God. Who knows?
By Mark Vernon
Monday, 4 December 2006
We are in a period of intense debate about religion. It seems there are believers, secularists and atheists - in their manifold varieties - arguing over their various concerns. Veils. Intelligent design v evolution. Ordaining gays and women. Contraception and Aids. But there is one voice that is squeezed out, partly because it can equivocate, partly because it tires of the tit-for-tat that the debate is so often reduced to. That is the agnostic.
It is a position that interests me because I used to be a priest in the Church of England. Then, to cut a long story short, I left - and I left a confirmed atheist. After a while, I found unbelief as dissatisfying as full-blown Christianity. It seems to entail a kind of puritanism, as if certain areas of human experience must be put off-limits, for fear that they smack of religion. So I became an agnostic. Now, many atheists and believers alike think agnosticism weak. Atheists would bundle us in with them; liberal believers likewise. But this does us a disservice. In fact, I have become really quite evangelical about the need for a passionate, committed agnosticism. Why? How else to deal with something that lies at the heart of the human condition: uncertainty. Thus, a corresponding "lust for certainty" characterises many of the debates currently doing the rounds. In religion, fundamentalism is the obvious case in point.
A similar lust for certainty also increasingly characterises mainstream religion, such as the crisis about homosexuality in the Church of England. For conservative evangelicals, what you think about gay love-making is a test of what you think about the truth of the Bible. To be for one is to be against the other. When it comes to the scientific worldview, a lust for certainty is manifest in different ways. Think of the way that some atheists go on at great length about the need to throw off superstitious belief and don the freedom and reason of the Enlightenment. What they will not accept is what the inventor of the word "agnostic" sought to highlight. TH Huxley meant his neologism as a rebuke to all who peddle their opinions as facts - notably their opinion, scientific or religious, about God. For whether or not God exists is neither proven nor, he thought, provable. God just isn't that kind of concept. Einstein, another agnostic, looked at the universe and saw the workings of a "spirit" beyond our understanding, an intuition the atheist would stumble over.
The lust for certainty spills over into other walks of modern life too. Take the so-called politics of fear - the constant reference to risks, from hoodies on the street corner to international terrorism. Whatever the truth of these risks and the best ways of dealing with them, the politics of fear plays on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with them. Politics then becomes a question of who can better deliver an illusion of control. Being agnostic can amount to little more than a shrug of the shoulders. But can it be a weighty way of life? It can, because it has great traditions to draw on - no lesser traditions than those of philosophy, religion and science. At their richest, all three are riven through and through with an agnostic spirit. Take philosophy. Socrates was a genius because he realised that the key to wisdom is not how much you know, but how well you understand how little you know. That is why he irritated so many powerful people in ancient Athens; his philosophy burst the bubble of their misplaced confidence. Similarly, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said that to be human is to be "between beasts and angels". He meant that we are not ignorant like the animals. But we are also far from wise. Faith for Augustine was about deepening the capacity to enter this cloud of unknowing, rather than opting for the shallow certainties that religion can deliver.
Finally, in science, the best sort - in the sense of the most humanly enriching - is that which answers questions by opening up more questions, and in particular links to questions that are beyond science alone answer. This is the spirit that you see in cosmology. On one level, cosmologists understand an extraordinary amount about the universe. But simultaneously, this only deepens the sense of the universe's tremendousness. The science keeps pointing to the big question of why we here at all. The revival of a committed, passionate agnosticism in philosophy, religion and science is vital for our age. Without it religion will become more extreme; science will become more triumphalist; and our politics increasingly based on fear.
[Mark Vernon is making some interesting points here. However, science does not look for certainty. That's not how science works. Science understands that all knowledge is provisional. This is one of the reasons why I feel that science is by far the best way to understand the Universe and everything in it. To paraphrase Laplace - I have no need of the God Hypothesis.]