on his own can
know nothing of God but must rely utterly on God's