Thursday, February 20, 2014


Is atheism a lack of belief or a belief of its own sort? Do we all have beliefs about the existence of some being, entity, or force called “God”? Must a denial of belief in God's existence entail a belief that God does not exist?

These questions seem to be rising to the surface of many debates, and one answer that is gaining some traction is the affirmative. It is being identified as the (rationally justified) positive atheism position, and among its other attitudes, it holds that so-called “agnostic atheism” is both a misnomer and an untenable position. Belief, in some degree, must tip to one side or the other.

While a clarification like what is being proposed by the positive atheists is needed and interesting in its own right, it is not clear that they have closed the door on the matter. There is at least one position that stands apart from the three usual ones, theism, atheism, and agnosticism, and it is called ignosticism. Where they say, “yes,” “no,” and “not sure,” respectively, ignosticism says, “can't say.”


Ignosticism says that the statement “God exists” is too poorly defined to contain meaning. The reason ignostics take this stance is that the term “God” is itself too poorly defined to make sense of, unless it is defined in a way (abstractly) in which the term “exists” instead is not clear enough.

Ignosticism is distinct from theism, atheism, and agnosticism. The central point of difference is that these three positions all interpret the phrase “God exists” as being an inherently meaningful one, and ignosticism does not. Theism asserts that “God exists” is meaningful and true; atheism asserts that it is meaningful and false; and agnosticism asserts that it is meaningful with an unknown truth value. Of course, agnosticism takes a wide variety of possible manifestations that tip one way or the other, and Richard Dawkins's Spectrum of Theistic Possibility covers the gamut. Note that Dawkins's Spectrum assumes that “God exists” is a meaningful statement. (Dawkins, and many who hold his arguments in esteem, hold that they are a 6 or a 6.9 on his 7-point scale, indicating strong but not absolute atheism.)

By contrast, ignosticism takes the tack that the statement “God exists” is inherently meaningless or otherwise insufficiently clear to be assigned a truth value at all, even a fuzzy agnostic one. In contrast to the total agnostic point on the Spectrum of Theistic Possibility, given a score of 4, the ignostic position does not appear on the Spectrum at all. For the ignostic, every value on the scale is wrong because the question for which those values give some answer, “how sure are you that God exists?” is invalid. Particularly, then, ignostics do not necessarily hold a belief about the truth value of the statement “God exists.”

Ignosticism and Ewoks

Ignosticism may be the position that we already hold regarding many fictional creations. Take the Ewoks of George Lucas's Star Wars, for example. The films and books in that fictional series offer a great deal of depiction of Ewoks, enough to where they are a believable construct in the context of the Star Wars universe. In fact, they are a believable construct in the real universe in that it seems possible that we could one day venture throughout the galaxy, and upon finding a forest-covered moon populated with tribal teddiursoid creatures, we could conclude, with much surprise, that we had, indeed, discovered Ewoks. But would we have really?

The answer seems to be no. However much the extraterrestrial species we met resembled Lucas's Ewoks, it would not really be the creature that Lucas was describing. Whether the Ewoks were invented whole-cloth for the Star Wars series (notably, Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi) or imported from some other set of ideas, it is certain that any species, however Ewok-like, that we might find anywhere in the wider galaxy was not the inspiration for those in Star Wars. We may call such persons Ewoks, should we find them, but even if identical in every discernible detail to the Lucasian descriptions, they are distinct from Ewoks.

It seems that the preceding makes a case for holding a position analogous to atheism regarding the existence of Ewoks because we know them to be a fictional creation. I don't think this is valid, though, because if we did find such beings, particularly in the correct circumstances, we would almost certainly agree that we had found Ewoks. In fact, the argument that we would not have actually found them, that being impossible even in principle, would probably ring quite hollow.

Remote as the possibility probably is, it is possible that an Ewok-like species of extraterrestrials exists, with as much minutiae as desired. Finding them would be more than enough to conclude that we had found “Ewoks.” In that regard, the proper position about the question of the existence of Ewoks is the one that parallels ignosticism: what we mean by “Ewok” is not sufficiently clear to make a meaningful statement about their existence. Admittedly, Ewoks feel disanologous to “God,” but the reason is that the situation is worse when it comes to “God.”

At least Ewoks make sense

The ignostic problem is actually multiplied for the notion that “God exists.” While Ewoks are conceivable as a real type of extraterrestrial life, the analogous statement about “God” appears not to be true.

