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Charles Bradlaugh was the first militant Atheist in the history of Western civilization. He was elected to the British parliament six times, and each time that body refused to seat him because he was an Atheist — and because he would not swear his allegiance to queen and country, so help him “God.” Everyone in England knew Bradlaugh and his fight, and he raised the issue of Atheism to every person in public life as he sought allies.
The intellectual community contained, at the time, Sir Thomas Huxley, and he coined the word agnostic in 1869 to keep from aligning himself with the hard-pressed Bradlaugh. The word gnosis is the Greek for “knowledge.” In words of Greek derivation the prefix a is a privative, that is — it gives the word a negative sense. Literally it means “against knowledge” or “negating knowledge.” Huxley in his letters to the literate community pointed out that he did not feel that salvation could be attained through knowledge.
We don’t know what “salvation” is. But we do know that Huxley referred to the New Testament biblical story of Acts 17:23 wherein Paul visited Athens and admonished the people for a statue he found there. He said, “as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription ‘to the unknown God’ . . .”
Huxley held that there was a “god” and this was implicit in his definition of agnosticism. He said two things which are quite different:
1. God is — and God is unknown.
2. God is — and God is unknowable.
Agnosticism is very close to the religious dogma that the ways of god are unfathomable, that human reason is fallible, and that man requires a different, non-scientific, path to the truth — such as faith. Agnostic followers are always allies of the church. The false notion that anything is unknowable undermines science and reinforces theology. It inclines man to faith and induces men to trust religious doctrines. The church does not anathematize the agnostic and even the Roman Catholic church will accept the agnostic in its fold.
Popularly, the word agnostic has been corrupted (just as the words Atheist and Epicurian have been corrupted) to mean to the man in the street, “I don’t know whether there is a god or not.” But an inspection of that sentence leads one into accepting the logic of Huxley above.
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. Therefore the Atheists live as if there were no god, no efficacy in prayer, and no life after death. We are free from theism. We bet everything on this as being accurate.
The agnostic is gutless and prefers to keep one safe foot in the god camp.
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