In a magazine called Look, published in 1953, the philosopher Bertrand Russell clarified what being an atheistically-inclined agnostic meant for him, via a series of questions. There is, perhaps, some benefit in juxtaposing excerpts from some of the actual answers he gave with ones Socrates might have given, had he been asked too. He was an agnostic too, though of a different kind – being more religiously-inclined. A virtual conversation defines, as it were, two poles on the continuum of agnostic belief.
What is an agnostic?
Russell: An agnostic is a man who thinks that it is impossible to know the truth in the matters such as God and a future life with which the Christian religion and other religions are concerned. Or, if not for ever impossible, at any rate impossible at present.
Socrates: I too have never found anything but uncertainty in divine matters, but that is a bad reason for unbelief. The same could be said about most matters we enquire into. My agnostic is someone who is religiously minded, but who, unlike the believer who speaks of his gods with confidence, lives so as to explore the mystery and uncertainty of these things.
Are agnostics atheists?
Russell: No. An agnostic suspends judgement … At the same time, an agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice.
Socrates: No – but not because it is not worth considering in practice. I do find many of the things people say about gods unlikely, but examining someone’s god-talk, for or against, often exposes the assumptions they make not about God, but about who we humans are.
Since you deny ‘God’s law’, what authority do you accept as a guide to conduct?
Russell: An agnostic does not accept any ‘authority’ in the sense in which religious people do. He holds that a man should think out questions of conduct for himself.
Socrates: We should certainly try to think out questions of conduct for ourselves, or perhaps a better way of putting it is to say we should cultivate those virtues within us that allow us to flourish. And that does not exclude respecting a higher authority, the resources wise people have developed, the ways they’ve tried to live. Sometimes we must defer to authority, for we cannot decide everything afresh for ourselves.
Does an agnostic deny that man has a soul?
Russell: The question has no precise meaning unless we are given a definition of the word ‘soul’. I suppose what is meant is, roughly, something non-material which persists throughout a person’s life and even, for those who believe in immortality, throughout all future time. An agnostic is not likely to believe that a man has a soul.
Socrates: I do not understand this objection to the idea of a soul – though it is no doubt hard to pin down. My pupil Plato, and his pupil Aristotle, used to argue endlessly about it. But that only goes to show it’s worth talking about, for must we not take care of ourselves as souls – as persons with imaginations, purposes, desires? A beautiful soul is like an excellent wine: it’s hard to say why, but you know it when you taste it.
What is the meaning of life to the agnostic?
Russell: I feel inclined to answer by another question: what is the meaning of ‘the meaning of life’? I suppose what is intended is some general purpose. I do not think that life in general has any purpose. It just happened. But individual human beings have purposes, and there is nothing in agnosticism to cause them to abandon these purposes.
Socrates: When death hangs over your head, the meaning of life is not academic, believe me! What is important is not life itself but a life lived well. But even that takes us only so far. For myself, I have the blessing of a keen sensibility that strives to understand how we are ignorant. When we get that right, it paradoxically seems that we get lots of other things more right too.
Is faith in reason alone a dangerous creed?
Russell: No sensible man, however agnostic, has ‘faith in reason alone’.
Socrates: We can agree on that.
This is an extract from How To Be An Agnostic by Mark Vernon (Palgrave Macmillan). See www.markvernon.com