If we found immensely capable “god-like” extraterrestrials, or even something like the gods described in ancient polytheistic mythology, say Zeus or his relations, it is not clear that these would be categorized as being “God.” In fact, it seems downright unlikely, given the proclivity among theistic believers to defending their religious beliefs as they are.

And they would have a case because the notion of a solitary Supreme Being that is unrivaled by any other is not parallel to notions like Zeus and Thor. The concept called “God” belongs in a different category altogether, and that category possesses no salient description. Indeed, it seems to be a haphazard combination of several abstract notions, some of which have more meaning than others (a Creator, for instance, seems more meaningful as an entity than do the objective sources of all purpose, moral values, and the capacity to think).

Lacking any salient description for “God,” when faced with the question of its existence, we are left in a position in which we are unable to make any salient assessment. This position is called ignosticism, and I believe it is more commonly held amongst self-identifying atheists than is atheism (the belief that no gods exist, including “God”).

Sam Harris, et al., and ignosticism

Though I will not attempt to speak for him, I suspect, in fact, that Sam Harris is ignostic more than he is atheistic (though I leave open the caveat that he, like many of us, are probably best described by the term proposed in this piece, “ignatheist,” if we must have a term given to us). Consider the opening portion of his December 2005 “Atheist Manifesto,” published originally on TruthDig.
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl's parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?


The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.  Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, atheism is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.

Though the term ignostic predates Harris's piece by 45 years, his writing here and in other places seems to fit the ignostic perspective better than it does the atheist one (since we're rather pedantically splitting hairs). Indeed, his piece would perhaps be better titled “The Ignostic's Manifesto,” if it weren't for two facts. First, no one really knows or cares what ignostic means, and second, it's still not quite right. Harris's piece reads most accurately as a case for what I am calling ignatheism, a term suggested by a generous and witty friend. Further, I would contend that most of the other self-identifying atheists who are both intellectually honest and who haven't adopted positive atheism are also ignatheists. This includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Peter Boghossian, and any other atheist who says, and accepts, things like, “there is (very) probably no God” and "there isn't enough evidence to believe in God, so I don't."


The fatal issue with ignosticism is that it requires an untenable stretch of intellectual honesty to accept that the phrase “God exists” is so meaningless that we must render it beyond assessment. Most people, though they could be wrong about this matter, strongly feel like this phrase means something quite specific, even if clarity still wants for all the specificity. I would argue that when any person uses the word “God,” except to say that it is meaningless, she has a sense of what she means by that term. I do not mean to imply that what anyone thinks she means by it matches what it really might mean.

To make matters worse, when all but the most strict ignatheists so much as hear the word “God,” they also have at least one sense of what is meant by that word. Often, the hearer has two or more, what he thinks the word means and what he thinks the speaker might have meant by it, plus potentially many other possibilities drawn from broader cultural interpretations. In other words—and this is one of the most significant problems humanity has ever faced and still faces—the term “God” is unclear to the point of meaninglessness in general but is laden with meaning in specific.

Ignatheism in both contexts

Enter ignatheism, the intellectual turf I would argue that most self-identifying atheists actually occupy. The ignatheist is simultaneously part ignostic and part atheistic. She identifies as an atheist and feels like she shouldn't have to. She denies that it is reasonable or good for theistic believers to hold the beliefs they do—and may be quite anti-religious and anti-theistic as a result—and she views her lack of belief as a lack of belief. She lacks belief in God, but she may not believe that there is no God.

That second, more specific position feels like the logical consequence of the first, but it is not. Believing there is no God requires a sense that there is meaning in the term “God” in general, and that the ignatheist denies. An ignatheist is as Harris described, the "atheist" for whom his manifesto stands. Ignatheists are simply refusing to deny the obvious.

When taken in generality, the term “God” is insufficiently meaningful to judge, and so the ignatheist doesn't concern himself with it. When examined in specific, though, the term “God” is always given a meaning to which either disbelief (atheism) or skeptical agnosticism are the proper assessments. The ignatheist is skeptically agnostic about the deistic absent creator, atheistic to any of the Gods of the world's religions, and believes that the general matter of God's existence is owed no consideration because it doesn't mean anything.

