Atheist Contradictions: Cline’s Elementary Scholarship

[UPDATE: Oct 11, 2019]

By: Michelle Zorzella

As I was doing research for an essay on the topic of agnostic atheism, I came across a curious article written by one of Learn Religion’s atheism and agnosticism experts, Austin Cline. With a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, a Masters from Princeton University and 18 years of experience educating others on the subjects of atheism and agnosticism, one would not expect to encounter such a poorly written article concerning Agnosticism and Thomas Henry Huxley.

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:

Screenshot_20191011-125455

After reading the article, I searched for a copy of Huxley’s essay and began to read it in its entirety. When I found the statement Cline quoted in the image above, 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:

Why does Cline’s quote vary so dramatically from the original? It’s hard to imagine how someone with his experience could miss such an elementary error. The article was updated as recently as March 2017, which means either no one has noticed the mistake or it’s intentional.

This was not the first time I ran into major issues with Cline’s writing.  Some years ago when ThoughtCo was still about.com, Cline wrote an article on “What is Positive Atheism?” which fortunately no longer exists. In my notes for what would eventually become this article, I quoted the following statement from the opening paragraph: “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, a positive atheist is one who would say the statement “at least one god exists” is not false. One could argue for 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 was attempting to define negative or agnostic atheism. Cline admits this much in the first portion of his opening sentence.

Takeaways: the importance of evaluating our sources carefully cannot be overstated. No matter who is giving us information, it is our personal responsibility to ensure we cite our sources accurately and articulate our ideas without undermining them. Have an editor read over your work before publishing it, especially if the work is meant to be a resource for others to learn from.


[1]https://www.learnreligions.com/agnosticism-and-thomas-henry-huxley-248044

[2]http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn.html 

One comment

  1. Good catch. The wording on atheist/agnostic definitions are important. It’s ironic how both modern apologists and New Atheists ignore the epistemic rigor Flint brought to the definition, a vast improvement over the one set by Buddeus in the 1700’s. In fact the most succinct wording was put in the 1901 Encyclopedia Brittanica, perhaps by Flint himself who was the theology contributor to it:

    “Atheism, in the sense now generally admitted to be alone appropriate, may be of three species,- namely, denial of the existence of the Divine, denial the Divine has been shown to exist, and denial that it can be known that the Divine exists.”

    Like

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