About a decade ago, in the course of one of the most entertaining conversations it’s ever been my privilege to enjoy, my brother asked me “What exactly do you believe?” This question came as a rejoinder to my telling him that I don’t believe in God. I understood the very moment he asked it, that it was framed the wrong way. He was posing it as an alternative: “If you don’t believe in God, then just what do you believe in?” I also understood that I had my explanatory work cut out for me, as my brother and I do not always mean the same thing by the same words.
Just because one doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t mean that one must believe in something that substitutes for God. I have heard both Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins referred to as “your God.” I’ve also heard the charge that I have taken it upon myself to be my own God. I often see certain Christians arguing that way, but it’s a fallacy. I’m pretty sure it springs from some such notion as our having a “God-shaped hole” in our lives that can only be filled by God (a misunderstood, misappropriated idea that comes from Sartre). Ergo, if we do not fill that “God-shaped hole” with God, we must fill it with something else. The fallacy lies in the first premise: there is no such hole; Sartre’s figure of speech was just that and nothing more. It really is not a question of either/or.
My brother’s question caught me somewhat off-guard: I’d never been asked it before, and didn’t see it coming (although I suppose I should have anticipated it). I remember mulling it over for a bit before responding as follows:
I believe whatever has been demonstrated to my satisfaction, either by my own observation or by the data and explanations supplied by those who have spent their lives in research. Belief in that sense requires no effort whatsoever: if something is apparent to me, I irresistibly believe it and there is no “leap of faith” involved. When it comes to the discoveries of the sciences, I have to rely on the testimony of those who are equipped to do the research and draw the conclusions, since I am no scientist. But I do not merely accept as proven what anyone says from a position of authority, without having the evidence laid out before me in a way that I can understand. If I have questions, I ask them. If I consider an explanation weak, or if I don’t understand it, I continue asking until someone explains it to my satisfaction. Only then do I accept the postulates of the sciences as “facts.” (As Stephen Jay Gould once said, “In science, ‘fact’ can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classes.”)
(Incidentally, I do not consider myself to have come to understand something in the sciences until I am able to explain it to the complete satisfaction of another non-scientist, such as my brother.)
Well, it turns out that that’s not all my brother meant by his question. This became clear to me when he shared his list of things he believes in: God, America, family, hard work, honesty, loyalty, etc. (the list traditionally includes motherhood and apple pie). I realized that he was using the infinitive “to believe” in a rather loose and changeable way: where God was concerned, it was ontology that was in view (I think); but the existence of America is not a matter of that kind of belief: he had something else in mind – and this applies also to family, hard work, and so forth. In other words, he was asking me what principles I’m committed to – a question that makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that during his entire lifetime as a Missionary Baptist, my brother has repeatedly heard the claim that atheists are reprobate, unprincipled libertines whose only value is self-gratification, no matter whom it harms. A lot of Christians appear to think this (although I don’t think my brother believes this, at least as regards yours truly).
Again, I had to mull over this metamorphosed question before responding: not because I’m unsure of my commitments (or needed some time to hatch a few on the spot), but because I felt the need to prioritize them and to get it right. And here’s the considered answer I finally gave him:
I’m committed to many ideals, all of them reasonable in light of what I understand to be true about the world and about what it means to be human. Above all, I’m committed to justice and fairness. There is some tension between those two ideals, which is why I think that justice should be meted out only reluctantly when it involves severe punishment, and probably should be tempered with mercy. And a commitment to justice and fairness does not imply a rigid set of categorical imperatives (God-given, so to say) that define exactly what is just and fair before the fact: each case has to be dealt with individually, on its own merits. In a Manichean, black-and-white world, there would always be a clear distinction between the aggressor and the victim, and justice and fairness would be two names for the same thing. But in our more complex world, such distinctions are not so easily made. Those who draw them too casually always end up looking ridiculous, and they are rarely judged fair.
Consider, as an illustrative example, the four-year-old preacher to whom I made reference in a recent post, “It’s Child Abuse.” That child is being victimized by his circumstances. Foremost among those circumstances is his own father, the Pentecostal preacher whom the little boy is emulating. If we consider only proximate causes and effects, it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that the little boy is being abused: his intellectual development is being stunted by his father. It would seem the just thing to do, to spring that little boy from such circumstances and place him in the protective custody of foster parents who would provide him with a library, an education, and normal playmates. But it probably wouldn’t be the fair thing to do, for a number of reasons – not least of which is that the little boy’s father, even though he is now in a position that I can only see as exploitive, no doubt came by his own attitudes honestly, having himself in turn been a victim of his upbringing. That’s why justice must always be tempered with mercy; otherwise, no fairness is possible.
It should not escape our notice that “fair” is a synonym for “beautiful,” as “grace” is for “beauty.” A fair world is a beautiful and gracious world, and I am prepared to argue that the converse is true as well – which is one reason that I never miss an opportunity to spread the gospel of Joseph Haydn, Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler.