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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 11:21 GMT
God. Who knows?
Clouds illuminated at dawn (photo by Ivor Hewstone)

With religion increasingly polarised, is there any benefit in not knowing if there is a higher power? Mark Vernon - an ex-vicar - explains why agnosticism is his creed.

We are in a period of intense debate about religion. It seems there are believers, secularists and atheists - in their manifold varieties - arguing over their various concerns. Veils. Intelligent design v evolution. Ordaining gays and women. Contraception and Aids.

But there is one voice that is squeezed out, partly because it can equivocate, partly because it tires of the tit-for-tat that the debate is so often reduced to. That is the agnostic.

Philosophical view that truth of claims like the existence of gods is unknown or unknowable
Word from Greek a, meaning without, and gnosis, meaning knowledge
Noted agnostics include Francis Crick, Sir David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and Warren Buffett
It is a position that interests me because I used to be a priest in the Church of England. Then, to cut a long story short, I left - and I left a confirmed atheist. After a while, I found unbelief as dissatisfying as full-blown Christianity. It seems to entail a kind of puritanism, as if certain areas of human experience must be put off-limits, for fear that they smack of religion. So I became an agnostic.

Now, many atheists and believers alike think agnosticism weak. Atheists would bundle us in with them; liberal believers likewise. But this does us a disservice. In fact, I have become really quite evangelical about the need for a passionate, committed agnosticism.

Why? How else to deal with something that lies at the heart of the human condition: uncertainty. Thus, a corresponding "lust for certainty" characterises many of the debates currently doing the rounds. In religion, fundamentalism is the obvious case in point.

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A similar lust for certainty also increasingly characterises mainstream religion, such as the crisis about homosexuality in the Church of England. For conservative evangelicals, what you think about gay love-making is a test of what you think about the truth of the Bible. To be for one is to be against the other.

When it comes to the scientific worldview, a lust for certainty is manifest in different ways. Think of the way that some atheists go on at great length about the need to throw off superstitious belief and don the freedom and reason of the Enlightenment.

What they will not accept is what the inventor of the word "agnostic" sought to highlight. TH Huxley meant his neologism as a rebuke to all who peddle their opinions as facts - notably their opinion, scientific or religious, about God. For whether or not God exists is neither proven nor, he thought, provable. God just isn't that kind of concept.

Einstein, another agnostic, looked at the universe and saw the workings of a "spirit" beyond our understanding, an intuition the atheist would stumble over.

Fear of unknown

The lust for certainty spills over into other walks of modern life too. Take the so-called politics of fear - the constant reference to risks, from hoodies on the street corner to international terrorism.

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Whatever the truth of these risks and the best ways of dealing with them, the politics of fear plays on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with them. Politics then becomes a question of who can better deliver an illusion of control.

Being agnostic can amount to little more than a shrug of the shoulders. But can it be a weighty way of life? It can, because it has great traditions to draw on - no lesser traditions than those of philosophy, religion and science. At their richest, all three are riven through and through with an agnostic spirit.

Take philosophy. Socrates was a genius because he realised that the key to wisdom is not how much you know, but how well you understand how little you know. That is why he irritated so many powerful people in ancient Athens; his philosophy burst the bubble of their misplaced confidence.

Similarly, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said that to be human is to be "between beasts and angels". He meant that we are not ignorant like the animals. But we are also far from wise. Faith for Augustine was about deepening the capacity to enter this cloud of unknowing, rather than opting for the shallow certainties that religion can deliver.

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man
Albert Einstein
Finally, in science, the best sort - in the sense of the most humanly enriching - is that which answers questions by opening up more questions, and in particular links to questions that are beyond science alone answer.

This is the spirit that you see in cosmology. On one level, cosmologists understand an extraordinary amount about the universe. But simultaneously, this only deepens the sense of the universe's tremendousness. The science keeps pointing to the big question of why we here at all.

The revival of a committed, passionate agnosticism in philosophy, religion and science is vital for our age. Without it religion will become more extreme; science will become more triumphalist; and our politics increasingly based on fear.

