Some 19th century arguments against Agnosticism

February 2, 2022 • 4 min

From Apologetica, page 40
By Rev. P. A. Halpin

XX.—“God can not be known.”

Introduction.—The last refuge of those who deny the existence of a Supreme Being is the proposition that it is impossible for man to know anything about God.

So strong is the evidence in favor of this first great truth that, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of an absolute rejection, they assert that human reason is impotent to discover anything about the Deity.

They imply that there may be a God. The atheist says God is not because there is nothing in existence beyond matter and blind force. What this affirmation of theirs amounts to may readily be gathered.

We call (or rather, he calls himself) the one who refuses to grant the existence of an infinite Creator, an Agnostic. The term explains itself.

He builds up his belief on baseless assertions, he strengthens it by abstruse metaphysical discussions on being, the “infinite,” relations, causes, effects, succession, or interdependence, unlimited, of things on each other.

Their watchword is that nothing can be known save by experience. Here are some reasons alleged for their doctrine by some in the forefront of their ranks. I am an Agnostic, say they,

I. Because “you Gnostics or Christians do not prove your assertions.”

This can be put down as a declaration more easily made than demonstrated. We do not know God and His perfections with any but a small measure of adequacy because God is infinite, and, therefore, no finite mind can comprehend Him or His attributes.

Is there any finite thing, any chemical substance, say, any planet, any fixed star, any stellar system, any natural force which man has in centuries of scientific investigation and with constantly improving appliances ever thoroughly exhausted the knowledge of? How, then, can God be possessed completely by any mental effort?

But it is in our power to prove that He exists; it is in our power to predicate certain perfection of Him. We argue from effect to a first cause, and from the fact that that cause is first and necessary being, we deduce its wonderful perfections.

II. They are Agnostics, they say, “Because we do not agree among ourselves.”

That there is disagreement among the sects is very evident. There are as many doctrines as there are sects. There is no unanimity among them save when they combine to attack the Church of Christ.

However, regarding the fundamental truth of which we are speaking, regarding God’s existence, they do not differ. All (Catholics, heretics, schismatics, pagans) proclaim their adherence to the primal doctrine of all religion. All religionists, of whatever stamp, profess that there is a God, and that He is the beginning and end of all things, that He is the Creator and the Ruler of the universe.

III. The Agnostic furthermore protests that "even if we proved our doctrine, even if we agreed on all points of doctrine, those tenets would be void and meaningless."

To this allegation we reply by question only. Is there no meaning in the doctrine of God’s existence? No meaning in His attributes. His goodness, His mercy, His redemption? Is there no meaning in heaven, hell, judgment? If these words are not impregnated with signification, then all language is sound and nothing more.

So much vitality have all these terms, so persistent are they, so intelligible do they make all human expression, so much faith of heart and mind goes into their use by the sons of men that without them the sum of all that is beautiful and inspiring in human speech would be lost.

These words are what they are, not because men invented them aimlessly, but because they were the only terms they could find to express the great truths they convey.

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