The New Agnosticism?

Thomas Huxley

Thomas Huxley

Imagine that the reasons for belief in a wise and benevolent God could be weighed, summed, and assigned a value. Call this A, and call B the value of views to the contrary; then compare the two. In this way, the mystery of faith arranges itself in a neat stack of possibilities: either A is greater, or B, or neither — the two are equal — or the question itself stands unsolved, the irrational ratio of two real numbers. We are either theists, that is, or atheists, or else parties to some more learned form of compromise. In general, questions of theology are unlike those found on math exams. And yet the problem of faith has long seemed to me to share with standardized testing the foursquare clarity of multiple-choice. Only lately, in the course of certain conversations with my peers, have I begun to think otherwise.

There are those who feel that a properly modern world would be one rich in concepts, a world in which each sort of thought and each sort of thing bore its own proper name. Such a person, I imagine, was Thomas Huxley, the Darwinist and freethinker who gave us, toward the middle of the 19th century, the notion of agnosticism. The agnostic has heard talk of God in heaven, the truth of which he can neither confirm nor deny. Huxley was not, of course, the first to climb and sit this fence. Protagoras, the ancient rhetorician, had opened his treatise on theology with a crisp proviso: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, or of what sort they may be.”

What Huxley did, in giving this form of ignorance a name, was to suggest the possibility of its permanence. In this way, the interval between faithlessness and faith came to sponsor a theology of its own. Huxley’s position has traditionally assumed one of two forms. The strong agnostic holds that the question of God’s existence is unanswerable in principle. God is transcendent, humans are not, and that is that. A and B are equal in value. The weak agnostic, by contrast, considers the question undecided only at present, holding open the possibility that further evidence — boiling seas, say, or a bolt from the blue — may someday resolve the issue. The difference is perhaps one of temperament. Does the virtue of our ignorance lie in worldly resignation or does it lie in hope?

It has been estimated recently that one half of one percent of adults in this country identify themselves as agnostic — though atheists, to be fair, are rarer still. Americans have tended to view the agnostic compromise as an elevated sort of dodge, a scholar’s disguise for ordinary moral yellowness. William James, for one, considered the notion the worst that “ever came out of the philosopher’s workshop.” Huxley’s cause suffers, meanwhile, from the lack of an attractive spokesmodel. Protagoras was known not only for his balky faith but for the extortionate fees he charged his students. Agnostic Front is not a group of concerned citizens but a loud and menacing rock band. In fact, the only avowed agnostic who has made the papers in recent years was Tim McVeigh, and even he chose, in the end, to receive last rites from a death row priest. Nevertheless, it will surprise me if the mentioned percentage has not grown by the time the next survey is taken. It is not that the faith of the American public appears to be shifting toward indecision. Just the opposite: agnosticism itself is slowly being tugged toward faith.

When I ask my friends to describe for me the views of a religious agnostic, only a few seem to follow the definition commonly found in dictionaries. For the rest, the meaning of the term bears a different weight. An agnostic, they tell me, is a person who remains aloof from fixed religious identities while preserving at the same time a vague faith in some higher power. In this reconception, the hard edge of Huxley’s skepticism is softened and something like intuition is given greater rein. Supposing, then, that this sense of the term has in fact grown common, it will make sense to expand by one the roster of answers to the problem of faith. This fifth position, call it New Agnosticism, seems to me sufficiently distinct. The deists of the 18th century shared with new agnostics a belief in a higher power. Deism, however, is the view that this power, though responsible for the design and creation of the world, is unable or unwilling to intervene in its established order. For the new agnostic, meanwhile, as for the theist, this higher power shares with human beings the basic features of agency. That is to say: it thinks; it collects its thoughts in plans; and in plans it gives shape to actions. At the core of this view is the idea that in spite of its giant silence the cosmos is not ultimately inhospitable to purposes.

I am the sort of person who thinks, with Huxley, that our local, human purposes are probably all we need to furnish life with the meaning it demands. They are surely as weird and as deep, at any rate, as those of old man universe. Now one such purpose, a marginal one, is that of excellence in lexicography. A language in possession of a well-defined concept, you might say — any one will do — is superior by some tiny degree to a language without it. So I admit that on first learning of the innovation in agnosticism a mild concern did set in. At such points, a count to five and a reflection upon the leafy vigor of language is usually just the thing. Old words will put forth new shoots and the botanists will be on hand to measure and record. What is worth asking, in the meantime, is why the meaning of the term began its drift in the first place.