Mark Vernon is the author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Agnostic, atheist, Hindu, vegan, Man Utd supporter... seems mankind is genetically pre-disposed to want to be categorised as one thing or another. Pigeon-holed into rigid belief systems when, in reality, our views are probably more inconsistent and contradictory. From an atheist with Sheikh leanings that enjoys the Morning Service on Radio 4.
LH Kirby, London, UK

As an atheist turned Christian, I'm convinced that we can't have certainty about God or anything connected with him. What we may have is faith - a very different matter. I believe in God because I've had spiritual experiences that I interpret as being in touch with God; I believe in the Christian Gospel because it helps to make sense of humanity. I'll pray for Mark.
Robert, Reading, England

In my opinion we atheists are passionate and vocal about our (lack of) belief because we see the harm which centuries of allowing religion to overrule thought has done. Religion would be a fine thing if we could let each man or woman decide his or her own belief; however that would mean no family pressure, no Sunday school, no faith schools, no baptism and no teaching of any religion until of an age to understand.
Geoff Winkless, Leicestershire, UK

I empathise with the frustration over being considered a fence-sitter. At one point I started using the term "epistemological nihilist" (as I have an inkling that humans are incapable of knowing everything), but that term just sounds pompous to the people I'm likely to be debating with. As for agnosticism in general, I find it bemusing that it's not the preferred way of thinking. Data gets filtered through the senses into the brain and then filtered out via human language - how can we be sure we are ever on the same page enough to consider our ideas true knowledge? Surely that realization should instil enough humility to temper the extremes of fundamentalism, atheism, nihilism, etc. Ah well, humans must need the strife on some level.
Lanna, Kirkcaldy

How about other religions? If Christianity hasn't provided you with the answer, then how about Islam. As a Muslim, I found my religion to honestly provide answers to the multitude and creator behind existence.
Yemeth Nabel, Dudley, West Midlands

Not knowing and admitting it takes courage, but it is a healthy attitude in times of fanatic struggles around religion. Michel de Monteigne did so when French Catholics and Protestants were killing each other in order to prove that one or another variety of Christianity was the true one. He answered the question "which is the true religion?" by saying "que sais-je ?" I think this took about as much courage as any of the other options. I think we have the right to wonder, to ask questions, to talk about our doubts. Even if I am religious (I am a Jew).
Eva Bucur, Arad, Romania

What is God? It seems to mean different things to different people. I think a lot of the debate is semantics. I don't believe in an omnipresent being micromanaging our lives. So I'm atheist. But what caused the universe to come into existence? What determined the rules (of nature/physics etc) that took the universe on from the big bang to what we now know and love? In order for something to have the powers to do that, it must be so alien to our way of thinking that we probably could never understand it; does this view make me an agnostic? Personally I think what is relevant is whether we believe in a heaven and hell, an afterlife, spirit, etc.
Joe Grey, Folkestone, Kent

Einstein was not referring to the Gods of the 3 main religions when he referred to a spirit beyond our understanding. He was referring to "mother nature", a set of forces we may never completely understand, but that need not be attributed to some higher conscious godlike power just in the same way we would not attribute the mysteries of the universe to a giant teapot orbiting in the sky.
Joel, London

If a Church of England vicar becomes an atheist before becoming an agnostic hasn't he really ended up where he started?
Greg, Glasgow

I think the way he writes suggests he is using a scientific mindset to judge faith, which is like using the rules of cricket to run a football match. Nevertheless he is right to say that the search for certainty is unlikely to be successful. Faith is by definition something that must include doubt. This is where Dawkins is more fundamentalist than his religious opponents in that he seems to be certain that God does not exist. Keep searching, Mark - you may find your way home soon.
Derek, Keighley, West Yorkshire

I believe if any English word can be used to describe the powers that be, it's "nature".
Scott Tyrrell, Grimsby, UK

perhaps this individual should be looking into God's word the Bible rather than the human traditions of the church
Gillian Laurie, Warrington, Cheshire

With regard to Gillian Laurie's statement regarding "God's word - the Bible", there is no proof that the Bible is actually the Word of God. It was written by uncounted different people over the space of 1,000 years; it is based on peoples' opinions and views of many centuries ago, and isn't really current to base one's life and beliefs on in this day and age.
Peter, Birmingham

Francis Crick, Sir David Attenborough and Carl Sagan were/are not agnostic. They were unsure of the origins of the universe itself, and could not truly rule out the existence of some higher power. However (and this is very, very important), when it comes to the nature of this higher power they were certain it was not the Abrahamic God of the major world religions. They were no more agnostic regarding this God than they were agnostic that a flying spaghetti monster created the world. Regarding Christianity, Judaism and Islam these men were/are atheists. And you can add Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Douglas Adams to the list.
Andrew, Belfast

I agree strongly on the merits of agnosticism, and am endlessly frustrated by the flawed, sniping attempts to "prove" or "disprove" the existence of God. I consider myself a monotheist agnostic; I think this is a consistent position, and it reconciles my attitudes to science and religion.
Chris, London, UK

