WE live in a time of polarisation, in which it’s often one world-view battling it out against each other. Dogma versus dogma. Bubble versus bubble. Social media thrums with vitriol and loud-mouthed certainty. Often it seems like there is little space for uncertainty or for admitting there might be things that we humans don’t know. Yet, next month, three women, Linda Keys, Onie Tibbitt and Andrea Taylor, are launching a new belief body called Agnostic Scotland. Often agnosticism is described as “woolly”, or as Richard Dawkins once put it, “fence-sitting intellectual cowardice”. But, say the trio, this is not about fence-sitting at all. This is about a definite conviction that “we don’t know everything”.

“I have a scientific background,” says Onie Tibbitt, a celebrant and co-founder of the organisation. “I fully endorse science and rational-thinking but I still think it’s entirely rational to say that we as humans, with our human lenses, cannot ever know everything. That’s the belief of agnosticism.”

Far from being wish-washy they are making a fight to create wedding, funeral, naming and other ceremonies that are “inclusive”, “personal” and “non-judgemental”. Tibbitt says that it's not important what she herself believes – which ultimately she sums up with the line, ‘Everybody is right’. “Nor is it about what the organisation believes," she says, "but about what the family or couple you are working with believe. I felt there should be something in place that is about people. I wanted to be part of a belief body that was more open-minded and collaborative.”

Up until now there has been no Agnostic organisation in the UK, though according to a 2018 Eurostat Eurobarometer survey around 30 percent of people in the UK are agnostic and 10 percent atheist. Meanwhile, even amongst non-believers it’s not necessarily true that they have no belief in anything spiritual or supernatural. A Humanist Society of Scotland study found that 51 percent of Scots did not believe in life after death and 60 percent do not believe in angels. However, The Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent, this year published research into atheists and agnostics, which showed that amongst these groups most people had some sort of belief in the supernatural. Doubt, meanwhile, is not uncommon. Even the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, once said that he was only "6.9 out of seven" sure of his atheist belief.

Tibbitt considers most of the celebrant work she has done since 2013 as having been about offering an "agnostic choice" to families and couples. She had begun to feel strongly that there should be an official place for families to go to have this kind of open minded and person-centred ceremony. Among the ceremonies that spurred her was when she was asked to be celebrant for the funeral of a friend’s husband who was dying of cancer. Malcolm Stewart, who had been diagnosed with appendiceal cancer several years previously, had been given only weeks to live. In his final days, Tibbitt spent many hours talking with him about his beliefs and what he would like his funeral to be.

“It was just such an eye-opener. He was dying. He was facing his own mortality and actually he didn’t really know what he believed. It was a mixed bag of a few different things and there wasn’t anywhere for him to go. I think it’s important that there’s somewhere that you can go. You know some of his beliefs were a bit contradictory. He thought there might be an afterlife. He said, 'I hope there is.' But he said, 'I’m also liking the idea of reincarnation.' We all of us have these myriad complex beliefs. That doesn’t mean we don’t take comfort from them if they’re contradictory or not written up in some book. What Tibbitt was struck by was the need for someone to listen non-judgmentally and acknowledge the person's beliefs.

Gabe Stewart, Malcolm’s widow, recalls that her husband had “a very wide set of interest and beliefs and feelings”. “We wanted a service that would reflect that. He was a baptised Christian, went to a church of England boarding school. He is like so many people in society today in the West, who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. So he had an interest in some aspects of Hinduism, some aspects of Buddhism and we were looking for the kind of funeral that would reflect the kind of man he was.” It was not, she observes, that they chose an agnostic funeral. “It’s just that what we wanted happens to be an agnostic funeral.”

The team at Agnostic Scotland have also already conducted agnostic funerals, naming ceremonies, vow renewals and weddings, including one naming ceremony that "incorporated a lot of Native American ritual, shamanism, very holistic, beautiful". They plan on offering divorce ceremonies, retirements, adoption ceremonies, pet funerals - in fact, almost any life transition or moment that people might want to celebrate. They also want to run community connection gatherings, in which, as Linda Keys put it people are brought together through things "like nature or the arts that might inspire all".

Might agnosticism in these toxic times be something we might want to cultivate a bit more in all areas of society and life? Richard Holloway, the former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh who has long been open about his agnosticism, his religious doubt, describes himself as “a practising but unbelieving Christian”.

“My own take,” he says, “is that there is much we cannot absolutely know, and therefore a kind of reverent agnosticism is probably the most honest position. It’s the kindest position, because it doesn’t prompt you to persecute other people. And we need that in politics as well. A friend of mine who was a reconciliation worker in situations of conflict used to say you don’t understand the other side until you can make their argument as good or better than they can. Only when you’re able to do that can you be in a position to do an honest but kindly opposition. And we’re so fractured at the moment that we don’t do that.”

