Sunday, May 16, 2010

Word of the Day--Agnosticism

Agnosticism (ăgnŏs'tĭsĭzəm), denying that human beings can know if God exists, emerged in the 1860s and 1870s as the opinion of a small but influential minority of religiously serious, well-read Americans. Many belonged to the class of writers, academics, and scientists soon labeled "intellectuals." They commonly enjoyed relatively high economic and social status. The word "agnosticism" itself was coined in 1869 (from Greek roots denoting "unknown") by the English scientist Thomas Huxley, and American agnosticism closely tracked similar, somewhat earlier tendencies among British bourgeois intelligentsia. Several of the most prominent early American agnostics—such as the scholar and cultural critic Charles Eliot Norton, the journalist E. L. Godkin, the historian Henry Adams, and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—were deeply entwined in transatlantic webs of friendships that linked the two countries' intellectual life. And as these names suggest, agnosticism first developed in the United States among urban north easterners.

Agnosticism was not so much a positive belief as a negative conclusion. Victorian agnostics wished to apply to all questions of knowledge what they took to be the criteria of the natural and human sciences. To decide matters of fact by any other standard they characteristically regarded as immoral—a credo classically articulated in the 1870s by the English mathematician William Clifford: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." That agnostics readily carried this principle into religious issues can be explained not only by widespread faith in science but more specifically by the fact that for two centuries theological writers had enlisted science to prove religious belief. That this hoary scientific apologetic foundered after 1860 owed much to contraction by scientists of what counted as scientific evidence, a restriction associated especially with Darwinism. In ensuing decades, a growing number of Americans weighed the evidence for the existence of God and concluded that nothing approaching scientific evidence existed to prove a God.

Typically, agnostics bore no grudge against those who did retain faith in God. Although agnostics tended to see themselves as clearer thinkers and more rigorous moralists, they rarely trumpeted their unbelief or publicly attacked the churches. In this, agnosticism was unlike atheism, actively denying God. Atheism in both the United States and Europe flowed from dislike of organized religion, and atheists—their outrage at "priest-craft" often stoked by class resentment—were usually anticlericals. Lacking powerful established churches to resent, the United States proved much less fertile ground for atheism than did Europe, and agnosticism became the more common form of unbelief.

Agnosticism was entrenched in American culture by 1900, although the vast majority of Americans have continued to believe in God. Unbelief has probably remained chiefly an opinion of intellectual elites, especially academic ones. Unlike atheists, agnostics have rarely felt any need to institutionalize their views (the Ethical Culture movement was a rare exception, founded in 1876 by Felix Adler). To invent a structure to house a lack of beliefs perhaps seemed oxymoronic. Hence, agnosticism did not really evolve intellectually after establishing itself (except among academic philosophers) but rather in the twentieth century blended into low-key religious indifferentism.


Turner, James. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Un-belief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

—James Turner

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