Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s outgoing Religious Affairs correspondent, has written a piece for the Comment Is Free site about his journey from faith to agnosticism. Except that he doesn’t.
It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 60 seconds of your life it will take to read it, but the journey he describes is really the beginnings of a gradual slide from Theism to Atheism. Stephen is mired in increasing doubts, and has come to the conclusion that his historical faith is untenable. Which is all well and good, and all-too familiar.
The problem I have is that he implies that this state of affairs is best described by the term Agnostic (or agnosticism, if we’re getting our tenses right). And that isn’t what agnostic means. As I’ve said before, the definition of agnostic is thus:
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.
Now, the second part of that definition is actually quite new. It’s the unfortunate common usage. The technical definition is the first part: someone who believes the answer to the question is unknowable.
This is a useful label, because it is a real philosophical position. The problem is that this isn’t the position that Stephen Bates has arrived at. Or my current position. Or that of the majority of the country.
So what word is appropriate? What word best fits the position of the multitude, who either doubt, are uncertain, or have just not given it much thought? Most people seem to live their lives without having settled on a theological or philosophical definition of their beliefs, unable to firmly adhere to the tenants of any particular camp. Some minds might find this situation intellectually untenable, but the reality is that the deep rigour of thought and debate necessary to come to a resolved position escapes so many of us, at least for large portions of our lives.
We need another word. But while that is easy to say, a solution is not easy to find. One might suggest the term “irreligious” but this is both a horrible word, and altogether inaccurate. Very few are irreligious, in two primary senses. First, it is rare that an individual does not have some sense of interest in spiritual concepts, or some (perhaps semi-conscious) understanding of forces greater than themselves, be that a theistic god or the forces of the market. It seems that the default position in many of us is somewhat superstitious; looking for reason and explanation for events beyond ourselves. This cannot therefore be described as an irreligious tendency.
The second reason that the term “irreligious” does not seem appropriate is that the word literally means an indifference or hostility to religion. Now, I am sure that there are many people who are profoundly hostile to organised religion, and for whom this is an accurate moniker. It would certainly fit someone like the good Mr Dawkins. But then, Dawkins is an avowed Atheist, so this really doesn’t help us. And the rest of us are unfortunately neither hostile nor indifferent. People like Mr Bates and myself have a religious heritage, religious friends and family, and a history of wrestling with the questions of faith. None of that is indifference, and the result is not hostility. We still sympathise with religious figures, and love our religious families and communities, even though we may find much we disagree with. Even much that is deplorable.
So I’m stuck. I’m tired of fudging my answers to this question. The phrase “doubter” seems clunky and non-specific. “Agnostic” is, as we have discussed, inappropriate. As is “irreligious”. What does that leave us with then? Any ideas?