Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Janet Browne on Huxley

Janet Browne, now a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, seems to lend some support to my view of Thomas Huxley as the father of atheangelism in her masterful two volume biography of Charles Darwin.

When [Harvard botanist and Darwin's Dove Asa] Gray went to dine at the X Club he found England's other Darwinists were much more men of the world. Warily, he distanced himself from what he called "the English-materialistic-positivistic line of thought," by which he probably meant Huxley . . . Huxley was rampaging on miracles and the existence of the soul. A few months later, he was to coin the word "agnostic" to describe his own position as neither a believer nor a disbeliever, but one who considered himself free to inquire rationally into the basis of knowledge. . .

The term fitted him well . . . and it caught the attention of the other free thinking, rational doubters in Huxley's ambit, and came to signify a particularly active form of scientific rationalism during the final decades of the 19th century...

In his hands, agnosticism became as doctrinaire as anything else--a religion of skepticism. Huxley used it as a creed that would place him on a higher moral plane than even bishops and archbishops. All the evidence would nevertheless suggest that Huxley was sincere in his rejection of the charge of outright atheism against himself.

To inquire rigorously into the spiritual domain, he asserted, was a more elevated undertaking than slavishly to believe or disbelieve. "A deep sense of religion is compatible with the entire absence of theology," he had told [Anglican clergyman] Charles Kingsley back in 1860. "Pope Huxley", the [magazine] Spectator dubbed him. The label stuck.

(Source: Browne, Janet, Charles Darwin, The Power of Place, pages 309-310)

Professor Browne clearly saw Huxley's belief structure as a religion. She does, however, seem to accept Huxley's claim that he was not an atheist, a claim of which I am dubious. Judging by Huxley's rabid anti-clericism, the antipathy he expressed for organized religion, and the complete body of his work on the topic, my view is different. I suspect that Huxley's decision to claim agnosticism's distinction as not being atheistic was really part of his on going public relations battle to gain public acceptance for his views. Certainly his tactics were consistent with my description of atheangelism.

Consider for a moment the conversation between English atheist Edward Aveling and Charles Darwin at Darwin's residence in September, 1881:

Aveling urgently asked Darwin if he was an atheist. He preferred the word "agnostic" he replied. "Agnostic was but Atheist writ respectable," responded Aveling, "and Atheist was only Agnostic writ aggressive."

(Source: Browne, page 484)

What Asa Gray called "the English-materialistic-positivistic line of thought", I call atheangelism when it is combined with the aggressive deliverance of that message to the public in a way that claims moral superiority and ridicules the intellectual integrity of opposing viewpoints.

I spoke with Professor Browne via phone today and asked if she might consider reviewing Letter to an Atheist. She politely declined, citing a heavy academic workload. I described my theory of Huxley as the father of "atheangelism" and Professor Browne had no comment on that term one way or the other.

It would be interesting to see her thoughts on "atheangelism" if she had time to review my chapter on "Science, Faith, and Atheangelism."

No comments: