How To Be An Agnostic

I recall Zadie Smith writing about the joy of good readers, as opposed to good writers, I think in this piece. I understood the joy of a sympathetic reader reviewer, in this review by Timothy McDermott in the current TLS of How To Be An Agnostic. It seemed, under his eye, the book achieved all it might ever manage to do. It’s brief, so forgive me if I cite it in full.

‘How to’ presumes ‘why’. A course in how to survive in the wilderness presumes people want to survive there (the why) and offers them skills and techniques to do so. Mark Vernon asks ‘how to be an agnostic’, when neither the ‘why’ nor the techniques on offer are so clear-cut.

Vernon first recommends agnosticism as a desirable human virtue, appealing to Socrates’ passionate spiritual quest to know oneself humanely and modestly, resisting the twin pitfalls of scientific and religious certainty. Knowing must become a service to, rather than a mastery of, the things we know, marked by patience and sensitivity, fragility and vulnerability. Vernon’s book is a plea for such virtues rather than a manual of techniques, though he mentions in passing Socratic questioning and the mindfulness techniques of the Buddha.

Indeed the book is gently autobiographical, though not so much a chronicle of events – Vernon has been successively an Anglican priest, then a declared atheist, then someone disillusioned by both religion and irreligion – as the record of a path taken by a mind, a voyage around ‘God’, for want of a better name.

There are brilliantly perceptive and sympathetic chapters on ‘How Science Does God’ and ‘Science on Ethics’, examining the positions taken by scientists (mainly cosmologists) since Newton and in our own day – figures including Steven Weinberg, Martin Rees, Eugene Wigner, Roger Penrose, Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. And two later chapters explore the agnosticism of Christian theologians, in particular Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa and Pascal. The path Vernon traversed has led him to his present passionate commitment to a ‘learned ignorance’, respecting the limits of human knowing, and convinced that God lies beyond those limits, beyond the certainties of either religion or atheism.

I think the path will lead onwards. Are there not also limits to human not-knowing? Aristotle says that the mark of an educated man is to require in every field as much certainty as the nature of the matter allows. And Aquinas’s agnosticism is companion to a calm certainty: other philosophers, as Herbert McCabe puts it, know what they mean by God but doubt whether he exists, whereas Aquinas has no doubt that something we call ‘God’ exists, but doesn’t know what that is. And his ‘learned ignorance’ of what God is requires total clarity about what God is not.

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