The Language of God: The Irony of Misunderstood Agnosticism

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The final part of this chapter on the godless takes aim at agnosticism. Collins first gives Huxley’s coinage of the term, and then he proceeds to misunderstand agnosticism in a way that’s rife with glaring contradictions.

Collins gives a lengthy quote of Huxley’s from Wikipedia, which you won’t find in the Wikipedia article he references! His citation doesn’t even mention when he accessed that page. Time to rant here: I have a friend who is a media specialist with my local library system, and she – and many others in her field – rant about students citing directly from Wikipedia. Ideally, they say, one can use it to check out information, but one should always go to the source material – the references for the article – to determine the value of the material. After all, they say, one can’t just assume that the source material referenced in any given Wikipedia article is a credible primary source. I find Collins’ direct citation of Wikipedia as a primary source to be intellectually lazy.

I have no idea where he got his entire quote, but you can find a portion of it here. The gist of the quote is that Huxley noticed that people seemed to have attained a certain “gnosis” regarding the problem of God’s existence, whereas Huxley had not attained such “gnosis.”

“It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant” (p.167).

Collins misinterprets the quote: “An agnostic, then, is one who would say that the knowledge of God’s existence simply cannot be achieved” (p.168). He then describes “strong agnostics” as stating that such knowledge could never be achieved and “weak agnostics” who say such knowledge is simply not available right now.

But wait a minute. Collins wouldn’t be able to conclude from Huxley’s quote above that an an agnostic would say that the knowledge of God’s existence simply cannot be achieved. After all, the quote Collins lifted from Huxley references the people who profess to have such knowledge. Huxley’s term would be more suited to simply negate that quote: agnostics are people who profess to have a lack of such knowledge. Just as a-theism is a lack of a belief in god(s), a-gnosticism would be the lack of knowledge of god(s). To conclude that agnostics say such knowledge is simply impossible requires additional steps in logic that Collins does not provide. In addition, Collins contradicts himself: at one point he says that an agnostic would say such knowledge “simply cannot be achieved” and then – in the very next sentence! – states that some (weak) agnostics just think we don’t have the knowledge right now, which sounds a lot like “maybe we’ll have that knowledge later.”

Collins then proceeds to characterize agnostics with bald assertions: “Most agnostics simply take the position that it is not possible, at least for them at that time, to take a position for or against the existence of God,” “many biologists would put themselves in this camp,” and “It is a rare agnostic who has made the effort to [consider all the evidence for and against the existence of God]” (p.168). There are, of course, no references backing his conclusions. Collins paints agnostics with a broad brush that screams “agnosticism is a cop-out!”

There is a possible objection that would rule out Collins’ strong v. weak dichotomy regarding agnosticism and show that agnosticism is far from a cop-out. If a strong agnostic claims that knowledge about god is impossible, then wouldn’t this mean that the agnostic has certain knowledge about gods (that gods are pesky in their unknowability) and/or the nature of reality relative to those gods? If that’s the case, and strong agnosticism is self-refuting, then weak agnosticism is the only form you have.

I have occasionally run into people who question whether I’m really an atheist or whether I’m an agnostic. Unfortunately, if these people were to read Collins’ book, they would not be any closer to understanding why a/theism and a/gnosticism is not an either/or proposition.

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