May 15, 2012
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It will be surprising to most to learn that the word agnostic does not have a long history, but is in fact a neologism invented in 1869 by T.H. Huxely, the grandfather of Aldous.
Huxley’s original meaning was simple: in contrast to those self-satisfied individuals who considered themselves ‘gnostics’ (literally, ‘ones who know’) in matters of religion, he considered himself to be an ‘agnostic’ (literally, “one who doesn’t know’). But the state of ‘not knowing’ implied by Huxley is not one of complacent ignorance, but rather of a philosophical openness and a non-dogmatic approach to the world that is both attractive and healthy.
I believe that the word’s longevity and naturalness stems from the fact that it filled a need in Western culture: that of a neutral middle ground between the blind faith of tradition and the rampant materialism spawned by the Enlightenment. While Huxley invented the word, he did not invent the concept but was the heir to a tradition of philosophical skepticism.
The most interesting modern usage of this word is, in my opinion, in the name of the long-running American hardcore band Agnostic Front. This name implies a militant, aggressive centrist stance, a defiant refusal to line up on either side of the false dichotomy posited by mainstream society.
This is a usage that I feel is more fitting to Huxley’s original meaning than a one-dimensional concept of an agnostic as a simple ‘unbeliever’, which implies that an agnostic is on the side of those who actively disbelieve. It must be kept in mind that a true agnostic can provide no comfort to either side.