Ignatheism, then, is the position that holds that the matter of God's existence, in general, cannot be evaluated, and, in specific, nothing that has been proposed to go by the name “God” exists as a part of reality. A stronger variant on ignatheism would contend that while “God exists” is too meaningless to work with, it is very unlikely (though not impossible) that anything exists that would merit applying the term “God.” Ignatheists, then, live their lives as though no God exists without committing to a general belief that says so. Belief that God does or doesn't exist is immaterial because it is nonsense. To quote Harris again, ignatheism really is “nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.”


I don't know that the world needs more labels for people or even for intellectual turf, especially when those labels are silly-sounding hybrids of technical words whose meanings aren't completely agreed upon. I do think, though, that for the purposes of making matters a bit more clear, at least having considered this term may be helpful.

Ignatheism is effectively atheism under the proviso that we realize that even it concedes more than it has to on claims about God's existence. Atheism takes the matter seriously, and it is not at all clear that the subject in question deserves it.


  1. Hi there,

    I won't comment on the degree to which ignosticism pervades or underlies common atheism, because to be honest I have no idea, but as someone who falls in the positive atheism category you mention at the top of your post, I thought I'd voice a few criticisms I have of ignosticism.

    It's worth distinguishing two ways in which a term can be vague. Firstly, it could have a vague referent, i.e., refer to something whose properties are not well-defined. Secondly, it could be polysemous, i.e. have many different, contextual meanings. 'God' can be vague in both of these ways, and you touch on each of them in your post. My view is that while both are worth considering for their ramifications in the context of the present discourse, neither provide good justification for taking an ignostic stance. My suspicion is that it is a conflation of the two which can make ignosticism seem attractive.

    It’s easy enough to see that vague reference does not make a term meaningless in itself. Hinduism is notoriously hard to define, but it would be disingenuous to say there was no meaningful distinction to be made between Hindus and Buddhists (borderline cases accepted). The Babylonians didn’t know what stars were, but this didn’t stop them discussing their motions. I don’t know what happiness is, but I could name a few things that it isn’t.

    If God simply refers to a benevolent creator of the universe, then for sure this is vague, let’s make no bones about it. But this is no problem; it is no bonafide hypothesis, but we can discuss it, argue about it, assess its merits. In short, it’s meaningful. Of course the issue is then that the pantheist comes along and says something like “well that wasn’t what I was talking about, your arguments don’t apply to my God”. And they’d be right, but so what? This does nothing to undermine the meaningfulness of the previous discourse on traditional theism.

    1. (2/2 - bloody blogger limits!)

      Now I hope I don’t come across as trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs here - I appreciate that you appreciate the point that several distinct concepts may shelter under a single term, even if they don’t share a common genus. It’s a point you make lucidly when you write ‘the term “God” is unclear to the point of meaninglessness in general but is laden with meaning in specific’. However, I don’t see why this should lead us to ignosticism. Rather, I think it should prompt us to take a deflationary stance to “God”-talk, and by that I mean, we should be rigorous about distinguishing the many separate meaningful questions that are tangled under the heading, not reject the whole bundle as vague in reference.

      I think the Ewok example might help here. As I read it, the central point you’re making is that the answer to the question ‘might Ewoks exist?’ depends on whether any referent of the designator “Ewok” has as the necessary property of “being a fictional creation of George-Lucas”. If not, then if we found some Ewokish bear things lurking in the ice of Europa we might claim to have found Ewoks. If so, then we can just answer no. (Or if we’re masochists, delve into a length discussion on the ontology of fictional objects.) But this is no cause for ignosticism about Ewoks, just for being aware of how our conventions and/or philosophy of naming can affect the truth value of modal claims.

      (Gratuitous aside: you mention that in the God case that the problem is compounded by the possible incoherence of some God-concepts. It’s an interesting question whether an incoherent idea can be meaningful. I’m inclined to say it can - I think substance dualism is incoherent, but if it were meaningless then what would I be talking about when say it is so?)

      A final example in the Christian context. It’s common to hear someone claim that they have direct experience of God, and that this is why they believe in him. The ignostic response to this - that ‘God exists’ is meaningless - misses a trick. A deflationary response notices that the claimant tacitly characterises God in two different ways - firstly in terms of experience, either as a certain experience itself or as its cause, and secondly as an external, independent person with whatever attributes - and then assumes that these characterisations pick out the same entity. At no point does pointing to meaninglessness help to uncover the error. What’s relevant is the conflation of the separately meaningful.

