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Published in The Skeptic, Volume 20, Issue 4 (2007)

Sally Marlow interviews Mark Vernon about life, the universe and everything – but mainly agnosticism.

IT WAS A GOOD START when I contacted Mark Vernon to ask for an interview and he suggested we meet in a bookshop. Not a specialist or academic bookshop, but Books etc on Victoria Street. I had a feeling I would be dealing with someone fairly down to earth, and I was right. In the event the lunchtime meeting was rescheduled to a café, the nature of life being such that sometimes you have to feed your face before you can feed your soul. We sat surrounded by civil servants and House of Fraser employees, and I tried to get a feeling for what Vernon means when he describes himself as an agnostic, and whether the headline-grabbing fact that he is an ex-vicar contributes to that meaning. Vernon is one of the breed of philosophers who claims that philosophy is to be lived, not merely thought about. How then can agnosticism, which seems to rely so heavily on the idea of “not”, be an active philosophy for life? Vernon attempts to put the case in his book, and he tried to explain it to me over coffee. I need to come clean here. I am not a philosopher, or a theologian. I am a psychology undergraduate having just completed my first year at Goldsmiths College. What this means is that he had to start at first principles and explain his ideas to an absolute beginner. In my defence, I had already read his book Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, and had found it truly absorbing and possibly life-changing.

The first thing that struck me about Mark Vernon in person was that he was much younger than I expected him to be, and somehow much hipper. His book had brought the image of a wise old man to mind. In truth, I was expecting a cross between Rowan Williams and Gandalf. Our expectations are often shaped by stereotypes, and the tag “ex-vicar” had led me to expect, well, I’m not sure exactly what, but not the man with the funky glasses and linen jacket who sat in front of me.

It is fair to say that his book on agnosticism has attracted a healthy amount of attention, possibly stemming from the same place as my own curiosity about Vernon’s previous life in the church. Who could not be intrigued to read a celebration of agnosticism written by an ex-cleric, who reached his version of not knowing via a spell as an atheist? Possibly much of the attention is to do with the fact that there have been no serious works on agnosticism since TH Huxley first coined the phrase – an obvious gap in the publishing market. Or possibly it is that sometimes the time is right for a book, and Vernon has hit on something which is fundamental to living through the ages, and particularly now. Religions of all types are centre stage at the moment, although our awareness seems to be mostly of their more fundamentalist aspects and leaders. In retaliation, scientists and atheism have taken an increasingly polarised stance. The God Delusion (Dawkins, 2006) has sold over 200,000 in hardback in the UK alone, and you can buy it at Tescos next to the Halal meat and the Matzo crackers. Some have coined the word Scientism to describe the use of science to explain how the world works, almost as though it has become a religion it itself. Perhaps surrounded by all this dogma, and all these people who are so convinced that they are right, Vernon’s brand of uncertainty has tapped into something important and of the moment. BBC Online picked up his ideas immediately, and on the day they featured an interview with him, that interview received 250,000 hits, more than any other subject.

The UK has a long tradition of agnosticism, but the use of the word agnostic to describe the UK experience implies a wishy-washiness, and a lack of willingness to engage with the bigger questions. Vernon’s approach to the subject is anything but wishy-washy, possibly because of his claim not only to think about agnosticism, but to live it. If agnosticism is what gives his life meaning, then it must be an active, dynamic form of agnosticism. Does such a thing exist? Vernon thinks so.

The statement “I am an agnostic” can be interpreted in many ways. It can simply mean “I don’t know”. It can mean “I don’t know, but I will assume that no god exists, and live my life to that effect”, or the opposite “I don’t know but will lead my life assuming god does exist.” One suspects that the Anglican church has more than its fair share of this type of agnostic, and possibly Roman Catholicism too. As Dermott says to Father Ted in the eponymous sitcom, “to be sure Ted, you don’t believe in all that rubbish, do you?” Agnosticism can also mean “I can not give an opinion because there is not enough evidence one way or the other right now, although that might change”, or, “I can not give an opinion because there is not enough evidence one way or the other right now, and that will never change”. It can even mean that god does exist, but we do not know anything about god. It’s a complicated business, describing yourself as an agnostic, and I wanted to know where on this spectrum Vernon fitted in. He is what he calls a Christian agnostic, a concept somewhat different to Graham Greene’s description of himself as a Catholic Agnostic (which seems to me from Greene’s writing to be very little to do with having a faith and rather a lot to do with guilt). Rather, Vernon’s agnosticism comes from a place of not knowing, but from a place which is religiously inclined. The history of agnosticism is full of those who have felt the same way. Socrates’ original quest began because of the Oracle at Delphi. St Augustine was just one of the many medieval Christians searching for comprehension. In contemporary times, despite the seeming increase in fundamentalism, for many, religion is not so clear cut. Thus, as Vernon himself points out, to be Jewish and an atheist is not necessarily a contradiction, and he describes friends of his living in the East as Zen Agnostics (although expressing caution over the use of the word Zen, which has become a Westernised vox-pop).

Vernon’s whole premise is that we can not know the meaning of life, but the enquiry may in itself be meaning enough. Inevitably the popularity of Vernon’s book draws comparisons with Dawkins, but there are few similarities in either subject matter or tone. Vernon’s book, like Vernon the man, is more respectful, gentler, more preoccupied with asking questions than showing us that he has all the answers.

