A better word

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:

agnostic |agˈnɒstɪk|


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?

Little things that make you smile

  1. After she was so kind as to link to me with regard to my last post, I really have to return the favour. My widely entertaining collegue Liz has made an utterly inspired connection between the Immutable Rules of Boy-Band Formation and those of 1 Corinthians 12take a look here.
  2. After trying to work out whether ‘bimonthly’ meant ‘twice a month’ or ‘once every two months’ (confusingly, it means both), I discovered this wonderful site from the people behind the greatest dictionary in the world. There are hundreds of FAQ’s, some of them utterly wonderful (like ‘is there a term for the study for of love?’)



Words are important: in so many forms of modern human communication, they are all we have to convey meaning to each other. Yet too often, in the hands of politicians and the media words and phrases that have very specific meanings are twisted or diminished, almost to the point of becoming meaningless.

kenya_bbc_2I have been appalled to hear how, in the last few days, the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ have been used by US and UN officials to describe the current unrest in Kenya. In my mind this is a clear degradation of meaning by people simply trying to attract media attention. People who should know better.

The current unrest in Kenya is of grave concern, and in writing this post I in no way want to diminish the seriousness of events in that country. We have been following events closely at work, keeping track of friends and colleagues working with our partner Church there. The violence in Kenya is serious and it is tribal; but it is also sporadic and localised; by no means is the whole country affected (at this stage).

The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ however, has a very specific meaning. It describes a deliberate and systematic attempt to completely wipe out a specific people group.
The Cambridge Dictionaries define the term as:

the organized attempt by one racial or political group to completely remove from a country or area anyone who belongs to another particular racial group, using violence and often murder to achieve this

Merriam-Webster defines it as:

the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority in order to achieve ethnic homogeneity

 kenya_bbc_3What we are seeing in Kenya at the moment is profound inter-tribal violence, and the displacement of people because of this violence. This is disturbing and a profound tragedy. The current violence is however pitching Kikuyu against Luo and Kalenjin; tribes fighting against each other. No one tribe is on top. As severe as it is, it cannot be described as ethnic cleansing: it is not systematic or deliberate.

To use such a loaded, specific term inappropriately is to see it gradually lose it’s meaning. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was coined as a term to describe one of the most appalling crimes that can be committed, such as that seen in Rwanda in the ‘90’s. Politicians, especially those in the UN, should be careful not to use it inappropriately, either to inflame already serious tensions on the ground, or to diminish the profound seriousness of some of the worst crimes imaginable.

Lets call the current situation in Kenya what it is (shocking, serious, inter-tribal violence), even if that doesn’t produce quite as good headlines.