What he thinks we need to cultivate is a “reverent openness towards each other”. “Be argumentative – because Scots are intrinsically argumentative – but in an open, generous kind of way. Somehow that’s at a discount at the moment, and that’s partly to do with all the social media stuff that gives us a way of hating anonymously. A lot of people sneer at each other. Social media seems to be a colossal bear pit of ugliness and hate. The world is now so interconnected that there’s no separation. You can’t shut your door and get away from things. We could do ourselves in as a bloody species if we’re not careful.”

The story of Agnostic Scotland says a great deal about the dogmatic nature of our culture, particularly here in Scotland. For, it has come into existence as an answer to a particular problem. The biggest humanist organisation in Scotland is essentially atheist and doesn't allow religious content in their ceremonies. Tibbitt trained with the Humanist Society Scotland, she recalls, thinking they were going to be non-dogmatic. But, in the process of doing her training, she realised that, “In Scotland – though it isn’t the same in England - the main humanist societies are mostly atheist so they are dogmatic. You can’t have certain things in the ceremonies. You can't have hymns.”

One of the more high-profile figures in the humanist movement in Scotland has been Tim Maguire. Maguire recently left to, to join Celebrate People, an organisation that describes themselves as “spiritual humanists”, and which is happy with the inclusion of religious content. Gerrie Douglas-Scott, one of the co-founders of the organisation says that often people will say that they “are a spiritual but not a religious person”.

Maguire acknowledges that he too is agnostic. ”I think if we’re honest none of us know anything, and if we have any humility we should all be agnostic. Atheism strikes me as unsupportable because it’s a certainty about something you cannot know about. For me it doesn’t matter. How you behave is much more important than what you believe.”

He is concerned by the fact that “the largest Humanist organisation in Scotland is one that is resolutely atheist.” The Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), remains the largest single provider of religion or belief-based marriages, having overtaken the Church of Scotland in 2016, and, on its website advises that religious content is not generally included in its ceremonies. “That’s not right,” he says. “It certainly isn’t humanism as I recognise it.”

Maguire recalls having participated in a long-running internal debate in the HSS, in which he argued that people should be allowed to have religious content in their ceremonies as they do in England and Wales. On one occasion, he says, he asked Richard Holloway, why he thought there was this difference in humanist culture between Scotland and England. “He came up with a theory that it was because every new belief forms in opposition to the dominant belief of its time and place, so when humanism takes root in England it’s forming in opposition to the Anglican church, which is very nice and nobody would ever question you on your dogma. It’s accepting and warm and fuzzy. Humanism in Scotland forms in opposition to Calvinism and Scots Catholicism.”

Holloway observes that the reason humanism has been so successful is because it has provided something we are missing. “It seems to me,”” he says, “what the humanists are doing is inventing the consolations of religion without the supernatural side of it. Which s quite interesting. The belief side of religion is less important than a lot of people think – it’s the christenings, it’s the funerals, it’s the weddings, it’s the marking of tragedy. The churches down in Essex today are all open so people can go and just be quiet as a result of these trafficked victims. It’s deep in human nature, and I think that a lot of people who give up religion miss it, not so much missing God as missing the structures of consolation that are there for them at times of incurable need like that.”

It is, possible, of course to work as an independent celebrant, not attached to any belief body, but, as Tibbitt points out, when it comes to legal ceremonies like weddings, there is no legal recognition, which means that the couples then have to redo the paperwork One of the books that inspired her approach is was Alain De Botton’s Religion For Atheists. “His book,” she describes, “is not negative about religion. It’s positive about religion. But it’s basically saying for those non-religious people, those people who don’t really know what they believe, religion has brought a lot of wonderful things and what we need in our society is a non-dogmatic alternative to religion that offers the same things. I think that’s what the Humanists have been trying to do but it’s ended up being dogmatic. We wanted to try to create something that was non-dogmatic, collaborative, open-minded and still brings people together.”

Agnostic Scotland’s Linda Keys considers that many people’s beliefs are now quite nuanced, “partly because they have so much information from different belief systems that it’s really hard to put it in a precise little box.” She adds, “It seems as if in politics we are becoming increasingly polar, but I think there’s something around identity where we’re starting to recognise that we’re all on a spectrum. To me, belief can sit within that range of things where there’s a spectrum, and also where we can be fluid.”

Agnosticism is something we might want to cultivate more in politics too. As Richard Holloway puts it, “Agnosticism in religion is about the big ultimate question, is there a supernatural reality called God? I think that even in politics while it’s more empirical and down to earth and measurable, you’re still not sure what the particular outcome of a policy will be. Because there are always unintended consequences, which is why we have stumbled our way in democracy to this idea of loyal opposition that every policy must be loyally challenged from the other side. Otherwise you end up with strong-armed dictatorships that go only one way. And I think that agnosticism is a healthy part of democratic politics.”

For more information see www.agnosticscotland.org