Someone asked me about my “religious status” on Facebook, and I thought it would make a good blog post.
I’ve written on my blog a few time about how I used to be a Christian and now I’m a non-Christian. Not being Christian was on step along the journey, but once I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in any kind of god, I wasn’t sure what word I could use to describe myself. After this bothering me for a few years, I googled about, and worked out I was probably some kind of secular humanist.
However, when people brought up my lack of belief in god, there seemed to be only two options: atheist or agnostic. I had a hard time accepting either of these designations.
First, “atheist” defines someone by their lack of belief in God or in a god or in gods in general. This privileges the idea of gods above other elements of supernatural claims, as nobody calls themselves a-fairyists or a-dragonists.
Secondly, it privileges the belief in the supernatural claim to be the defining aspect in someone’s life. Theist or atheist? “Well,” I think, “before I answer, may I first tell you my story rather than putting myself into one of those two camps?” I guess that’s why secular humanism is more appealing to me, as the name tells us that the human being and human endeavor is more important than the supernatural.
And that’s why I’m going to tell you a bit of my story.
So now to my main problem with calling myself either an atheist or agnostic. Over the years I’ve believed in many different versions of God. For example:
- Hardcore belief in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, as expected of a fundamentalist Christian.
- I believe in God and all that, but did he really create the world in 6 days?
- God is some kind of powerful spirit, a force for love and for good.
- Jesus wasn’t really God, just a wisdom teacher.
- I have spiritual experiences, and the Bible is still meaningful.
- Actually many things in the Bible are quite disturbing, but there’s still something to it.
- Ah shit, this is all made up by humans to explain what goes on in humans’ brains, isn’t it?
It’s all relative, right? Luke at the start of my journey would class Luke at every other point as a non-theist. From the second point to the second last point I could be called agnostic by the Lukes at any other point. Only when I reached that last point could I really call myself an atheist.
So when someone asked me if I believed in God, I wondered at what point they were in this spectrum. What did they really mean? Did they mean the modern fundamentalist ideas? Did they mean wishy-washy spiritualist stuff? Were they on a spectrum of belief in a non-Abrahamic god?
I never knew. I’d get into a debate with someone, and they’d challenge me to tell them why they were wrong about God (and I did this when a Christian too), but after a few minutes they’d say something like “No, I don’t believe God answers prayers, he’s more like an all-pervading spirit that imbues the wider destiny of the universe.” I thought I’d been talking to a theist, and they were actually a pantheist or deist.
And after me saying “I’m an atheist” the other person might describe a kind of God that fits my science-fiction-loving brain’s image of an benevolent alien super-being. Do I believe in that kind of god? Well, I guess then I’m an agnostic. I’d not call it a god though. What does God need with a starship?
After a few years of these miscommunications, when anyone wanted to know if I was an atheist or agnostic, I’d ask them to define god first, and then I’d answer.
And then I found out, I don’t remember exactly when or where, that this had a name! It’s called Ignosticism. And the definition is pretty much what I’ve outlined above. Ignosticism is the stance that the notion of god shouldn’t be elevated to any kind of important position, instead treating the word as exactly that: a word. A very imprecise word at that!
For example, you ask if I have a car, and I say no, and then you say “You can have my car!” and give me a Lego model. Gee, thanks.
Then you clarify, “Do you have a real car?” I would say no. But what if you really meant “Do you have a personal vehicle with four wheels and an engine?” I could say “Yes.” Because I own a van.
So I let the person define the object of belief, and only then do I answer.
There is one final step to this, so I’ll stretch the car analogy a bit more:
“Do you have a real car?”
“You mean a personal vehicle with four wheels and an engine? Like a van?”
In fact I don’t have a van. But I kind of do. I used to have a van, and technically I still partly own it, even if my ex-girlfriend now uses it in another country. So does that mean I have a van or not?
“Do have a real car?”
Okay, my current girlfriend has a car, so if I need to get somewhere with a big bag, I can ask her to drive me. Also, when we visited England last month, we rented a car, so if you asked me a month ago, I could say that I did have a car, but now I don’t.
As you can see, the word “have” is now just as troublesome as the word “car”!
And in the question “Do you believe in God?” the word “believe” is as troublesome to me as the word “have”. What the fuck does belief even mean? That I know something is true, despite not being sure? That I think something is true, despite not being sure? That I think that I know something is true, despite not being sure? Or that I’m sure something is true, despite not thinking it through?
I believe lots of things, but now I like to think that belief or non-belief is only a stance on a proposition that hasn’t been closely examined. Once I’ve closely examined an idea, I’ll tell you that I think it is probably true, or that it is probably not true, or if I’m not so sure, I’ll give an estimate on how likely it is to be true.
Claim: “God, as depicted in Genesis, is real.”
My judgment: False.
Claim: “Some kind of energy being currently unexplained by science exists somewhere in the universe.”
My judgment: Maybe. It’s a big universe.
Claim: “The platypus is an endangered species.”
My judgment: I believe so.
You see, I really have no idea about the conservation status of the platypus, but off the top of my head, I guess it might be endangered. That’s what I call a belief.
A belief can be a meaningful basis for action. For example, I’ll stop someone killing a platypus with a stick! If later I discover platypuses are, in fact, vermin that need culling… well, that’s cool. I wasn’t really invested in the idea.
Claim: “In the event of an earthquake, run out into the street!”
My judgment: I believe so. I’ve not really looked into it. I’ll check the answer when I move to an earthquake zone.
For many people the question “Do you believe in God?” is just that important, so they don’t really care about the definition of God in the mind of the questioner, nor do they plan use that belief to make important decisions. In that case, belief or non-belief is a totally fine position.
For someone like me, who was brought up as a Christian, God was super important to me! His existence, and the nature of his existence, had a real impact on the decisions I made in life. How could I merely believe or not believe in the existence of God? I needed to look more closely at the whole concept.
Now I hold various important concepts as impossible, possible, improbable, probable, and all kind of degrees in between. For concepts unimportant to me, belief or non-belief is just fine.
Got a conclusion?
When it comes down to important matters, I’m simply not a beliefer. I’m a non-beliefer.
An ignostic non-beliefer.
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