You don't have to be agnostic to question some of the core assumptions of religion, or to question some of the biases of anti-religious scientism. It seems he is trying to make a belief-system out of something which, by definition, cannot be systemised in such a way.
SC, Deal, Kent

About damned time that someone wrote a clear and meaningful article on agnosticism. Those of us who identify as such have been consistently written off as being fence-sitters. Glad to see there still exists some common sense (and greater sense) in this "modern" world. It's been terrifying to see the fear-mongers stirring everyone into greater depths of hatred. Perhaps there is hope.
Shadow Morton, San Francisco

The question that incorporates the human natural desire for love and acceptance intertwined with the fact that there is no one who has yet proved infallible through science the two most important questions in life; How did we come to existence? What is our purpose? Must surely lead to a life changing answer. It is a mystery and therefore cannot been answered through human wisdom but through God's grace and revelation. We thirst and there is water, we hunger and there is food, we desire love and acceptance in something greater than who we are and thus there must be a God who accepts us for who we are which was accomplished by God's grace through Jesus Christ.
Peter Lockhart, Birmingham

I think Mark, you have lost that gift called "faith". You have entered that region of a spiritual journey called " the dark night of the soul", as have many of the Saints in their time of testing. I think you should remember Corinthians 13 that faith is confirmed when we come face to face with God, Hope is achieved when we are in sight of the destiny of our creation and Love is the whole purpose of our eternal existence. Just love God for what he is and the rest will follow.
Peter Burke, Oxford

I've doubted my own beliefs for some time now. I was brought up a Catholic but I keep asking myself the same question...if there is a God then why does he/she allow such dreadful things to happen in the world?
MW, Durham

Once again, anyone choosing to be non-religious takes a patronizing tone of all Faiths as though their eyes have been opened and they can see the 'true' way. It's so easy, and fashionable, to blame all the wrongs of history on religion, forgetting all the good (social order, community, health, care, education,etc.) that churches brought. If people like Mark cannot understand God, does that mean God does not exist? As a Christian, I know without doubt that God exists - not as something I 'need', not because I'm mentally weak, but because God has touched and changed me in a way that, sadly, atheists and agnostics can never know because they want to put God into their own limited understanding.
G. McKenzie, Greenock, Scotland

Technically, every man woman and child is agnostic, there are no theists or atheists. We can believe we know, but in the true sense of what it is to know something, the existence of God is not like that. I can say there is a cup on the table and I can say I there is a God but the existence of the cup is 'knowable' (with caveats for my ability to interpret my senses). I think this was one of Mark Vernon's points.
Justin, High Wycombe

Reading Robert bases his faith on having had a religeous experience. In other words an unexplained thought-process. If not certifiable then highly questionable. The Judge could reasonably imprison our Robert on the basis of such an experience? What drivel? I have all sorts of odd thoughts but don't attribute them to a mumbo-jumbo of gods but rather a case of having taken too much of something or a slight delirium due to fever. You cannot base any reasonable activity on personal experience or peculiarities, the broad generality is where observations can be made, free of the personal distortion. Juts as well for the rest of us Robert doesn't think he's the new Messiah.
philweatherley, Bournemouth

I don't know if I should be described as an athiest or an agnostic but I don't see any evidence for life after death. Similarly if there is a vast consciousness governing the universe I don't don't see any evidence it is benign.
Garry, newcastle

Agnosticism is Faith without Dogma
Chris Daws, Spalding, UK

To know absolutely that there is no God one must have infinite knowledge. But to have infinite knowledge one would have to be God. It is impossible to be God and an atheist at the same time.
Andrew, UK

The gentlemen repeats the myth that Einstein believed in a higher being. When refering to the 'spirit, he was demonstrating his awe at the laws of nature. Aside from that I fail to see why the personal beliefs of any one individual, no matter how intelligent they are seen to be, should in some way shape my own beliefs.
Henry Coleman,

This is a very revealing idea and fits in with the notional ideas of philosophical anarchy. It is saying that the need for certainty is rooted in power structures and institututions. As individuals become more self empowered the power of these institutions should diminish and the spiritual mind can grow as the material mind will diminish.
, london

Agnosticism? Nothing more than an inviting form of passive ignorance. Surely if I was to tell an agnostic that had captured a seven legged Pixie in my back garden they would, by their own admitance, neither dismiss it or believe it. This is sitting on the fence, as human we should look at facts and challenge facts. I might also add that the names of the "agnostics" you have used are utter rubbish.
Luke Bone, St Ives, Cornwall

