The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 22, 2003

Conflict between reason & faith
Priyanka Singh

An Agnosticís Apology and Other Essays
by Leslie Stephen. Rupa, New Delhi. Pages 343. Rs 195.

An Agnosticís Apology and Other EssaysWHAT constitutes the time-old concept of hell and heaven? Is God for real? Are theologians stuck in a time warp, wary of scientific temperament deciding the framework of a new creed based on logic? What is true religion and where does belief end and blind faith begins? These are some of the quintessential contentions that Leslie Stephen dwells on in his treatise, acclaimed to be one of his best. A collection of seven essays, the book seeks to reveal the hollowness of dogmas and the futility of man to understand the mysteries of the cosmos.

Agnosticism vs its rival school "Gnostics" (coined by Leslie) and the clash between reason and faith to make something of the "brief path (that) is dark enough on any hypothesis" forms the basis of An Agnosticís Apology. He holds that manís knowledge of the universe and the sublime natural order is intrinsically limited and could be dangerous if the "limits of possible knowledge" are not recognised. Quoting Newman, he says a man guided by reason is essentially an agnostic and presently, agnosticism is the only reasonable faith for at least three-quarters of the race.


Leslie asserts that the mumbo-jumbo of theologians and the overdependence on high-sounding theories will only succeed in feeding "old doubts" unless the theory of universe is "demonstrably established." Challenging the free will doctrine of theologians, he says the hypothesis is a device used by them to relieve God for the sufferings of His creations. The discussion could have been more illuminating had Leslie drawn from Miltonís Paradise Lost to explain his view. Also, when he expresses his reservation with regard to Christís last words on the Cross (as reported in the gospel of St Matthew)ó"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"óhe fails to mention the view of theologians. He feels "nothing can be more terribly pathetic if we read it as the despairing utterance of a martyr yielding at the last moment to a hideous doubt." The theologians have explained it in a way that satisfies the believers. Since Christ was the Son of God and had to take the sin of mankind upon himself, he had to die in horrifying pain like an ordinary man. In his last moment, God had to "desert" him. Scepticism of Believers discusses the nature of belief. Leslie states that the believer in Rome is the infidel at Mecca, and conversely, but the superiority of the belief cannot be confirmed since "belief and unbelief are the very same thing." Even Russian "Nihilists" show their faith by believing in nothing. Making a plea for realities in exchange for dreams, he questions the historical truth of Jewish legends.

The Christian creed takes a beating in Dreams and Realities where Leslie states that "vehement and unreproved declamation" has driven men, women and children into "paroxysms of hysterical excitement" and numbers into madness. He stresses that every cruelty of the persecutors was justified by the necessity of saving souls from hell, claiming that the creed is now dying as the people have discovered that heaven and hell belong to dreamland.

What is Materialism?, Newmanís Theory of Belief, Toleration and The Religion of All Sensible Men are the other essays that further dwell on the metaphysical and varied aspects of organised religion.

Impatient with fanatics and preachers, reason makes Leslie feel alienated from those who believe in "devils possessing pigs" or the existence of Noahís ark. Those who swear by logic would find the book sufficiently absorbing but for the uninitiated in philosophy, it would be a whirlwind spin in the world of endless theories and jargon.