Editorial Note

Waywords is a group blog founded by Chris James, Collin Park, and Michael Martin with the specific aim of fostering growth within the community of believers in Jesus Christ. Because it is a blog our primary means for achieving that end will be words. Thus, it seemed appropriate to begin with a meditation on a word, and the power of words to unite and divide.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “agnostic” is

One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown (and so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

That definition, by now, is well-known in our culture. What is not as well-known is its vintage. The dictionary goes on to offer the following etymology:

Suggested by Prof. [Thomas] Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr. James Knowles’s house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to ‘the unknown God.’ R.H. Hutton in letter 13 Mar. 1881

Most Christians assume that agnosticism has been around at least as long as the Gnostics, a heresy dating back to at least the 2nd Century. But this not so. In fact, when 18th Century authors refer to “atheists,” there is an ambiguity in how that term should be understood. David Hume, for example, is probably better called “agnostic.” That he was not so called by his contemporaries can be attributed to their poverty of language. The word “agnostic” would not exist for another century. The fact that the word “agnostic” did not exist until 1869 presents a puzzle for anybody interested in religion and faith. What was it that permitted that word to evolve into being?

The creation of the term was no accident, of course, although it may have been inevitable that some word would have come into being around that time in our culture. For Mr. Huxley was perhaps the most famous advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution in his day. What he was doing was staking out a position for himself and other scientists that would permit him and them to live in the world of Christian culture, but not of it. It would have been surprising, would it not, for a man in his position not to have sought to distinguish his advocacy of science from his religious views?

Unfortunately, if not the word “agnostic,” then the idea of science and religion as complementary activities of human endeavor was too new for most people to grasp in the late 19th Century. Worse yet, the idea remains not fully accepted even today. In other words, there are still today some (atheists and believers) who hold that science and religion are mutually exclusive domains. Despite Huxley’s valiant attempt to carve out a niche for himself and others who did not so hold, that party on Clapham Common in 1869 serves as well as any other place and time to locate the great tear between religion and science that is yet to be mended.

But reconciliation requires reciprocity. Both sides must agree to reach out. Thus, we were excited to see a recent article by Harvard psychologist and atheist Jonathan Haidt, titled “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.” (Click Here to see the article.) In this article, Prof. Haidt endeavors to explain how recent research in psychology suggests “that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”

This is an extraordinary conclusion, one that might even pleasantly surprise many religious believers in the United States. For us, what is most exciting about this conclusion is the signal that there is reciprocal interest in mending the gap between science and religion that was torn into our culture — largely, we believe, as the result of misunderstanding and miscommunication — during the late 19th Century.

We encourage our readers to read the entirety of Prof. Haidt’s article because it is full of useful insights. But again, what we find most exciting about his article is his attitude of openness to religion as a source of knowledge. Read how he explains the basis for his interest in religion:

In what follows I will take it for granted that religion is a part of the natural world that is appropriately studied by the the methods of science. Whether or not God exists (and as an atheist I personally doubt it), religiosity is an enormously important fact about our species.

We share Prof. Haidt’s spirit of curiosity and passion for naive exploration of the natural world. Our faith does not and has not prevented us from a relentless and passionate desire to understand nature and ourselves better — a desire that might be termed “skepticism” among atheists. Rather, as we hope to demonstrate with our words on this blog, our faith has been a source of inspiration to us in exploring and experimenting. (“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” John 10:10.) Moreover, we see no reason why our faith should separate us from others who share our desire, but from a different source of inspiration.

The life of faith often places believers on the edge of some domain, be it scientific, cultural, legal, or spiritual. From these wayward places, there is much to be learned and brought back to our community. It is our hope that by traversing the edges together we can find a new, more inclusive place for community. Thus, the organizing theme for the posts of this blog shall be the exploration of what it means to live a life of faith together.

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2 Comments on “Editorial Note”

  1. Collin Says:

    Prof. Haidt’s article triggered many thoughts for me. Post-hoc explanations reminded me of Pinker’s comments about the baloney generator in The Blank Slate; the binding functions of morality brought to mind Judy Harris’s work on group socialization theory and “mental organs”; and his contrast of intuition and reasoning brought to mind what Stanovitch and West called “dual system theory” (cited in Kahneman’s 2002 Nobel Prize lecture, which in turn was cited in a May 2008 CACM article on object-oriented design).

    Something that excites me about this article, and about blogging with you and Chris, is the chance to discuss these sorts of ideas and to understand better how to think about truth (whatever the source).


  2. [...] do humans cooperate? As noted in an our first post, the discovery of evolutionary theory put a rift in what was otherwise a seamless fabric of [...]


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