Agnosticism holds a privileged place in the family of concepts to which it belongs. An intermediate point between atheism and belief, it has the appearance of a middle sibling, an agent of compromise perhaps. This position is by nature unstable. Contests are staged on neutral grounds and influence, as in chess, depends upon control of the middle. Even the devil will not lay siege to heaven but waits to meet its armies, instead, at a point halfway between. In a contest of ideas, the midway is often marked out by a tertium quid, a third concept or term, and the possibility of reconciliation may depend upon its discovery. Where this term is absent, the weather tends to gather heavily at the poles. This was the predicament, I recall, in which MC Hammer found himself in 1991 as he sought to explain how he could both support the troops and oppose the war. What we lack, then as now, is perhaps nothing more than the right word. Consider the enthusiasm, the palpable relief, with which a culture tormented by prejudice has embraced the notion of the metrosexual — officially elected, in fact, the best new word of 2003.

A third term of sufficient authority may prove indisputable, as was the case when Michael Jordan mounted the podium at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to accept his gold medal. The Dream Team was sponsored by Reebok, Jordan by Nike, who would hear nothing of his international appearance in the hightops of a rival. Preternaturally self-assured, Jordan arrived for the ceremony robed in the tertium quid itself: a large, new American flag.

More often than not, however, the third term does not offer an immediate solution, but rather marks out the terrain on which the conflict is staged. Consider the intense semantic pressures levied in recent decades upon the notion of political liberalism. Conservatives, by definition, stand for tradition, progressives for change. What, then, is a liberal? A generation ago, Richard Nixon sought (not without cause) to reclaim the term for his own party. Democrats, after all, mooned over equality; it was the Republicans, then as now, who stood for freedom above all else. When Nixon failed to retake the term, his colleagues simply made it a slur. Either way, though, the word has shed none of its political charge.

Agnosticism retains an academic, half-familiar air. It is not often heard on television, and the pressures turned upon it have been less intense than those turned, say, on ‘liberal,’ or ‘fair and balanced,’ or ‘French fries.’ Still, if the shift in its meaning is as deep as I have suggested, the idea of agnosticism may have come to serve as a minor fulcrum, a point of balance in the wider debate between secular and religious America. It is worth recalling that the term was never intended as such. Huxley was an empiricist and a skeptic who took little interest in the nature of sin or the fate of his soul. Arguments were to be judged, in his view, on the basis of observation and experiment alone, and theism, by this reckoning, scarcely merited consideration. Atheism, meanwhile, remained a plausible but ultimately unprovable dogma. Huxley’s turn toward agnosticism was motivated by the demands not of spiritual faction, but of intellectual hygiene. Many of his temper, in fact, have claimed their agnosticism in a spirit not of tolerance, but of polite disdain. The great French positivist Auguste Comte, for one, declined atheism on the grounds that to embrace it would be to take the very notion of God far too seriously.

Agnosticism, then, is in its origins the edited atheism of a fastidious mind. It is a slim concept, a sort of supplement. What has lately begun to happen, however, is that other, less fastidious minds have begun to grant it a more robust, more relevant sense. It is not unreasonable to assume, on the one hand, that a point of true compromise between faith and atheism cannot be found. Tolerance and ecumenism may gesture toward such a point. And yet their influence, in the end, may serve only to underscore the difference: that one either is or is not a person of faith.

Suppose, though, that such a compromise, a balsam for our partisan scars, were possible. Suppose the discovery of the tertium quid, the third spiritual thing. Agnosticism has been dislodged and its meaning lifted into flux. The forces behind this shift may derive from the need, felt dimly by those on either side, for something like a genuine middle ground. Where Huxley was circumspect, the New Agnosticism offers a generous welcome. It is ecumenism drawn out almost to the vanishing point. Any tradition, any myth, perhaps even a persistent sense of gratitude, will do. Can this be the properly modern form of faith?

Citizens of a plural world have natural difficulty honoring the magic and heroes of one tradition over those of another. And yet the alternative — life as the banging along of stuff — leaves many just as cold. Our lives, so far as we lead them, are saturated at each point with notions of purpose and aim. To concede this fact, to steadily pursue one’s ends, and yet to view them all the while as cheerful fictions requires a rather blackened sense of humor. For those both called to belief and wary of that call, there is little refuge. The nearest point of contact in the Western tradition is perhaps Unitarian Universalism, a faith which emerges in response to the same fact of pluralism. And yet the Unitarian Universalists offer not the reconciliation but the studious avoidance of theologies. What unites their church is a shared moral vision, and this, in the end, has nothing to do with the existence or absence of higher powers. The new agnostic offers no description of this power save for its bare existence and its vague agency. Perhaps, though, this is virtually all that matters. A is greater than B. It is a claim that offers scarcely anything, and yet so much more than nothing.

Ben Rutter lives and writes in Brooklyn.