The agnostic view seems to me to be the only intelligent one to hold. One can neither say that there is a god or there isn't, we simply don't have enough information to make either judgement. A believer's faith is as much supposition as a non-believer¿s commitment to non-belief. Deciding to be an atheist or a religious believer simply implies a closed mind to the possibility of the opposing point of view. As humans, even when we have all the information on a subject we can still make the wrong choice or decision so to hope to make the right call when we have so little information assures us of failure.
Mark Rozze, Bromley, Kent

Surely the first strands of religion came about when man in his early intelligence, tried to explain things that there did not appear to be explanations for. This spiralled into what we have now, even if many members of some faiths deny the similarites between and the common ancestors of what are different religions now. In the modern world, we can explain the vast majority of these things with science, but still some people put the rest down to a possible 'higher force'. Maybe in another 100 years these will have been explained by science as well, and there will be no physical need for religion.
G Parker, Arundel

I am a parent of two young children. I am also an agnostic. However, I find the two positions increasingly incompatible. When someone close to them dies neither atheism nor agnosticism offer anything that can provide solace to a heartbroken child. When your child is distraught you look for something that will comfort them and I have found myself procaliming that such and such will be happier now they are in heaven. Recently my son asked me outright if I believed in God. I tried to scrabble together something about it being everyone's right to believe in what they want to believe. But to a 5 year old, not yet equipped with objective reasoning skills, this is meaningless twaddle.
Carl Almond, Alton, England

The thing is, atheists like me don't feel the need to disprove the existence of "God". And just because you don't believe in religion, it doesn't mean that you have no faith in anything, or are lacking a moral/ethical compass, as some fundamentalist theists are fond of claiming.
Chris Page, Letchworrth, UK

A very good article. Agnosticism is far more preferrable to blind faith (in what ever flavour, ie Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc, etc, etc...)!
Zia, Atheist, UK

Any chance of an article from an atheist turned CofE Vicar or Agnostic turned CofE Vicar or a Christian on their views. Or is it just a lot easier to knock stuff with lies about religion causing more... (insert prejudice)than normal people (such as Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin etc).
Raphael Duckett, Wolverhampton

All will be clear on the day of Judgement.
Ashfaq Juna, Reading, UK

Richard Dawkins (as far as I'm aware) has never said that he's "certain that God does not exist.". He argues that the balance of properly reasoned probabilities indicates that a god almost certainly doesn't exist. He doesn't write off the possibility entirely as the idea can for-ever be argued one step ahead of scientific knowledge because the belief in the existence of god unfortunately doesn't require or seek out any direct evidence.
Chris Brown, North London

Life is full of big questions! But the question of God I think is the most bigest of all. Agnostism is a state many of those who cannot be sure of the solution to these big questions find themselves into. I don't think it is the solution to the big question though. I am certain as certain as I can ever be that there is a creator God. My certainty is confirmed when I see all that sorrounds me, another confirmation is through my own experiences with the divine which lead me into Christianity.
Abu Bakr, London

Personally, I think anyone who interprets any holy text as a literal and accurate fundamental Truth Of Everything is either very naive or just too scared of the alternative. And probably dangerous. Alternately, anyone who denies the existence of an underlying metaphysical creative force in the universe is probably even more deluded than that. Religion and science both have had their good and bad points throughout history and I see no reason why they shouldn't co-exist. But anyone interpreting the universe's metaphysical creative force in human terms is missing the point just as much as those who deny it's there in the first place.
Matt Groves, Doncaster, England

I would agree that agnosticism is appropriate because we cannot prove the non existence of gods anymore than we can disprove other imaginary entities. However, gods would seem improbable and likely to be human inventions.
David Wynne-Griffiths, Corsham England

I think there should be space for another position, namely deism. This is a belief in God through reason and nature rather than through faith in scripture or in organised religion. It is a resolutely secularist and realist position. Einsteiin, as is obvious from the quote shown on this page, was a deist.
Richard, Dublin, Ireland

I believe in a universal power that keeps the world (and other worlds) turning, and we can tap into that power if we only listen. Modern religions are based too much on opinions, and therefore split people, and cause disputes and wars. The very name universe uni(one) verse(song) means we should all be singing from the same hymn sheet. If we stop worrying what other people are doing, and listen to what the universe is telling us, we would find more answers than questions.
Bill, Norwich UK

For atheists, the non-existence of God cannot be proven. It is simply highly unlikely according to a rational analysis of the world and the universe that we can see/measure. Surely agnostics are sitting on the fence if they cannot admit to the unlikely existence of a being such as God?
Tony, Reading

