Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pg. 99: "Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Mark Vernon's Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

About the book, from the author's website:
The Story

Mark Vernon was a priest in the Church of England. For two and a half years he preached, baptised, married and buried in a working-class parish in the North East of England. But then he left the priesthood, an atheist. He had become disillusioned with a church gripped by conflict and, moreover, had been swayed by the humanist philosophy that argued God was dead. But next, something else unexpected happened. Gradually, he came to the belief that the triumphalism of atheism entailed a poverty of spirit that was detrimental to people's humanity. Atheism tends to ignore or ridicule the 'big' questions of life - those questions that must be asked, if never finding conclusive answers. He became a passionate agnostic, convinced that religions carry a wisdom that human beings cannot do without, though equally convinced that the church is not necessarily the place to find it. The question, though, is how to be an agnostic? Can it be more than just a shrug of the shoulders? Is a spirituality based on the consumption of culture enough? Does it add up to a way of life?

The Philosophy

The key to wisdom, Socrates said, is understanding the limits of what one knows. The founder of Western philosophy came to realise that humans are ignorant but that they need not be pig ignorant. We are in between beasts and angels and grow by exploring that condition. His philosophy - his love of the wisdom he lacked - dominated his life. With reason, honesty, friends and questions he pursued the Delphic injunction to 'Know Thyself!'. Philosophy was only partly a matter of thinking clearly for more profoundly it was a matter of transforming oneself. Socrates was also, crucially, religious, finding in god-talk the perfect reflection of human uncertainty since matters divine are nothing if not ultimately unknown. Socrates' agnosticism provides the basis for a philosophy that puts reason's limits centre stage and even more importantly inspires an ethos - a way of seeing the world - that can add up to a way of life. It is fascinated by the big questions of how to live and where to find meaning in life.

The Relevancy

Today, we live in a culture with a lust for certainty. Scientific dogmatism would have us believe that it has all the answers and can feed us body and soul. Religion, too, is being hijacked by a conservatism that turns 'faith seeking understand' into statements of unquestioning belief. This matters because many of the things that are going wrong in the world appear to stem from the resulting hubris - be that the aggravation of conflicts because of religious fundamentalism or the danger of environmental disaster because of technological utopianism. The answer, though, is not an equal and opposite militant secularism or Luddite technophobia. Rather, it is a passionate agnosticism that sees science as inspired by wonder, nurturing a piety towards the world. And religion as the wellspring of humility and search since all theology is provisional and relative. It is not just those individuals disillusioned with dogmatic science and religion alike who seek how to be agnostic. Our future flourishing as human beings arguably demands it too.

Among the endorsements for the book:

"At last, a well-written and well-reasoned defense of agnosticism that one can sign on to regardless of prior religious or nonreligious commitments. Vernon's book is also a thoughtful critique of religion from the inside, respectful of his own and others' beliefs, while at the same time honest and honorable in laying bare the shortcomings of both religion and science. I recommend this work be read by skeptics and believers alike."
--Michael Shermer, Skeptic magazine and author of How We Believe

"Encouraging us to widen our imagination and to open our lives to a sense of wonder, Mark Vernon is convinced, in the tradition of Socrates, that we achieve this by avoiding the certainties of faith and the rigidities of atheism. Believers and non-believers will find this a richly rewarding read."
--John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford

"For twenty years I have been waiting for a book that exposes the empty certainties of religious fundamentalism and its secular twin: scientific triumphalism. Mark Vernon has delivered that and much, much more. Mystery and doubt are elevated to where they should be: at the very heart of what it is to be human. Savour this as a wonderful gift."
--Mark Dowd, religious broadcaster and film-maker

"Fewer and fewer of us, at least in post-Christian Britain, are committed churchgoing believers; few of us on the other hand are militant atheists; which means that there is plenty of space between for people with a sense of wonder at scientific discoveries and an appreciation of art, music and philosophy: Mark Vernon's rich, moving and entertaining account of 'Christian agnosticism' is exactly what they have been waiting for."
--Fergus Kerr, Honorary Fellow in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh

"Philosophically erudite, yet engagingly personal, Vernon's book presents a fluent account of his spiritual journey towards agnosticism."
--John Cottingham, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, and author of On the Meaning of Life and The Spiritual Dimension

Mark Vernon is a writer, broadcaster and journalist. He began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England. His academic interests led him from physics to philosophy via theology. Michel Foucault introduced him to the ancient Greeks on friendship; he thinks that Plato has it just about right on that one at least. His other books include The Philosophy of Friendship and Business: the Key Concepts. He has a PhD from Warwick University in philosophy, degrees in theology from Oxford University and Durham University, and a physics degree from Durham University.

Visit Vernon's website, his blog, and read an excerpt from Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

The Page 99 Test: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

--Marshal Zeringue