Agnostic or Ignostic?

October 5th, 2011   by   Andrew

Part of the series Myths and Dragons

About a year ago I read an article by Xenocrates on agnosticism and the consequences of using the word.

X is quite a good writer. The article is thorough and detailed. I don’t like like his initial premises about agnosticism, but I have been wrestling for a long while with his final words. I wrestle with them because, well, it strikes home at something important. His final conclusion is:

To me, the simple answer of “I really don’t know – and I really don’t care” is a lot more honest and a much more satisfying end to such a discussion.

X does an amazing job of laying out the case for the apathy of agnostics. Basically, by believing knowledge is limited by experience and then not making a leap for a faith or no faith, the agnostic is caught between responsibilities – honesty on one side and the fundamental beginnings of investigation on the other.

I didn’t like the conclusion. But it wasn’t really for rational reasons, I admit. I like the label “agnostic” and think it’s under-rated, even though I don’t even use it for myself much anymore. And, I don’t really argue for it much either.

I think I’ve found a way solve my problem with X’s conclusion. I think there is a difference between an “agnostic” and an “ignostic”.

There is a provincial election taking place on Oct 6th here in Ontario. I went to a local All-Candidates Meeting last night. In Ontario politics, the two major parties are the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives. Both parties have long traditions of swapping power every few years, and presuming they are the only reasonable choice for getting the other party out of office when things get wonky.

There are a lot of presumptions in politics, especially by old established parties. And the result is many people think they have to vote red or blue for their vote to count.

That’s dangerous thinking.

The reds don’t always stay red. And the blues don’t always stay blue. They have borrowed from each other’s platform time and time again. That’s how politics goes sometimes; you use what’s available. Sometimes you even have to let the problem you’re facing be in charge – investigate the problem objectively to find the best course of action, regardless of where your party’s lines have been supposedly drawn.

Lines are incredibly stretchy, like definitions and words. And paths can be made by simply starting to walk in a different direction.

There were seven candidates at that meeting asking for my vote. Five of them sick and tired of the rule of blue and red.

The New Democratic Party grew out of the country’s work unions and the labour fights of long ago. They were frustrated with the blues and reds, and thought there was a better way to solve problems.

The Green Party is a relatively new national party. Its presence alone has changed how the reds and the blues and the NDP talk about the issues.

The People First Republic Party is a localized party. It came from a group of lobbyists sick  and tired of the red and blue attitude of presumption.  The group felt it had no choice but to shout louder at the giants and hammer at the clay feet.

The Family Coalition Party believe the family is the initial, essential building block of any society and feel no party represents their values.

The Libertarian candidate last night was trying to enjoy the meeting and it was apparent he didn’t think he was going to get elected. Each time he spoke he urged the theatre audience and television audience to get active in the political process instead of just presuming the government was there to solve your problems for you.

Seven candidates. All technically viable options, if people would get out and vote. And if in power, each of the candidates would likely borrow from the platforms and ideas of the others in order to do the job to the best of their ability or the best of their presumptions.

I have a problem with the idea that agnostics must be apathetic, even if they are fence-sitters. The usual parties presume you have to go one way or the other. They do so because they have been established for so long they forget they themselves grew out of a process of renewal. At some point, someone was so dissatisfied with the usual, presumption-filled way of things they felt compelled to find another path. And everything with a beginning has an end.

The usual parties forget they are temporary solutions at best.

I think there is an important difference between an “agnostic” and an “ignostic”.

The “ignostic” is a person that doesn’t know and doesn’t care. It’s root is more from “ignorant” than “agnostic”.

I think the “agnostic” is a person that doesn’t know, but does in fact care. They care so much that they can’t stand the old answers anymore. They are compelled to start looking at options. They are preparing themselves for another path. And they are trying to maintain the humility of knowing where they are starting from – the very limited conditions that are a part of personal experience.

I’ve been both, agnostic and ignostic.

The usual parties may presume we all have to leap in the usual ways, but the fact that I have a choice of seven names to vote for on October 6th tells me different. Sure, those candidates might borrow from each other or say the same things from time to time, but there are new ideas in there too.

The usual parties don’t have the best answers or the only answers. I think they presume too much.

What do you think?


June 29th, 2010   by   zippy

I have always loved being indecisive and wishy-washy.




And just to further to point, here’s another attempt:

March Review – “And the end of all our exploring”

March 31st, 2010   by   Andrew

“Not for fear of hell nor longing for heaven but for love.”

