PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING | An Atheist with a Tall Hat On: The Forgotten History of Agnosticism

T.H. Huxley (image via Wikipedia)

One sometimes gets the impression that religious and nonreligous people alike consider agnosticism a more rational and sophisticated creed than atheism. On the contrary, agnosticism differs from atheism in name only. The distinction between the two is really about class and politics, not substance.

The term “agnosticism” came about in mid nineteenth-century Britain. At this time, atheism was most common among the lower classes, where radical, democratic politics also found the most support. Voting rights were still confined to men with sufficient wealth, and there were fears among elites of the poor, unwashed, and godless masses gaining power. These atheists often supported other taboo subjects, like birth control education, that were simply not discussed in polite circles and were considered a sign of questionable morals.

As more and more middle- and upper-class people began to abandon Christianity in this era, they needed a term for their worldview that would distinguish themselves from their unrespectable atheist cousins. “Agnosticism” proved the perfect vehicle.

The term was invented by T.H. Huxley, 
the evolutionary scientist and one of Charles Darwin’s earliest and strongest supporters. Huxley came from a modest background but had fought his way into the scientific establishment, then dominated by Anglican clerics and upper-class gentlemen. He eventually became one of its central figures as he and his friends took control of premier scientific institutions like the Royal Society.

To maintain his hard-fought respectability, Huxley unveiled the term in 1869 at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, an eclectic group of leading believers and nonbelievers in Victorian Britain. He argued that Christians and atheists both shared a belief in the certainty of their views and that this certainty was unjustified. For Huxley, rather than claiming special knowledge, to be agnostic was to profess one’s lack of knowledge.

This seems a novel position only if one understands “atheism” to mean a positive defense of God’s nonexistence. But this wasn’t the meaning that many nineteenth-century atheists accepted. Probably the most prominent atheist at this time was Charles Bradlaugh, an outspoken, working-class agitator who would go on to become the first openly atheist member of Parliament in 1880. Bradlaugh set out his own definition of his preferred term in an 1864 pamphlet called “A Plea for 
Atheism.” There he wrote:

The Atheist does not say “There is no God,” but he says, “I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me.”

For Bradlaugh there could be no positive denial of God, since the concept of “God” was incoherent. This position, adopted by other atheists at the time, differs little from agnosticism. J.M. Robertson, a nineteenth-century journalist and secularist, wrote in his biography of Bradlaugh that the man “sometimes grew impatient (and small wonder) with people who wrote to him to point out that Atheism was wrong, and Agnosticism was right. They never took the trouble to try to understand what he meant by Atheism.”

Huxley and other agnostics rejected this framing of atheism and retreated from the label out of a concern for their own respectability. Edward Aveling, 
another well-known atheist during this period, recounted a discussion with Charles Darwin, who like his friend 
Huxley, identified as an agnostic. Darwin was a wealthy, propertied gentleman, reluctant to associate himself with atheists. When Aveling tried to explain that there was no substantive difference between “atheism” and “agnosticism” except for the connotations of respectability, Darwin agreed in principle yet responded, “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind? It is all very well for educated, cultured, thoughtful people; but are the masses yet ripe for it?”

Understandably, the posturing of agnostics drew the ire of working-class atheists, who saw in the label a disingenuous attempt at window dressing. G.W. Foote, a prominent British 
atheist and later president of the National Secular Society, grumbled that agnosticism simply sounded less offensive. “An Atheist is without God; an Agnostic does not know anything about God, so he is without God too,” Foote contended. “An Agnostic is simply an Atheist with a tall hat on.” The difference then was one of class: while many atheists came from the working class, agnostics like Huxley and Darwin were part of the emerging elite and frequented polite society.

Today, agnosticism continues to hold connotations of sophistication and nuance, in contrast to the supposed crudeness of atheism. Indeed, religious critics of atheism often patronizingly suggest that atheists should really follow the example of their more rational counterparts, the agnostics. Reza Aslan, for example, criticizes the polemical nature of New Atheists, writing smugly that “[t]his is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. …Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Henry Huxley or Herbert Spencer.”

Alister McGrath, the Oxford theologian and frequent sparring partner of Richard Dawkins, similarly writes, somewhat disingenuously, about the impossibility of resolving the atheism/
theism debate: “The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. …The jury is out on this one: final adjudication on the God question lies beyond reason and experiment. Maybe T. H. Huxley was right: agnosticism is the only credible option here.”

Again, this idea that agnosticism is somehow the more rational option has its roots in the respectability politics of Victorian Britain. The definition of “atheism” as a positive denial of God’s existence is a convenient one for religious people because it seems to make the atheist position impossible to prove. But this ignores other definitions, like Bradlaugh’s, that argue the burden of proof does not lie on the atheists at all, but on the theists.

In reviving this forgotten history, it is my hope that those calling themselves agnostics will throw the label off, and all the historical baggage (and tall hats) that come with it.