(This review is by guest writer John Stokdijk. For a short bio, see below.)
Agnosticism is commonly understood as taking the position that one does not know whether God exists. Sometimes this position is criticized as a weakness resulting from indecisiveness or an unwillingness to deeply study an important question. This is not the type of agnosticism that Robin Le Poidevin defends.
Strong agnosticism as justified by Le Poidevin asserts a position that withstands the force of the arguments of atheists who are certain that God does not exist. Strong agnosticism claims that when properly understood the existence of God is unknowable. Both the atheist and the theist have errors in their thinking which the agnostic seeks to avoid.
In Chapter 2 Le Poiddevin gives some historical background on agnosticism. The term itself was created by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. But the concept originated with the skeptics of ancient Greece.
Today we do not believe in dragons because there is simply no evidence to justify such a belief. In Chapter 3 Le Poidevin confronts the argument that, like dragons, there is no evidence to justify belief in God. But dragons and God are not the same kind of thing and the argument fails. Consequently, agnosticism about dragons does not support agnosticism about God.
Next Le Poidevin examines the often asserted idea that the default position favors atheists, that the burden of proof rests with the theists. Although it is widely accepted that positive beliefs require justification while negative beliefs do not, counter examples undermine this reasoning. A strong agnostic may reasonablely expect both the atheist and the theist to defend their positions.
In Chapter 4 Le Poidevin briefly analyzes several specific and familiar arguments for or against the existence of God. Can intelligence emerge randomly? Can life come from nonlife? Where does a moral conscience come from? What are we to make of those who feel the presence of God? What are we to make of those who feel no presence of God? Both atheists and theists provide answers to these questions which support their conclusion. However, neither completely succeed in removing all ambiguities. Neither reach a conclusion which satisfies the other. Agnosticism remains the best possible position.
Has the agnostic made a big mistake, asks the author. Has not the success of science established the importance of verification, the importance of falsifiability? The author makes a distinction between scientific evidence for God, of which there is none, and other evidence for the existence of God which can be reasonably defended. Upon examination, science rests on a foundation which cannot be scientifically verified. The agnostic recognizes that all belief systems, including science, are ultimately built on foundations which are acceptable but not self-evident. Attempts to remove all subjectivity from the choice of which foundation to build upon are not possible.
Le Poidevin goes on to ask, should an agnostic accept Pascal’s Wager? Should an agnostic embrace religion as a useful fiction. His answer is no, not necessarily.
In his final chapter, Robin Le Poidevin discusses some of the benefits of agnosticism. There is value in accepting that some questions have no definitive answer and it is good to accept justified uncertainty. We do not need to pretend that there is always adequate knowledge supporting our beliefs.
“Not knowing how the world came into being, what the ultimate purpose of life is, and the source of our sense of goodness, different ages and cultures have produced astonishingly rich stories which combine these mysteries into a unified whole, and give life a shape and meaning. (p. 114 OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition)
Not knowing can be a vital component of secular or naturalistic approach to spirituality. With no fixed beliefs, everyone is free to find their own path to a meaningful and good life. Contemplating unanswerable questions can be a source of wonder and awe.
“In the light of what has just been said, I am suggesting that agnosticism should be presented as something positive, not simply a shrugging of the shoulders, but an honest recognition of uncertainty, where uncertainty itself is shown to have benefits: coping with uncertainty makes us more creative, more resilient, and leads to genuine intellectual progress.” (p. 114OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition)
Developing comfort with uncertainty can itself be a rewarding part of a nonreligious approach to spirituality.
About the Author of Agnosticism
Robin Le Poidevin is a Professor of Metaphysics at the University of Leeds whose special interests include agnosticism, philosophy of religion and metaphysics. He joined the Department of Philosophy at Leeds in 1989 having completed postgraduate studies at both Oxford and Cambridge, obtaining his MA from the former and his PhD from the latter. He is also the current vice president of The British Society for the Philosophy of Religion.
A few quotes on agnosticism
“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.” Charles Darwin
“What people are really after is, what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God? And I would say, if I find a word that came closest, it would be agnostic.” Neil deGrasse Tyson
“I’m a strict, strict agnostic. It’s very different from a casual, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s that you cannot present as knowledge something that is not knowledge. You can present it as faith, you can present it as belief, but you can’t present it as fact.” Margaret Atwood
“My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.” Albert Einstein
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John Stokdijk is a retired Canadian living with his wife Pat in Ajijic, Mexico. He lost his Christian faith at midlife and lost all interest in religion or spirituality. But after reading Waking Up by Sam Harris in 2014 he gained an interest in secular spirituality which he continues to pursue.
1 thought on “Book Review: Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction by Robin Le Poidevin”
Sounds like an excellent book. Thanks for the review!
I was raised by atheists and became a biomedical scientist by profession. But having been raised in the Midwest, surrounded by church people, I developed a personal interest in religion. My effort to synthesize the two mindsets (rational and spiritual) can be found in the book, “The God that Says I AM,” available on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1450549047_