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Problems of Belief & Unbelief

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Huxley’s Agnosticism

Van Harvey reflects on Huxley’s and Clifford’s reasons for not believing.

In the struggle against obscurantism and the appeal to blind faith that was rampant in Victorian culture, it would be difficult to find two greater champions of restraint on unfounded opinions and beliefs than W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) and T.H. Huxley (1825-1895). Moreover, both of them were able to formulate their complex views against credulity in succinct moral imperatives, or what Clifford would call an ‘ethics of belief’. For Clifford the imperative was: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” For Huxley, “it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty” (all quotations are from Thomas Henry Huxley: Agnosticism and Christianity and other Essays, Prometheus Books, 1992).

William Kingdon Clifford
William Kingdon Clifford

Although both formulations are couched in the form of ethical imperatives, there are subtle but important differences between them. Clifford’s is a universal and unqualified moral claim – “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence” – while Huxley’s is more narrowly directed at anyone who claims to be certain of the objective truth of any proposition but cannot produce evidence justifying that certainty. Both were defended in influential essays that reflected their authors’ convictions that civilization is a product of intercommunication, and is only possible when the ‘clerisy’, to use Coleridge’s term for the literate classes, accept responsibility for knowledge as a whole and the rules of civilized discourse. They believed that irrational beliefs had social consequences, and so it was a duty to weigh the evidence for beliefs. English historian G.M. Young, in reflecting on the implications of these imperatives for British education, wrote that the schools should teach that “a man has no more right to an opinion for which he cannot account than to a pint of beer for which he cannot pay.”

Both arguments were in part directed against religions. Clifford roams over several of them, especially Islam. Huxley makes his case in relation to Christianity. But it is just Huxley’s several specific arguments against Christianity that throw into relief the differences between his statement of agnosticism and Clifford’s unqualified imperative.

In this article I want to argue (a) that Huxley’s statement is more intellectually tenable than Clifford’s, and (b) that Huxley’s rejection of Christianity is not because Christianity is based on blind faith, but because the clerics who criticize him violate his principle, in that they claim certainty for historical propositions that are based on narratives that are both improbable and superstitious.

Clifford’s Hard Line Agnosticism

Let me first take a brief look at why I think Clifford’s moral imperative as he first states it is less tenable than Huxley’s. The problem is that Clifford’s imperative is impossible to obey: as Kant might have expressed it, there is no ‘can’ to justify the ‘ought’. As many recent philosophers have pointed out, particularly Wittgenstein in his little book On Certainty (1969), we do not acquire most of our beliefs about the world by being persuaded out of skepticism about them, nor do we carefully weigh the evidence for every belief proposed to us. Rather our culture teaches us to organize our experience in certain ways by teaching us concepts, rules of use, names, and language. We acquire what Wittgenstein called a ‘picture’ of the world; that is, a network of propositions that are more or less mutually supporting. Doubt only arises against this background of taken-for-granted beliefs when something we encounter does not fit with our picture, or when we find ourselves confronted with evidence that clearly contradicts specific beliefs we hold. Contrary to Clifford, we begin by believing and must have grounds for doubting.

Moreover, among the set of propositions that we believe, some are more fundamental than others. They stand fast, so to speak. Some of these are empirical and checkable, but others are so general that we would not know how to justify them (for instance, the belief that there is an external world). Many of these fundamental beliefs are literally groundless. We do not acquire them by testing or investigation, but simply by belonging to a community bound together by science and education. As Wittgenstein wrote: “My life consists in my being content to accept many things.” To morally condemn those who simply inherit these beliefs, as Clifford does, seems peculiarly unjustified. We so take them for granted that if anyone were to question them, we would doubt they could believe anything that we say. But all of them together constitute the background against which we distinguish what is true or false.

Huxley’s Reasonable Skepticism

Huxley’s formulation of agnosticism, by contrast to Clifford’s, does not appeal to a universal moral imperative, but argues more modestly that it is wrong to claim certitude for the objective truth of propositions that are not demonstrable. He does not argue that one requires evidence or justification for every belief that one holds; he simply argues that it is wrong to claim certitude about propositions for which one cannot produce adequate evidence. And while Clifford claims it is morally wrong to believe on insufficient evidence, Huxley is less heavy handed. He does claim that his principle is both ethical and intellectual, but interestingly enough, his invocation of the terms ‘reprobation’ and ‘abomination’ is applied principally to those clerics who themselves assert that it is morally wrong not to believe certain propositions (about God, Christ, etc).

