Beyond agnosticism

Robert Ilson is unconcerned by religious dilemmas, but still enjoys the odd liturgy

With respect to God's existence I am an indifferentist - not a theist, not an atheist, nor even an agnostic. Theists believe God exists; atheists don't; agnostics don't know; indifferentists don't care. For me, God's existence does not matter. I try to live a morally good life - that is, one based on these two principles:

1. Other people are enough like me in order for how I feel to suggest how they feel. This principle of ethical reciprocity is, of course, also known as the golden rule (typically in religious contexts) and the categorical imperative (in non-religious contexts). 2. With respect to non-human organisms, I try to treat them no worse than they treat each other. Thus, I eat meat but I hope the creatures I eat have not been tortured to death.

Why do I try to behave this way? Because I feel better when I do than when I don't, and because other people (and even animals) seem to behave better towards me when I treat them kindly than when I treat them unkindly. Assertions such as "We need religion to underpin morality" strike me as odd, suggesting we already know what "morality" is - yet seek frantically some way of buttressing it. But why not start from the observation that morality works: in other words, that it is good both for society and for the individuals that live therein? From a Darwinian point of view, morality favours survival.

And after we die? It is hard - and repugnant - to imagine a God who needs our belief in Him so much that He will unhesitatingly damn a good person simply for disbelief. I want my computer to work properly, not worship me. I want my child and grandchildren to love me. But if they seem not to, I do not punish them. Rather, I ask myself: Where have I failed them? A decent God would rather learn from atheists, agnostics and indifferentists than condemn them to hell.

Such, then, is indifferentism: unconcern with metaphysical problems (eg, God's existence or the eastern equivalent, karma and reincarnation) with no direct bearing on morality. Its bland name at least makes clear that indifferentists will not kill for their beliefs. That is worth saying, because it has been suggested that when the evidence for a controversial proposition is inconclusive, the result is not indifference, but polarisation. Thus, although there seems to be no conclusive evidence that God exists - or that God does not exist - people have been only too willing to take murderous sides on the matter, whereas to such unproven assumptions indifferentism is, indeed, delightfully indifferent.

Nevertheless, religion remains a source of endless enjoyment and some edification. I relish all manner of liturgies and am as likely to learn from religious teachers as from anyone else. I can be religiously promiscuous because, as an indifferentist, I take all religions figuratively and none literally. By contrast, believers are restricted to their one true faith, for which meagre diet they deny themselves the world’s wealth of tastes.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack