Should you be Agnostic?

By Robin Schumacher

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Thomas Henry Huxley was an English biologist who was nicknamed "Darwin's Bulldog" for his staunch support of Darwin's theory of evolution. Huxley is also credited with coining the term "agnostic". Following in his footsteps, his grandson Julian Huxley wrote the following about when a person should assume a position of agnosticism:

"I believe that one should be agnostic when belief one way or the other is mere idle speculation, incapable of verification; when belief is held merely to gratify desires, however deep-seated, and not because it is forced on us by evidence; and when belief may be taken by others to be more firmly grounded than it really is, and so come to encourage false hopes or wrong attitudes of mind." [1] Huxley felt that "all our life long we are oscillating between conviction and caution, faith and agnosticism, belief and suspension of belief." [2]

The word "agnostic" broken down is "a" for "no" and "gnostic" or "gnosis", which is the Greek noun for knowledge in general. Thus, the word literally means "no knowledge". A formal definition of Huxley's "agnostic" term today where the subject of God is concerned is: "a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience." [3]

From this description, it can be said that an agnostic's position is one where they say they do not know if God exists. Speaking more broadly, some agnostics state that it is difficult to hold any truth with certainty.

Types of agnosticism

Agnosticism typically takes one of two forms: hard and soft. The hard agnostic says that a person can't know anything for sure. Sadly, this is a self-defeating position as the hard agnostic says that they know for sure that they can't know anything for sure.

In contrast, the soft agnostic says he doesn't know anything for sure. The real struggle for him is not the lack of human ability for knowing a particular truth, but rather how a truth claim can be verified or shown to be true. It is the ancient pursuit of philosophy's study of epistemology: How do we know, and how do we know that we know? When the issue of determining the existence of the Christian God is added to the mix, things get even stickier.

But perhaps that doesn't need to be the case. What if a person truly follows and applies Julian Huxley's criteria for determining when to be agnostic about a particular truth claim? What would be the end result when Huxley's measures are applied to the claims of the New Testament, and specifically its account of Jesus Christ?

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Image Credit: cristinacosta; "question"; Creative Commons

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Published 9-4-15