The Paradox of Disbelief: Belief without disbelief is mindless superstition.
Not all science fiction is so easy to spot…
Once again, when seeking to understand the “Truth” and the world around us, we are faced with a seeming paradox, namely that “Belief without disbelief is merely uninformed superstition”.
At first glance, such a statement appears to be little more than meaningless play on words. Surely belief is a binary concept. One
either has it, or one does not. If a person believes, it follows that they can’t disbelieve, and similarly if a person disbelieves it is difficult to see how they can also believe.
Thankfully, the wording of the paradox is perhaps indicative of its real meaning and import. In saying, “belief without disbelief”, we are effectively saying that in order to fully and correctly hold a particular belief, we need to be in possession of all of the relevant information related to that belief. A significant amount of that information will relate directly to the reasons why other people do not hold a particular belief, so in order to truly claim a particular belief, we need to educate ourselves about the reasons why we should not hold that particular belief.
If we don’t understand the reasons why we shouldn’t hold onto a particular belief, how can we know that there isn’t some information out there that might change our position regarding such a belief? If we don’t challenge our beliefs by finding reasons to disbelieve, how is our belief any different from the most primitive, ill informed and irrational superstition?
The answer is, of course that it is not: Willful ignorance is no way to ascertain truth.
This philosophy is one that has been categorically rejected by nearly all faiths throughout history. Religion has most often been a tool of social and cultural control, with dissenting positions forcefully repudiated and punished, often in the most barbaric way. With few exceptions, all traditions, be they ancient, or modern have condemned the very questioning of the basis of belief in their dogmas. The Roman Catholic church is particularly famous for having its Inquisition and list of proscribed books. Islam has, since early in its history, imposed the death penalty on those who would renounce its “wisdom”.
Even in modern times, hostility to the very idea of questioning one’s beliefs is at the core of many religious movements and is arguably one of the primary indicators that a particular religion is a “cult” (in the modern pejorative, rather than ancient historical meaning of the word). Jehovah’s Witnesses full of their own Righteousness will cut all ties with anyone who they regard as an “Appostate”. Many modern American’s wouldn’t dream of voting for an atheist as President and many have enormous difficulties in voting for a person who isn’t fully “Christian” in their eyes.
In early 2012, a “Reverend” Dennis Terry summed up much of the problem, when he made the following declaration from his pulpit:
“America “was founded as a Christian nation” and remains a country where “there is only one God and his name is Jesus…If you don’t love America you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, GET OUT! We don’t worship Buddha. We don’t worship Mohammed. We don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”
Nobody should be surprised that this sort of bigotry and hate should exist in a country of more than 300 million people, but what was surprising was that the service in question was attended by none other than Rick Santorum, who at that time happened to be one of the two main contenders to be the Republican nominee for President of the most powerful country in the world.
This worthy certainly didn’t contradict the good “Reverend’s” stance, which is perhaps unsurprising, given his own explicit attacks on regarding university education on the basis that:
“The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country…62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it”.
Of course, this “indoctrination” that he fumes at is nothing more than the simple process of encouraging people to question their beliefs and assumptions and the result of first time exposure to ideas that contradict those with which they were raised. It is ironic that so many advocates of the rugged independence and individuality of the American spirit will reject that very same individuality as “indoctrination”, or alien when it produces results that don’t mirror their own views.
In reality, many of these children don’t “leave without faith”. Rather they become exposed to questions for which there are no real answers and many will return to the faith of their parents in the years to come.
But it isn’t simply the theists who are at fault in this. Similarly opposed to the questioning of basic beliefs are those who would best be described as “fundamental atheists”, who’s crusade is often described as nothing short of the elimination of religious belief in all its forms. Their certitude regarding something that they can never know for certain (ie the non-existence of god”) is just as misguided and incoherent as that of those they would seek to oppose.
Like many before them, they seek to impose their views on others and insist that those who disagree are “deluded”, or fools, or
otherwise incapable of rational thought. (From my perspective, this is ironic indeed, given that the Principles are the result of a strictly rationalist approach to understanding the universe and any Divine that may, or may not exist).
In a world in which they lack coercive power, the writings of fundamentalist atheists, such as Hitchins and Dawkins are an interesting and necessary challenge to the prevailing worldview. But if a mindset, such as that of Dawkins were to prevail, whereby it is held that raising a child as a Roman Catholic is worse than subjecting that child to sexual abuse, the wrongdoing, should they ever achieve absolute power, would be just as horrific as any evils perpetrated in the name of God.
