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Must We Believe in ‘Something?’

In their book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander remind us that the way we view the world is necessarily limited by the constraints of our language. 

The way we carve the world up with words and phrases seems to use the right way to view the universe—and yet it is a cliché that each language slices up the world in its own idiosyncratic manner…“the right way” to see the world depends on where and how one grew up. 

A friend of mine, who happens to be an atheist, recently visited his parents in London. While they have been active in interfaith dialogue for some time, they kept reiterating one idea: it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something. This remark resonated, as it is something I have often encountered when people learn of my own atheism. Apparently what you believe is not as relevant as that you believe—a very odd argument in promoting or justifying faith.

Firstly, what you believe is of dire importance to many religious followers. How else could we explain the increasing number of anti-abortion bills bouncing around Congress? What type a person you are or how you live your life is irrelevant in these invented debates; what matters, apparently, is whether or not you have the power to decide how to handle your private affairs. Exploring the blatant hypocrisy of Texas legislators’ current pro-life agenda while maintaining—even celebrating—the death penalty seems useless at this point.

This matter, like the other hot button issue, marriage equality, is completely dependent upon belief. I have yet to hear one credible secular argument against either. By default, both of these agendas are created to some doctrine penned by a higher power. To these people, what you believe is extremely important.

What if you remove the metaphysics from the conversation? Is this even plausible in a country in which 79% of the population thinks that humans evolved by divine guidance (or were placed here as-is)? Why is believing in something—anything—more important than acting in a manner that creates the least harm and promotes the most good in society? Wouldn’t that seem to be a more ‘spiritual’ way to exist?

In the English language, ‘belief’ is one of those linguistic and therefore cultural constraints pointed to above. The notion that one can exist without it seems impossible. The neural pathway connecting the vastness of the universe with some tampering by invisible hands (does God even have hands?) seems a given. As Jeffrey Tayler points out in one of the best pieces I’ve read on the topic, this stems from a complete sense of bias.

Tayler writes about Larry Alex Taunton, the executive director of a non-profit organization that publicly defends Christian faith, and his research stemming from interviews with a variety of college students who had ‘lost their faith.’ Taunton wanted to better understand the reasons why the younger generation was not as bedazzled by the spectacle of the Absolute as he…and he wanted to get them back.

His findings revealed that priests going soft and other personal disappointments were the true reasons why they had abandoned their starry-eyed gazes. The way to win them back, obviously, includes more Jesus as bloodslayer! That religion and science fiction and fantasy share many similar qualities were obviously lost on Taunton.

The students, as Tayler observes, were treated as objects of psychoanalysis, not human beings with actual intellects. Taunton is stuck in the language conundrum: he simply cannot imagine how someone wouldn’t feel the same way as himself about the universe.

He does not seem to understand that this is a deeply patronizing way of recounting the free decisions of these students to leave the church because—again, as a number of atheists apparently told him outright—they just don’t believe its teachings…Taunton’s analysis amounts not to an objective assessment of their words, but pseudo-diagnosis presented in a way that skirts what they were really trying to tell him.

Is a truly objective philosophy even within the realm of possibility? Given the constraints of language and culture, it is certainly a challenge. Taking someone else at their words without running them through the filter of your own beliefs is not only a daunting prospect, it’s impossible to comprehend if you don’t even recognize that you’re doing it. Given that Taunton’s aim was conversion (or reconversion) to begin with, this was certainly no double blind study.

As Tayler expresses,

And as an atheist, I would argue that, if anything, it is the journey to belief that needs to be studied.

Such an undertaking would require a massive reengineering of neural patterns. But it is possible. To initiate a true interfaith dialogue for the modern times, we could focus not on how our metaphysics can get along with one another, but how to wipe the slate clean of any magical thinking and see what sort of foundation can be built from there. 

Image: Lisa F Young/


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