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After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life
By Mark Vernon
Palgrave Macmillan £18.99 ISBN 0230013414
It is a shame that Mark Vernon and his version of agnosticism is not as well-known or as controversial as Richard Dawkins and his version of atheism. But then, if Vernon was well-known or controversial, he would not have written the book he has written. The book starts from a place of not knowing, and ends in a place of not knowing, but brings the message along the way that uncertainty is just fine. There is truth and beauty in silence, according to Vernon – silence is what brings us to wisdom, and wisdom, in true Socratic fashion, is dependent upon how much you understand what you don’t know.
This is a truly delightful book, written with wit, humility and poetry, but more importantly than that, it is a book full of enquiry. He pays homage to wise men across the ages, whatever their discipline, and claims that as an agnostic he is in pretty good company: Socrates, Einstein, Thomas Aquinas, Anthony Kenny to name but a few. However, and here is where you may be lost or converted, Vernon describes himself as a “Christian agnostic”, not, as I originally thought, an agnostic who appreciates Christian worship as an art form, but someone who starts from a place of “learned ignorance” (Vernon was a vicar, then an atheist, before coming to rest somewhere in the middle). Christian agnosticism is a difficult concept to get your head round – surely if you are agnostic you don’t know whether any gods exist, not just the Christian one? Vernon likens it to the belief system he claims underpinned Socrates’ arguments – Socrates started his quest at the oracle of Delphi, and ended by sending sacrifice to the gods after drinking hemlock. Rather than this being a version of Pascal’s Wager, it is an acknowledgement that Socrates (and therefore Vernon) did not know and would never know why and how we are here. This in itself demands enormous respect for something, respect that Vernon clearly also feels. Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life is a title that takes some living up to, even if it is meant ironically.
Vernon does live up to it, in a gentle, probing way that leaves the reader wanting more.