One might argue that Huxley’s more modest definition is framed negatively because he was writing in response to an attack on him by Christian clerics, and that he would otherwise have embraced Clifford’s universal imperative. I do not think that is the case, but the only way to demonstrate this is to look at Huxley’s essays and the mode of argumentation that he employs, and I shall attempt to do this below. But first it should be noted that Huxley tells us that as a not-formally-educated boy he had already internalized an attitude underlying what he was later to call ‘agnosticism’. He had by chance fallen on an essay by Sir William Hamilton (‘On the Philosophy of the Unconditioned’) that he read avidly and which had stamped upon his mind the conviction that the most important questions driving the human mind were unanswerable – that the limitations of the human intellect were such that answers to such questions were “not merely actually impossible, but theoretically inconceivable.” It was not until Huxley became a member of the Metaphysical Society and found colleagues who were advocates of theism, materialism, pantheism, idealism or some other ‘ism’ that he coined the word ‘agnostic’ to suggest a position antithetical to those who “professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.” He noted that philosophers had debated metaphysical issues without results since Antiquity, and so, like Kant and Hume, he had come to give more precision to the vague position he had intuited as a boy.

Huxley’s Religious Agnosticism

“I don’t believe it!” Thomas Henry Huxley, coiner of the term ‘agnostic’

Given his basic skepticism about the limits of the human intellect, one might have expected Huxley to have argued in his essays on agnosticism that Christian beliefs simply exceed what is theoretically knowable, or one might have thought that, like Clifford, he would have criticized the notion of believing historical claims about Jesus ‘on faith’. But in his essays ‘Agnosticism’ and ‘Agnosticism and Christianity’, he writes in a witty footnote that he no longer cared to speak of anything as Unknowable and regrets having made that mistake, and even having wasted a capital U. Rather, the two essays mount two major arguments: the first against the charge that agnostics are infidels; and the second, the positive assertion that the principle that informs agnosticism must lead its adherents to doubt the historical claims upon which Christianity rests.

Huxley was particularly sensitive to the charge that agnostics were infidels – a charge that had been made in an address before a church congress by the Principal of King’s College, London, a Dr Wace. Wace had argued that agnostics hide behind the claim that they do not know about the supernatural in order to cover over their active disbelief in the authority of Jesus Christ and the “unpleasantness” that attaches to the term ‘infidel’. Huxley argues that this is a misunderstanding of the real issue: Dr Wace defines agnosticism in terms of the content that is disbelieved, showing that he does not understand that agnosticism is a method, not a creed. The method is to ask of a proposition that is proposed as true what evidence the proposition is based on. For Huxley, the agnostic has “absolute faith in the validity of a principle” that has proved successful again and again; and that principle claims that it is wrong to claim certainty for the truth of a proposition unless one can provide evidence that justifies it.

Yet although Huxley’s believes that Dr Wace’s definition of agnosticism is incorrect, he concedes that his critic is correct in charging that the agnostic does not believe the authority of Jesus Christ on which Christian beliefs about the supernatural rest. But this disbelief is not based on some arbitrary hostility or indifference to the Christian tradition; rather, it is that if one applies the agnostic method to the claims of the New Testament regarding the authority of Jesus and what he is alleged to have said, there are reasonable grounds for withholding assent. The issue is not whether one respects or disrespects the authority; the issue is the value of that authority and the textual testimony about it. The agnostic wishes to know, what has Jesus said, and why does that make him the authority regarding the supernatural? What Dr Wace does not seem to understand is that this latter question is “strictly a scientific problem” that is “capable of solution by no other methods than those practiced by the historian and the literary critic.” Moreover, arriving at a solution to this problem is immensely difficult, as can be seen by the many efforts of scholars in the last century. But difficult as it is, these scholars have begun to converge on some important issues, and this convergence is such as to cast doubt on the veracity of the New Testament authors.