(Disclaimer: I was raised as a Roman Catholic and don’t for a second think that I would have preferred to be sexually abused as a child).
Part of this hostility to questioning one’s own beliefs is because for many people religion (or its absence) is not so much about what they believe in relation to the nature of God, but what they believe in relation to their culture, soclialisation and way of life. In a world in which they feel threatened, they bunker down and seek out those with similar ideals and see religious similarity as being the best way of identifying those who are on their “team”.
Sadly, there are significant sections of the modern American community who regard those who are not Christian as being not genuine Americans. Ironically, as I write this a similar thing is happening in much of the Muslim world, where adherence to Islam is seen as a badge proclaiming loyalty to the state.
Similarly, as I write this, barely a year after the “Arab Spring”, there are many in Egypt who seek to persecute the Coptic minority in that country, because as Christian’s they are perceived to be outsiders and supporters of unIslamic interests.
Ironically, this reliance on superficial declarations of faith, means that many of these people then become prime candidates for swindlers and those who would seek to control them. In a world where it is dangerous to be seen to not adhere to the mainstream belief, the safest thing to do will often be to engage in vocal and obvious demonstrations of support, lest one’s own faith be questioned. This in turn means that the rabble rousers and hateful people have a far greater impact as they herd the sheep and turn them loose, as wolves, on suspect minorities.
But if it where all simply down to culture, change would be much easier to stomach for many societies. Sadly, the psychological certitude of religious belief is in itself as big an issue as any other. Religious, political and cultural beliefs have a certitude that is not found in other domains of knowledge, or behaviour.
Show a person that they are wrong about the time that a train arrives at the local station and they will most likely be happy to graciously concede error and thank you for informing them – nobody wants to miss their train!
But show a person that they are wrong regarding an issue fundamental to their worldview and a much different experience will visited upon the unfortunate informant. Try to show someone that there are contradictions in their holy book, or try to explain the power of mystical experience to an atheist and in nearly every single case, the result will be the same: Implacable rejection and denial of the reality with which they are presented. If pushed, this will often denigrate into abuse and personal attacks, should the discussion continue.
Many people would rather remain ignorant than give up a cherished opinion about the world. Indeed, they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they remain ignorant and to fight any possibility of ever being exposed to anything that might challenge their worldview.
This is because in attacking these core beliefs, many people feel that we are attacking them as a person. They feel that they are being ridiculed, not taken seriously, or accused of being stupid. This is of course, no more the case than it was with the railway time table correction, but the very personal nature of these beliefs means that they along with their implications are embedded in the very self perceptions that make a person who they are. Challenge these and you are challenging issues of meaning, morality, destiny and death; questions that many do not wish to ever consider or ponder deeply.
When we challenge people’s identity in such a way, we challenge them on a variety of other levels as well. These challenges often arise in the form of potential for family conflict and relations to members of one’s own community.
It is difficult to be the only person to have the courage to hold that people should be able to live their lives as they see fit and to believe what makes sense to them, even if it does seem absurd and perhaps even a little bit dangerous. It takes considerable courage and strength of will and purpose to challenge one’s beliefs and the sad truth is that many simply do not possess the intestinal fortitude required to step down that road.
This resistance to change was amply demonstrated to me when I was studying at University. As a member of a club called “Exploring Alternative Spiritualities” I gave a series of presentations highlighting both contradictions in the Bible and what I regard as the deliberate dishonesty of the Creation Science movement. One year, I had a number of members from one of the Christian clubs in attendance at my first presentation, but almost none at the second (it was reported to me that they were initially encouraged to attend to defend Jesus from my “lies”). When I questioned one of the attendees as to the reason for the absence, I was informed that at least some had decided not to attend on the basis that I had “challenged their faith”. In other words, they experienced considerable cognitive dissonance and perhaps even distress upon discovering that the Bible they had been told was infallible was littered with errors. The easiest way for them to deal with this distress was to avoid the source of the anxiety altogether, because that way they could avoid further challenge and hopefully evade the implications of their discomfort.
Additionally, there is also the very real hatred that many people have of any kind of criticism, or correction. For many, it is better to go down with the ship, than to admit error. There are those that hate the very idea of admitting they could be wrong and will gladly, if suicidally hold that black is white, right up to the point where they get killed on Douglas Adams’ Zebra Crossing.
To complicate things, as discussed elsewhere, the reasons why people believe what they believe become yet another compounding variable. A lamentable fact is that many, if not most people, do not believe in a Divinity because of any rational, logical thought, or because of transcendent, mystical experience. Rather, they believe simply because everyone else around them believes.
