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O’Hair vs. Huxley—A Totally Misdirected Attack


I’ve wanted for a long time to write some response to Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s essay entitled “Agnostics,” but for many reasons, up to now I’ve just not made the time to do it. In some ways, its far better that I’ve waited, because my initial feelings about that essay were strongly colored by the emotional nature of her attack upon those of us who, like myself, choose to call ourselves “agnostic.” Most particularly annoying is the gratuitous calumny expressed in the last line of her essay:

“The agnostic is gutless and prefers to keep one safe foot in the god camp.”

In a very real sense, it takes even more “guts” to proclaim oneself to be “agnostic” because it immediately subjects one to attack from both theists and atheists, many of whom in each camp prefer to see agnostics as members of “the enemy’s camp.” That was certainly the import of the gratuitous attack by Ms. O’Hair, and others among her followers have repeatedly expressed similar strong opinions about how “agnostics” are “enemies” of “atheists” in one way or another. But whether that assertion is true or false depends on far more than the mere labels each of us prefers to attach to ourselves.

No matter whether we are theist, agnostic, or atheist, we are still mutual residents of this planet, and we all need to find a way to “just get along.” Immediately assigning “enemy” status to someone because of a self-proclaimed voluntary affiliation of theirs promotes the exact sort of disharmonious bigotry that many non-theists complain of in theists.[1] We should be better than that. We should surely know by now that turning labels into epithets is a cause of strife, and not a remedy. We should instead seek the opposite, to turn epithets into mere labels that each of us can joyously embrace. Then, we might be one step further along a path towards universal harmony.

The story of how Thomas Henry Huxley came to coin the word “agnostic” is fairly well known. Many sources credit Huxley as the originator of the word. But the best knowledge we have on this comes from his own words in reply to a theist who had attacked agnostics in much the same manner as did Ms. O’Hair. We have only to refer to a debate (or “controversy” as it was called in its day) between that famous theist, one “Henry Wace, D.D., Prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral; Principal of King’s College, London,” and Professor Huxley himself. To put the story into its proper context, then, let us give the two quotes in sequence, as they were originally argued more than a century ago. First, Dr. Wace:

What is agnosticism? In the new Oxford “Dictionary of the English Language,” we are told that “an agnostic is one who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind natural phenomena is unknown, and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.” The same authority quotes a letter from Mr. R. H. Hutton, stating that the word was suggested in his hearing, at a party held in 1869, by Prof. Huxley, who took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar at Athens to the Unknown God. “Agnostic,” it is further said, in a passage quoted from the “Spectator” of June 11, 1876, “was the name demanded by Prof. Huxley for those who disclaimed atheism, and believed with him in an unknown and unknowable God, or, in other words, that the ultimate origin of all things must be some cause unknown and unknowable.” Again, the late honored bishop of this diocese is quoted as saying, in the “Manchester Guardian” in 1880, that “the agnostic neither denied nor affirmed God. He simply put him on one side.” The designation was suggested, therefore, for the purpose of avoiding a direct denial of beliefs respecting God such as are asserted by our faith. It proceeds, also, from a scientific source, and claims the scientific merit, or habit, of reserving opinion respecting matters not known or proved.


Its important to note that the above was exactly what was being responded to when Professor Huxley wrote:

From what precedes, I think it becomes sufficiently clear that Dr. Wace’s account of the origin of the name of “Agnostic” is quite wrong. Indeed, I am bound to add that very slight effort to discover the truth would have convinced him that, as a matter of fact, the term arose otherwise. I am loath to go over an old story once more; but more than one object which I have in view will be served by telling it a little more fully than it has yet been told.

. . .

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker – I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis” – had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.

. . .

This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, long since deceased, but of green and pious memory, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there, and expressed itself with entire openness; most of my colleagues were ists of one sort or another; and, however kind and friendly they might be, I, the man without a rag of a label to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” 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; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes. To my great satisfaction, the term took; and when the “Spectator” had stood godfather to it, any suspicion in the minds of respectable people, that a knowledge of its parentage might have awakened, was, of course, completely lulled.


That is the history of the origin of the terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism”; and it will be observed that it does not quite agree with the confident assertion of the reverend Principal of King’s College, that “the adoption of the term agnostic is only an attempt to shift the issue, and that it involves a mere evasion” in relation to the Church and Christianity.


The exchange, above, ought to make clear that Professor Huxley directly rejected the folkloric history of the word, including the attribution to a quote from St. Paul and the false definition of the word as quoted by Dr. Wace. It was precisely that St. Paul reference, and that same false definition, that Ms. O’Hair’s essay is based upon. In this way, we can see that Huxley himself has directly answered Ms. O’Hair, roughly a century before her words were written!

