It is not uncommon today in the popular moral imagination to see individuals refer to themselves as either believers or unbelievers. It is here assumed that we all know what we mean by these words, that they have a single consistent reference, and that in every instance we are one or the other, with other possibilities excluded. It is also implied or assumed that believing or not believing certain things to be true or false is of ultimate importance. It’s worth examining these assumptions.
Do we really all know what we mean by believers or unbelievers? One must ask, “Believers in what? Unbelievers in what?” This question is important because it is possible that such words are “in the eye of the beholder.” In a world of multiple worldviews, those who believe exclusively in one worldview will regard those who believe — whether literally, symbolically, mythically or metaphorically — in different ones will be regarded as unbelievers. “Insiders” within any ideological camp are believers in something, even if it is not what those outside the camp believe in. It is a relative term, depending upon one’s cultural context and point of view.
Further, it is not uncommon for those who are believers in one worldview to put the best possible face on their own assumptions, beliefs, values and commitments while presenting other beliefs in distorted, simplistic, satirical and prejudiced manner that not even many who supposedly hold these beliefs would themselves subscribe to. So often those with a partisan view that they wish to defend set up a “straw they then proceed to knock down.
Moreover, it is often not seriously considered that different persons may hold their beliefs in different ways. There is a world of difference between those who hold their beliefs literally, symbolically, mythically and metaphorical. And there is also a world of difference between those whose beliefs are for them a matter of far less importance than the pragmatic and existential functions they serve as an imaginative and emotive way of affirming some kind of meaning, value, purpose and hope midst our contingent existence. This is what some people do as a way of coping with the presence of the mysterious, enigmatic, perplexing and ineffable. Those who are eager to scorn such persons for their imaginative and evocative ways of affirming life, meaning, value and hope in the face of the threat of death, absurdity, futility and despair simply miss the point. Their hyper-rationalism has cut them off from the fact that others sometimes use language in ways that are non-literal but nevertheless important to them.
In addition to hard-core believers and hard-core unbelievers there are also agnostics who claim that in response to some questions they simply do not know as finite and limited human beings what the answer may be. Socrates’ wisdom came from knowing that he did not know, and in not presuming to possess omniscient understanding. What are is the nature of the ultimate and supreme reality? Does it have other dimensions and levels that are opaque to our human understanding and normal experience? An agnostic would say, “It’s an interesting question, even a fascinating one, but in all truth I do not know. I may know something about the present horizons of scientific knowledge and philosophical speculation, but whether these correspond in some absolute sense to the horizons of reality itself I do not know. When believers and unbelievers go at it, those perplexed agnostics like Socrates, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Keats and Rilke are asked to sit it out on the sidelines.
In addition to believers, unbelievers and agnostics there are those who are equivocaters. They cannot decide whether they are believers or unbelievers because the nature and meaning of the subject or object or subject-object that they are being asked to believe in or not believe in is unclear and ambiguous to them, or it is a perpetual shapeshifter, a moving target. When Raimon Panikkar suggests that the word God is not a concept but a symbol, and that as a symbol it designates not a supernatural person but the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the unknown, the unseizable, it hardly meaningful to say that one is either a believer or an unbeliever in such an ineffable experience. Belief or unbelief is simply beside the point. Here it is implied that there are certain universal human experiences that are more primal than beliefs, and that beliefs, while perhaps having some limited uses, may actually get in the way of what really matters.
Finally, there are those whose response to the polarizing debate between believers and unbelievers is one of irony and reversal. Militant and fanatical believers and unbelievers begin to look strangely similar, each one necessary to they other as they continually fuel the fires of hostility into an even more heated and frenzied rage. Both sides begin to imagine that whether one is a believer or unbeliever is a matter of life and death, and that the fate of the world depends upon everyone becoming either a believer or unbeliever with respect to some literal and absolutist interpretation of certain beliefs. To the “outsider” to “militant scientism” it is the reductive, rationalistic, mechanistic and deterministic materialist who appears to be the slightly insane true believer.
In the cultural clash between habitual knee-jerk believers and unbelievers, the whole panopy of rhetorical tools and propaganda techniques is called into action in order to attack the opposition and to humiliate them if possible. Something dark, hateful and violent in our human nature that has been lying dormant like Tolkien’s sleeping dragon suddenly awakens and prepares to breathe the fires of total destruction upon the enemy of his sovereign kingdom.
With “irony” comes the phenomena of surprising and unexpected reversal, a switching of roles. We see this pattern in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, both the comedies and tragedies. Sometimes the “unbeliever” reveals himself to be, deep down, the more fanatical partisan and linguistic literalist, while the “believer” reveals himself, upon further revelation, to be the more subtle and nuanced symbolic poet who uses words in evocative and suggestive ways to point toward a transcendent horizon of possibility and hope in the midst of and beyond the of agonies and horrors of life. In contrast to Bertrand Russell’s grim materialistic philosophy of unyielding despair, some “believers” — whether theists, deists, pantheists, panentheists, polytheists, esotericists or panpsychists — are simply employing symbolic, archetypal, mythic and metaphorical ways of speaking about the real but ineffable in order to affirm an ultimate ontological “Yes” to the possibilities of transformation and renewal rather than succumb to an ultimate nihilistic horror of “No”. I would not hold that against them.
Personally, I am not an ideological atheist for much same reason that I am not an ideological theist, deist, pantheist, animist, or any other “ism.” Ideologies and dogmas serve hidden emotive and existential purposes that those who hold them seldom understand, and they sometimes, not always, breed alienation and contempt toward those who do not hold the same ideology, and hold it in the same way. The paradoxical ironist has a point. We think we control our ideologies but the truth they may come to control us,. Sometimes they get the upper hand and turn us into persons who are the very opposite of what we tell ourselves and others our ideology represents.
Of coure no ideologue is more pernicious and beguiling than when he insists that he has absolutely no ideology, and when he takes a radically post-modern deconstructive stance toward all grand-narratives. What he fails to notice is that his anti-narrative has become a kind of de facto grand narrative. Here, of course, is a double irony.
The point I am seeking to make is that belief, unbelief, agnosticism and irony all offer possibly complementary and corrective perspectives. A second point which needs to be considered is the fact that often behind the screen of “rational” debate there are painful emotional issues and personal wounds in our past that are never disclosed but that need to be addressed. Sometimes there is even a need for psychotherapy and inner healing that breaks the vicious cycle of repeated trauma and further alienation. Our passions reside at a deeper level in our nature than do our reasons, but we live in a society that avoids psychological self-knowledge and integration by turning our attention outward to become fully encamped cultural warriors.