When a book describes a way of life, part of the way it informs is to tell you something of the life of the author, and Vernon’s book weaves his personal story into his philosophical approach, describing what it was like to leave the church, and touching upon the death of his mother. Vernon himself pointed out to me that philosophy and biography are two sides of the same coin – both describe how to live. Over the past 100 years or so he believes that philosophy has moved away from the Kirkegaardian idea that what is true must be true for you. In a world where we are constantly looking for certainty, Vernon describes his own truth thus: “truth for me is a bad thing”. But if you don’t have truth, what do you replace it with? That is Vernon’s point exactly. You replace it with not knowing, and the not knowing becomes the truth.

As the conversation with Vernon progressed, he described a little of what it was that made him reject his religious calling. In the Bible, John tells us “and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”. Clearly John et al’s version of the truth did not set Vernon free, and on leaving the church he became an atheist with the zeal of the newly-converted. After a short spell as a card-carrying sceptic, he rejected atheism too, and began to explore the alternative of agnosticism. He has been an agnostic for many years now, although the tradition of Christianity continues to inform and shape his ideas. One of his favourite books is The Name of the Rose, and he says he would have liked to have been alive in those times. Had he been, he wonders if perhaps he would have stayed in the church, which then seemed to allow much more room for enquiry. The twenty-first century does not seem to provide an institution which allows for the same questioning. His turning point and embracing of agnosticism came with a revelation that the important thing is how you live, not what you believe. Having realised that religion could not provide him with a belief system, he rapidly worked out that science could not either. Science for him can not be the be-all-and-end-all, although he seems to feel at home with the cosmologists, because they too ask the big metaphysical and physical questions. We can describe stuff like light and gravity, but we can’t explain it, and that is what Vernon embraces. Whereas Dawkins would say we can’t yet explain it, Vernon questions whether science really can ever answer these questions, or whether we might have to consider something else. Science for Vernon reduces his sense of wonder, whereas cosmology allows him to keep it. He describes being in a thunderstorm – sure, you know what is happening and can explain it all on a physical level, so why do you still feel so in awe of nature, its power and enormity?

So if the big question is not what you believe but how you live, how is agnosticism a way of life? How does Vernon live? As I drink coffee and he eats lunch, he makes some bold statements, such as “we’re obsessed with relativism”, and “it’s dehumanising to deny uncertainty”. If Vernon’s quest starts with Socrates’ quest, and he is advocating a Socratic way of life, how does that translate into how he lives today? Clearly, he is constantly looking for more enquiry, and his daily grapple with the unknown is what gives him meaning. He wants to popularise his thoughts, but more importantly, to popularise the questions behind them, raise the stakes, and put the issues centre stage. I asked what he wanted to achieve with Science, Religion and The Meaning of Life. He replied that he wants agnostics to stand up and be counted, and believes that to be an agnostic is just about as close as you can get to what it is to be human. He wants to show that agnosticism can be weighty, serious, and a choice in its own right, not just a flight from two evils. The book is aimed at agnostics, but also to provoke debate with scientists and religious leaders. Michael Shermer recommends “this work be read by sceptics and believers alike” – praise indeed. If his aim is to get us thinking, it seems that he is starting to do just that. A look at his website reveals questions, questions and more questions, forcing us to engage with his ideas, and, to some extent, with him the man. The site gets 1500 hits a day, a measure which he is rightly proud of. As well as his philosophy, his books and his teaching, he is a jobbing journalist, writing for the Guardian, the FT, and Management Today, amongst others. He is a man who wants his ideas to be listened to, and has found several forums for his voice.

We are ready for popular science, popular history. Are we ready for popular philosophy? Vernon certainly thinks so. Agnosticism is only one part of what Vernon “does”. His other books and cover topics as diverse as friendship and business, but written from a philosophical perspective. His new book, What Not to Say (due out in October/November 2007 at the same time as the paperback of  Science, Religion, and the Meaning of Life), applies philosophy to the situations we are all continually faced with when we just do not know what to say. The allusion on the title is intentional – Vernon told me that the publishers of this book, Orion, also publish What Not To Wear. Could Vernon be the Trinny and Susannah of popular philosophy? In his choice of subjects he could certainly lay claim to be more populist than other popular philosophers such as Alain de Botton. De Botton may choose more concrete subjects, but Vernon’s prose makes the abstract tangible. There is no dumbing down, just a love of reading and grasp of his subjects which shine out from his books, his website, his journalism and his conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his account of agnosticism.

Vernon wanted to call the book Between Beasts and Angels. His academic publisher wanted to call it Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life. Being a former vicar, maybe he turned the other cheek, or perhaps being a doctor of philosophy, he took a philosophical approach and went with his publisher’s suggestion.  Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life hit the shelves with a bang, the title suggesting a certain amount of irony, and perhaps a (conscious or otherwise) reference to the late great Douglas Adams. Maybe Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life was a good title after all. There may be more meaning in Vernon’s version of agnosticism than in either science or religion. To paraphrase a recent letter to the  Times, whereas atheists are committed, Catholics and Muslims are devout, and Jews are orthodox, agnostics are passionate. Vernon is passionate about his agnosticism, and he is passionate about bringing the debate to centre stage. Whatever your own personal views, the questions Vernon asks are ones we should all be asking, even if the conclusions we draw are different. For myself, all I can say is how refreshing it is to talk “religion” of sorts with someone so measured, so moderate and so engaging. Vernon is an ambassador for agnosticism at a time when perhaps we need one. I think. Although I may be wrong.

STOP PRESS: The Skeptic has just heard that discussions over the title of Mark Vernon’s book continue. The paperback version is to be published under the banner After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

Full bibliographic references are available in the printed article.

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