The remainder of the story of how that folklore and false definition came into the public mind comes to us from an article in a 1911 encyclopedia,[2] as preserved by Project Gutenberg:

This account is confirmed by R. H. Hutton, who in 1881 wrote that the word “was suggested by Huxley at a meeting held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society at Mr. Knowles’s house on Clapham Common in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to the Unknown God.” Hutton here gives a variant etymology for the word, which may be therefore taken as partly derived from agnostos (the “unknown” God), and partly from an antithesis to “gnostic”; but the meaning remains the same in either case. The name, as Huxley said, “took”; it was constantly used by Hutton in the Spectator and became a fashionable label for contemporary unbelief in Christian dogma. Hutton himself frequently misrepresented the doctrine by describing it as “belief in an unknown and unknowable God”; but agnosticism as defined by Huxley meant not belief, but absence of belief, as much distinct from belief on the one hand as from disbelief on the other; it was the half-way house between the two, where all questions were “open.” All that Huxley asked for was evidence, either for or against; but this he believed it impossible to get.

— AGNOSTICISM, from a 1911 encyclopedia.[2]

The key words here are: “agnosticism as defined by Huxley meant not belief, but absence of belief, as much distinct from belief on the one hand as from disbelief on the other; it was the half-way house between the two, where all questions were ‘open.’

I might add that, in his exchange with Dr. Wace, Huxley directly repudiated Dr. Wace’s assertion that he took the word “agnostic” from anything connected to St. Paul, an assertion repeated by Ms. O’Hair. So, if you’ve followed through this quoted history of the word “agnostic”, it should be easy now to discern that Ms. O’Hair’s essay attacks the wrong person! The person behind the definition she attacks is actually “R. H. Hutton” and most certainly not Huxley![3] It is from this fact that I derive my sub-title for this essay, “A Totally Misdirected Attack.” As we shall see, Huxley actually had far more in common with atheists than many atheists would admit. He even went so far as to proclaim himself “atheist and infidel,” at least with respect to Christianity (and presumably, also Judaism and Islam, each of which he took issue with on other occasions).

It is certainly true, as Ms. O’Hair suggests, that Huxley refused to align himself with outspoken atheists such as her hero, Charles Bradlaugh. But its just as true that Huxley also refused to align himself with the theists of his day, and decried the fact that those very theists were using the concept of “moral duty” to spread their creed. In his essay, Dr. Wace makes the following charge:

But if this be so, for a man to urge as an escape from this article of belief that he has no means of a scientific knowledge of the unseen world, or of the future, is irrelevant. His difference from Christians lies not in the fact that he has no knowledge of these things, but that he does not believe the authority on which they are stated. He may prefer to call himself an agnostic; but his real name is an older one – he is an infidel; that is to say, an unbeliever. The word infidel, perhaps, carries an unpleasant significance. Perhaps it is right that it should. It is, and it ought to be, an unpleasant thing for a man to have to say plainly that he does not believe Jesus Christ.


Professor Huxley took issue with the above in the following terms:

The last objection (I rejoice, as much as my readers must do, that it is the last) which I have to take to Dr. Wace’s deliverance before the Church Congress arises, I am sorry to say, on a question of morality.


“It is, and it ought to be,” authoritatively declares this official representative of Christian ethics, “an unpleasant thing for a man to have to say plainly that he does not believe in Jesus Christ” (l. c., p. 254).


Whether it is so, depends, I imagine, a good deal on whether the man was brought up in a Christian household or not. I do not see why it should be “unpleasant” for a Mohammedan or a Buddhist to say so. But that “it ought to be” unpleasant for any man to say anything which he sincerely, and after due deliberation, believes, is, to my mind, a proposition of the most profoundly immoral character. I verily believe that the great good which has been effected in the world by Christianity has been largely counteracted by the pestilent doctrine on which all the churches have insisted, that honest disbelief in their more or less astonishing creeds is a moral offense, indeed a sin of the deepest dye, deserving and involving the same future retribution as murder and robbery. If we could only see, in one view, the torrents of hypocrisy and cruelty, the lies, the slaughter, the violations of every obligation of humanity, which have flowed from this source along the course of the history of Christian nations, our worst imaginations of hell would pale beside the vision.


A thousand times, no! It ought not to be unpleasant to say that which one honestly believes or disbelieves. That it so constantly is painful to do so, is quite enough obstacle to the progress of mankind in that most valuable of all qualities, honesty of word or of deed, without erecting a sad concomitant of human weakness into something to be admired and cherished.


Finally, lest there be any doubt as to how Huxley felt about his position between atheists and Christians, and those with whom he felt somewhat-unwillingly aligned, we have this final quote from the Project Gutenberg encyclopedia article:

In a letter to Charles Kingsley . . . [dated] the 5th of May 1863:–


“I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel.”

So, you should now see that Ms. O’Hair has made a common error: the error of conflating all of her opponents into one common “great enemy” who are all in some way “against her.” In fact, Huxley proclaims in the clearest possible language that he too is “atheist and infidel,” at least from the perspective of the Christians.