Well as a result of many arguments with my girlfriend and as a result of my "militant atheism", i do believe that the root of all evil lies within "i am right you are wrong" or religion theory, however as Einstein says the more you look into life and nature the questions come thick and fast but without many answers. Real question is, whats comes after the egde of our own ignorance? is that what you call god? if yes then why research anything?
snag, Vaasa

agnosticism-that's a one...just want mark to that know there is no belief system (including science)that does not have its do's and don'ts. The fact that you long for a world with no rules is pretty obvious to me but you know what...? the moment you find it i bet you and your guys(agnostics) will sit down and put a little structure in place (i.e certainty). My advice is that you look at the various beliefs, religions, you've been involved with and try to sort your issues within them
toju, lagos, Nigeria

I think that if you are prepared to believe that there may be a God, you also have to accept that there may be any one of an infinite variety of other possible entities governing our lives, including the afformentioned flying spaghetti monster and giant teapot. I prefer to believe in none of the above, and call myself an atheist.
Damian, Blackpool, UK

I am a Christian, and I have devoted a great deal of time to studying the Bible. (If you're going to believe something, then you should know why). I find it to be a remarkable book. What I think is so tragic is that many who call themselves Christians seem oblivious to its teachings. I understand why atheists would shun religion because of its history in the world. Christianity does have very strong ideals that can seem uncompromising and offensive, but the people that Jesus was the hardest on were religious leaders and hypocrites. Many forget the love and humility that characterized Jesus' teachings while bashing people over the head with the "Bible", making it out to be a bunch of rules and regulations that fuel bigotry, when nothing could be farther from the truth.
Melissa, Minneapolis, MN

I feel so cheered up to know that there are people around who feel the same way as me! I and many others it would seem have a world view that includes uncertainty and the desire to evolve that view as human knowledge changes and as one grows through individual experience. This view would be seen by both religious and atheist zealouts as wishy-washy and sitting on the fence. In fact, I feel my views are anything but wishy washy and it is wonderful to see someone articulating them for me in an intelligent and reasoned way. Until recently I had never felt the need to be labelled agnostic. However, in the current polarised climate I can see the advantages of being able to connect like-minded people so that the voice of reason can be concentrated and strengthened. In addition, as extremists of every description become more vocal, perhaps a label would help to legitimise the views of agnostics and help to avoid them being written off as fence sitters. Finally, Mark Vernon's comments reminded me of my favourite quote which describes a state of mind that is open to life's wonder and possibilities and is free from dogma. This has to be the state of mind that agnostics can work with to combat extremism and be open to scientific advances as well as the spiritual dimension. The quote is from John Keats' letters and describes 'Negative Capability' which should be the slogan for agnostics! - "Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason".
fiona Young, edinburgh

If knowledge is certainty, 100%, there's no room for doubt and therefore no room for faith and belief. Strange to tell, but the longer I am a follower of Christ, the less I know God, the more I believe.
Richard Dickson, Kenilworth

In my oppinion, God, or whatever you want to call it belongs with the little green men and the fairies at the bottom of the garden. In any case from the day you sprang into life to the day you die you will not encounter anything that could be said to be a god. So why waste time and energy on the consept. Why dress up, build temples, pray. What does it acheve. Nothing. Instead why dont you devote that energy to things that are very real and all around you: Other life in all its forms.
Andrew, Leeds

As a Christian, I never would state that there is any proof for any part of my belief. That is because we don't expect proof for the Bible clearly teaches "that without faith it is impossible to please God " However I do wish that the scientists would stop telling us that evolution and the big bang are facts. Neither can be observable or repeatable and not only therefore are not fact but will never be so.
Geoff.Gordge, Llanelli south Wales.

Has anyone considered that this may be the real reason why Dante famous work is known as The Divine Comedy! The joke's on all of you. Our epistemological nihilist, I suspect, is closer to the truth - if God is what you theists say he/she/it is then you and by extension every human who has ever existed has as much chance of knowing or understanding Gods mind, will or even nature as a moth understands the electricity that powers the lightbulb it keeps smashing its face against.
Andy, Glasgow

i agree with agnosticism because if there's one thing we can be certain about is that we are uncertain of the causes and reasons for existance. It's always useful to remember that in cultures with no scientific tradition, the beliefs are often based on total non-sense - i.e. the cargo cult of south america. People have a need for answers and don't really worry if those answers are true or not.
Craig, Winchester

Errr, how can commitment to not knowing bring certainty? That doesn't make sense. Faith is a sense of certainty, whether you're misguided or not. But then again, so is lunacy. It doesn't matter whether God is "real" so long it works for you. So God is what you make it. Enjoy your faith in God, and be kind to your fellow man. You'll be dead soon.
Jon, Cambs

