By Evie Nagy
This week in the BBC News Magazine, former Anglican priest Mark Vernon writes about the need for passionate agnosticism in a world dominated by antagonistic religious debate.
“I left (the Church of England) a confirmed atheist,” he writes in the essay “God. Who Knows?”. “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.” Vernon discusses what he terms the destructive “lust for certainty” on all sides of religion-fueled disagreement.
Setting aside the fact that the greatest rows are among those not likely to convert to agnosticism, the argument is weakened by Vernon’s conflation of science and atheism as one in the same. Atheists cannot prove unequivocally that God does not exist, but the very definition of science is the study of natural processes that can be replicated. One does not have to be an atheist to be a scientist, and legitimate scientific achievements are inherently independent of faith or any lack thereof. Even if Einstein was convinced that “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe,” meaning a natural force beyond our understanding (not necessarily the Abrahamic God), his discovery of those laws did not depend on his version of agnosticism.
The limited potency of Vernon’s argument is perhaps best demonstrated by the many comments posted in response to the article, which range from “I think therefore I am” to “Have you tried Islam?”. There are also many thoughtful, nuanced comments on the piece (notably more than on the typical American site), which both highlight and dilute Vernon’s plea — many people already think agnostically, and those who don’t find the whole idea weak and hopeless.
I think the most concise response comes from Minnesota Quaker James Riemermann, who wrote to a group of nontheist Friends in an email discussion about Vernon’s piece: “When pressed I call myself by both names. Atheist refers to my beliefs; agnostic refers to the limits of my knowledge.”
Evie Nagy is a graduate student at New York University.