Last modified on April 21, 2019, at 12:46

History of agnosticism

T. H. Huxley coined the word "agnostic".

Agnosticism is, in weaker forms, an affirmation of ignorance regarding the existence of a God or gods, and in stronger forms, the assertion that the existence of a deity or deities is unknowable. The leading encyclopedias of philosophy argue, by contrast that atheism is a strong form of ignorance that denies the existence of God.[1] See: Definitions of Atheist and Agnostic

In terms of contemporary definitions of atheism, the Webster-Merriam Dictionary defines atheism in two ways: "1) a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods 2) a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods."[2] Oxford English Dictionies defines atheism as "Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods."[3]

The proponent of the weaker form of agnosticism does not make a claim to knowledge about existence, but he simply suspends from making a decision. A suspension of decision, in terms of logic, does not have a truth value, and therefore they are not making an argument. The proponent of the stronger form goes a step further and makes a claim to knowledge by saying, I know that the existence of God cannot be known.

The word "agnostic" was coined in 1869 by T. H. Huxley[4] from the Greek roots a- not, and -gnostic, knowing; the philosopher Herbert Spencer was influential in spreading its use. One nineteenth century saw held that "There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet."[5]

The agnostic George Dvorsky points out that due to the greater intensity of the atheism vs. religion ideological struggle for cultural dominance, agnosticism has been pushed to the philosophical sidelines.[6]

History of the word agnosticism

See also: Atheism and science and History of atheism and Christianity and science

The abstract for the British Journal for the History of Science journal article Huxley and scientific agnosticism: the strange history of a failed rhetorical strategy by B. Lightman declares:

Huxley's invention of the term 'agnostic' in 1869 is often seen as a brilliant rhetorical strategy. Portrayed as an effective weapon in Huxley's public debates with defenders of the Anglican establishment, the creation of scientific agnosticism has been interpreted as a turning point in the relationship between science and religion. In this paper I will challenge this interpretation of the rise of scientific agnosticism. Huxley was reluctant to identify himself unambiguously as an agnostic in public until 1883 and his restricted use of agnostic concepts during the 1870s and 1880s was compromised when other unbelievers, with different agendas, sought to capitalize on the polemical advantages of referring to themselves as agnostics. As a result, he was not always associated with agnosticism in the public mind and his original conception of it was modified by others to the point where he felt compelled to intervene in 1889 to set the record straight. But Huxley could not control the public meaning of 'agnosticism' and its value to him as a rhetorical strategy was severely limited.[7]

Since agnosticism/atheism share the element of "doubt" in terms of supernatural claims (see also: Atheism and science).

Thomas Huxley vs. Anglican Samuel Wilberforce debate

See also: Agnosticism debates

See: Thomas Huxley vs. Anglican Samuel Wilberforce debate

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on agnosticism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy say about the history of agnosticism:

Though there are a couple of references in The Oxford English Dictionary to earlier occurrences of the word ‘agnostic’, it seems (perhaps independently) to have been introduced by T. H. Huxley at a party in London to found the Metaphysical Society, which flourished for over a decade and to which belonged notable thinkers and leaders of opinion. Huxley thought that as many of these people liked to describe themselves as adherents of various ‘isms’ he would invent one for himself. He took it from a description in Acts 17:23 of an altar inscribed ‘to an unknown God’. Huxley thought that we would never be able to know about the ultimate origin and causes of the universe. Thus he seems to have been more like a Kantian believer in unknowable noumena than like a Vienna Circle proponent of the view that talk of God is not even meaningful. Perhaps such a logical positivist should be classified as neither a theist nor an atheist, but her view would be just as objectionable to a theist. ‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it. In this article I confine myself to the use of ‘agnostic’ in a theological context.

Huxley's agnosticism seems nevertheless to go with an extreme empiricism, nearer to Mill's methods of induction than to recent discussions of the hypothetico-deductive and partly holistic aspect of testing of theories.[8]

See also:

Social effects of Darwinism

Charles Darwin in 1880 at the age of 71.

See also: Social effects of the theory of evolution

Charles Darwin was an agnostic and evolutionist.

There have been many social effects of evolution in regards to its acceptance by various individuals in the course of history. The theory of evolution has been influential in regards to Social Darwinism, Nazism, Communism, and racism.[9][10][11][12][13]

Social Darwinism

See also: Social Darwinism

is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. The theory was chiefly expounded by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies always held an elitist view and received a boost from the application of Darwinian ideas such as adaptation and natural selection.[14] Its leading proponents opine atheism.[15][16][17]

Beginning in 1887, social scientists were using the term "social Darwinism" to apply the survival of the fittest theory to social situations. Under this theory, the wealthiest or most powerful in society must be biologically superior, and less "fit" persons should die.