What if I told you that I don't care at all that god exist or not? I don't believe in any kind of god but I like the idea that other believe, it keeps morale higher.
Henri, London, UK

As rational beings we can only make decisions about our understanding of the world and universe based on the current scientific understandings today. Evolution is very important in this regard in that the facts to prove it have so far been indisputable and on this basis religions based on a creator can be disregarded. However, it is common today for people to say that they do not believe in the traditional paternal Christian type god but believe there must be more to the world. Some look at a peacock and assume from the colours and patterns that there must be some kind of creator whatever that may be. Why do people need to do this just because they do not understand something? What these people are saying is that "I am ignorant to the reason a peacock looks like it does, and it looks like someone has purposefully designed the creature, therefore there must be some kind of creator". In actual fact, evolution can explain the peacock's beauty, if someone so wishes to understand it. Agnostics likewise seem to suggest they would rather stick their head in the sand than try to understand the world and form an opinion. They refuse to make judgements based on the current understandings of life and the universe. Personally, I would rather assess the facts and make judgements on the likelihood of there being a god, and Charles Darwin's natural selection theory provides enough evidence for me that in high probability there is no god. Richard Dawkins explains all of this much better then me.
Steve, London, UK

An atheist is someone who does not believe in God(s) - it's that simple. Just because it's hot topic and it takes a couple of virulent atheists to balance the religious fundamentalist voice, doesn't mean that we're all evangelical rebutters of faith - nevertheless, the relevance of blind faith does puzzle me at a time like today.
Ike, Isle of Man, UK

An excellant viewpoint. I am personally a christian, but I realise as well that no one can truly know for sure wether God exists. But, mathematically, if you have faith and God does exist, then you have eternal paradise, but if your faith is misplaced and there is no God, then you will have done good deeds to your fellow man with no noticable downside.
Fergus Blair, South Chailey, East Sussex, UK

The terrors and evil that have been created by man in the name of any religion far outweigh the benfits they have provided to a few soft headed liberals through the ages. Securalism is better and there is not enough proactive condemnation of all the religions in the world's media which should be the challenge of modern human evolution. Religion is and always will be divisive and therefore evil and outdated.
Richard Cooper, Leicester, UK

I enjoyed the article and the responses it provoked. Personally, I have always been an apathetic agnostic and I believe that it is as intellectually incorrect to believe as it is to not believe. But, everyone is intitled to believe what he wants. If faith in god brings you happiness and peace, it is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, it seem that often religious fanantics want to impose their beliefs on others, often reverting to force and violence.
Dan Cohea, Katy, Texas USA

Mark Vernon's words are encouraging and perhaps very wise. I find myself very much sypathetic to his view. The various religions and sub-dividing sect thereof all state that their beliefs are certain and 'right'. Such absolutism speaks to me of a restricted mindset and the an inability to comprehend other 'truths'. Therein lies the cause of much suffering in this world.
Tony Dwyer, Basildon

I'm also agnostic and can only see the damage done in the name of one structured religion or another. The Christian Crusades went into a tiny afghan village and murdered evry man woman and child in the name of God. Who of the Christian faith can defend that action alone? Also, at a certain age you give up the notion that Santa exists yet we're asked to suspend belief in the face of Noah and his big ship! Structured religion causes so much hurt and unrest in the world. Christianity had to hijack pagan festivals in order to sell it to Britain. Easter was originally Eostre and many more. I also must say to Yemeth Nabel if Islam has all the answers what's with the whole Sunni Shia conflict? Surely one side must be right!!! In short as an agnostic I think there's definitely something out there but one group can't lay claim to him/her/it...
chancie, swindon

Theism and religion are two totally different things. While the former is something very personal and private, the latter is probably the most destructive thing to have ever happened to mankind. I wish there was no religion in this world.
S Bhattacharya, Cardiff, Wales

I think that it would be true to say that majority of those who align themselves to a religion are actually agnostics. Indeed anyone with an inquisitive mind must, by their very nature, question their beliefs and in so doing manifest uncertainty. I would add, rather synically, that 'faith' is a very neat controlling mechanism for many of the world's religions.
Neil , Edinburgh

Hmmm¿ God? What a great idea it would be to have an entity who really intervened and gave direction to human-kind. It certainly seems that mankind can't be allowed to be left home alone without one; wrecking the joint and sibling punch-ups developing all over the place. Maybe there is a God and he's become so embarrassed by the state of this universe that he's gone off to work on version two¿ which would omit mankind, religion or even hinting to anybody that he might have been responsible for creating the cosmos in the first place. (Think I'd like to move to the universe next door please!)
Andy B, London

