What is agnosticism?

Thomas Henry Huxley was an English biologist who was nicknamed "Darwin's bulldog" for his staunch support of Darwin's theory of evolution. Huxley is also credited with coining the term agnostic. Following in his footsteps, his grandson Julian Huxley wrote the following in defense of agnosticism:

"I believe that one should be agnostic when belief one way or the other is mere idle speculation, incapable of verification; when belief is held merely to gratify desires, however deep-seated, and not because it is forced on us by evidence; and when belief may be taken by others to be more firmly grounded than it really is, and so come to encourage false hopes or wrong attitudes of mind."

Huxley felt that "all our life long we are oscillating between conviction and caution, faith and agnosticism, belief and suspension of belief."

A formal definition of Huxley's agnostic today is "a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience."

An agnostic, therefore, is one who says he does not know if God exists. Some agnostics state, more broadly, that it is difficult to hold any truth with certainty.

Agnosticism typically takes one of two forms, hard and soft. The hard agnostic says that a person can't know anything for sure. However, this is a self-defeating position. If you say, "No one can know anything for sure," we say, "Are you sure about that?" Hard agnosticism is simply an untenable position and must be discarded.

In contrast, the soft agnostic says he doesn't know anything for sure. At issue is not the ability to grasp a particular truth, but the ability to verify the truth claim. It is the ancient struggle of epistemology – how do we know, and how do we know that we know? When the issue of God's existence is added to the mix, things get even stickier.

But what if a person truly follows Julian Huxley's criteria for when to be agnostic? What would be the result if Huxley's measures were applied to the New Testament account of Jesus Christ?

Huxley's first condition is that a belief cannot be mere idle speculation or be incapable of verification. This first standard seems reasonable, as hearsay should not be the basis for belief. It is sometimes called "the principle of falsification" and was used by philosophers such as Anthony Flew.

How do the claims of the New Testament hold up under Huxley's first criterion? When the legal/historical methods for determining truth are applied to the New Testament, it stands up very well under Huxley's standard.

The writers of the New Testament never intimate that their beliefs were based on hearsay or that the events could not be authenticated. Quite the opposite. Peter says, "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16). The disciples recorded things that happened in actual space/time, things they saw with their own eyes.

In terms of falsification, the Apostle Paul gave the enemies of Christianity a single truth claim that, if proven untrue, would destroy Christianity in an instant: "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14). So, if the resurrection of Christ did not occur, then the Christian faith is "useless." That, Paul says, is how Christianity can be falsified: find the body of that Jewish carpenter, and the Christian faith is undone.

Earlier in that same chapter, Paul actually challenges his readers of that day to go check for themselves that the tomb of Jesus was empty: "he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:5-6). Paul tells his readers that his claims are easily verified. Many others (over 500) saw the risen Christ and could act as witnesses to validate the fact of Jesus' resurrection.

Given that we cannot find living eyewitnesses to the resurrection today, how do we know that Paul and the other apostles were telling the truth? The apostles answer that question through their grave markers. All of them except John were martyred for their testimony. It's possible that someone may be deceived and so die for a lie, but no one dies for what he knows is a lie. All the apostles had to do to save their lives was recant their testimony. Not one of them did. Greater evidence for believability cannot be had.

Moving on from Huxley's first criterion, we have his second and third standards, which are nearly identical in nature. Huxley says that a belief should be discarded if the sole purpose is to satisfy some psychological desire. Further, he says, agnosticism is justified if a belief is not well-grounded in reality or if it produces false hopes. This benchmark for belief is certainly rational. The only reason to believe anything should be that it's true.

The psychiatrist Sigmund Freud is often quoted to show how religion fails such a test. Speaking of religious beliefs, Freud said, "They are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. We call belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification."

However, Freud's criteria do nothing to prove or disprove God. The sword cuts in both directions. Could it not be true that the atheist has wishes and urges of his own? Perhaps a wish that a God does not exist or that there is no judgment? Could not such a desire could be "a prominent factor" in the "motivation" of atheistic belief? In reality, Freud's words have no power whatsoever to determine the validity of Christianity. In fact, we view Freud's disregard of religion as wish-fulfillment of the highest order.

Freud's thoughts aside, how does the New Testament stand up against Huxley's second and third standards? As with Huxley's first measure, it does extremely well.

First, from a legal/historical perspective, no other ancient document comes even close to the New Testament's credentials concerning the validity of a historical work. The New Testament passes the bibliographical test (manuscript reliability and early dating), the internal evidence test (multiple key testimonies, all of which match), and the external evidence test (outside evidence that corroborates the document's testimony) with flying colors.

Second, as many have pointed out, the New Testament is not written like a lie. Too many details of the narrative would make no sense as a fabrication. For example, the New Testament writers say that Jesus was buried by a member of the Sanhedrin—if this were a lie, it would be a most preposterous one and quite easily refuted. Also, if the Gospel writers wanted to concoct a believable lie, they would never have invented the story of women being the first witnesses of Christ's resurrection, given that a woman's testimony was not considered reliable and was inadmissible in court.

Rather, what we find in the New Testament is a strong commitment to accuracy no matter where the evidence leads. Luke speaks of his attention to detail and dedication to the facts: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1–4).

Finally, as has already been mentioned, the New Testament writers died for their testimony. Theologian Peter Kreeft asks, "Why would the apostles lie? . . . If they lied, what was their motive . . .? What they got out of it was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!"

The treatment the apostles received could in no way be considered the gratification of a desire. Neither would their teaching "encourage false hopes," as they would obviously know, had they been lying, that their claims were false. Thus, the New Testament overcomes Huxley's second and third reasons for being agnostic.

In the end, an agnostic who uses Julian Huxley's own criteria for determining whether one should be agnostic will have to seriously reconsider his position. Hard agnosticism is self-defeating. Soft agnosticism is challenged by the compelling evidence of the New Testament. The reasonable conclusion is that truth is knowable and that truth is found in Christianity.

Related Truth:

What is atheism?

What is Naturalism?

What does natural law teach?

How is belief in God different than belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Can the existence of God be proven?

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