Proponents of this particular form of ‘social Darwinism’, such as Herbert Spencer, taught that the powerful and wealthy were this way because they were biologically and evolutionally superior to the struggling masses. They believed that we should therefore do nothing to help improve the working and living conditions of the lesser evolved masses. Charities were clearly evil in helping sustain the lives of those who otherwise would and should die in the natural selection process. In other words, the weak were to do their duty and die while the fittest survived, which would one day lead to an evolutionarily super society and race. [1]

Soon many began to view racial struggles, and war itself, as a perfectly natural example of survival-of-the-fittest in the human race. The horrific wars of the 20th century, employing shockingly brutal tactics, were encouraged by a belief in survival-of-the-fittest among humans. While social Darwinism itself was applied to social and economic situations rather than military ones, it is easy how extreme versions of social Darwinism could justify physical struggles among races.

Social Darwinism has been linked with racism, nationalism, imperialism, and atheism.[15][16][17][18][19] To elitists, strong nations were composed of white people who successful at expanding their empires, and as such, these strong nations would survive in the struggle for dominance.[18] With this attitude, Europeans, except for Christian missionaries, seldom adopted the customs and lanugages of local people under their empires.[18] Christian missionaries, on the other hand, were the very first individuals to meet new peoples and develop writing systems for local inhabitants' languages that lacked one.[18] Being critics of Darwinism, they ardently opposed slavery and provided an education and religious instruction to the new peoples they interacted with since they felt that this was their duty as Christians.[18]

Darwinism and brutality in war

See also: World War I and Darwinism

Historian Jacques Barzun observed how Darwinism caused the horrendous brutality of the wars leading up to WWI: "Since in every European country between 1870 and 1914 there was a war party demanding armaments, an individualist party demanding ruthless competition, an imperialist party demanding a free hand over backward peoples, a socialist party demanding the conquest of power and a racialist party demanding internal purges against aliens — all of them, when appeals to greed and glory failed, invoked Spencer and Darwin, which was to say science incarnate."[20]

Evolutionary racism

See also: Evolutionary racism

Evolutionary racism refers to a racist philosophy based on Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. It assumes that men have continually evolved, and thus some races are more evolved than others. An example of evolutionary racism is when an evolutionary racist put Ota Benga on display at the Bronx Zoo in the monkey house.[21]

Charles Darwin wrote in his work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex:

At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes...will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest Allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.[22][23]

Adolf Hitler and evolutionary racist genocide

For more information please see: Social effects of the theory of evolution

Darwin's evolutionary racism would have enormous impact in early 20th century, eventually leading to eugenics programs (first devised by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton) in American and Europe, and also influencing Adolf Hitler.


The staunch evolutionist Stephen Gould admitted the following:

[Ernst] Haeckel was the chief apostle of evolution in Germany.... His evolutionary racism; his call to the German people for racial purity and unflinching devotion to a "just" state; his belief that harsh, inexorable laws of evolution ruled human civilization and nature alike, conferring upon favored races the right to dominate others; the irrational mysticism that had always stood in strange communion with his brave words about objective science - all contributed to the rise of Nazism. - Stephen J. Gould, "Ontogeny and Phylogeny," Belknap Press: Cambridge MA, 1977, (pp.77-78).[24]

Robert E.D. Clark in his work Darwin: Before and After wrote concerning Hitler's evolutionary racism:

The Germans were the higher race, destined for a glorious evolutionary future. For this reason it was essential that the Jews should be segregated, otherwise mixed marriages would take place. Were this to happen, all nature’s efforts 'to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being may thus be rendered futile' (Mein Kampf).[25]

Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf:

The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he, after all, is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher development (Hoherentwicklung) of organic living beings would be unthinkable.[26]


Evolutionism and sexual morality: University study

See: Belief in evolution and sexual immorality

20th century rise and decline of agnosticism

Secular Europe has one of the highest rates of agnosticism rates in the world. In 2014, the Pew Research Forum indicated that Europe will go from 11% of the world's population to 7% of the world's population by 2050.[27] According to the agnostic scholar Eric Kaufmann, in the Europe of tomorrow, immigration and religious fertility will increase the proportion of committed Christians in Europe, many from the developing world.[28]

In 1900, about .18% (about 1/5 of one percent) of the world's population were agnostics. By 1970, about 14.7% of the world's population were agnostics.[29]

In 2000, about 10.75% of the global population consisted of agnostics which was a decline from 1970.[30]

Desecularization is the process by which religion reasserts its societal influence though religious values, institutions, sectors of society and symbols in reaction to previous and/or co-occurring secularization processes.[31]

From a global perspective, religion saw a resurgence and scholars of religious demographics frequently use the term "global resurgence of religion" to describe the process of desecularization which began in the late portion of the 20th century.[32]

Projected 21st century decline of agnosticism

See also; Global agnosticism

In 2015, Pew Research indicated in their report The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 that agnostics and atheists “will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”[33]

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated that agnostics made up 9.5% of the global population in 2015. CSGC projects that agnosticism will be 8.71% of the global population in 2025 and 7.19% of the global population in 2050.[34]

Causes of the rise and decline of agnosticism

See also: Causes of atheism

Causes of agnosticism

See also: Causes of atheism

Social scientists and others have studied the causes of atheism as atheism - especially militant atheism - is a more strident and provocative ideology and thus is more attention grabbing. In addition, historically there have been no "state agnosticism" regimes (see: State atheism). For example, the psychologist Paul Vitz wrote the book Faith of the Fatherless about the causes of atheism.

