Re: virus: no purchase required

Eric Boyd (
Fri, 7 May 1999 12:14:57 -0400


Robin Faichney <> writes: <<
This has come up before, but it was a while back, and before I became a committed agnostic, so I'd appreciate the chance to go over it again: why, exactly, is it a mistake to call a lack of theistic belief, agnosticism?

Well, in a certain (historical) sense, you *can* call a lack of theistic belief "agnosticism", following after it's original definition:

"Agnosticism is not properly described as a 'negative' creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that <I>it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty</I>. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism. That which Agnostics deny, and repudiate as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence."
Thomas Henry Huxley, "Agnosticism and Christianity and Other Essays" (1889, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1992), p. 193.

However, in a more recent sense, agnosticism has come to mean the positive assertion that *we cannot know* the truth about the existence or non-existence of god, and it is this sense which most people will think of if you call yourself an agnostic. I for one do not think this sense is at all useful.

I suspect that part of the reason this position took hold is that Huxley himself perhaps held that position:

"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; a 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." Thomas Henry Huxley, "Agnosticism" _Agnosticism and Christianity and Other Essays_ (1889, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1992), p. 162.

So, in conclusion, you can use Agnosticism to refer to lack of theistic belief, but be warned that it has other, more prevalent, meanings -- in short, you'll have to define what you mean by it anyway.