After all this time, I keep coming back to the question of how to describe myself at the moment. I know who I am and what I believe, but it’s hard to put a name to it that I feel comfortable with.
I am a Christian because that’s both my upbringing and the entire background to where I am.
I’m not a Christian because there’s next to none of it that I still believe in.
I am an agnostic because I haven’t reached a firm conclusion, and suspect the nature of the question means there will always be uncertainty.
I’m not an agnostic because despite that uncertainty, my thoughts all seem to point in one direction.
I am an ignostic because I believe the concept of God needs to be properly defined in order to be meaningful.
I’m not an ignostic because I doubt that my answer would be different for any non-trivial definition of God.
Running through all this, there’s the fear that identifying with a label puts me in a box, and will ultimately result in me conforming to others’ ideas of what an X should think, rather than following my own thoughts wherever they lead me. Depending on your point of view, that might be cowardice or caution. I like to think of it as being individual.
The nearest I’ve come to a label I’m happy with is heathen, which conveys the important details with a dash of self-deprecation without tying me to a whole lot of things I don’t accept. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough for now.
Image courtesy of Robert Michie, used with permission
It’s funny the things you remember through the haze of sleep deprivation that accompanies a new baby.
When #2 was born, we started to realise that babies aren’t all the same, and they have their own personalities and preferences just like adults. One thing I remember very clearly from that time is an interesting comment someone made (sorry, I have no idea who – sleep deprivation) about how we react to different children. The gist of it was that when you have two boys or two girls, you notice all the things about the second child that make it different from the first. “A used to do X, but B seems to prefer Y”, you say.
But – and this is the interesting bit – guess what happens when you have one boy and one girl? It appears that most people in that situation notice the same differences, but they interpret them differently. Now, they say “girls do X, boys prefer Y.” Rather than seeing it as two different babies having different personalities, they generalise it into a statement about fundamental differences between the sexes – they know they have one of each, so that’s the obvious explanation for the variation they’ve observed.
I don’t know if anyone’s actually studied this – I’m not sure if it’s important enough to be worth studying – but it instinctively feels right to me. I know that if #2 had been a girl, I would have been very strongly inclined to see any differences from #1 as a product of her sex, rather than simple variation in personality. Everything that didn’t fit my expectations from #1 were a cause of confusion, and a different sex would have been a natural explanation to reach for.
I wonder if we have a tendency to generalise in other contexts, based on obvious and available distinctions. It’s quite easy, through a combination of this sort of misattribution and a hefty dose of confirmation bias, to reach the conclusion that “atheists are like this”, “Christians are like that”, or “agnostics are like the other”, because the only (or most obvious) examples of a certain trait share a certain belief system.
That’s not necessarily the case, obviously – our experiences of any group are very limited, and when we spend most of our time associating with people in one group, our experience of other groups is necessarily going to be heavily weighted towards the noisiest members of those groups. The important thing is to realise what we’re doing, remember the “Parents’ Fallacy”, and try to prevent our instinctive reactions from running away with us.
But that’s easier said than done.
I’ve rather painted myself into a corner here, having said that I expected everyone to judge the debate based on their own prior standpoint and preconceptions. I might have got away with that on its own, but as I also said how I expected the debate to go, I have the choice of admitting that my prediction was wrong, or leaving myself open to a charge of merely confirming my own expectations, as I somewhat critically suggested others would do.
Fortunately, I’ve been saved from having to cover that in too much detail, because there’s one issue that’s dominating discussion of the debate – Richard Dawkins’ self-description as agnostic, putting himself at 6.9 on his Spectrum of Theistic Probability.
Sadly, most of the comment on this has been rather hysterical and misinformed. So let’s clear a few things up: Dawkins is not backsliding on his atheism, and he’s certainly not about to suddenly convert to Christianity. His position has consistently been that he’s confident of the non-existence of God, and although he’s unable to prove that and must hold the possibility of God’s existence open, he does so in much the same way as the tooth fairy or Russell’s Teapot.
