A Reply to Professor Huxley

II [follows Wace's reply]
The Nineteenth Century March 1889
W. C. Magee
Bishop of Peterborough

[369] I should be wanting in the respect which I sincerely entertain for Professor Huxley if I were not to answer his I ‘appeal’ to me in the last number of this Review for my opinion on a point in controversy between him and Dr. Wace. Professor Huxley asks me, ‘In the name of all that is Hibernian, why a man should be expected to call himself a. miscreant or an infidel? ' I might reply to this after the fashion of my countrymen by asking him another question, namely–when or where did I ever say that I expected him to call himself by either of these names? I cannot remember having said anything that even remotely implied this, and I do not therefore exactly see why he should appeal to my confused ‘Hibernian' judgment to decide such a question.

As he has done so, however, I reply that I think it unreasonable to expect a man to call himself anything unless and until good and sufficient reason has been given him why he should do so. We are all of us bad judges as to what we are and as to what we should be called. Other persons classify us according to what they know, or think they know, of our characters or opinions, sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. And were I to find myself apparently incorrectly classified, as I very often do, I should be quite content with asking the person who had so classified me, first to define his terms, and next to show that these, as defined, were correctly applied to me. If he succeeded in doing this, I should accept his designation of me without hesitation, inasmuch as I should be sorry to call myself by a false name.

In this case, accordingly, if I might venture a suggestion to Professor Huxley, it would be that the term ‘infidel' is capable of definition and that when Dr. Wace has defined it, if the Professor accept his definition, it would remain for them to decide between them whether Professor Huxley's utterances do or do not bring him under the category of infidels, as so defined. Then, if it could be clearly proved that they do, from what I know of Professor Huxley's love of scientific accuracy and his courage and candour, I certainly should expect that he would call himself an infidel–and a miscreant too in the original and etymological sense of that unfortunate term, and that he would even glory in those titles. If they should not be [370] so proved to be applicable, then I should hold it be as unreasonable to expect him to call himself by such names as he, I suppose., would hold it to be to expect us Christians to admit, without better reason than he has yet given us, that Christianity is ‘the sorry stuff’ which, with his ‘profoundly’ moral readiness to say ‘unpleasant’ things, he is pleased to say that it is.

There is another reference to myself, however, in the Professor’s article as to which I feel that he has a better right to appeal to me–or, rather, against me, to the readers of this Review–and that is as to my use, in my speech at the Manchester Congress, of the expression 'cowardly agnosticism.' I have not the report of my speech before me, and am writing, therefore, from memory; but my memory or the report must have played me sadly false if I am made to describe all agnostics as cowardly. A much slighter knowledge than I possess of Professor Huxley's writings would have certainly prevented my applying to all agnosticism or agnostics such an epithet.

What I intended to express and what I think I did express by this phrase was that there is an agnosticism which is cowardly. And this I am convinced that there is, and that there is a great deal of it too, just now. There is an agnosticism which is simply the cowardly escaping from the pain and difficulty of contemplating and trying to solve the terrible problems of life by the help of the convenient phrase, ‘I don't know,' which very often means ‘I don’t care.' ‘We don't know anything, don't you know, about these things. Professor Huxley, don't you know, says that we do not, and I agree with him. Let us split a B. and S.'

There is, I fear, a very large amount of this kind of agnosticism amongst the more youthful professors of that philosophy, and indeed amongst a large number of easy-going, comfortable men of the world, as they call themselves, who find agnosticism a pleasant shelter from the trouble of thought and the pain of effort and self-denial. And if I remember rightly it was of such agnostics I was speaking when I described them as ‘chatterers in our clubs and drawing-rooms,’ and as ‘free-thinkers who had yet to learn to think.'

There is therefore in my opinion a cowardly agnosticism just as there is also a cowardly Christianity. A Christian who spends his whole life in the selfish aim of saving his own soul, and never troubles himself with trying to help to save other men either from destruction in the next world or from pain and suffering here, is a cowardly Christian. The eremites of the early days of Christianity, who fled away from their place in the world where God had put them to spend solitary and, as they thought, safer lives in the wilderness, were typical examples of such cowardice. But in saying that there is such a thing as a cowardly Christianity, I do not thereby allege that there is no Christianity which is not cowardly. Similarly, when I speak of a cowardly agnosticism, I do not thereby allege that there [371] is no agnosticism which is not cowardly, or which may not be as fearless as Professor Huxley has always shown himself to be.

I hope that I have now satisfied the Professor on the two points on which he has appealed to me. There is much in the other parts of his article which tempts me to reply. But I have a dislike to thrusting myself into other men's disputes, more especially when a combatant like Dr. Wace, so much more competent than myself, is in the field. I leave the Professor in his hands, with the anticipation that he will succeed in showing him that a scientist, dealing with questions of theology or Biblical criticism may go quite as far astray as theologians often do in dealing with questions of science.

My reply to Professor Huxley is accordingly confined to the strictly personal questions raised by his references to myself. I hope that, after making due allowance for Hibernicisms and for imperfect acquaintance with English modes of thought and expression, he will accept my explanation as sufficient.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University