July 3, 1998

To Believe or Not

And if there be no meeting past the grave,

If all is darkness, silence, yet 'tis rest.

Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep,

For still He giveth His beloved sleep,

And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.

Henrietta Anne Huxley, written on her husband Thomas Henry Huxley's tombstone.

The word "agnostic" was coined by T.H.Huxley in 1869. It literally means "without knowing." Huxley used it to describe his own attitude, which was of a person who did not know, and who devoted much of his efforts to trying to find out. It also implied that there were many things that were probably unknowable.

In a way, the term "agnostic" represented an antithesis to most organized religions in which their adherents are quite certain of what an agnostic might consider unknowable. It is unusual to find an enthusiastic adherent of a religion who isn't sure of why he is here, what is the right and wrong thing to do, what he is supposed to do, and where he is going when he dies. Much of what an adherent of a religion is supposed to believe is set down in black and white in a creed. Most are taught to memorize that creed as children and most retain their beliefs throughout their lives although many have some doubts which often remain unexpressed. An agnostic may also be quite certain of where he is going when he dies.

During Huxley's lifetime a formal religion of Agnosticism was organized, much to Huxley's displeasure. He did not believe that "not knowing" required a church nor priests.

History is full of religions springing from other religions. Most new religions claims that they are the sole possessors of "the truth." Written history does not go back much farther than the Sumerians. I think that I am on safe ground to say that, with no exception that I know of, all modern religions sprung from other pre-existing religions. Yes, religions also evolve. Even Atheists, who claim that they do not believe that there is a god, have their own set of beliefs which may be as rigid as the religions that they oppose.

Huxley was brought up as an Anglican and retained much of the religion of his childhood as well as many of the values that were inseparable from them. I do not believe it possible to discard more than a part of what we were taught as children. I believe that if you scratch a convert to Atheism, you may find a disillusioned believer. While many people do modify their beliefs, it may well be as impossible to eliminate those beliefs as it is to change those parts of a computer's program that are hard wired.

The term "agnostic," as Huxley used it, can even be applied to a member of a religion who has an open mind about many things. The Moravian priest Gregor Mendel was a practicing Roman Catholic priest who became the abbott of his monastery. As a scientist, he retained a completely open mind that changed as the evidence presented itself. The same thing applies to Galileo. Both of these men were agnostics in science while retaining the religious beliefs of their childhood. As a consequence of Galileo and Mendel being seekers after the truth, they changed the world.

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