Huxley’s Biblical Criticisms

For a layman with little formal education, Huxley demonstrates a surprisingly informed knowledge not only of the New Testament but also of the Biblical criticism of his time. Not only is he versed in the issues surrounding the so-called ‘Synoptic problem’, but he also seems familiar with the German critics David Friedrich Strauss and Bruno Bauer, as well as with the French scholar Ernest Renan, who Wace cites in favor of his own view. Huxley notes that the four Gospels that are the sources for Jesus’s teaching and actions were written half a century after the events described; that scholars no longer claim to know who wrote them; and moreover, that there are important differences among their narratives. Dr Wace had appealed to the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer as furnishing a condensed view of the teachings of Jesus, but Huxley argues that there are strong reasons to doubt the historical accuracy of both of these texts, and so the “conclusions about them are not warranted”; at least “on the grounds set forth.” And when Dr Wace replies that Ernest Renan had surrendered his “adverse” case, Huxley challenges him for proof of such a surrender, and sets forward the conclusions to which Renan had finally come: he did not believe that Matthew the Apostle wrote the first Gospel; he did not know who was responsible for the collection of ‘logia’, the supposed utterances of Jesus; he did not know how many of theselogia were accurate; he noted that Mark’s Gospel is shot through with credulity and had been retouched by an unknown source; he claimed that Luke’s Gospel cannot be replied upon.

These criticisms, Huxley argues, provide reason enough why the agnostic is unable to give assent to the authority Wace claims for Jesus Christ. But although all this is relevant for justifying the agnostic’s claim not to know whether the narratives of the New Testament are true, Huxley argues that the issues of the age and the authorship of the Gospels do not have the importance commonly assigned to them for the veracity of the claims within them. The more fundamental reason to doubt the claims of Christianity is that even if the reports in the Gospels were those of eye witnesses, this still would not justify belief in their testimony, because these eyewitnesses were themselves credulous, and believed in the existence of spirits and demons and the occurrence of miracles, and just because of this the witnesses ought to be discredited.

Huxley’s Spiritual Doubts

In both ‘Agnosticism’ and ‘Agnosticism and Christianity’, a central element driving Huxley’s arguments is the New Testament story of Jesus driving out the evil spirits from a Gadarene man and ordering the demons to inhabit a herd of swine that then plunges into the Sea of Galilee. Huxley uses this story to make several points. The first of these is to say that belief in evil spirits and demonical possession is the remnant of a once-universal superstition that has justified the persecution of thousands of men, woman, and children throughout history (for example, as witches). To attribute the same belief to Jesus casts grave doubt on his authority regarding knowledge of the spiritual world. Secondly, Huxley uses the story to drive more liberal Christians, who tend to see the story as a myth, into a dilemma: Either one says that Jesus did believe in demons, in which case Jesus is discredited as an authority about the unseen world; or, if one edits out the story as just part of the first century worldview of the authors, then one is confronted with their untrustworthiness. But it is the third point that is most crucial for Huxley. He argues that this pernicious ‘pneumatological doctrine’ – the words refer to a belief in an unseen world of evil spirits – pervades the New Testament, and is crucial for the Christian’s interpretation of the work of Jesus. Jesus’s theological importance lies in his reversal of the Satanic rule of the world and putting an end to sin and death. His Messianic work is to cast out Satan and his co-hosts. We find this view in the Church Fathers, the confessions (creeds) of the churches, and even in the Protestant theologians Calvin and Luther. It is impossible then, as Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman observes, to look with one eye at Jesus’s teaching about the Fatherhood of God and his loving providence, and shut the other eye to his “no less definite teaching about the devil and his malignant watchfulness.”

Huxley’s two essays also roam over many related themes: the issue of miracles and Cardinal Newman’s defense of them; whether clerics can legitimately claim to be New Testament scholars since they are already committed to a position; how one evaluates testimony, as well as other issues. But the main thrust of both essays is that agnosticism is justified by the uncertainty of the historical narratives of the New Testament, and against the concept of the spiritual world that is found in Jesus’s teachings, the text of the New Testament, and in the Christian tradition.

Against the narratives the issue is probability, or lack of it. But in the case of unseen spirits the matter is as follows. Ecclesiasticism says: the demonology of the Gospels is an essential part of that account of the spiritual world, the truth of which it declares to be certified by Jesus; whereas agnosticism (as I judge it) says: there is no good evidence for believing in a demonic spiritual world, and much reason for doubting it.

© Prof. Van A. Harvey 2013

Van Harvey is George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus) at Stanford University.


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