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,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.