Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Belief and Unbelief

"A Great Mystery"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Several years ago, the social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, coined the term "true believer" to describe a person who rigidly clings to his or her beliefs so tightly that they will do anything in their power to defend their position and never budge an inch in pursuit of any newer or different ideas that may challenge them. I actually think there are a lot of "true believers" around today and they aren't always people who are traditionally labeled as "believers."  

Yesterday I observed the thread of a daylong “discussion” in an online chat room. It was more like a slugfest between rival camps of “atheists and believers” – each side was absolutely sure they were right and positive the other side was wrong and neither side did much listening to the other.  The thing that struck me most about this conversation is that dialogue is essentially impossible and you will inevitably find yourself on a dead-end road when you pursue wisdom and the only other people on the path are “true believers.”

Certainly there are plenty of religious people who are absolutely certain that their beliefs in God are the one and only way; but there are also plenty of atheists, so-called "non-believers," who are also "true believers" just as absolutely sure that their flavor of unbelief is flawless - no doubts about how not to believe in God.

In fact, in my experience, many atheistic “true believers” are sometimes more rigid in their beliefs than people of faith. As I observed the conversation yesterday I saw statement after strident statement in which various atheistic “true believers” professed their absolute faith in the fact that anyone who believes in God is a simpleton who discounts the claims of science and accepts the existence of a magical superman in the sky.

Interestingly enough, if you look at the record of history and examine the broad scope of religious belief, you will very quickly discover that the great theologians, mystics and teachers of the major wisdom traditions like Judaism, Islam as well as Christianity are quite clear about the folly of thinking you can actually know all there is to know about God. In fact most say that you can't really "know" anything about God. 

Al-Ghazali, one of Islam's great theologians of the 11th century said
The essential nature of God transcends all that is comprehensible.

In the Hebrew scripture, God is so unknowable that "God" cannot even be named - the 13th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides observed:
God is infinitely more than we can ever even imagine.

And from as far back as the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christian theologians like Augustine have claimed:
Anything you think you understand about God, is not God.

Saint John of the Cross also observed: 
The higher one ascends on the ladder of the spiritual journey, the less one understands.

As I see it, absolute certainty is never a mark of faith.  It is instead a crutch that masks fear, guards against doubt and serves as a protection from a deeper exploration into the uncharted territory of transcendent mystery.

Oddly enough many of the most-respected scientists of our own day (the gurus exalted by atheistic "true believers") look at this world in which we live and offer very few explanations about how it all works. They throw up their hands and proclaim that most everything is a mystery- black holes and dark matter.

And so, like the certainty of religious people, the absolute certainty of the atheist can likewise serve as a mask, a protection against entering onto the deeper mystery of the cosmos that cannot be controlled and can hardly be explained away. 

Because of all the baggage the word "believer" carries with it, I have come to a point in my life where I try not to use the word “believer” when I refer to myself.  Instead I like think of myself as a pilgrim on a spiritual journey.

I am an explorer diving into the darkness with a trust and confidence in an Abiding Presence of Universal Love that pulsates throughout the universe – a Presence that holds me up even as I dive into the unfathomable ocean of its mystery. 

In his book about "true believers," Eric Hoffer also said:

It's startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.


  1. Hi Paul,
    Don't assume the kinds of strident atheists (or as I call them, anti-theists) who spend time on the internet deriding people of faith, in any way represent range of non-believers. No more than strident fundamentalist evangelicals represent the range of Christians.

    Of course, the stridency in some comes as a response to the sorts of believers who think their beliefs trump everyone else's freedom (see, for example, gay rights, abortion, evolution, and climate change as topics where this occurs). Yet as you point out, the fundamentalist atheists can be equally rigid to the fundamentalist Christians.

    It is perfectly possible to be a scientist and atheist, and admit to not knowing everything; to revel in a sense of wonder, and to understand that even if we can reduce the emotion of love to precisely which neurons are firing in our brain, the experience of that emotion will still be personally transcendent.

    Moreover you will find that there are actually quite a lot of atheists (or as I prefer to call us, non-believers) who are perfectly content to accept people of faith and even participate in cultural rituals of faith, without necessary believing in God: secular Christians, if you will.

    The analogy I use is color blindness: A person who cannot see the full spectrum of color experiences the world rather differently than a person who can. It's not wrong, or right, they are honestly perceiving things differently. Of course, the believer will consider that the atheist is the one lacking the color range, but the metaphor can work either way. :-)

    As a church-going non-believer (not to mention a professional scientist), I have written about this extensively on the Episcopal blog, Friends of Jake, under the topic of atheism

    and secular Christians

    There's even a few on there about science and faith


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment..I very much appreciate what you say here. In fact I sometime learn more from people who lean to the atheistic /agnostic side than from people who are religiously dogmatic. I am now in the process of writing a new book: "A Faithful Agnostic."

      Thanks again.