In fact, I find it ironic that some of the people who are claiming this “uncertainty” as some terrible admission are the same people who have previously castigated him for what they perceived as his dogmatic certainty, and refusal to admit that he could be wrong. He loses either way – he’s portrayed as arrogant and dogmatic, or else he’s so uncertain in his beliefs that they’re clearly not worth discussing, because even he isn’t really sure and doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.
As I’ve previously highlighted, this exposes an obvious weakness in the most commonly used terms to describe beliefs. I suspect Dawkins’ beliefs are getting so much attention not because of his degree of belief (he’s explicitly described himself as a 6 to 6.9 many times before), but because of the label he assigned to that position. It seems natural that an agnostic should be genuinely uncertain, rather than simply acknowledging the impossibility of being 100% certain – calling Dawkins an agnostic just feels wrong.
Now, I confess that I’m a little interested in his chosen label from a narrow perspective of practical theology, but seeing that his actual degree of belief hasn’t changed, I don’t see that it warrants the attention it’s been getting. Maybe there are more theology geeks than I’d realised.
The reports are half right, though – Dawkins is known for describing agnostics as feeble-minded fence-sitters, or at least partly agreeing with his school preacher who did, so he must have shifted his position. Except he hasn’t – the relevant passage in The God Delusion describes two types of agnosticism: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). Dawkins reserves his scorn for the PAPs, and says:
Agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability
So it’s right there in his most famous “atheist” work, actually in a chapter on agnosticism – he strongly believes there is no God, but we are currently unable to answer the question with certainty in either direction. Even there, surely the first place you’d look to find out his views on agnosticism and certainty, it’s clear that he acknowledges a lack of certainty. He’s also unable to be entirely certain about the non-existence of fairies, unicorns or anything else.
So Richard Dawkins is, always has been, and almost certainly always will be confident that there is no God, but he nevertheless remains aware that he is unable to answer the question with absolute certainty. The only news here is that people (especially journalists) jump to conclusions without checking their facts, and that lots of them have never really paid attention to what Dawkins was saying.
Come to think of it, that’s not really news, either.
…Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. At least, if you consider yourself an agnostic. I’ve mentioned that how we describe ourselves owes as much to identity and which groups we feel comfortable with as to what we actually believe, and this is true for me right now. I feel that I have very little in common with either Christians or atheists at the moment, but even where I do find a point of agreement with either side, I have no interest in associating myself with either extreme. That’s partly because I don’t have that level of confidence in my conclusions and partly because I don’t feel any sense of belonging to either group.
That’s not to say that I think Christians and atheists don’t have anything to offer. I think a reasonable amount of sense is spoken by some on either side – yes, even Christians, although I said “some” for a reason. It’s just that when the subject’s so polarised and my opinions are still fairly unsettled, the positives of aligning myself with one side or other seem to be heavily outweighed by the negatives.
I recently wrote about Christians suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. But I can’t exactly criticise, because I’m guilty of something similar. When considering religion, my reasoning generally all seems to lead me in the same direction. Whether I approach the God issue from the angle of history, biology, cosmology or anything else, the obvious conclusion seems to be full-blown atheism. But whenever I get to that point, I always pull back from the brink.
I’m happy to follow my reasoning to a certain point, but in the end, I throw it out of the window in favour of something I feel more comfortable with, something familiar. I don’t want to sit on the fence forever, but nor do I particularly want to associate myself with either extreme right now. I certainly don’t want to do that if it isn’t necessary. As long as my beliefs and actions can be reconciled with my chosen identification, it looks like a lot of unnecessary hassle to switch to a different label for a slightly increased level of accuracy.
The truth is that it’s much easier for me to sit awkwardly on the edges of the church – cynical, detached, but still more or less there – than it would be to leave, with all the attendant social and family traumas that would cause. So I’m going to carry on living a lie – at least a partial one – as long as there’s any possible room for doubt. Given the subject matter, that realistically means that I’m likely to be a “Christian Agnostic” for life, or at least until I can muster some moral courage.
I just don’t want to have to deal with how my wife, parents, grandparents and especially my in-laws would react if I were to tell them that I’ve left the church completely and am now a certified atheist. I don’t want them to feel awkward about it, and I certainly don’t want them to try to convert me or change my mind. Family gatherings can be difficult enough without recurrent conversations about why I’m wrong, or whether I’ve considered this or that argument, or even awkward silences as people try not to say certain things in case they offend me. Given that secularism is generally a dirty word, I don’t see atheism going down too well.
