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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So much more than "Dunno".
This is an important book that examines the positive form of agnosticism (the kind that embraces uncertainty, rather than the kind that just doesn't know).

It feels a bit too heavily weighted towards Socrates (presumably the author's "specialist subject") than perhaps the topic demands and sometimes reads as slightly uncharitable (for example, when discussing...
Published on 30 April 2011 by Amazon Customer

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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The spirit of religion and a love of wonder
According to Mark Vernon, "if someone's thoughts on God seem logical, reasonable and clear, then only one thing can be said for sure; the meditation is not on God but on some reduced concept of divinity". To me, being logical, reasonable and clear are not only good things in themselves, they are worthwhile aims, virtues that should be cultivated, and at the core of what...
Published on 23 Mar 2012 by Sphex


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So much more than "Dunno"., 30 April 2011
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This review is from: How To Be An Agnostic (Paperback)
This is an important book that examines the positive form of agnosticism (the kind that embraces uncertainty, rather than the kind that just doesn't know).

It feels a bit too heavily weighted towards Socrates (presumably the author's "specialist subject") than perhaps the topic demands and sometimes reads as slightly uncharitable (for example, when discussing "mindfulness"). It is though a cogent discussion of this complex and arguably neglected middle-ground (resisting the easy answers of the extremes is always going to be more challenging and therefore unattractive). It does that complexity justice though in the strength of its arguments and the writing comes especially alive when the author details his personal experience of leaving the Anglican priesthood.

Did Dr Vernon really rate his own book as 5* in another review here? Hardly cricket.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Caution to purchasers, 11 Mar 2011
By 
J. Sprackland "sprackyjack" (Southport, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: How To Be An Agnostic (Paperback)
A bit naughty that nothing in the information here warns you that this book is in fact a revised and updated of Vernon's 'After Atheism - Science, Religion & the Meaning of Life' rather than a brand new title... sorry, it is a new 'title' but it's not a 'new' book. Is it ethical, Mr Vernon/Amazon, to publish a book under a new title without making it very apparent to potential buyers that it is a version of a book they might already own?

Having said that, 'After Atheism' is an excellent book and I wanted to reread it and probably would have bought this revised version anyway. So, if you've not read 'After Atheism' I strongly recommend getting this; if you have, you might want to stop and think before you purchase!
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5.0 out of 5 stars How to be an Agnostic, 30 Nov 2013
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An excellent book by Mark Vernon. I read it and gave it to a friend who is struggling with the Christian faith.
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4.0 out of 5 stars More than just an easy middle way, 12 Mar 2012
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Like any book dealing with the question of existence or non-existence of a deity or form of
after-life, this book can ultimately only ponder and probe.
However, after reading this thought provoking work I found myself somewhat enlightened and
uplifted by Mark Vernon's viewpoint and subjections in regard to the ultimate sense of
'Not Knowing'.

Special mention has to made to pages 55-56 where the existence of a would-be God is compared
to the 'Higgs boson particle collider'. The resulting conclusion, while still being robustly
agnostic serves as a justification of certain uncertainty which basic humanity and the human
spirit demands.

This book is also full of musical references which highlight the fact that if there is indeed
some kind of unseen deity existing beyond our comprehension, then it is only fitting that this
deity is somehow connected to the most powerful absract artistic force known to mankind.
On the whole 'How to be an Agnostic' avoids falling into the trap of appearing complacent in
regard of not having to prove or disprove a divine entity by always bringing the reader new
and fascinating insights into one of life's never ending debates.

A highly recommendable read then, worthy of Four Stars and a must for anyone who thinks that
agnosticism is just a safe and easy middle way between theism and atheism.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The spirit of religion and a love of wonder, 23 Mar 2012
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This review is from: How To Be An Agnostic (Paperback)
According to Mark Vernon, "if someone's thoughts on God seem logical, reasonable and clear, then only one thing can be said for sure; the meditation is not on God but on some reduced concept of divinity". To me, being logical, reasonable and clear are not only good things in themselves, they are worthwhile aims, virtues that should be cultivated, and at the core of what it means to be human. They are the sacred secular values at the heart of any liberal society. They are the kinds of values despised by totalitarians, who embrace contradiction, unreason and obfuscation. When it comes to meditating on God (whatever that may mean), it seems that Vernon is prepared to ditch these good things in favour of... what, precisely? He supplies phrases such as "sacred ignorance" and "learned ignorance" and endlessly carps on about the limits of "human reason" and "the limitations of human understanding" and the heart as an "organ of an altogether different kind of knowledge" - and yet under the letter T in the A-Z appendix we find not Truth but Therapy. Perhaps that's what this book is, therapy for those who are assailed by what is true and who itch with lust for doubt.

On my understanding, what is so wonderful about reason is its limitlessness. We are guided by reasons in all our projects, including the big ones of living a good and meaningful life. However, while we are endlessly creative in coming up with reasons, they're not guaranteed to be good reasons, especially if we downplay the importance of logic and of understanding the world as it is.

