Are you an ignostic?

A while back, in a post about Asperger’s Syndrome, I wrote:

From some folks [with Asperger’s Syndrome]–not all, but many–I’ve gotten a vibe of contempt for social norms and niceties: “Your pathetic social rituals are meaningless to me, puny human.” And, you know, I tend not to respond too well to that. But I wonder if maybe some people are, in fact, trying harder than I’ve given them credit for … And for those who really are treating social norms and the people who follow them with contempt? Well, if almost everyone in the world were going around insisting that something I couldn’t perceive is terribly terribly important, and I’m defective for missing it … I might start to have contempt for whatever it is they’re making such a big deal of, too. As a way of making myself feel better, and as a way of letting go and getting on with my life.

In comments, Carolyn pointed out that my description of this defense mechanism also applied to, “a(n apparently) completely different topic, the ‘God debate,'” later noting, “I have wondered why some of my atheist friends sound so hostile to religion, and of course it’s because they’ve met a few too many people who feel sorry for them.”

(I think there are other reasons for hostility to organized religion, as well, but let’s let that go; that isn’t what this post is about, and anyway Carolyn is a complex thinker who I’m sure realizes that almost any behavior has more than one cause.)

A few other commenters also noted that they can no more perceive God than people with Asperger’s Syndrome can perceive unspoken social cues, and agreed that this was a good metaphor.

So I brought up “ignosticism,” which is a concept I think more folks ought to be aware of. Ignosticism isn’t atheism or agnosticism–it’s the straightforward recognition that you can’t define yourself as a believer or a non-believer unless it’s clear what you are supposed to be believing or not-believing in, and that is usually not made clear. From Wikipedia:

A simplified maxim on the subject states “An atheist would say, ‘I don’t believe God exists’; an agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether or not God exists’; and an ignostic would say, ‘I don’t know what you mean when you say, “God exists” ‘.”

I consider myself a religious person, and I would absolutely define myself as an ignostic. If you ask me if I believe in God, whatever answer you get says more about what I think of you than what I think of the divine. If I already have a fairly good idea what someone means by “God,” or if I don’t care to know, I’ll answer “yes” or “no,” whichever is most likely to lead into a conversation that I want, or away from one I do not want.

If I’m talking to someone who I suspect is not of my particular spiritual bent, but who is the kind of person capable of having a calm discussion about religion and religious differences without coming all over defensive or trying to convert me, I might say, “Tell me what you mean by ‘believe in’ and ‘God’ and I’ll tell you.” (It’s worth noting that, no matter how friendly and non-snarky a tone one might use, there are plenty of folks out there who would take that statement as a direct assault and insult. How dare you suggest there might be more than one notion of what belief entails, or any difference of opinion about the nature of God!)

If you want the truth, and I think you can handle the truth, then I’ll say, “God isn’t something I believe in, God is something I experience.” And the people to whom I have said this either don’t get it at all, and we share a moment of marveling at the true diversity of human nature, or else they get it, and their faces break wide open with joy at finding someone else who feels as they do.

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15 Responses to Are you an ignostic?

  1. Lynette says:

    Wow, Robin. I’m probably what you’d define as one of those good Midwestern Christians and a “believer,” but what you say about “God is something I experience” really resonates with me. I guess at the hear of it, what I BELIEVE doesn’t really matter. What does that belief lead me to EXPERIENCE (and out of that, DO)– now that’s much more interesting…

  2. JP says:

    Fascinating! And a really apt comparison. I was wondering if, in the case of Aspersers, some of those folk even realized they were being condescending, or if that’s another social cue they’re not…using…working with…grasping. I’m having a hard time finding the right word for that without sounding insulting.
    I’m an atheist, and I would love it if someone asked what I mean by belief and/or god! What a fascinating conversation, and far better than debating a belief itself, which I think is silly. Sharing experiences is always valuable.

  3. Eeeeka says:

    What a fascinating conversation, and far better than debating a belief itself, which I think is silly.

    Especially since whether I believe or not is not something that’s really debateable. Either you do or you don’t and nothing you say is likely to change my mind.

