Listing entries tagged with Huxley

Agnostic Unfair to Atheists

posted on 08.29.2006 at 8:43 PM

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 8:43 PM | Comments (3)

An Agnostic's Courage

posted on 08.16.2006 at 4:58 PM

thomas_huxley.jpg In July 1860, Thomas Huxley engaged in his famous face-off with the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, over Darwin's theory.

Bishop Wilberforce: "If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?"

Huxley: "If then…the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."

A couple of months later Huxley's beloved eldest son died.

Huxley is responsible for the neologism "agnoticism." In defense of his new creed he proclaimed:

In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.

However, Huxley was anything but uncertain in his opposition to "that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else,…is the deadly enemy of science."

And when a friend implied, gently, after his son's death, that the biologist might miss the comforts of religion, Huxley's response could not have been more staunch and unbending:

Had I lived a couple of centuries earlier, I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me…and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is: Oh devil! Truth is better than much profit….If wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (5)

Poets and Prophets

posted on 05.14.2006 at 1:30 AM

Kierkegaard (quoted by Carlin Romano):

"Muhammad protests with all his might against being regarded as a poet, and the Koran as a poem. He wants to be a prophet. ... I protest with all my might at being regarded as a prophet, and want only to be a poet."

Either would be fine by me.

Actually haven't been that many atheists in either category. At least one world-class poet: Shelley. Some fine writers: Baron d"Holbach, Thomas Huxley, Robert Ingersoll, Nietzsche. At least one great writer: Virginia Woolf. Prophets? Odd term to apply to an atheist. Meslier? Nietzsche?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:30 AM | Comments (3)

Can Nonbelievers Be "Religious"?

posted on 04.07.2006 at 4:06 PM

Thomas Huxley, who invented the word agnostic to describe his and his friend Charles Darwin's variety of disbelief: thomas_huxley.jpg

"Religion ought to mean simply the reverence and love for the ethical ideal and the desire to realize that ideal in life.
"That a man should determine to devote himself to the service of humanity...this should be, in the proper sense of the word, his religion."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:06 PM | Comments (2)

A Golden Age of Disbelief?

posted on 03.16.2006 at 11:34 PM

Every day, every week, every month, every quarter, the most widely read journals seem just now to vie with each other in telling us that the time for religion is past, that faith is a hallucination or an infantile disease, that the gods have at last been found out and exploded. -- Max Muller, 1878

Was this -- the time of Darwin, Huxley and Bradlaugh -- indeed the golden age of disbelief? Did it end? When? Have we in fact turned back toward religion? Why? (Forgive me if I've asked such questions before. I'll probably ask them again.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:34 PM | Comments (3)

Flurry of Freethinking

posted on 01.26.2006 at 9:05 PM

Golden ages of disbelief?

** Athens at the time of Pericles (Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Diagoras, perhaps Thucydides).

** Paris in the 18th century (Meslier, Diderot, d'Holbach).

** London in the 19th century (Shelley, Mill, Bradlaugh, Martineau, Darwin, Huxley) orthodoxy ostensibly is resurgent. Add to publications in recent years by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby and Sam Harris a new book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett on the causes of belief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:05 PM | Comments (0)

On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism

posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM

Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.

Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)

However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."

Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."

Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:45 PM | Comments (5)

Atheist or Agnostic?

posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM

The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.

"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."

And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"

Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."

This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)