Culturally agnostic

It is census time in the UK, which includes a question about your religion. So I ticked the box for ‘no religion’; but my father ticked the one for ‘Christian’, despite the fact that he is certainly not a member of any church, doesn’t go to church except for weddings, funerals and the occasional carol service, and is not, as far as I can tell, a believer.

But, you know, he went to a Christian school, and he was even confirmed into the Church of England (by the archbishop of Canterbury, as it happens). Which suggests there was a period in his life when he regarded himself as Christian. So I guess it makes sense if he regards himself as culturally Christian — whatever that means.

And I do see the value of religions as cultural identities — I can see why Jewish atheists might still want to affirm their Jewishness and maintain the rituals. Or as I’m told people used to ask in Northern Ireland, ‘but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’

But as for me… I’m culturally more Christian than I am, say, Hindu — what religious education I had was mainly Christian in its focus, and I certainly know more about the culture and theology of Christianity than other religions. And at Christmas we have a tree, and presents, and a roast turkey. But those are just part of the ambient culture of Britain. Doctor Who plays a bigger part in my Christmas than Jesus. I’ve never thought of myself as Christian, so I don’t think of myself as a lapsed Christian, or a Christian atheist — if anything I’m a lapsed agnostic, since agnosticism seemed to be the fallback position amongst my peer group as a child.

The census can’t deal with such nuances, of course. Which is a pity, because that’s the kind of thing that seems interesting. We know that, because of people like my father, the census always significantly overstates the religiosity of the population:

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

The devoutly religious and the firmly atheist are straightforward enough; I’m curious about the shades of grey, the people who say their religion is Christian but that they are not religious. Are they mainly people who were brought up religious but don’t go to church any more? Are they defining themselves as Christian as a way of emphasising that they’re not Jewish or Muslim or whatever? Is it a generational thing? Do their children identify themselves as Christian? Perhaps ‘non-religious Christian’ can be a self-sustaining identity in its own right, comparable to secular Jewishness.

And the other side of that question is the people who tick ‘no religion’: are they mainly people who believe there is no god, or think there is no god, or can’t decide? Or are they just as likely to be people who have some kind of belief system of their own — something which they don’t think of as a religion but is not really non-belief either?

Anyway. I seem to have wandered off whatever point it was I was originally planning to make. Never mind.

» Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, by John Sell Cotman.


Atheist, not agnostic. Honestly.

Scavella has a post about her religious belief, the general drift of which is entirely reasonable. Obviously I don’t actually agree with it all—no surprise there—but I don’t feel the need to argue with it. I do have a problem with this, though:

I tend to regard agnosticism as more honest, and more politically palatable. The fundamental truth is that we do not know what lies beyond our experience (which for some people is a religious experience and for others is a material one, and both experiences are similarly bounded by our physical and physiological limitations), and to assert that we do know is fallacious.

I accept that I can’t prove the non-existence of gods. I think there are good reasons to believe that there are no gods, but in the end it has to be an assumption. Nonetheless I describe myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic. I believe there is no god, although I can’t prove it. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes there is a God, although he can’t prove it. Why should I be described as an agnostic if he isn’t?

Adam alone

The other reason I feel there’s a difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that I’ve been both. I come from a non-religious family—I think my father identifies himself as Church of England on the census, but as far as I can tell he’s nothing of the kind—but I got the usual English kind of low-key religious education at school. I’m sure there was a point when I sort of believed that it was sort of true, in the non-critical way that children believe things that adults tell them. I’m not saying that I ever had any kind of religious period, or strong sense of identity as a Christian, but Christian ideas were floating around in my head along with a jumble of other stuff like Father Christmas, astrology, the wolf in the attic, and that eating carrots help you see in the dark.

As I got older and more sceptical these beliefs got winnowed out. Naturally you start by losing things like Santa and vampires, which are universally understood to be fictional. But there are a range of more-or-less supernatural beliefs which are widely endorsed by adults and so are much harder for a child to confidently dismiss: UFOs, astrology, homeopathy, dowsing, ESP and of course religion, which has the whole weight of centuries of European culture giving it authority. So there was a period when although I was sceptical by inclination and certainly not a believer, I described myself as an agnostic, and actually meant ‘I don’t know what I believe’.

But after spending years thinking about these issues, arguing them with people, learning more about both religion and science, and encountering the usual arguments for and against, my position became clearer (or firmer, or more rigid; pick your own adjective) and I reached a strictly materialistic view of the world. For me, as I never had much emotional investment in Christianity and I never lived in a very devout community, it genuinely was as much a rejection of dowsing, ESP and crystal healing as a rejection of God or religion. The point is that it wasn’t a quick or impulsive decision.

To call myself an agnostic now would feel like a denial of a process, which was, for me, real and important. I can see the temptation; ‘agnostic’ is a label I can live with, and it’s softer and less confrontational than ‘atheist’. But in the end, for me, it’s calling myself agnostic which feels like the less honest option.