In other words, they believe in God in the same way that they believe in Russia. They’ve never been there, or had any experience of it, but everyone they know agrees that it exists and some people claim to have been there, so surely it makes sense to believe as well. These people will not change their minds about their beliefs until nearly everyone around them does, although I suspect that they would all go into a self sustaining huddle long before that occurred.
The philosophy contained within the Paradox of Disbelief is as foreign to these people as Martians, but ironically, as the Principles make their way throughout world culture and gain acceptance, these people (or more likely their psychological decedents) will hold to them as fiercely as any other belief that they do now.
So what might it look like for a person to engage with the unbelief of their own belief? The first and most important step is to engage with what has already been revealed within the Uncertainty and the Divine Principles. The TRUTH is not out there. And not only is it not out there for you as a limited, mortal sentient, but it is also not out there for any being that might hubristically believe itself to be God.
The take home message from this is not only that whatever you believe is anything but certain, but that in an universe with an infinite number of potential metaphysical realities, the odds that what you believe are true actually reflects what is true is so improbable as to be a guarantee that you are wrong.
Once one recognises that any particular metaphysical belief is almost certainly incorrect, it becomes much easier to let go of the arrogance of certitude and the emotional attachment to being correct. As previously discussed, this will not be an easy thing for many, if not most people to do, but in giving up our certitude, we open ourselves up to the full potential of Infinite possibility. In acknowledging that whatever we believe is almost certainly wrong, we free ourselves from the need to defend a position that is doomed from the start and can work to discover a reality that makes sense to us on a more fundamental level.
Once one has given up on their certitude, it is necessary to open one’s self up to new ideas, experiences and even friendships that might not otherwise have emerged had this not been the case. Perhaps the most obvious expression of this would be to read books, or to join groups that will expose you to different ideas. In engaging with these resources, it is important to do so with an open heart and open mind, so that whatever is new or different is not automatically disregarded, or criticised.
Yes, there will be things that you can (and should) disagree with, but it is important that this disagreement occurs from a framework of receptive openness, rather than kneejerk rejection. Often, it is through establishing relations with others and developing empathy for them as humans with their own hopes, fears and aspirations that we can finally come to see that they are not the evil that we have irrationally made them out to be.
Even if one is not able to give up their original beliefs, understanding the reasons why people might disagree with them is crucial to engaging others with empathy and compassion. One of the more horrific aspects of many forms of belief is the tribalism that emerges, where the sacred few hold themselves as better, somehow more special, than the rest. If one understands that there are very good reasons why one might not believe as one does, then this tendency is surely to be dramatically reduced.
Once one engages in this particular sort of exploration, it there are certain beliefs that will be almost impossible to uphold. These will be the sort that target those who are different to create some sort of out group to become the focus of hatred and “in group” solidarity. In modern society, the pointless antagonism directed at homosexuals by believers of nearly all stripes is a case in point.
With an absence of any scientific data that might support the radical conclusion that such behaviour is fundamentally evil it becomes nigh on impossible to maintain opposition and hatred to those for whom this is a valid lifestyle choice. Any feelings of personal disgust can be recognised as an internal psychological response, likely driven by billion years of evolution, rather than an accurate indication of reality.
In asserting the need to challenge one’s own beliefs by becoming fully informed about the reasons why one should not believe, I need to make it absolutely clear that I am no way supporting various attempts by religious groups to “teach the controversy” in areas such as evolution.
The Reality Principle is and will remain, that “science is Truth”, at least within the confines of areas to which science is an appropriate tool. After more than 150 years, evolution has stood the test of time and has passed tests of predictability, explanatory power an there is no evidence that might even begin to falsify it. .
Certainly, if some new evidence came to light that contradicted the theory, this should be welcomed by all, but to teach false and discredited information as scientific truth is not an example, of encouraging “disbelief”, but rather yet another mechanism that religious movements use to impose their dogmas on those who so tragically put their trust in those who would seek to control them.
The Paradox of Disbelief is important, because it highlights the connection between certitude and the lack of empathy that lies at the heart of so many of the evil things that we do for each other. Far too often we become lost in the certitude of our ideas and lose track of the simple fact that these ideas often entail the diminution of others and the tribalisation of our communities and societies to the point where we are no longer communicating with one another, but instead fighting for the supremacy of irrelevancies that are certain to be wrong at the most fundamental of levels.