Agnosticism is defined as the belief “that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God” (OED). Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was an English biologist who coined the term “agnostic” in 1869. He advocated Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and was modern in his Popperian perspective on science. In his 1889 essay, entitled “Agnosticism,” Huxley struggles to classify himself as an atheist, materialist, or as fitting of any other class of metaphysical belief. Huxley realized that those people had established a “gnosis,” whereas he had not. As a member of the Metaphysical Society, he sought to justify his inability to prove or disprove theological and metaphysical claims by introducing a new term that captured his experience. Huxley felt that as a human being, he was unable to articulate the issues of theism, atheism, idealism, materialism, immortality, and the soul (Woelfel 64). Therefore, he established a term that classifies a state of uncertainty, which is central to his definition of agnosticism.

The Victorian era was a time of reinvention that incited the drive to progress in the fields of science, commerce, and human relations, leading to a general social shift from spiritual belief to secularism. Changing circumstances of multiple facets within Victorian society often led people to choose either a life of devotion, or a life of doubt. The more that was discovered about material reality, the more complex thinking became, causing people to attempt to articulate or realize the lack of evidence for the existence of God. As opposed to atheists who denied the existence of God, and materialists who believe that physical matter is the only reality and can explain all phenomena, agnostics doubted God’s existence due to their inability to prove that such a being is responsible for worldly phenomena, or that such a being exists at all. Generally, agnosticism refers to the distinction between belief and knowledge; however, agnosticism in the Victorian era was mostly associated with religion. As people turned away from faith and towards a more humanistic view, they began to explore metaphysical questions, and expressed skepticism about the existence of God (Woelfel 61).

Agnosticism was a prominent theme in Victorian poetry, appearing in the works of Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), and a number of other poets. Tennyson was a member of the Metaphysical Society with Huxley. While his poems often referred to older and more traditional forms and subject matter, he did incorporate agnostic ideas into them. The Victorians were typically discouraged from expressing controversial views about faith, however, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a requiem for his close friend, Arthur Hallam, openly expressed religious doubt and agnosticism (Clausen 75).

Arnold was a Victorian humanist, sage writer, critic, and poet. As a liberal Anglican, he placed emphasis on experience and ethics. He noted society’s shift away from spirituality and towards humanism in poems such as “Dover Beach” (1867) and “The Buried Life,” (1852) and depicted his frustration with the negative aspects of expanding secularism and agnosticism. He sought to follow the Renaissance example of reconciling Christian tradition with Classical tradition. In other words, Arnold’s intention was to integrate religion, science, and culture together (Woelfel 68). As society began to place more emphasis on scientific progress and on observational experimentation, Arnold acknowledged the idea that experience or observation is necessary in confirming beliefs. His view on spirituality followed the paradigm shift Victorian society has undergone, and he believed that every phenomenon must be confirmed by experiential evidence in order to be believable.

Swinburne was a radical individual who lost his faith and is well known for his critique against institutional religion. His works did not just embody agnostic principles and expressed the Victorian crisis of faith, but were also provocative and experimental. His poetry often portrayed pessimism and a lack of spiritual guidance. His denial of the existence of the Christian God, led him to search for other means of spirituality as evident in poems such as “The Garden of Proserpine” (1866) in which Swinburne turns to the mythological queen of the underworld, “A Forsaken Garden” (1878) which depicts a godless, desolate world, and “Hertha” (1871), a poem inspired by Germanic mythology. Finally, “The Lake of Gaube” (1889) described a physical experience impacting an individual in a spiritual manner, and is an agnostic work that neither denies nor accepts the existence of God.

The realization that God’s existence is neither observable nor provable drove society into a state of uncertainty. People of the Victorian era sought to explore and understand questions about the metaphysical world, but ultimately found no answers and were left in doubt. Agnosticism was a means of identifying the skepticism that stemmed from the inability to logically support the existence of spiritual beings.

Works Cited

Clausen, Christopher. “Agnosticism, Religion, and Science: Some Unexamined Implications.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 30.2 (1976): 73-85.

“Agnosticism.” OED Online. 10 May 2013

Turner, Frank M. “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle.” Victorian Studies 18 (1975): 325-43.

Woelfel, James. "Victorian Agnosticism and Liberal Theology: T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold." American Journal of Theology & Philosophy. 19.1 (1998): 61-76.