Vernon has a similarly narrow view of science, which he thinks studies "the natural world, not the spiritual". He is making an unwarranted assumption. Science is a truth-seeking enquiry and is interested in whatever exists, and when it comes to metaphysical assumptions it travels light. After all, the whole point of science is to move from ignorance to knowledge, to push beyond the limits as they are currently perceived. As Stenger puts it (Has Science Found God?: The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe), the naturalism of science is methodological and not necessarily ontological, and in that important sense it has no limits.

Vernon believes that the agnostic's "questioning sensibility" is the best kind. On the contrary, it is scientists who are paid to have doubts, but unlike Vernon they do not sideline reason and logic. Charles Darwin, for example, lived a life of organized scepticism: endlessly curious, he sailed around the world asking why, and - importantly - he provided a big answer to a very big question. Vernon heaps scorn on atheists, describing them pejoratively as "conviction" and "militant". The atheists I admire are prepared to listen to reason, which is a better defence against dogmatism than Vernon's brand of agnosticism.

Vernon quotes with approval a theologian who asserts that "religious feeling is primary, dogmatics secondary". Downplaying belief is currently fashionable (in a non-ironic way) for those believers without a sense of history. In Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, Ehrman contrasts Christianity with the paganism it supplanted: the "Christian religion came to be firmly rooted in truth claims, which were eventually embedded in highly ritualized formulations, such as the Nicene Creed".

We're back full circle to the concept of truth. While Vernon doesn't talk much about truth, he does mention Wittgenstein's "celebrated intuition" that "there are things that can only be shown or intuited" - without recognizing the circularity of this line of thought. (This solecism is not surprising, given his philosophical cloth ear when it comes to using the phrase "begs the question".) In any case, Vernon is wrong on both counts: intuitions are neither beyond scientific study nor a source of reliable knowledge. Wonderful as they are, like our emotions, our intuitions are grounded in the physical world, in the multitude of ways in which we have interacted with the environment and with each other over millions of years. And, crucially, our intuitions sometimes mislead us (see, for example, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow).

One distasteful aspect of the book is Vernon's attitude towards atheists and humanists, who according to him suffer a "poverty of spirit". There are more snide references to militant non-believers and fierce atheists and to "flimsy" and "materialistic humanism" which "finds it hard to address the questions of morality, values and spirit." He ought to try engaging with the many fine contemporary humanist thinkers such as Austin Dacey, Sam Harris, Stephen Law, Richard Norman and many others, each of whom is serious about such questions and has more to contribute than Vernon or the average religious specialist.

Vernon was an Anglican priest for a while. Then he became an atheist. Then he backslid into agnosticism. For a fuller and more inspiring account of a (successful) move from belief to unbelief, I would recommend Dan Barker's Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists. Just as Vernon makes sweeping claims about the inadequacy of humanist ethics, he asserts that the "thread of transcendence that runs through being human... eludes the best descriptions of biologists, psychologists and sociologists" - a cheap shot, which ignores the appropriate level of explanation each of these disciplines operates within. In Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence, Raymond Tallis shows how even atheists and humanists - indeed, all humans - engage in a transcendence that doesn't invoke the supernatural.

I began by merely disliking this book, and ended by thinking it dispiriting and literally demoralizing. In the final chapter, Vernon recaps a theme that recurs throughout the book, and which I believe to be fundamentally mistaken: "all human knowledge is capable of being revised". He agrees with Popper that "certainty is not available to human beings" and asserts that what "is taken as knowledge at any particular time must, therefore, be only an approximation to the truth". This, of course, is nonsense. Take the number 92. For millennia, some of the best minds have wondered how many basic elements make up the world around us (one of those big questions that people like Vernon are so fond of, at least until they are answered by science and then they seem to be relegated to the status of mere fact). The number of naturally occurring elements in the universe is 92. That is a piece of knowledge of the most profound kind, and it is not revisable. (See Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science.)

In Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking McInerny reminds us that grey can only exist because there are the distinct alternatives of black and white. For McInerny and for most sensible people, certainty "is a real possibility" - and that is a good thing. At a time when a greater public understanding of science is vital for the future of the planet, Vernon's mistaken ideas about scientific knowledge are bad enough. Worse is Vernon's parroting of Socrates' desire to "show how little humans understand about moral good". Is Vernon unsure about the wrongness of slavery and genocide? Does he entertain the possibility that we may revise our moral knowledge in light of new information, and conclude that we were mistaken in thinking these activities abhorrent? For someone who thinks nothing is certain, anything goes. Instead of god-talk (whatever that means), I would rather reflect upon Dacey's idea that "open talk makes wisdom".
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars How NOT to be an agnostic, 23 Jan 2013
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I have considered myself agnostic for over 50 years,during which time I have kept my viewpoint pretty much to myself. Unlike deists and atheists, I have no need to voice my opinions, and others in my view may believe whatever they find convincing provided it is acceptably harmless. Mark Vernon however felt the need not only to voice his opinions, but to write a book on a subject that I consider a personal matter, so I thought maybe he might have something important to say. How wrong could I have been! This was the first book I ever bought on agnosticism, and I was bitterly disappointed with it. It is prolix; it is trivial; it concerns itself for the most with the lives and views of historical characters; quite frankly, it is boring, and contributed nothing at all to my understanding of agnosticism.
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How To Be An Agnostic
How To Be An Agnostic by Dr Mark Vernon (Paperback - 4 Mar 2011)
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