Although, atheism and agnosticism are separate and distinct ideologies, as noted above, they do share in common the causal factor of "doubt" in terms of supernatural claims, so there may be some commonalities as far as the causes of agnosticism. For more information, please see: Causes of atheism.

Effects of agnosticism

See: Agnosticism statistics and Atheism statistics

Causes of the decline of agnosticism

See also: Causes of desecularization and Growth of global desecularization

For the causes of desecularization, please see: Causes of desecularization.

Agnosticism debates

See also: Agnosticism debates

Despite there being more self-described agnostics in the world than self-described atheists (See also: Definitions of Atheist and Agnostic),[35] since at least the latter part of the 20th century, there have been more atheism vs. Christianity debates than atheism vs. agnosticism debates (see: Atheism debates and Atheism vs. Christianity debates). In recent times, however, there have been notable cases of atheists being unwilling to engage in debates (see: Atheism and cowardice).

For a listing of notable agnosticism related debates, please see: Agnosticism debates

Agnosticism and pseudoscience

See also; Atheism and science

Agnosticism was instrumental/influential in spawning in a number of pseudosciences (see: List of atheist and agnostic pseudosciences).

See also


  1. *Smart, J. J. C. (August 8, 2011). "Atheism and agnosticism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved July 17, 2014.
  2. Atheism, Webster-Merriam dictionary
  3. Atheism, Oxford online dictionary
  4. T. H. Huxley was also an early and influential supporter of Darwinism.
  5. London, Jack (1913), Martin Eden, Chapter 13
  6. Why Agnosticism Probably Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means by George Dvorsky
  7. Br J Hist Sci. 2002 Sep;35(126 Pt 3):271-89.
  8. Atheism and Agnosticism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  14. Social Darwinism at Thinkquest, retrieved on 08/04/2008
  15. 15.0 15.1 Manfred Berg, Geoffrey Cocks. Medicine and Modernity: Public Health and Medical Care in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “The Christian-conservative Ritter went on to argue that social Darwnism was an aspect of the materialist worldview of the Weimar Republic, which encompassed Marxism and atheism as well and displaced the religious values that he thought had dominated in the imperial period and that alone could guarantee political stablility in the age of the masses.” 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Mohammed Talib. Universal Peace. Lulu. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “At this point, we must recall another atheist ideology-Social Darwinism-which was among the causes for the outbreak of both the First and Second World Wars.” 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Jonas E. Alexis. Christianity's Dangerous Idea. AuthorHouse. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “What is even more interesting to point out is that the leading social Darwinists were not Protestants at all-they were mostly atheists who were trying to force their own ideologies upon society at large.” 
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “The most extreme ideological expression of nationalism and imperialism was Social Darwinism. In the popular mind, the concepts of evolution justifed the exploitation of "lesser breeds without the law" by superior races. This language of raece and conflict, of superior and inferior people, had wide currency in the Western states. Social Darwinists vigourously advocated the acquistion of empires, saying that strong nations-by definition, those that were successful at expanding industry and empire-would survive and that others would not. To these elitists, all white men were more fit than nonwhites to prevail in the struggle for dominance. Even among Europeans, some nations were deemed more fit than others for the competition. Usually, Social Darwinists thought their own nation the best, an attitude that sparked their competitive enthusiasm. In the nineteenth centruy, in contrast to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans, except for missionaries, rarely adopted the customs or learned the languages of local people. They had little sense that other cultures and other people had merit or deserved respect. Many westerners believed that it was their duty as Christians to set an example and to educate others. Missionaries were the first to meet and learn about many peoples and were the first to develop writing for those without a written language. Christian missionaries were ardently opposed to slavery.” 
  19. Hall, Timothy C. (M.A.) "The Complete Idiot's Guide to World History". pg. 248: "Others like Herbert Spenser took Darwin's concepts of survival of the fittest and applied them to human society. Spenser saw social progress coming from the struggle for survival. This application became the rationale for many movements and injustices of the nineteenth century, including imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, and racism." ISBN 978-1-59257-712-5.
  23. The Descent of Man, chapter VI
  27. 10 projections for the global population in 2050 By Rakesh Kochhar, Pew Research Forum, February 3, 2014
  28. Shall the Righteous Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Eric Kaufmann
  29. Status of Global Christianity, 2015, in the Context of 1900–2050
  30. Status of Global Christianity, 2015, in the Context of 1900–2050
  31. Religion and the State in Russia and China: Suppression, Survival and Revival by Christopher Marsh, 2011, page 11 (Christopher Marsh cites the definitions of desecularization given by Peter L. Berger and Vyacheslav Karpov)
  32. The return of religion
  33. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050, Pew Research Forum
  34. Status of Global Christianity, 2015, in the Context of 1900–2050
  35. Table on the projected global shrinkage/growth of various worldviews including atheism and agnosticism (Source: Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)