THE word agnostic _ meaning “not known’’ _ was first coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869.
Huxley wrote that a true agnostic should follow reason “as far as it will take you’’. But he cautioned: “In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.’’
Mark Vernon, who was an Anglican priest who became an atheist and is now a committed agnostic, says today anybody can be agnostic “with little more than a shrug of the shoulders _ like drab metal furniture of the theologically uninspired’’.
He calls for a new radical agnosticism in which adherents are involved in the process of vigorous searching and pushing knowledge to its limits, while accepting our ignorance will always be bigger than our knowledge.
Vernon says he became disillusioned with atheism because “when you convert to atheism, it seems to entail a kind of Puritanism’’.
“Religion is put off-limits,’’ he writes. “The problem is that because religion is not just about believing certain things or going to church, but is about a whole attitude to the world and existence, many atheists seem to deny certain possibilities for fear that they are letting in religion through the back door.
“Modern humanism finds it hard to address the questions of morality, values and spirit. Following the scientific rationalism it holds in high regard, it tends to boil it all down to a discussion of mechanisms, rules and laws. This may create an illusion of meaning and a sense of purpose. But meaningless keeps rearing its head because mechanisms, rules and laws are actually not very meaningful.’’ He says belief in God and atheism are not worlds apart. They share the same assumptions _ that the world can be understood, that truth corresponds with reality and that one can decide for or against God.
Vernon argues that fundamentalists of science and religion are dangerously mistaken and that agnosticism can add up to a way of life that matters.
“I do hope that more agnostics will stand up for the value of their position, since the fundamentalists of science and religion want to force people to extremes,’’ he writes.
“This is damaging at a human level, to say nothing of society and politics. In fact, I think the best of science and religion is agnostic, since it is about the search and about answers to questions that throw open even bigger questions.’’