Friday, September 12, 2014


Despite being a minister of religion, I have no religious ‘beliefs’ as such. I’m deadly serious.

Now, more than a few people have said to me over the years, ‘How can you be a minister of religion, and say you have no religious beliefs at all?’ A good question. My reply? Well, I usually say something like this: ‘I am a religious naturalist. I hold no beliefs, but there are a number of concepts, propositions and principles that I affirm as true. I affirm them as true because they are true, in that for the most part they are convictions in the nature of self-evident truths or what may be called 'axiomatic eternal verities.’ (By the way, there are also some delightful souls who write to me saying things like, 'You will burn forever in a lake of fire, you heretic, you wicked apostate!' I just say to them, 'May you find the peace of mind you're so desperately seeking,' then I continue doing what I'm doing.)

While some of the concepts, propositions and principles I affirm are what one may call 'working hypotheses,' the majority of them, as already mentioned, are self-evident truths. A self-evident truth is one that is such that, if you understand it, you are justified in believing it. Now, I know these convictions to be true. There is, therefore, no need to believe in them at all, for they neither require nor demand belief. (People believe things that have not been proven to be true, including many things that can never be proven to be true, but I say ... why do that?) 

Here are a few of the self-evident truths which I affirm as true but don't believe. I affirm t
he inherent worth and dignity of every person. I affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I affirm that unnecessary suffering, as well as the unnecessary destruction of value, are wrong. (Yes, I admit that there are some problem words there. There always is, and always will be.) I affirm the right of conscience, the democratic process, and the right to pursue a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I also try to show respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I affirm the principle that equals should be treated equally, and like cases should be treated alike. I have several other such convictions.

I know these convictions to be true. Those convictions that are not expressly or obviously self-evident or axiomatic I have come to know as true by a process of free inquiry and the use of reason (in other words, by evidence). These convictions collectively constitute the foundation of my desupernaturalized faith. By 'faith' I do not mean beliefs or trust, but rather living with hope, courage, and confidence.

Now, it is true that the word ‘belief’ is seems to be a word people struggle with, no doubt because of its connection to belief in God, and the shorthand of ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers.’ Apparently, the term ‘non-believers’ goes back to the 19th century. John Stuart Mill [pictured left] in his Autobiography makes the point that the word ‘non-believer’ is not a reasonable term since it implies lack of any belief and, using standard definitions of belief, he could not perceive of anyone as being without belief. Well, Mr Mill never met me.

There is a school of thought to which some of my more learned friends belong which asserts that the word ‘beliefs,’ in the plural, refers to the totality of the current state of one's beliefs (religious, political, or otherwise), opinions and ideas, including scientific opinions and ideas as well as factual or evidence-based opinions. Now, if this be one’s definition of ‘beliefs’, then there is no distinction whatsoever between facts and beliefs. However, as I see it, facts (that is, occurrences in space-time) are not opinions, but merely the basis for forming opinions. Despite the views of many these days, (no) thanks to grubby postmodernism, one opinion is not as good an any other opinion. For an opinion to be ‘valid,’ it needs to be supported by facts that are sufficient to support and ground the opinion held.

Now, the school of thought to which I have referred, which makes no distinction between facts and beliefs, asserts that when we ‘adopt’ an opinion---legitimately evidence-based or otherwise---we hold it as a belief. Of course, upon proper inquiry some beliefs will be found to be countered by certain facts, for it is the reasoning and beliefs formed from understanding those facts that we actually use to counter certain beliefs that are not evidence-based.

My usual response to this school of thought is that if one has beliefs at all they ought to be all based on logically probative evidence. When they are so supported, they are no longer beliefs but convictions or truths. However, according to the opposing school of thought, we all have beliefs. For example, when we go to the garage, and put the ignition key in our car and start the ignition, we may very well not have an adequate, evidence-based understanding of what is happening, but we believe---note that word believe---that the car will start and carry us down the road. Even if we do ‘know’ how a car works sufficiently to be able to explain it accurately, that does not mean our knowledge comes from evidence. More likely, it comes from studying and listening to people who have some authority on the matter.

So, my opposition says, we do not have to have all of our beliefs backed by demonstrative evidentiary experience, and that would be true for most of us. So, we would never ask a mathematician to present evidentiary proof that a line is a straight one-dimensional figure having no thickness being a straight one-dimensional figure having no thickness (that is, width) which extends infinitely in both directions but ordinarily in practice connects two points. Such belief as a mathematician has, particularly those beliefs that are axiomatic, is clearly rational and not empirical. (Ah, that annoying supposed distinction between rationalism and empiricism again. I won’t go there.)

My response to the assertion that we do not have to have all of our beliefs backed by demonstrative evidentiary experience is usually as follows. If I get on a bus it is because I know that it is more probable than not that I will get to my destination safely. Of course, the bus may crash or break down along the way, but that doesn’t mean that it was not more probable than not that that I would get to my destination safely. I never said it was certain that I would arrive safely. I did not hold a belief that I would get to my destination safely. It was simply a state of mind based on factual (relevantly, statistical) probabilities. Call it an opinion if you like, but not a belief. No, I am not playing word games here. My state of mind was simply a confidence based on factual probabilities. When I get onto a bus, or travel to work as a passenger in a car driven by a friend, I simply have confidence in the truth or existence of a state of affairs not susceptible to immediate proof but based on statistical probabilities. If and when I get to my destination safely, the existence of the hoped-for state of affairs will have been proven ex post facto, that is, it will by then have been actualized.

In the case of mathematical propositions (eg the above mentioned definition of a line, or the definition of a triangle as a polygon with three edges and three vertices), we are simply dealing with what are known as analytic propositions, that is, propositions the truth of which truth depends solely on the meaning of its terms, that is, they are true or false by definition. They are grounded in meanings, independent of matters of fact. Indeed, all definitions are ultimately circular or tautological in nature, since they depend upon concepts which must themselves have definitions, a dependence which cannot be continued indefinitely without returning to the starting point. Now, to call these propositions beliefs strains credulity.

