Agnostic? I Don't Know About This...
by Kenneth Blackledge

On Meretricula's FAQ page, she stated that Charles Darwin was not an atheist; on her Reader Comments page is a note from me claiming that he was. So who's correct? Actually, Darwin himself once wrote in a letter to a clergyman: "I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally... an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

Well, I'm glad I could clear that up.

Seriously, there are many nonbelievers, including myself, who think that it's time we take a second look at the use of the term "agnostic." Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin's, originally invented the term to describe himself after being dissatified with the dogmatism and certainity he found among both religious believers and nonbelievers regarding the existence of God. Since it was impossible to prove or disprove this matter, Huxley argued, one should try to keep an open mind and just say, "I don't know."

That's all well and good, but sooner or later someone's going to say to us: "Yes, but what do you believe?" Agnosticism is a matter of knowledge, and when it comes down to that, everyone's an agnostic. Nobody has produced the definitive answer on whether or not there is a God. How many times have Christians said that they rely on "faith" instead of "proof?" Huxley himself said, "Agnosticism is, in fact, not a creed, but a method."

There are a few agnostics who hold theistic beliefs. I once heard a sermon by a Unitarian-Universalist minister on "Pious agnosticism". Going back a little further in time, in 1965 Methodist bishop Leslie Weatherhead wrote a book titled, The Christian Agnostic. An apologetic for liberal mainline Protestantism, Weatherhead specifically wanted to address those who admired Jesus of Nazareth as a role model, but couldn't accept the traditional doctrines of the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or the infallibility of the Bible. (The wisdom of this approach will not be debated here.)

However, most of those who call themselves agnostic, both now and in the nineteenth century, were atheists for all practical intents and purposes. While they may not have proof, they're fairly certain that the Judeo-Christian God, or any other God, doesn't exist. They don't worship or pray to him, and they'd sooner criticize the church than attend one. Huxley's opponents accused him of trying to avoid the slanderous label of "atheist". Despite his denials, I don't think they were entirely incorrect. But there is no reason why "atheist" should be a slanderous label.

My position is that we should define ourselves by what we believe, not what we know -- because there's a lot that we don't know. While I believe that it's possible that some "higher power" created and sustains the universe, he(?) would be more like the deistic "clockmaker" than anything else. I do not believe that there is any deity that takes care of us or grants us special favors, and for that reason, I prefer to call myself an atheist instead of an agnostic.

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