Atheism in Agnosticism

Gordon Stein on the Meaning of Agnosticism

Gordon Stein, "The Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism,"
in G. Stein, editor, An anthology of atheism and rationalism,
with introduction (Prometheus Books: Buffalo NY 1980)

"Agnosticism" is a somewhat more troublesome term. Originally, the term was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869. Huxley's definition of agnosticism was "Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can carry you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend the conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and, in my opinion, is all that is essential to "agnosticism" The need to coin a new word for such an attitude (ie, "agnosticism") would seem unnecessary. "Rationalism" would seem to be an existing term which already means what Huxley is trying to say. In any case, what Huxley meant by "agnosticism" is not what the term means today.

Obviously, if theism is a belief in a God and atheism is a lack of a belief in a God, no third position or middle ground is possible. A person can either believe or not believe in a God. Therefore, our previous definition of atheism has made an impossibility out of the common usage of agnosticism to mean "neither affirming nor denying a belief in God." Actually, this is no great loss, because the dictionary definition of agnostic is still again different from Huxley's definition. The literal meaning of agnostic is one who holds that some aspect of reality is unknowable. Therefore, an agnostic is not simply someone who suspends judgment on an issue, but rather one who suspends judgment because he feels that the subject is unknowable and therefore no judgment can be made.It is possible, therefore, for someone not to believe in a God (as Huxley did not) and yet still suspend judgment (ie, be an agnostic) about whether it is possible to obtain knowledge of a God. Such a person would be an atheistic agnostic. It is also possible to believe in the existence of a force behind the universe, but to hold (as did Herbert Spencer) that any knowledge of that force was unobtainable. Such a person would be a theistic agnostic.

This issue is summed up correctly by Robert Flint in his Agnosticism, (1903), as follows: Agnosticism was "properly a theory about knowledge, not about religion. A theist and a Christian may be an agnostic; an atheist may not be an agnostic. An atheist may deny that there is God, and in this case his atheism is dogmatic and not agnostic. Or he may refuse to acknowledge that there is a God simply on the ground that he perceives no evidence for his existence and finds the arguments which have been advanced in proof of it invalid. In this case his atheism is critical, not agnostic. The atheist may be, and not infrequently is, an agnostic."Perhaps all these definitions about agnosticism have left the word with little real meaning. While it is true that the word has been grossly misused in the past, there is some use for a term which describes a person who holds that knowledge about a given subject is unobtainable in principle. The closing of the "escape hatch" use of the term agnostic as one who refuses to take a position on the issue of the existence of God is probably for the best, as refusing to take a position is meaningless as far as informing another person of what your position is. There is also the fact that such a person's position is really already clear in one sense: he does not believe in the existence of a God, and therefore is, practically speaking, an atheist.

There are a few people (such as Bertrand Russell) who have used the term "agnostic" in the sense in which Huxley meant it. For these people, there is a legitimate use for "agnostic." They mean a method, a process or an outlook by the term "agnosticism." Russell would say that a person could be an atheist (ie, not have a belief in a god) and also an agnostic at the same time (ie, not express a conclusion when there is inadequate evidence for something). Because of the confusion surrounding the term "agnosticism," it would seem better to use the very similar term "rationalism" in its place when referring to the original Huxleyan meaning of the term. The use of "rationalist" for "agnostic" would also seem to be less ambiguous.

Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 18:24:20 -0700
from: AMERICAN.ATHEISTS@listserv.direct.net
Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for September 4, 1996

Gordon Stein, Freethought Editor and Humanist Author, Dead at 55

AANEWS regrets to inform readers of the death of Dr. Gordon Stein, a major figure in the freethought movement and author of numerous books relating to the paranormal and rationalist history. Dr. Stein died of complications from cancer on August 27, at Buffalo General Hospital. He was a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, and director of two libraries located at the Center for Inquiry. His books included the "Encyclopedia of Hoaxes," "Encyclopedia of the Paranormal" and the "Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism."

Gordon Stein was a popular lecturer and debater, and served as editor of the American Rationalist. He was also the author of more than 600 published book reviews and some 200 articles, many dealing with freethought history.

Of particular interest to Dr. Stein was the quack practice of "Spiritualism." According to a memorial, he wrote and lectured extensively on that topic, and composed a biography of the medium D.D. Home titled "The Sorcerer of Kings," published in 1993.

While Gordon Stein was often critical of American Atheists and its leadership, he was nevertheless an important figure in the movement for Reason, secularism and non-belief for nearly two decades. His works constitute an important element in the bibliography of Atheism and skepticism. We extend our sincere condolences to Dr. Stein's family, friends and associates.

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