Title: The Agnostic Reader
Author: edited by S. T. Joshi
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Includes articles not easily available otherwise
• Brings to readers information and arguments not usually seen
• Collection of articles defending agnosticism from various authors between 1835 and 1981
• Argues that agnosticism is an important position that deserves more attention
• Explains the history and develop of philosophical agnosticism
Some agnostic arguments and documents are familiar to those involved with skeptical critiques of religion, particularly Huxley's and Darrow's statements of agnosticism, but they were merely the most prominent spokesmen of a widespread intellectual movement. Most of those who wrote about and defended agnosticism have been almost forgotten, but some of their most important works can now be found in The Agnostic Reader, a collection of agnostic works edited by S. T. Joshi.
Some of the articles gathered together by Joshi were written by authors who remain famous, like Ingersoll, Asimov, and Einstein. There are also some authors who are far less well known, like Harry Elmer Barnes, Edward Westermarck, and Charles Watts. The earliest piece was written in 1835; the latest in 1981. Although separated by time and culture, there are common themes throughout these works about standards of reasonable belief, problems in Christian dogma, and the need for rationality in the modern world.
It is common for religious theists to insist that a certainty about the nature, will, and intentions of God are necessary to live a good, happy, and fulfilling life. What defenders of agnosticism explain is that doubt and skepticism are not antithetical to living such a life. Whether you doubt and still believe in something, or doubt and reject gods entirely, you can still be moral, still be happy, and still be fulfilled. The authors also make a point of arguing that doubt and skepticism are frequently key to living an intellectually fulfilling life, which entails that certainty and dogma are frequently anti-intellectual conditions to be avoided.
This sort of agnostic position didn't come out of nowhere, though. As S.T. Joshi makes clear, philosophical agnosticism was a product of its time and culture: it required the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and then modern science before the philosophical agnosticism we know and benefit from could arise in Europe in the late 19th century. First disenchantment from the natural world led to a strict separation of the natural and the supernatural. Later, the scientific study of nature, human biology, and human society led to more rationalistic views which hastened the decline of traditional religion.
Agnosticism is not atheism: whereas agnosticism deals with what one knows or claims to know, atheism deal with what one believes or disbelieves. Agnostics are also either theists because they believe in some sort of god despite doubting, or they are atheists because they disbelieve while doubting — and perhaps even because they doubt. Nevertheless, philosophical agnosticism is invested heavily with strong criticisms of traditional religion, just as modern skeptical atheism is.
What this means is that prominent voices on the side of philosophical agnosticism have made the same sorts of criticisms of and challenges to religion as atheists. Indeed, aside from the differences in language, many of these early agnostic documents collected by Joshi make a lot of the same points as modern atheist writers. Even the "tone" isn't too far off sometimes. If you enjoy reading the arguments and ideas of contemporary atheists, you should spend a little time with those of earlier agnostics in this volume and those of earlier atheists in Joshi's previous book, The Atheist Reader.