Everything began from something, and the ultimate something was a disinterested spark in absolute nothingness called, for lack of a more discriminating term, "god." This is agnosticism. And an agnostic isn't a debater because there is nothing to debate... Allow the strident atheist his "No!" and the earnest deist her "Yes!" and the shrugging agnostic "You're both probably right. So?" Religion is the most personal knowledge a human can have and imposing your beliefs on another is the absolute height of rudeness; allow others their freedom to interpret life and worship (or not), respect others as you would hope they would respect you. This concept wasn't sanctified by any supreme spirit, it is the foundation of civilized human society.
SLL, Osaka, Japan

SC of Deal could recognise that in the development of a coherent view of the world it is possible to have some questions remaining un-answered. The notion of a system is the wrong one to apply here. Splitting hairs is the provice of the religeous as they contort to make reality "fit" the written deceptions. Let's leave hair-splitting to them.
phil weatherley, Bournemouth

I do not know if there is a God. No one has ever proved that there is a God nor proved that there is no God. That is why it it can only be a matter of faith. I do believe that there is a God. Am I right in saying that an atheist believes that there is no God and that an agnostic has no belief? [ Please do not tell me that there is a difference between "no belief in God" and " believing that there is no God!] I think that we need science to help us avoid superstition and we need faith to help science understand that everthing we can do is not the same as everything we should do. What do you think?
john robins, Wokingham

It is odd for Mr Winkless to be so 'vocal' against religion when he has obviously missed the point of it- religion is about truth and being religious is about finding purpose. Not just everyone having their own little religion and being happy with it. As to not teaching children, presumaly this is to avoid accusations of 'brainwashing', but what about the thousands of children who grow up knowing that there is 'something missing' and after a long search find comfort in religion? Would you deny them that chance?
Fiona, London

My head and my heart hurt almost every day with trying to understand the meaning of our lives, and how and why all religions which claim to be good at heart seem to be at the root of so many evils that afflict our world. Many evil people seem to justify their heinous crimes in the name of some higher being. How can anyone not be affected by the sight of a suicide bomber in Iraq praying to his God before destroying hundreds of lives, and by doing so perpetuating the destruction, creating another tipping point as the victims move from goodness to despair. I simply do not know what to believe. Agnostic seems to me to be just another flavour. So I choose not to, not because I am a bad person, I just cannot associate myself with any movement that embraces intolerance, as all religions do. And no religion can claim the high ground here.
Andrew, Reading

The Quakers have a wonderful saying - "Think it possible that you may be mistaken". You can be as sure as you like of your own spiritual experience - I am a committed Christian - but if more people held this simple piece of wisdom in mind, we would be free of the black-and-white fundamentalism of all kinds - religious and non-religious - which ruins virtually every belief system on the planet. Irrational certainty is more often a damaging symptom of badly-handled doubt than any sign of the truth.
Paul Peros, Watford, UK

As an a (theist omitted, as it should be), I believe in the importance of being right. Agnostics find it hard to come down on the side of the existence of god because there is no reason to. Belief in god, gods, spirits, after-life or even thinking they might exist, is wrong. Please find your way out of this fantasy, there are enough problems in the world without making up any more.
Dave Worrall, Liverpool

I like the story of the two caterpillars looking up at a butterfly: one says to the other ¿You wouldn¿t catch me going up in one of those¿. Despite the almost incredible growth of our knowledge of the Universe even in my lifetime we know little more than they. So if there is a God who could explain it to us, it would be like me trying to explain to a caterpillar. We can believe whatever we wish, but we should recognise the difference between knowledge and belief. Maybe one day mankind will come to know enough about the Universe and its creation to be able to say ¿I know¿ but until then how can anyone be anything but agnostic (i.e. unknowing)?
Malcolm Fuller, Stony Brook, NY, USA

Being agnoistic today is for people who are too scared to go either way and this author is wrong. People who are agnostic lack the self belief that they are right, and in most circumstances hope that should it all end they could plead their case before the Almighty. If you dont believe in God, or worship in anyway, you are an atheist. Pure and simple. The person from San Fransisco should get off his fence and believe in humanism. Love for one's other man is the most important and fundemantal belief in all religions and beliefs yet it is also the one least practiced.
shane, scotland

As an agnostic I believe that if a higher power does exist he would dislike organised religion. Science has a right to disprove things which are factually incorrect in religion, which in turn attempts to stifle them. However in turn science cannot explain the universe or human nature with totality, and a strong greek mythos is not without benefit for humanity. Good article.
Mark, London, UK