      I think this example illustrates why ignosticism does not and cannot have persuasive power. It doesn’t appeal to shared premises, it simply goes meta and resigns itself from the dialogue. (Or as it may be, all the separate dialogues that cluster in this space.) We don’t have a term for not believing in alchemy, but this is simply because alchemy is not relevant today. If it was there would be, and ignosticism would be far from the correct response. Different things cluster under the heading ‘alchemy’ - for some it was about the literal physical transmutation of substances, for others it was a kind of ritualistic mysticism. But so what? Faced with a craze of people boiling their own urine in search of gold, the only thing to do would be to work out exactly what they are talking about, and to show them exactly why they are wrong.


    2. Hi Sam, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I quite agree with you about ignosticism, and it is perhaps the case that what I am calling ignatheism matches with what is already known as a deflationary stance. I'll be writing more about probability, priors, and God soon, hopefully with a co-author who exceeds my knowledge in these arenas, and that may clear things up a little.

      Here's the gist. The term "God," for the reasons I mention and you clarify, is too vague to work with. We could not, in a subjective probability/plausibility assessment, assign a prior to it for a few reasons. One of those reasons is that it's not in any way clear what we're assigning a prior to, and as you noted (and I deleted from the original draft of this piece), believers like pantheists and effectively all religious apologists utilize this fact by letting the object of their beliefs retreat to the vague only to re-emerge into the specific when it comes to it. (Another reason is that such a prior literally cannot be interpreted under frequentism.)

      You ask, "so what?" with respect to this chicanery, and I'm tempted to agree. Indeed, I also do agree that ignosticism is poorly equipped to handle this problem. The so-what here is that being free to withdraw and return like this--which whatever else we want to say about it is a very highly effective rhetorical device--perpetuates and spreads the "God delusion" while polishing it with a veneer of respectability. Enter ignatheism, or if it's the same as the deflationary stance, that. When the interlocutor goes vague, the conversation stops because it becomes meaningless. When it comes up to specifics again, the hammer falls.

      That's ignatheism as I've conceived it. Ignosticism doesn't have a kind of persuasive power (note: I said it has a "fatal issue"). (It has another: dismissal of a topic as beneath consideration is its own effective persuasive tool.) Ignatheism basically goes positive atheist when the claim becomes specific enough to do anything with and ignores the rest, calling it incoherent. (Ignatheists, though, would go positive theist if the claim were properly substantiated, just to be clear.)

    3. Hi James, seems we agree on much then! I look forward to the post on probability and priors - I'm yet to encounter a scenario where Bayesian reasoning in metaphysical disputes has added anything more than a false veneer of numerical authority, based on unjustifiably ad hoc assumptions. Science-envy is not a good look for philosophy.


    4. I agree.

      I'll cajole the guy who wants to co-author the piece with me so that hopefully it might come about sooner rather than later, but he's very busy all the time.

  2. I like to distinguish between what I call "narrative gods" and "hypothetical gods."

    Narrative gods are the gods who appear in myths, legends, and sacred scriptures the world over. Examples would be Loki, Shiva, Yahweh, et alia. Narrative gods tend to be highly specified -- their characteristics, motives, and acts int he material world are described -- and for that reason they are easy to dismiss as fictional. Strong atheism is warranted in such cases.

    Hypothetical or abstract gods -- the gods who live at the end of dubious syllogisms or are embedded in Christianized epistemic systems -- can't be dismissed on the same grounds. But it's here that the igtheist objection becomes pertinent. It is in these arguments that we discover either an amorphous, ill-defined god or an expanded, metaphorical definition of existence.

    In other words, because theism isn't one coherent philosophy, "atheism" is necessarily a grab-bag term for a suite of objections to a suite of arguments and beliefs.

  3. I like this. It makes me think, "I'm ignostic, too!"

    It also reminds me of a scene at the end of the movie Breaker Morant, a movie about a war trial in which three Australians are sentenced to death, as a matter of political expediency, for having fought in a guerilla was (the Boer war). The title character, Breaker Morant, is asked if he'd like any Biblical passage read aloud before his execution. He responds, "No, thank you, I'm a pagan." His fellow soldier, also about to be executed ask, "What's a pagan?" The Breaker responds, "Someone who doesn't believe that there's a divine being actively dispensing justice here on earth." The other soldier simply replies, "I'm a pagan, too."