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.