So I’m a living example of identity being only loosely related to belief, as discussed previously. In my current situation, I find it politically expedient to continue to attend church and identify myself (if anyone asks) as agnostic or Christian Agnostic. It’s true enough, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it ducks the sort of conversation I’d rather not be having right now.
Agnostics – no one seems to agree on what we are, or what we believe. Christopher Hitchens identified with us as part of a sort of non-religious coalition,despises us (or at least, some of us) for weak-minded vacillation and appeasement. I often find the label unhelpful, as it can suggest different things to different people, many of them a long way from how I’d describe myself.
It should be simple enough to plot belief on a scale from total, absolute theism on one hand to complete, certain atheism on the other, drawing agnosticism somewhere in the middle. Richard Dawkins’ Spectrum of Theistic Probability is a start, but distinguishing the boundaries is hopelessly problematic. Strictly, a 1 could only be described as a theist, a 7 must be an atheist, and a 4 is a pretty good fit for an agnostic, but almost no one fits those descriptions exactly (Dawkins himself says he’s 6 to 6.9), and all points in between are up for debate.
I have my own views on where on the spectrum you might apply different labels, but ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Common usage doesn’t have to conform to my opinions, and there are supportable arguments for any value between the obvious points of 1, 4 and 7 to carry one label or another. This spectrum evidently conveys more precise information than a simple label, but is there any way we could narrow it down for even greater accuracy?
Another way of looking at agnosticism is as a separate axis from belief, describing the certainty with which those beliefs are held. So you could have extremely theist or atheist beliefs or any point in between, and hold those beliefs either firmly, even dogmatically, or lightly in the knowledge that you may well be wrong. That allows for more flexibility in defining a person’s beliefs, and moves away from the idea that certainty is necessarily linked to how extreme your beliefs are, even though there’s an obvious correlation.
But belief is only half the story if you want to understand someone’s position on religion. As with sexuality, it also makes sense to consider their behaviour or practice. Many people believe in God but rarely if ever attend church. Conversely, there are some (probably not so many, but I’m one of them) who would score over 4 on Dawkins’ scale, but still attend regularly for one reason or another. So again, although there’s a clear correlation between these different factors, it’s helpful and informative to consider them all to categorise people as accurately as possible.
So now we’re looking at plotting on 3 axes: belief, certainty and practice, however you choose to measure those. Almost certainly, many points are likely to be on or near a curved line starting at total theistic certainty and high church attendance, passing through uncertain impartiality (value 4) with moderate to low attendance, and finishing at total atheistic certainty and no attendance, but I would expect substantial variation, especially in the middle of the plot, and a large number of outliers.
Most interesting would be to see how people’s self-identified labels match their position in the plot – again, I’d expect a fairly clear pattern at the extremes of the expected trend line, but less of a pattern closer to the centre ground, where whether people identify as theist, atheist, agnostic or anything else is so unpredictable from their position on the plot that it’s almost random.
So much for speculation. The point is that I suspect the labels people apply to themselves have as much to do with identity as belief. Part of that may be down to theists reaching the point where they doubt their conclusions, or even finding that they no longer believe what they used to, but still hanging onto what they know or feel comfortable with. It may also be that some labels are unattractive, even if they appear accurate, because they carry baggage or imply things which some consider undesirable.
I’ll say more about that in my next post.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about agnosticism, identity, and different ways of considering and defining belief. I’ve had lots of different thoughts and ideas floating round in my head, and despite being closely related, they don’t seem to sit easily in the same post, so I’ve split them into three separate but connected ones. Part one is here, parts two and three to follow shortly.
It’s common to see agnostics in various uncomplimentary ways – fence sitters being a common one – and increasingly, I’m coming to see that point of view, at least for some definitions of the word. The trouble is that there’s a very limited range of terms you can use to define yourself if you fall between the two extremes. In fact, I don’t think “agnostic” is a very useful description of where I’m coming from – Ignostic might be closer to the mark, if it was more widely understood – but it’s as close as I can get within the limitations of common terminology.
