I’ve always been fascinated by belief systems. Thanks to the open environment I was raised in (my Mom is Unitarian) I possessed the ability to observe belief systems objectively from a very early age. I recall a book from my childhood on comparative religion that I would pour over from time to time, juxtaposed against a children’s illustrated Bible (basically a hardcover comic book) that immediately made me question Christian beliefs (likely not the author’s intent). There was even a point in grade school where, to the consternation of many of my friends, I declared myself Athiest. Certainly, not going to church every Sunday made that conclusion easier to reach than it might have been otherwise. At any rate, I am grateful for the intellectual freedom I was given.
Interestingly, though, that freedom has taken me on a path that did not remain in Atheism, a belief system with which I no longer identify myself. Rather, I learned to question belief itself, and learned that disbelief, as the opposite of belief, is itself a belief in something. To subscribe to a given religion is to say that you believe most of its tenets if not all. But to subscribe to Atheism is to say that you believe those tenets are wrong. Granted, there is much more evidence to support the beliefs of the latter than the former, but that does not change the fact that both are belief systems.
My journey has brought me to a place where, to borrow the words of the hippy philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, “I don’t believe anything”. But, and here is where the fun starts, for me, the corollary to that is true as well: I don’t disbelieve anything either.
But, what does that mean? First, I’ll point out the definition of believe from Dictionary.com:
to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so
To rephrase, to believe something means to be convinced it is true without evidence or even despite evidence. So basically I am saying that I’m not convinced anything is true. I do mean anything. I do not even believe the evidence of my own five senses, or in the truth of my convictions. How can that be possible? It is possible, as most things are, because of semantics, really. When I say believe I mean 100% conviction of truth, with disbelief being 100% conviction of falsehood. Anything else in between is neither belief nor disbelief, but rather assumption or operating hypotheses. That means I can say that a given idea seems true or untrue as the case may be, and I may operate my life on that assumption, but I always leave space open for the possibility that my assumption is wrong.
Going back to religionists (religious believers) versus Atheists, religionists believe, for instance, that God exists. Athiests believe He (or She!) does not. Both these groups are convinced that they are right and the other is wrong. I don’t even stand in the middle of these two groups. I don’t believe either group is right, but I’m not sure either group is wrong either. Either side could be right! Who am I to say? I’m certainly no expert…
That lack of expertise is specifically why I’m not so sure about the whole belief thing. Just think about the amount of evidence you need to prove something. Now think about the amount of expertise you need to amass that evidence. And that’s why we have scientists and engineers, for instance. They study for years to gain the expertise to carry out experiments so they can prove things. And even then, the “proof” consists of a theory, or a set of assumptions that give the predicted result. Theories are certainly not conjecture as creationists would have you believe, but neither are they facts written in stone. They are rather things that are there “for now” as working, reliable tools that can and likely will be replaced by better ones as more evidence is accumulated in the future.
And that is my real problem with Atheists. For a group of people so obviously rational in every other way, how can they simply disbelieve all religion? How can you be 100% sure that God won’t just one day decide to show up after all and have a good laugh at our collective expense? Atheists believe God does not exist. They are absolutely convinced, despite how young our science is, despite how little we know of the universe or higher dimensions, that there is no higher being out there. I personally see that as only slightly less of an act of faith then those who believe God does exist and that He (or She) is watching over each and every one of us daily.
So, practically speaking, what does it really mean that I neither believe nor disbelieve anything but only have assumptions? Well, one really neat thing is that I get to audit class, so to speak. I can hang out with spiritual or religious friends and, for the time I am with them, assume that, hey, you know some of what they believe could really be true, and I end up having a great time. Then I can turn right around and hang out with my rationalist friends and go back to being completely rational, and end up having a great time. I get the best of both worlds, and I don’t even have to pay dues!
Not only that, but I can think whatever makes me feel good with a clear conscience. Think about it. Anyone with any intelligence questions their beliefs once in a while, and they invariably have a crisis of conscience. Whether it is the pastor questioning God or the Atheist resisting an instinctive urge to pray, it happens to everyone, and the stronger their beliefs are, the more guilty they feel for their doubts. For me, that’s never a problem. I can mix irrational spiritual urges which are, according to science, instinctive, with very rational thoughts, all in the same sentence, with no contradiction, because I don’t believe any of it 100%. I believe that is a much more healthy way to live. We cannot deny our biology and our brains (that want to be spiritual) without experiencing some discomfort, but neither can we deny solid evidence against a given belief when it is uncovered without also feeling discomfort. Doing away with belief altogether does away with those two major sources of stress. Believe me!
And I’ve recently even gone a step further. I now allow myself, for the sake of conversation and getting along, to use the word “belief”, but secretly using my own personal definition:
To act on the assumption that something is likely true with or without evidence until such time as more evidence becomes available.
I do this because it is boring to have to explain that I don’t believe anything etc. etc. bla bla bla every time anyone asks me a belief question. So now when people ask me if I believe in God, I say sure I do, I bet there’s a higher being out there somewhere. In fact, I believe that we and all matter are the embodiment of God, and that God created all existence because of how boring it was being alone in the Universe. But no I don’t believe in the Christian Bible or the Koran or the Torah or whatever other particular book of beliefs you might mention.
But then again, I could be wrong.