I tend to not get involved into any kind of religious debate, due to the inability of the religious side to accept the fact that their book is no more factual proof that it is a word of god, no more than me stating there is a pink rainbow horse god in space. Why do human beings believe 1,000 year old book (for example) written by human beings hold any factual evidence for their god, its irrational to say the least. Also I find the idea that some religions people can dare to say that the Universe could not of came into existence without a creator, yet ignore the same argument when asked how the creator came into existence without any prior creator. When I used to attempt to have such debates with such people i was met with the usual ''it is not man place to understand the unknown'' type of answer, which to me is a escape of realism from the more rational truth. This is one of the many reasons why I moved from agnostic to atheism.
Anton, London

As a Hindu turned athiest, I am very happy to be an athiest. At least, it gives clear direction and self belief. I trust people, not that may or may not exist God. When things dont go right, I dont cry; I dont blame others, I dont seek council from Gurus. I try to find the facts, and move on! I dont bother about religions as all religions are glorified lies and a big failures! More importantly, all religious texts are very outdated, and has no meaning in today's life. There may or may not be a god, but why bother him and bother about him as long as he does not show up? Let the god prove his existence first, then I will think about changing my leanings!
Nat, Newport, South Wales

Why are people trying to change what Mr Vernon believes? He has written an article explaining how he reached the place he's at and it is clear, concise and interesting. What is this constant need to push your religion on others, especially if they are happy with their lot? Mr Vernon can always change again at a later date if he so chooses, but there is no need to force him. I think that is perhaps part of what is so appealing about agnosticism too...
Saidhbhin, barcelona

I consider myself an indiferent agnostic. With this I mean, that even if/when indisputable proof exist that God exists, that it would not change my life significantly... I think that humans have evolved enough that we should be able to let go of our past and live for our future instead. The search for our origin is simply something to satisfy our curiousity, and whether it shows that darwin or the religions were right, it should not change the way we live our lifes...
Eric, New Orleans / US

Belief is fine, and if it helps you get through life, then great. What I detest is religions. They are the cause and excuse of most of the worlds ills. I have my own beliefs that don't fit any religion, and I am fine with that, why can't everyone else be fine with it? When major religions preach 'convert or die' you have to seriously wonder what the purpose of the religion is - Spiritual support or political domination? My creed is: I think therefore I am. I think like no other, and thats ok.
Mark, Salisbury

Claiming to have an imaginary friend who tells you what to do is to me a sign of mental illness, not a basis for moral authority. Why, despite the majority in Britain now probably being agnostic (and none the less good for it), is the media still in thrall to figureheads of organised religion? These cheerleaders of the confused, the needy and in some cases the deranged, whose historical record of endorsing misguided causes is indefensible, should be left to fade to a footnote on how pre-modern humans used to deal with eternal uncertainties.
BMcTav, Edinburgh

Perhaps people should spend less time speculating about why and/or how the universe was created and concentrate their efforts more on trying to make it work more smoothly? It just IS. The constant arguments over WHY it is have seen more and bloodier wars in the history of creation than anything.
Sarah, Durham, UK

Considering all the problems in the world then if there is a God, he's / she's definitely a poor manager!

I was raised Christian, peaked as agnostic, and have now settled as atheist. Why? Agnosticism in exponential understanding of the world around us was boring me. Uncertainty is inherent to life, but it should not necessarily be so to our understanding of it. Not to seek more probable explanations in exploring reality really takes the awe out of human achievement and universe alike. The fruits of advance we enjoy every day were not made by people simply satisfied in the fluffy fuziness of not knowing.
Rick, Newcastle, UK

With each new dawning of understanding the powers of the church like good story-tellers will change the meaning behind what is written. The Sun (A God) through understanding becomes a star we revolve around; One God that a large % of the planet believe in in some shape or form will simply become obsolete when another step in our evolutionary ladder is taken. We are far too early in our own existence to be able to have this debate and come out with a convincing conclusion. As our brains are far too linear we will always be having this debate until more secrets are unveiled through time and the universe...
Markie B, London, UK

I agree that religious orthodoxy and scientific materialism are extremes. But it seems that making a claim for the murky middle ground of agnosticism is unwittingly aligning yourself with both, and their claims God cannot be known. Until people wake up to the fact there is another way, a way to know God that is beyond all religion and even beyond all faith, we will see more of what this ex-vicar is sadly demonstrating - the hopeless belief that if life has a meaning we can never discover it.
Lindsey Smith, Aldridge, West Midlands


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