What’s to Believe?


In response to an almost microscopic reference on this site to the fact that I am ploddering away on a book on the failure of secular humanism, together with a mystifying blognote to the effect that I have left the Legoland of organized unbelief for Dystopia,  I have received some very interesting email.  Some of it has been well-intentioned and all of it has been grammatical. Thank you.

Since I have always maintained that what anybody believes is relatively unimportant unless, to quote Jefferson, it picks my pocket or breaks my legs, I have been somewhat dumbfounded that anyone should care what I believe.  I have spent most of my life telling undergraduates that what they believe isn’t important until they have published their third book or made their second million.  –And warning graduate students that if they begin one more sentence with the phrase “It seems to me, ” even if speaking about Foucault, they will banished from the classroom.  Quaint, therefore, that I am being called upon to explain myself.

It also marks me out as an Older Man.  Students of my generation fought for free expression and later, as an afterthought, invented the world wide web.  (In fact I marvel to this day that Timothy Berners-Lee isn’t a houehold name in the way, say, Bill gates is.)  My spoiled rotten generation virtually created the wherewithal through which the cult of personal expression has come into being.  But now we are old and stodgy (we prefer hearing mature)  and upset that the ones who are using it  use sentences like “rofl thats so funny 🙂 lmao! yo dwag u gotta see that desinger! hes like 1337 dood but that other dood is a noob nywy i g2g mate….”

What people (doods) seem to want to know is why I have “left” unbelief behind and embraced the alternative.  Only one correspondent asked me to seriously consider the possibility of early onset Alzheimers.  The majority use the following logic:  (1) Unbelief is the Emerald City. (2) Belief is Kansas. (3) Why would anybody who’d arrived at 1 return to 2?

But to respect my inquisitors, here are a traditional ten points I happen to believe:

First I do not believe that Unbelief is a logical stopping point in thinking about the world.  I do not remember a time when I considered myself a lukewarm atheist that I did not feel like a tourist.

Second, I believe that I am no smarter than the many religious persons I know.  I do not look for excuses to rub the noses of friends and relatives in my worldview (or lifestance) just to see if they bristle or lose their point.  I do not believe that being an unbeliever is like “coming out” if you’re gay or lesbian.  And I find the whole phenomenon of coming out the nether side of extreme honesty anyway.  If I were forced to come out, however, I would come out uncertain.

Speaking of uncertainty, I share, thirdly, the view of many confused people that cowboy skepticism and pistol-packing atheism is a waste of time.  I have (as Bertrand Russell said somewhere, once) no ideology that I would fight and die for–certainly no position I have ever embraced, religious or secular.  So if you regard me as a lukewarm, backsliding atheist you’ll have to take us both out.

Fourth, I believe that there is real excitement in uncertainty.  I don’t give a damn if the only people still interested in Pascal are underpaid junior lecturers or if he erred on the side of belief thereby privileging an absurd intellectual position.  Ok, I do care a little.  But I’m not certain.

Fifth: There is a difference between uncertainty, not being able to make up your mind, and not caring.   In a recent New Humanist article, Laurie Taylor opined that (contra Francis Thompson and pro Thomas Aquinas) it isn’t God who won’t let you fall but “the concept of God that won’t let you go.”  It is endlessly fascinating in all its images, aberrations, and iterations, artistic, linguistic, dramatic, philosophical, theist and atheist.  I do not believe that this fascination serves either as a proof of God or as a warrant for belief or even as justification for religious feeling as “pointing” James-style to the possibility of a source for the feeling.

I believe, sixth,  that the God of the Hebrew, Christian, Islamic and monotheistic traditions generally has no more actual existence than the gods that came before or exist in non-book traditions or may come after.  I do not think that the denial of the gods of human history closes the door on the question of a god. The procession–the life and death–of gods is part of a creative process that also gives us culture, art, the novel, political constitutions and psychiatry.  It also gives us literary criticism which is much harder to take seriously than God.

Seventh, I believe that the sacred texts of all religious traditions are the competing stories of people, nations, movements.  None is “true” in a historical or scientific sense.  All look foolish when they are used for law, science, history, and ethics.

Eighth, I believe the philosophy of religion is bunk: on the theological side,  nothing more than apologetics choreographed by questions framed a thousand years ago, and on the philosophical side by a number of maneuvres, points and counterturns equally archaic, to point up the absurdity of the religious position.  This ballet is now so stale that it is amazing anyone can watch it any longer without laughing, or write books on the subject that still sell.  But they do.

Ninth,  I believe that organized humanism has lost its way in a labyrinth of special causes, interests and agendas; that it is now a clash of competing secular doctrines and lifestyles and that reasonable people will look elsewhere for intellectual energy and support. In the end, smart women and men save themselves from dogma and superstition, even the dogmas of the age.  Especially the dogmas of the age.

Tenth, I believe in two commandments, not ten.

Thou shalt be curious.

Thou shalt form thy conscience with learning and reflection.

2 thoughts on “What’s to Believe?

  1. Great post . A pleasure to read .

    You gave that flowing but witty style that I much admired in Bertrand Russells writings . In consequence , like the great philosopher , even where I may diagree with you in the details , I’m with you in the more important wider context . Looking forward to you’re future posts .

    Regards …

  2. By the time they have published their third book or made their second million, their opinions should have evolved and they should have changed their minds several million times … allowing for a little exaggeration of course. “The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.” wrote Sir Bertrand in the Introduction to his Skeptical Essays. In certain contexts, yes (consider fundamental human rights). The same principle applies to particular flavours of unbelief where certainty of the correctness of one’s opinions is just as passionate as the most fiercely opinionated in religion and politics. In fact there is nothing smellier than a stagnant pond or a stagnant, unimaginative opinionated mind.

    I find it surprising that you should be dumbfounded that what you believe might not be inherently fascinating to others. ESPECIALLY what you believe.

    Not sure about the fifth because I’ve never ‘believed’ but I wouldn’t reject it, it’s inherently interesting as an idea.

    I very much appreciate the fundamental commandments of which there are but two. Pooh of course would approve – no bear was more curious than he. Eeyore was the plodderer, not you, and he was curiousless – or at least the least curious of all. Curiosity, imagination, creativity, all inspired by the spiritual self which groweth. Which is human, not bear. And curiosity never killed even a cat.


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