I do of course agree that we all have opinions on various matters. We find facts, but rarely do the facts speak for themselves. In order to know something we are often forced to draw conclusions and inferences from objective facts, and often it is the case that different people can quite reasonably draw different conclusions or inferences from the same set of facts. Such is the nature of things. But, as I see it, beliefs are different things altogether. A person believes something when, not only do they not know whether that which is believed is true or not, there is actually no possibility of a person ever knowing whether the thing believed is true. In other words, the thing believed is not susceptible to rigorous proof at all. It is not a case of the thing believed being not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof. It cannot be proved at all. That is why it is ‘has’ to be believed. (Of course, it is not obligatory to believe it at all, and I wouldn’t believe it anyway.)

Take, for example, a literal belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, not all Christians hold that belief but many do, and many of those who do regard that belief as an essential tenet of the Christian faith. Speaking personally, I don’t believe that Jesus literally and bodily rose from dead. I like what the iconoclastic Anglican bishop Dr David Jenkins [pictured left] said about the Resurrection. He called the notion ‘a conjuring trick with bones.’ How wickedly funny! Be that as it may, the question of whether or not Jesus physically rose from the dead is a question of fact but it is a matter that is not something capable of rigorous proof. 

However, for something to be provable it must be repeatable, and any event or supposed event in the past is something that cannot be repeated. For that matter, we can’t even prove that Jesus or Napoleon or any other person from the past was born or lived. In the case of the supposed historicity of Jesus, it has been argued, with considerable justification in my view, that there is insufficient independent historical evidence to safely conclude that the person known as Jesus Christ, as depicted in the New Testament, ever existed. In that regard, there is not even one single demonstrably authentic passage purporting to be written as history within the first 100 years of the Christian era that shows the existence at or before that time of such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, or of such a set of persons as could be accounted his disciples or followers. Further, there is no non-Christian record of Jesus before the 2nd century. That is fact. 

Not only that, there is the added problem that the physical world in which we live yields no contemporary reliable evidence that people who are dead can be supernaturally resurrected. I speak as a lawyer here. (I wear a number of hats, sometimes more than one at the same time. It's fun.) If a jury were permitted to even consider such a proposition, it would require expert testimony by someone scientifically qualified to testify to the likelihood of the supernatural resurrection of one particular dead person some two thousand years ago. However, there is no objective, verifiable evidence, based on scientifically sound principles, which could be adduced in a courtroom today that would establish the singularity of supposed Jesus' alleged 'supernatural' resurrection some two thousand years ago. In order for an expert's opinion to be reliable and thus admissible, it must be grounded in verifiable propositions of fact, but in light of the logically probative material available to us there are no reliable grounds upon which to assert that supposed Jesus' alleged supernatural resurrection is based upon any verifiable proposition of fact. 

All other religious beliefs---and many beliefs that are not religious in nature (eg political and ideological beliefs)---are susceptible to the same sort of robust challenge. Now, some people say to me, ‘Well, you can’t prove it [that is, the supposed state of affairs believed in] isn’t true.’ Of course, what these people fail to realize or admit is that the onus of proof in these matters is on those who assert the existence of some supposed state of affairs. Sometimes a more sophisticated argument is advanced to the effect that the absence of evidence for some supposed state of affairs is said not to be evidence of absence---that is, not evidence of something not being the case. So, the absence of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is said not to be evidence that the resurrection did not happen. However, the absence of evidence for some supposed state of affairs is indeed evidence of absence where the ‘negative evidence principle’ is satisfied. That principle has been stated as follows:

A person is justified in believing that p is false if (1) all the available evidence used to support the view that p is true is shown to be inadequate and (2) p is the sort of claim such that if p were true, there should be available evidence that would be adequate to support the view that p is true and (3) the area where evidence would appear if there were any, has been comprehensively examined. [Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p 102.]

But, leaving all of the above aside for the moment (assuming we can really do that), what exactly is the problem with 'beliefs,' you may ask? Well, Shakyamuni Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (āvarnas). These thought coverings or veils do not reveal reality, indeed they distort reality. How? Well, they prevent us from knowing and experiencing things as they really are in all their directness and immediacy. Belief is conditioning. Knowledge is experiential. A belief-system is a distorting lens which experiences, processes and interprets but then  distorts what happens through an amalgam of beliefs, all of which are the past and conditioning.

I have always found helpful these words attributed to the Buddha: 'Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.' There is also this sound advice from the Pāli texts:

In what is seen, there should be only the seen;
in what is heard, only the heard;
in what is sensed, only the sensed;
in what is thought, only the thought.

However, when we see something through a belief-system what is seen is filtered, interpreted, analyzed and judged through the belief-system. No longer is it a case of  that which is seen being only that which was seen, or that which is heard being only what was heard, or that which is sensed being only what was sensed, or that which is thought being only that which is thought. Reality immediately becomes a new and altogether different reality. This is not living mindfully.

We need to safely and mindfully 'navigate' our way through life, but beliefs in the supposed existence of states of affairs in respect of which there is no possibility of one ever knowing whether that which is believed is really true stand in our way and hold us back. What we really need is knowledge and understanding. The very nature of a belief is a mental construct based on an already past presumed reality. That is, by the time a particular belief has been formulated, the presumed reality upon which that belief is purportedly based is no longer a present reality, if it ever was a reality. It is now the past. Beliefs lock us into the past. Beliefs imprison. They do not liberate. They are chains that bind us. Eschew beliefs. You don't need any.

To be continued.

No comments:

Post a Comment