[Published in Fortean Times, no. 265, September 2010, p. 69.]

Huxley's agnosticism

In Ian Simmons's otherwise accurate review of the film Creation, he writes that a statement in the film by TH Huxley was "hardly the words of someone who'd gone to the trouble of coining a new word to describe his belief in a deity not defined by any religion" [FT260:65]. This doesn't accurately describe Huxley's agnosticism, but rather Herbert Spencer's, which Huxley made efforts to correct. Huxley maintained that agnosticism did not involve belief in an unknown deity, which was the view advocated by Spencer. Huxley ultimately chose to abandon the term in favor of "scientific naturalism". An account of Huxley's coining of "agnosticism" and the term's evolution may be found in Bernard Lightman's "Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: The Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy" in The British Journal for the History of Science v.35, no.3 (Sept 2002), pp. 271-289. Lightman's paper is based in part on evidence from the papers of John Tyndall, which are currently being transcribed by the Tyndall Correspondence Project at York University in Canada (http://tinyurl.com/2vtz7p4 - yorku.ca). In my participation in that project through Arizona State University this spring, I came across letters to Tyndall and his wife from Thomas A. Hirst (dated 10 Dec 1889 and 5 Feb 1890) which mentioned how Huxley's dispute with Spencer resulted in the two not speaking to each other at meetings of the X Club, whose nine members included Huxley, Spencer, Tyndall, and Hirst.

Jim Lippard
Arizona State University