Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The True Believer

my front yard

Several years back, the social philosopher Eric Hoffer coined the term "the true believer" to describe someone who rigidly holds onto his or her ideas and is fanatically committed to a cause. Hoffer went on to suggest that true believers are so rabidly committed to their view of the world that they will do anything to defend their position and will not budge an inch to change their rigidly constructed perceptions. 

I think there are a lot of "true believers" around today.

Our own day has witnessed the birth of a widespread "atheist" movement in the United States and Europe. Atheists have written books and articles, posted blogs and appeared on talk shows,  to promote their strong belief in atheism. Atheists have been a loud voice in the public forum, arguing against any mention of God in the marketplace - demanding no religious monuments be displayed or erected in the public square. 

Recently some very interesting discourse has emerged on the internet in which "atheists" debate with "theists" (the so-called theists generally turn out to be  Christian fundamentalists).  The conversation in these debates is highly charged and passionate, and while this conversation may indeed be "discourse,"  it is never "dialogue,"  - both sides talking "at" one one another - no one listening to the other, everyone "absolutely sure" that they have the corner on the truth. 

In the ongoing debate between "theists" and atheists, religious people are "absolutely sure" about their faith and absolutely sure that atheists are going to hell. The atheists are just as "absolutely sure" that all religious people are haters and simpletons who reject science and stand upon unfounded and ludicrous ideas about a "God floating around in the sky."  

A recent letter to the editor in the LA Times featured a very telling remark by a local "anti-religion" college professor of philosophy.  He writes: "I have no doubt that the true problem with religion is that it is so sure of something it knows absolutely nothing about." 

To me, the professor sounds just like a "true believer" who is making a case against "true believers."  There are lots of "true believers" around today.

Every day I look out my window and I see the vast, expansive and mysterious desert in front of my retreat house. I think about those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers who moved out to the wilderness - to the margins of church and society in order to follow the teachings of Jesus more faithfully. 

Their common life together in the vast and uncontrollable desert taught these Mothers and Fathers not to hold onto anything too rigidly.  They lived simply, practiced compassion, and trusted that God abides. They never engaged in theological debates or demanded orthodoxy of doctrine.

One of the stories from the Desert Mothers and Fathers goes like this:

Once some brothers came to visit Anthony,  and Joseph was with them. Abba Anthony began to speak about the Holy Scriptures. He asked the younger monks to speak about the meaning of the texts. Each of them gave an answer and to each he said "You have not yet found the right answer." Then he said to Joseph, "What do you think this text means?" Joseph replied, "I don't know." Abba Anthony said, "Indeed, Joseph alone has found the true way, for he said he did not know."

Those Desert Mothers and Fathers were faithful believers but they were never "true believers." In our own time, we would do well to emulate them, no matter what position we hold or what side we take. 


  1. You refer to atheists as having a strong belief in atheism. As an agnostic atheist, I don't see atheism as a belief in anything in particular. If I don't believe in a god, that doesn't mean that I have to believe there is no god. One is incomplete and dynamic, while the other (to believe there is no god) is more of a conclusion. The agnostic in me recognizes that the question of god is one that cannot be known using empirical standards.

    There is nothing that convinces me that a god exists, so i don't have that belief. But I find myself not having sufficient reason to commit to the converse either. I don't necessarily believe no god exists, but I don't believe a god does exist either. In my eyes, subjective as my perspective must be, I find this neutral position honest and tenable.

    What do you think?

    Thank you for posting this blog,

    Siddhartha Finch

    1. The point I make here is that "some" atheists seem to treat atheism as if it was a religion. They have absolute ideas and they hold onto them rigidly. That's what makes them true believers.

      I actually think many people are agnostics but call themselves atheists because they don't have any other way of referring to themselves.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments

  2. While I agree with you that the dialogue between atheists and theists can be quite contentious, I have seen that the back and forth is not necessary for there to be a valuable and enjoyable exchange. The conflict seems to be more common amongst the more rigid within these different perspectives.

    I am very guilty of the exact type of conduct that you recognize as being oppositional, and have taken it upon myself to become increasingly present of what my purpose or intent is, and not to become overly charged. Am I successful? Not always, but I do feel like taking responsibility for myself to learn how to be more of a contributor can have a positive impact on the overall discussion.

    We all have a lot to learn, and that is the reason I have decided to participate overall.

    The points you are presenting should become a topic of discussion within these communities to establish a common thread.

    Have you ever read, I Sold My Soul on eBay? It may provide you with an example that achieves more of what you identify as mutually beneficial dialogue.

  3. Eric, thanks so much for your comments. I have read your various comments on other posts and I believe you have a lot to offer to the religion dialogue.

    I am committed to this kind of conversation - glad that we can have differing opinions and a willingness to be flexible and respectable. I'm sure we can learn from one another

  4. It often seems that these "atheists" are more often "anti-Christian-ists." One doesn't often come across one arguing that belief in Odin and the Yggdrasil is senseless, or against Jewish tenets. Never have I heard a marquee atheist argue against the holiness of cows, although that doesn't mean it hasn't been argued.

    I think you are call them (some particularly loud and obnoxious ones) out as dogmatic, they make a bad name for the rest of us!

    1. Yes, I personally know very few Christian believers who are dogmatic true believers--but then again I don't really hang out with many fundamentalist types.

      The problem is that voices of the" true believers" are the ones that are the loudest and so all Christians get painted this way.

      It does give the rest of is a bad name..thats one of my points.

      Thanks for your comments Mike