As I have explained elsewhere, the essence of agnosticism is really an epistemological claim that knowledge must be based upon demonstrable facts, and including logical conclusions which are rationally deducable from those very facts. Those who have claimed atheism in the past have devoutly professed that no god exists. Huxley simply asserts that they cannot know; those who make such a claim have adopted their atheism as an a priori fact, and that is just as wrong as similar claims by theists. As Professor Theodore M. Drange explains, in his essay entitled Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism (1998):

Although the usual way of defining “theist,” “atheist,” and “agnostic” (in terms of the proposition that God exists) is commendable, it is also incomplete, for it yields no classification for someone who says, “It depends on how you define the word God; for some definitions the proposition is true, for others it is false, and for still others I just don’t know.”

As I’ve pointed out above, Huxley proclaimed his atheism with respect to the Christian god, as I have myself. But in the context supplied by Professor Drange, it would be wrong for me to make such a proclamation with respect to all possible gods, no matter how any such “god” is defined. In the context given by Professor Drange, you cannot decide if you are an atheist, agnostic, theist, or noncognitivist until there is an agreed definition of what “god” is so that you might then decide which of those possible positions was correct for yourself. This approach strips all unbelievers of their cherished labels, leaving the believers (all theists) intact. While a believer in Christianity remains a theist, an unbeliever cannot take on the label of “atheist” except in specific instances where the Christian definition of “god” is either explicit or implicit in the context. Most of us would find such constraints to be overly-cumbersome.

Quite frankly, each of us chooses our own label and defines that label to suit ourselves. I’ve chosen “agnostic” for my label, and written out my own understanding of that word. Frankly, I’ve decided I prefer the original definition of the word to any proposed since then. Accordingly, I adhere to Professor Huxley’s original definition. But, and this is important, I would never think somebody else is “morally wrong” for disagreeing on this point, which is exactly what Dr. Wace proposed, and with which Professor Huxley so vigorously disagreed, over a century ago. And, it would seem, that is apparently the intent of the calumny from Ms. O’Hair with which I began this piece, above. I have no reason to believe that things have changed among any substantial percentage of Christian clergymen, and I have no reason to believe that any large percentage of those clergymen would every welcome, with open arms, the “atheist and infidel” who willfully refuses to convert to theism. So, if I’m to persuade anyone with this essay, I must hope to persuade the atheists to have more tolerance for us agnostics. While we may disagree with you from time-to-time, sometimes vigorously, we are not your enemies!

In her essay, Ms. O’Hair defines what her atheism means in the following terms:

The Atheist position is that the traditionalist historical concepts of god are quite fallacious and that the notion of some “super power” is not now susceptible of proof by existing scientific methods or by the accumulation of knowledge presently accessible to man.

— “Agnostics,” op. cit.

There is literally no difference between that position of Ms. O’Hair and the position asserted by Professor Huxley in his various essays where he discusses the meaning of the word “agnostic.” From the point of view of an agnostic, such as myself, Ms. O’Hair has proclaimed herself to be an agnostic because she states unequivocally that she intends to rely upon “scientific methods” the same as Professor Huxley proclaimed for himself. Accordingly, the calumny and invective directed at Professor Huxley by Ms. O’Hair must be based upon either her total misunderstanding of what he stood for, or else upon a modern political motivation of some hidden but sinister purpose. Without any reasonable leg to stand upon, why else would she proclaim her outright disgust for agnostics? Did she simply enjoy offending as many people as she could?

The O’Hair essay is, unfortunately, just the “tip of the iceberg” of anti-agnostic bigotry among the most “fundamentalist” of atheists. In this essay, I’ve hopefully shown that this bigotry is based on a total misunderstanding of how the word “agnostic” came to be invented, and what that word was origionally intended to mean. Its an unfortunate fact of life that other people will frequently twist our words to mean things they were never intended to mean. So it was for the original meaning of “agnostic,” which was twisted to mean something different through the voluminous writings of R. H. Hutton. But the O’Hair essay attacks not Hutton, but Huxley! This is an injustice that Ms. O’Hair is no longer capable of correcting,[4] should she have ever been persuaded to do so. All that those of us who care about this issue can do now is to post our own rebuttals, in the hope that this will finally set the record straight. That is all I’ve attempted to do here, and it is up to you, the reader, to know if I’ve succeeded or not.


[1] Here, I refer to violent conflicts between members of different sects of the same religion, such as the “troubles” in Northern Ireland between the adherants of Roman Catholicism and their Protestant opponents.

[2] In compliance with the stated restrictions on use of materials from Project Gutenberg, I’ve included the entire article in its original ASCII form, along with all applicable disclaimers and rights claims by Project Gutenberg.

[3] Ms. O’Hair also wrongly refers to Professor Huxley as “Sir Thomas Huxley.” Professor Huxley was never knighted. His grandson, Sir Julian Huxley, was knighted for his scientific achievements, and he frequently carried on his grandfather’s advocacy of intellectual freethinking. This error is just another example of sloppy scholarship by Ms. O’Hair.

[4] As I write this, a former employee of American Atheists is under suspicion for having murdered Ms. O’Hair and two other members of her family. As of this writing, no bodies have been recovered, but there remains the strong presumption that she was murdered, as opposed to many other theories and rumors that were floated at the time of her disappearance.

The text of this essay is Copyright © 1999, by William A. Schultz. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the author.