–7th Century Muslim Prophetess

Well, I’m done, for now.

This month I’ve done a little traipsing through the gardens of earthly beliefs. I haven’t exactly delved too deeply or too greedily, but it has helped me regain some perspective, some vocabulary, and surprisingly  enough for me, some personal conviction.

I found the above quote in a comment on another blog, but thought it more appropriate to link to the original comment-writer’s site – Conscientisation,  “a 43 year old post-cynic more interested in the Omega course than the Alpha Course.” I haven’t explored much of this site yet, but it looks like April might be a good time for it.

There is a clear and simple set of observations, or a pattern that seems to develop, from every religion I looked at this month.

Every world religion (or every major worldview, for that matter):

- attempts to define a code of behaviour or morality and tries to find a basis for that code in something usually authoritative

- changes through schism, politics, succession, success, failure, translation, population movement, etc.

- borrows from its neighbours,  ancestors,  enemies, etc.

- inspires both the most creative artists and the most unforgivable criminals

This is the short list. I’m trying to keep to my own observations and steering clear of evaluations. Well, trying – evaluation and judgment are sometimes automatic when glaring hypocrisy is present.

But I do want to look more specifically at the idea of belief. I was watching a video of Richard Dawkins a few days ago in which he makes a distinction between faith-based belief and evidence-based belief. It illustrated for me one of the core issues I have with institutionalized religion.

With faith-based belief someone is making assumptions based on what cannot be known (unless you feel like insulting the definition of know). Now, I might make a slight allowance for personal experience or personal knowledge (sometimes you just know, right? Like when your gut is just telling you something, but then you don’t listen, until it’s too late and you say, “Oh why didn’t I listen to my gut?”). But two things come from this. First, it can only be personal then (otherwise, you are invading on someone else’s gut). Second, it’s an exaggeration. It is only reliable if you keep track of each important  personal moment and then evaluate whether it is consistent or not (sometimes your gut is the last thing you should listen to! Even if it uses the voice of God, or maybe the voice of hunger, or the voice of let’s-go-find-some-trouble).

With evidence-based belief, you are still making assumptions but at least for the most part it is based on something that can be known. As well, the beliefs drawn from observations must depend and fit tight with the observations. Otherwise, you’ll get some serious flack when you try to explain yourself to anyone. And you get into more serious flack when you stretch beyond the initial assumptions or the collected observations.

The difference is kind of like the difference between a metaphorical understanding of something and a thorough or complete understanding of something.

And so to God.

People love explanations of things. Even if they don’t accept them, people collect all sorts of contradictory explanations and then draw them up whenever a situation needs some explaining. But with God, there is no explaining. And there is no way to know him/her/it/them. There is no description that fits the term appropriately. There is no attempt one can make at understanding a God that would not be an insult to the God (I’ve used the ‘proving-a-negative thing before for some humour… well how about insulting-a-unknown?)

And so, I cannot believe that I know God. To claim to know God is to claim that you know the unknowable. This example of ”cognitive dissonance’ (thanks again Sab) has been written before, I’m sure of it, but it strikes me as one of the most arrogant and human of things to claim. To have something on the unknown is a dangerous pit I hope to avoid (or at least step lightly around). The only step I am willing to make is one of definition — I do not know the unknowable. So I will make no (serious) claims about it (please allow me some room for future punchlines).

But I can’t stop here.

I do not believe in God because it has become a meaningless statement for me.  Earlier in my blog I made an attempt to write about the word God. I’m surprised, in some respects, at how my mind has changed a little, in its flittery, stumbling, leaf-on-a-breeze way. But the convictions are still there.

I will tell you what I do believe in. I believe in my family, my friends, my neighbours and I believe in the world that I live in.

I have to.

Every day I am with them, and they are with me. Every day I get to know them a little more, and so my belief grows. And what’s more, I can communicate with them and learn from them and be of service to them. And I can know whether or not I am doing well by them from what gifts they share with me.

Sometimes I believe in story as well. I will try to discuss this belief a little more on Friday.

As the title suggests, a close from T.S. Eliot (once again):


[end of part V]

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(entire poem)

For a little more explanation of the poem and its context, here’s the starting wiki. I will discuss this a little further on Friday, but since I don’t personally align myself with all of T.S. Eliot’s conclusions, here is another quote from him:

Datta. Dayadvham. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih.

(from The Waste Land)