Agnostics and Identity: What’s in a name?

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, Richard Dawkins 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.

A possible 2-dimensional representation of belief

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.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “Agnostics and Identity: What’s in a name?”

  1. unklee says :

    G’day RA, this was an interesting and useful post. I have a few thoughts ….

    1. I did a couple of Philosophy courses back almost 50 years ago, and in those days “atheist” was disbelief (Dawkins’ 7) and “agnostic” was non-belief (his 4). I think most philosophers still have the same usage, but these days I notice many atheists defining “atheism” as lack of belief, which seems to span the range of 4-7. I find this a retrograde step, as it blurs the meanings, but I think they find it useful for two reasons: (i) theism can span 1-3, and they can span , and 4-7, and (ii) I find some talk as if they are 7, but when challenged move towards 4, which may be an effective debating tactic but seems to make understanding more difficult.

    2. Eminent cosmologist, Sir Martin Rees, is an agnostic (probably 4-4.5) yet he attends church (I understand) because he enjoys the sense of awe and the ritual, and because he lives in a small village and feels it is socially better to attend. So there’s another example.

    3. I didn’t realise you still attended a church. Why is that? (Have you blogged about this already?)

    Best wishes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      The territory between 4 and 7 is definitely vague, and entirely uncovered by your philosophy class definitions. In reality, if anyone thinks they’re exactly a 1, 4 or 7, they’re kidding themselves, so no one fits a nice, neat label. I can well believe that there are people who disbelieve more than they believe attending church (I know at least a couple of others), but we’re definitely in a minority.

      I hadn’t particularly mentioned church before, but I have now, and probably will in future.

  2. Chris says :

    In Religious Studies we would add in the additional dimensions of “identity” (people can believe one thing yet wish to identify with terms for different reasons… as you rightly acknowledge), “salience”(the relative importance of this identity) and “attitudes/values”… and others would add more dimensions too…

    As you rightly acknowledge, it is entirely inaccurate to portray religion as being all about belief… far from it. A very protestantised understanding of ‘religion’

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