  4. Jenny L3igh says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. My bf, who considers himself agnostic, asked me once when we were discussing this, “If you were in trouble, car accident, something dangerous and/or scary, would you pray? Even though you’re not religious much of the time?” My immediate answer to that was yes. I want to reach out to something when I feel I need help, luck, guidance. But the idea of God– trying to picture him– I find confusing. I feel closest to something spiritual in certain moments, like when I’m singing an amazing song (many of which are religious, but it’s the music, not the “agnus dei” that gets me) or seeing something beautiful in nature. So this experiencing rather than believing in something specific feels like a great description of what I feel.

    Also, I was at a wedding last week and the ceremony was pretty religious while my friends are not particularly. And I couldn’t help thinking, why does Jesus keep showing up in this? It took me away from their vows rather then helping me feel that this was part of their love. At the end, though, there was a poetic reading from the bible, the one that says “Love is not selfish” etc and I thought that was beautiful and fit so much better than the Lord’s prayer and the blessings asked of Jesus. In my personal relationship with spirituality, God whoever/whatever that is would be far more pleased to have me follow the tenets that are in the bible than specifically declare my love to Jesus. And I feel much more comfortable doing that when I get married, and I wonder if they might have felt more comfortable that way too.

    Not sure if that all makes sense, but it’s neat to write down…

  5. veronica says:

    I think a lot of issues are caused by conflating religion with faith. Religion may be the foundation of faith and part of the expression of faith, but the two are not always one and the same. To be quite honest, I was always a little freaked out that we sounded a lot like the Borg at church. All those voices talking at once….but despite my fear of assimilation, I decided to attend a catholic university.
    I may not be in the “religious” phase of my life, but I’d like to believe that I always have faith. I couldn’t tell you what, because I really don’t spend that much time thinking about it. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things. I don’t have a construct or an operational definition. I can’t scientifically prove or disprove I have faith. I spent 12 months working in a court house, evaluating criminal defendants in NYC for fitness to stand trial. If anything challenges your faith in a just God, it’s sitting across the table from a child rapist. Not sure if I can say I experienced a benevolent almighty, but I certainly experienced his horned nemesis. I suppose if you’re going to accept/experience/believe the existence of one, you can’t deny the other exists.

  6. magicbean says:

    From the wikipedia entry:

    “The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed.”

    Reminds me of Huston Smith responding to a philosopher who argued that “You can’t talk about God” because it’s just too big and incomprehensible…Smith said “Well then you can’t whistle about him either”. Mostly he was saying that there are all sorts of valid ways of communicating about the experience of the Big Unknowable…I wonder if ignostic (which is terribly appealing and smart) also applies in that way.

    If you aren’t going to converse about god, instead you are going to paint about god, or plant god, or make dinner out of god, or dance about god do you still need to agree on terms?

  7. Carolyn says:

    The wisest Episcopal priests I know (by which I mean, of course, that I agree with them!) are right there on the ignostic page with you, Robin–very likely to answer that question with a question.

    I’m reminded of an old joke, whose context is a common strain of conservative Christianity:
    Jack: “Do you believe in Infant Baptism?”
    Mack: “Believe in it?! Heck, I’ve seen it done!!”

    With due apologies for unpacking this, in my literal way, Mack is answering the ‘existence’ question, “X exists” but that’s trivial compared to what Jack was really asking, i.e. “Do you put your faith in X?” or “Do you hold with X?”

    In the extended(!) bulletin board conversation that led me to the conclusion you quoted, I held a middle position between conservative Christians on one side and firm agnostics or strong atheists on the other.

    I kept trying to make the point that the existence question was so far beyond my ken as to be moot, but that I ‘believe in’ God in a relational sense. I am committed to taking my part in the big Story about the love and life that God wants for the world, whether he/she/it ‘exists’ by the standards of logic or disprovability.

    On the other hand, I won’t put those standards aside for things like young-earth geology or non-evolutionary biology, and I can’t see how some of my intelligent Christian friends can. Is a puzzlement.

  8. JP says:

    Exactly, Eeeeka, and yet people try to debate it all the time! Silly.

