- Making Space for Agnosticism:A Response to Dawkins and James
A common strategy in philosophical debate is to limit the alternative positions available in order to increase the appeal of one's own position. Unfortunately, this has too often been true in debates regarding the justification of religious faith. Both defenders and critics of religious faith have tried to rule out agnosticism as a viable alternative in order to support their own arguments for or against religious faith. Unfortunately, this strategy only encourages what is already the problematic polarization of religious discourse. My goal in writing this paper is to lessen this polarization by making space for agnosticism between atheism and religious faith. I do this by critiquing two arguments against agnosticism, one offered by Richard Dawkins, a vociferous critic of religious faith, and the other offered by William James, a passionate defender of religious faith.
While Dawkins and James would seem to have little in common, interestingly both attempt to strengthen their arguments by criticizing agnosticism, more specifically the agnosticism of T. H. Huxley. Dawkins and other new atheists, such as Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and the late Christopher Hitchens, are notable not only for their strident rhetorical attacks on religious fundamentalists but also for their criticism of religious moderates and agnostics.1 In the process, they draw implicitly on a normative account of the justification of belief with roots in Huxley's agnosticism and W. K. Clifford's ethics of belief. Given this connection, it is perhaps ironic that Dawkins attempts to strengthen his case for atheism by arguing that Huxley's agnosticism regarding religious belief is untenable. William James's defense of religious faith in "The Will to Believe" is also a response to Huxley. Like Dawkins, but for very different reasons, James argues that agnosticism is untenable. Huxley's and Clifford's admonition that we suspend belief when we have inadequate evidence is not an alternative because religious faith presents us with a forced option—i.e., we must decide either for it or against it. [End Page 135]
My intention in this paper is not to offer a positive argument for agnosticism, but something more modest. The goal is to make more space for agnosticism in philosophical and religious discourse by countering the arguments against it offered by Dawkins and James. In part 1, I briefly review Huxley's agnosticism and its connection to the arguments offered by the new atheists. In part 2, I examine Dawkins's critique of agnosticism, arguing that it fails because it relies on both a restrictive definition of agnosticism and an unjustified allegiance to evidentialism. In part 3, I explore James's argument against agnosticism, arguing that it fails because the religious option does not present us with a forced option.
Huxley articulated his agnosticism and responded to critics in a heated exchange that took place in The Nineteenth Century over a five month period in 1889.2 In the first article in that series, Huxley took credit for coining the term "agnosticism" and characterized it as a guiding intellectual principle rather than a creed or set of beliefs. "Positively," he wrote, "the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable."3
The spirit, if not the letter, of this principle certainly did not originate with Huxley. It was common enough in Western philosophy. However, the religious and intellectual context in which Huxley coined the term "agnosticism" significantly shaped how it would come to be used. There is much to say about this history, but I will only note two points here. First, because Huxley offered his agnosticism as an alternative to theism and atheism,4 it came to be understood primarily as a position on religious matters, rather than a guiding intellectual principle. Moreover, despite his intentions his ecclesiastical critics persistently rejected it as a third distinct alternative, equating agnosticism with atheism as simply another form of disbelief. For instance, W. C. Magee, the...