Science And Christian Tradition "The Appropriate Title Of "agnostic""

Thomas Henry Huxley

"The Appropriate Title Of "agnostic""

Context: Huxley was an English biologist and teacher who became famous through his defense of Darwin's evolutionary theories. He lectured widely and wrote a number of works designed to popularize science. In addition he produced a number of writings in which he examines Scripture critically and with some effort at scientific detachment. He once engaged in a controversy with Gladstone, the British statesman, in which theories of evolution were compared with Biblical tradition. Huxley's opinions are elaborated in a group of essays written from 1887 to 1892; these were collected and published in one volume under the title, Science and Christian Tradition. Huxley considered himself an agnostic, and in his essay on agnosticism, which forms Chapter 7, he explains how he came to invent the term. Before doing so, however, he retraces the history of his thinking in regard to Christian Scripture, particularly the Gospels. This essay was written primarily in reply to Dr. Wace, Principal of King's College, who had stated flatly that an agnostic and an infidel are one and the same. Huxley's reply is to the effect that he does not know the truth but is searching for it in a scientific manner. He notes that the Gospels were written some time subsequent to the death of Jesus, and that variant texts all reveal additions and elaborations by their transcribers; that it is therefore difficult to determine precisely what Jesus actually said and did; and that early Christian rites and customs differed greatly from those of our own time. He can prove nothing either way; and if he must be faithful, then to which of the many Christian doctrines? Huxley then tells his readers how the term "agnostic" originated:

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. . . .
This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some . . . uneasy feelings . . . So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. . . . To my great satisfaction, the term took, . . .
That is the history of the origin of the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism. . . ."