The thing is, belief isn’t binary. There’s huge variation between believers, there’s a vast spectrum between total belief (of any kind) and total atheism, and there are lots of tiny side issues which confuse the issue but can’t be captured on a single axis. I see it as a question of identity as much as anything. Richard Dawkins’ Spectrum of Theistic Probability is an interesting attempt to recognise more of the middle ground and create some sort of scale to refer to, but its scope is fairly limited. However, I’m intrigued by how similar it is to the Kinsey Scale.
So recently, while thinking about something else entirely, it occurred to me that sexual orientation could be a rather good analogy for the problems of defining belief. Orientation is generally understood to be a spectrum, but despite that, almost everyone is identified with one extreme or the other, with a few misunderstood and marginalised souls in the middle. I realise that I may be straying into dangerous territory here, or simply betraying a shameful level of ignorance, so please take this in the speculative spirit in which it’s intended.
Considering that it’s so widely acknowledged that sexuality is on a spectrum, it’s quite odd that preference is commonly reduced to just three options, and that the one preference that openly acknowledges that it isn’t a binary question of one or the other tends to be the smallest of the three, with people adopting that label finding themselves treated with suspicion by both sides. As with religion, it seems that people feel happier simplifying a complex picture over a wide spectrum into an effectively binary choice between the two extremes.
Another similarity I noticed was in the huge majority identifying with one end of the spectrum and the way the minority “out group” at the other extreme has taken on quite a narrow definition in common use. I realised this recently, when I was shocked by mention of a gay man sleeping with a woman – I’d somehow absorbed the idea that if you identify as gay, you can only ever be attracted to the same sex, something I wouldn’t apply in reverse to straight folk.
This has an interesting parallel in the way the atheist label tends to imply a lot more than “someone scoring over 4 on the Dawkins scale”. It can often mean things like a Dawkins score of 6 or more, a strongly scientific mindset, and increasingly, a vehement opposition to religion, rather than mere disbelief. I know of people who have no belief in God at all, but just aren’t interested in the question, so call themselves “apatheists” or “meh-theists” because atheism as commonly understood implies things they don’t care about.
Obviously, this isn’t a perfect analogy – although you can’t help what you believe, it is quite likely to change over time in a way sexuality doesn’t, as far as I know, but Cynthia Nixon may have a different view on that. But clearly, labels are a complicated issue, and don’t tell the whole story. I’ll cover that in more detail in my next post.
Hi, my name’s Dave, and I’m an agnostic. I think agnosticism often gets a bad press – woolly fence-sitter is a typical understanding of the word, and some would go as far as to describe agnostics as cowards and appeasers, but I tend to something much more like Thomas Huxley’s original definition:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
That’s fine as far as I’m concerned – I’ve never been one for overstating the certainty of conclusions – and it’s kept me detached from the sort of mudslinging that both theists and atheists are often guilty of online, but there are a couple of problems which have prompted me to think about my position and start this blog. First, almost everyone will (if pressed) admit to a degree of uncertainty over their conclusions. And second, agnosticism in this methodological Huxleyan sense has nothing to say about the strength of competing claims. In fact, “agnostic” is a label that can be (and has been) claimed by people just about anywhere on the spectrum of belief, so its usefulness without further qualification is questionable.
That’s not to say I have any intention of disowning the label, which I think is the best available summary of my approach to religion, but I’ve come to the conclusion that staying detached like this may actually be ducking the issue. While I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced that there can be any certainty about any conclusions to theological and metaphysical questions, and I have a nasty habit of seeing both sides of an argument, I don’t think certainty is necessary before you take up a position on an issue – for example, politics isn’t a subject you can be certain about, whatever some politicians might have you believe, but political opinions aren’t exactly thin on the ground.
So having spent a number of years getting to where I am, I’m going to be trying to work my way back to some sort of actual position. I expect that to involve some discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments both for and against the existence of God, the pros and cons of different religions and traditions within them, and musings on theology, practical applications, and all things religious and irreligious. At the moment, I have no idea where I’m going to end up, or how I’m going to get there, but I hope you enjoy the ride.