One of the things about getting older is that your thinking becomes more and more refined. Not always for the better, I suppose, when one looks around themselves and considers the beliefs and actions of some others here lately. I imagine you all have your own righteous take on that. One of the things that has gone through wholesale change in my life is belief in the Other, that which various people describe as god, karma, or otherwise metaphysical. From youthful days of Protestant monotheism to atheism, my stance has traversed a large spectrum. Today that stance is a bit different than anything that has preceded before, which is igtheism.
A couple of years ago David Silverman, president of American Atheists, came to Nashville to talk at NaNoCon (Nashville Nones, or those who say they don’t hold to any religion). David, being more of a firebrand, chastised members of the audience from shying away from the term atheist for more “user friendly” monikers like “freethinker” or “agnostic.” Why? Because a fewer percentage of Americans recognize the meaning of those terms, whereas upwards to 90% or more get “atheist,” thus leaving less ambiguity about what is meant. He would be even less satisfied with igtheism, which likely registers in the single percent digits.
But it may be a term gaining some ground, as the speaker of the following year’s NaNoCon, Matt Dillahunty, a frequent host on the The Atheist Experience that airs from Austin, TX on Sundays and one of my favored speakers, recently rebutted the concept in a recent YouTube video. Apparently Matt was confronted by a self-proclaimed igtheist who became angry when Matt pointed out the view, as pointed out by whoever, was too simplistic or faulty. If, as Matt says, all they could say is that the statement “I believe in God” is “incoherent” and that is some kind of debate winner, then I would agree. I don’t believe that people of faith are incoherent in this sense.
So what is igtheism, or ignosticism? Rational Wiki summarizes it as “We have no clear concept of anything labeled ‘God’ and/or how to test it, nor do we have any reason to suspect that anyone else does either.” Without some kind of testable consensus on what qualifies as “god” it is a pointless debate. However, unlike Matt’s antagonist igtheist interlocuter, I don’t say that people of faith are incoherent or that debating the point is meaningless if, for no other reason than that even given these points are true, people still act on them. These are abstract notions that must be engaged.
But because the statement “I believe in God” coming from a particular believer is a coherent and comprehensible sentence doesn’t mean that the underlying concept of God is coherent. Still I don’t say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course I have some inkling. But as far as I can tell for most it is a vague notion, a feeling, and otherwise abstract. I won’t just end the conversation with “that’s meaningless.” I’m going to ask some follow up questions. What do you mean by that? What is God? How do you know better than, say, that person who believes in a different god down the street? And so on. I have yet to discover a sufficient, understandable answer, but I’m willing to jump into the fray given one. As an addendum, from the igtheist perspective I would point out that the inverse is also true. Atheists who say, “I don’t believe in God” don’t really know what they’re talking about either. What exactly is it you don’t believe in? Define it. But, of course, I get where they are coming from too. The point is that arguing either for or against something that has no testable parameters upon which people might agree outside the mental conjectures of the mind is somewhat pointless.
David Silverman and Matt Dillahunty both suggest that we who prefer to adhere to such alternative terms just want to avoid the social stigma that can be tied to the term atheist. That we are softening the blow. And for some, this is no doubt true. But not in every instance, and not in mine. Some of us are really looking for terms that better describe our position or say more about us as a person. Both Silverman and Dillahunty seem to forget that, if we were just looking for an alternative to the term atheist one already exists that is widely understood and is socially acceptable–skeptic. We don’t have to go looking for obscure polysyllabic words just to avoid the term atheist. And not only does it express our doubts about the divine, but everything from ghosts to homeopathy.
So, I remain a skeptical igtheist.