  9. Dmajor says:

    I just found online my favorite quote from Catch 22, about just this subject. I had remembered (wrongly) that this conversation was between Yossarian and Nately’s Whore, but it was between Y. and Lt. Scheisskopf’s wife:

    “What the hell are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

    “I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

    Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”

  10. Carolyn says:

    See also the very most awesome Terry Pratchett Diskworld book, ‘Small Gods’. Turns out the gods do exist according to how much space they take up in people’s minds, and a very intense atheist can hold enough thoughts about a god to keep it in business, while all the so-called believers get distracted by the Religious trappings.
    Sorry, that’s a lousy precis, but it’s a wonderful book.

  11. magicbean says:

    Interesting snippet from a Roger Ebert essay written last week on his 30 years of sobriety:

    “The God word. The critics never quote the words “as we understood God. Nobody in A.A. cares how you understand him, and would never tell you how you should understand him. I went to a few meetings of “4A” (“Alcoholics and Agnostics in A.A.”), but they spent too much time talking about God. The important thing is not how you define a Higher Power. The important thing is that you don’t consider yourself to be your own Higher Power….”

    Which is interesting, to agree at the outset that there is no agreed upon definition. Is that ignostic…or a-ignostic? Or meta-ignostic? Or in total disregard of ignostic?

  12. magicbean says:

    Not that anyone except apparently me is still stuck on this idea (does that make it an intellectual ear-worm, still singing in my head after everyone else’s radio station has changed?) I just find these ideas fascinating, so I’ll chuck ’em out to the internet void…

    I just read Maya Deren’s book “The Divine Horseman” which is about her experience as a white American dancer and filmmaker in the Haitian Voudoun culture in the 1940s. She was accepted in the community because she approached them as an artist, rather than as a scientist. She couldn’t just write about Voudoun from an objective perspective, the Haitians would say “When the anthropologists come, the gods leave.” Deren had to boldly enter in and experience it, on a deeply physical and creative level. And write about it later, which she did with grace and rationality. But when she was experiencing it, there was no need for the community to agree on
    terms. It’s just an interesting question to me, where does that need for agreement on terms become completely necessary, and where is it completely
    irrelevant? That’s more the question I was trying to ask with my first comment, if you are in a group communicating/exploring a profound experience through, say, dance, do you still have to agree on terms?

    And it’s still simmering in my mind on how this connects back to atheists in a church, or a person on the spectrum who misses social cues. It seems like those are situations where defining terms is quite critical, perhaps, because of the lack of shared, non-verbal experience?

  13. Carolyn says:

    Magicbean, you remind me of the time my friend brought a friend from another culture to church, with the idea that he would explain and interpret things for her as things went along.
    It happened to be Easter, which made this a particularly tall order, as he realized about three minutes in. The choir marched by singing, and his friend turned to him and said, “What does ‘Hallelujah’ mean?”
    He quickly decided on more experiencing, less explaining.

  14. DDP says:

    This was a thought provoking blog. Thank you for sharing ignosticism with more people. I wish I didn’t get such confused, dirty looks when I claim ignosticism to be the only label feel applicable to my life experiences.

  15. Arun says:

    For awhile I’ve been trying to find a group of folks that think somewhat the way I do, in order to have discussions. Ignostiscm might be what I was ‘looking’ for in a sense.

    My position on a god comes from something simple- how do we prove one? A religious doctrine will try to specifically define ‘god’, but that doesn’t seem rational, because in the end we’re making what we ‘think’ a ‘god’ should be based on our own experience. In contrast, atheism falls into the same logical trap. ‘If there was a god, then the universe would be like this…’ etc. For a being that doesn’t exist to them, they sure know a lot of how he/she ‘would’ act. That’s silly to me. They use theism and culture just as much as any religion to try and define what a god ‘should be’ or ‘should act’.

    I do consider myself somewhat spiritual though, and believe there’s something ‘greater’- not in the sense of a being or big guy with beard, just something bigger, such as what cosmology can be. “Spinoza’s God” I suppose. Would that be considered ignostic? I still do love religion though, all the stories, culture, food!, and such are incredible. It’s just unfortunate that people take it too far.

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