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August 29, 2006

Agnostic Unfair to Atheists

Here is Thomas Henry Huxley's explanation for his desire to coin a new term, "agnostic," to express his relationship to religion:

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.

But this is unfair to atheists, is it not? What about atheism implies a solution to the problem of existence?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 29, 2006 8:43 PM


Does Huxley refer to "the problem of existence" as coming to terms with mortality? or with the difficulty in establishing purpose/meaning for human existence? that would make a difference in my ability to respond to his point and your question, M... his use of the word 'gnosis' is interesting in that sense, then: has to do with a sort of out-there sense of spiritual truth, has to do with a sense of salvation, both of which would provide both meaning/purpose and deal with the question of mortality. That he thus rejects these, and sees 'atheism' as caught in the same discursive arena in relation to these questions, makes sense? so, "freethinker" is a rhetorical move (a pretty smart one) to opt out of that entire signifying chain that centers itself on 'truth' and 'salvation' in relation to the 'fact' of mortality...and that's consistent w/ your previous post on his debate w/ the bishop of whatever on evolution, it seems?

Posted by: JM at August 30, 2006 12:02 AM

You guys might want to check this video of Richard Dawkins:

It certainly explains why I would not call myself an agnostic.

Posted by: Cihan Baran at August 30, 2006 4:08 PM

I wonder if there are Hindu agnostics who aren't sure whether Vishnu exists? Or the equivalent in other religions. I've certainly never heard anyone say they were agnostic with respect to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Somehow, a self-described agnostic always seems to be someone who used to be a Christian and doesn't want to give up that particular security blanket completely.

Anyway, speaking for myself, I've never thought that calling myself an atheist implied I had any certainty about the problem of existence or anything else. Atheism is only a starting point.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at August 31, 2006 12:50 AM

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