Mark Vernon: “In robust defence of agnosticism”


Mark Vernon, former Anglican priest and present practical philosopher has a review up of Robin Le Poidevin’s book: Agnosticism, A Very Short Introduction.

Here’s a taste of what Vernon writes of Le Poidevin’s work:

“He argues that agnosticism is an entirely justified position to adopt when it comes to the existence of God, and moreover that it is not tantamount to a shrug of the shoulders, but is one thoroughly engaged with a religious way of life. Before we get to that, though, he offers some handy summaries of the agnostic critique of concerns that have gained prominence in the new atheist debates:

– Bertrand Russell’s God-is-no-more-justified-than-a-teapot-orbiting-the-sun argument is found wanting because the analogy between God and the teapot fails. Belief in the teapot would make not one bit of difference to your life. Belief in God would make every difference. So, agnosticism about the teapot collapses into non-belief about the teapot because nothing depends upon keeping the question open; whereas a lot hangs on the question of God and so, even though intractable, it does not automatically collapse: that requires the extra commitment of the atheist.

– Atheism is not the default position when it comes to God – as if the burden of proof was on the theist – for a number of reasons, but most interestingly because atheism is not the most likely as a prior probability (that is, the probability before you consider any evidence.)

Anthony Kenny has offered one argument as to why: atheists have to deny every definition of God; theists have only to affirm one. So the atheist has to prove more than the theist to ensure their position stands, which suggests atheism is a lower prior probability.

Le Poidevin adds another. God would be a single, if exceptional, account for all sorts of things in the universe, from it’s existence to our experience of moral consciousness. Atheists have to come up with a whole range of accounts for these multiple phenomena. And so, again, that plurality reduces atheism’s prior probability. That said, there should be no presumption of theism, because whilst the God account is singular it is also exceptional – that is, it is unlike the causal accounts to which the atheist will refer. That probably equalizes the prior probabilities for the two positions.”

Read the full review here.

Looks like it’s worth the read. I’ll add this to my Christmas book list. (Have to finish the book on modern Stoicism that I’m reading now and a book on Science and Religion that was a gift from some of my parishioners next though.)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...