By: Michelle Zorzella
As I was doing research for an essay on agnostic atheism, I came across a curious article: “Agnosticism and Thomas Henry Huxley” written by Austin Cline, one of ThoughtCo’s atheism and agnosticism experts (previously about.com). His bio featured on the site states that he’s been educating people through the Internet about atheism, agnosticism, skepticism and secular humanism for over 15 years. Additionally, he studied at a number of noteworthy institutions such as the University of Pensivania where he received his BA in Germanic Languages and Literature, and later completed his Masters at Princeton University. In all, Cline is a well studied scholar to say the least. Perhaps then you are wondering “what exactly is so elementary about his scholarship?”
In his article he attempts to provide some details about the life of Huxley and explain his understanding of agnosticism. He quotes the following statement from his 1889 essay on Agnosticism:
What first interested me about the quote was that I studied Huxley’s work on agnosticism and Christianity years prior when I was first introduced to the concept of agnostic atheism. I was surprised I had not come across this particular essay sooner. I quickly searched for a copy so that I could read the full essay. When I found the statement Cline quoted in his article, I immediately became suspicious. The quote Cline offers is not quite the same as what is seen here in the following source provided by Clark University:
Later, I came across the same quote in Robert Flint’s 1887-88 Croall Lecture on Agnosticism, and sure enough, it doesn’t match the quote provided by Cline, but is consistent with the source from Clark University. The question is, where did Cline get this quote since it obviously did not come from Huxley? It is hard to imagine how someone with Cline’s educational background could make such a fatal error. Notice the article was updated in April of 2016. This means that either no one has noticed the mistake or no one cares.
Perhaps his mistake is worth forgiving, but consider that this is not the only time Cline has published erroneous statements in his work on ThoughtCo. A few years ago when the website was still about.com, Cline wrote an article on “What is Positive Atheism?”(which, unlike the previous article, has since been removed). In his opening sentence he states, “Positive atheism is defined as the positive claim that no gods exist or the denial that the claim ‘at least one god exists’ is false.” Here, Cline makes an elementary error: he employs a double negative. According to his definition, if someone were ask a Positive atheist what they think about the statement “at least one god exists,” they would deny that the proposition is false. In other words, gods exist. One could argue for the principal of charity’s sake, that he may not have intended to say atheists do not believe the claim at least one god exists is false, only that the claim lacks evidence. Yet this would hold true only if Cline is attempting to define negative or agnostic atheism. However, positive atheism understood positively asserts that no gods exist. Cline admits this much in the first portion of his opening sentence.
One thing we can all take away from this is how important it is to comb through our sources carefully. No matter who is giving us information, it is our personal responsibility to ensure that we cite our sources correctly, and accurately communicate our ideas. Have someone read over your work before publishing it, especially if the work is meant to be a resource for others to learn from.