Cherish your doubts, says Robert Weston
In December, I ignited a bit of controversy when I presented for three minutes on the BBC’s Today Programme. Sir Tim Berners-Lee - the Unitarian who invented the World Wide Web - was given the opportunity to be the guest-editor of The Today Programme on Boxing day.
Among the many editorial decisions that Sir Tim needed to make was who to have to present the Thought for the Day. He chose me. I accepted his invitation. And then the BBC religion department - who controls the Thought for the Day - vetoed Tim’s decision. Their explanation: He doesn’t believe in God and Thought for the Day is reserved for theists.
Curiously, the BBC are happy to have Thought for the Day presenters who are non-theistic Buddhists. Somehow though, a Unitarian minister who will not say the words “I believe in
God” is considered behind the pale.
After the BBC secured a Unitarian minister who says that he does believe in God, Sir Tim arranged for me to have a slot on the show to be called “alternative thought for the Day.”
And this became news, not because of anything I said. I was particularly inoffensive as I spoke about how there is important wisdom to be found in all the world’s religious traditions and celebrations.
This became news partly because a respected, world-renowned guest editor was denied his choice and partly because the BBC’s decision inflamed a simmering controversy over the place of religion in public life.
The story was quickly picked up by three national newspapers: The Guardian, The Independent, and The Telegraph.
That’s it for my recap of this history, and I offer my apologies to those of you who already knew all this. What I found especially interesting in the “Boxing broadcast brouhaha” is not the plain facts of what happened, but the reality that this controversy highlighted the way so many think that beliefs fall easily into simple, clear, and distinct categories that can be easily sorted and counted like coins.
If you made the mistake of glancing at the comments on any of the newspaper articles, you would have found yourself a spectator to fierce arguments primarily between two groups. First, the self-described believers who think atheists are evil, immoral, people who believe in nothing besides the absence of God and are out to destroy everything positive in human society and would like send the theists away to concentration camps.
The opposing group consists of self-described atheists who think that theists are deluded, probably mentally-ill, living in fantasy, and that they seek to impose their religious rules on every person in this land.
“Cherish your doubts.”
Both of these groups seem awfully sure of their positions. They each hold a great deal of certainty that their position is true and right and that any other position is not only wrong, but dangerously so.
This kind of certainty - a certainty with minds closed tight against any evidence to the controversy - is not belief. It is dogmatism. It is narrow-mindedness. And regardless of whether it comes from intransigent atheists or dogmatic theists, it is fanatacism and it prevents the possibility of understanding, compassion, and growth.
Believing is different from knowing. Knowing is a certainty that is not open to other information. Believing allows that there might be other possibilities - other ways of seeing - ways that can coexist with our existing beliefs or even cause us to change our beliefs.
Cherish your doubts.
We know that we can believe and yet be open and accepting of other views. We know that where we see one colour, another person may see a different one.
Beliefs are notions that we accept strongly enough to act upon as though they are true. I believe in gravity, radio waves, and magnetic fields. I believe that love can change things. I believe that we have no supernatural help in living our lives. I believe that the best way to live is to make a difference in the lives of those around us.
Do I know these things in the sense that they can be proven? Of course not. But I believe them - I hold to them strongly enough to act as though they are true, but hold them loosely enough to be open to other perspectives.
So cherish doubt and, I would add, cherish the grey areas.
The reality is that atheist and theist - and a whole range of other “ist” terms - mean very different things to different people. Theists believe there is a God. Atheists do not.
Sounds clear on the surface, but what do you mean by "God"? Does Zeus count? How about the Goddess? If two people believe the same things but one uses the word "God" and the other does not, with which labels do we describe them?
To suggest that we either believe or disbelieve is like insisting that all water is either hot or cold and that there are no so such subtleties as very hot, moderately hot, warm, luke-warm, cool, very cold, and solid ice.
My beliefs have never fit into tidy boxes and I use labels only because a five-minute description doesn’t usually fit into conversations all that well. But when I used that word on Boxing Day, people got agitated. The BBC got agitated, many Unitarian ministers got agitated, and even a few of you got agitated.
And this agitation comes because we think we know what words like "Atheist" mean. We don't. We need to talk as much as possible without the labels that close off thinking, exploring, and understanding.
I’m sure that your own beliefs and perspectives similarly resist tidy labels and categories.
Now, I’d like to invite you to do something participative. We’re going to explore the range of beliefs we do hold amongst us. I’m going to ask a series of questions and all you need to do is raise your order of service sheet in the air if the answer is yes and lower it when your answer is no. Before you ask, there is no symbol for "maybe" in this game!
Remember that when I say “believe”, I mean something that you accept strongly enough to act as though it is true.
And finally, in several of the questions I’m going to ask if you believe something outside of and not explainable by physical laws as they are currently understood by our sciences. Since that’s a mouthful that I’d rather not keep repeating, I’m just going to say “superphysical” instead. So, superphysical means outside of our ability to explain by the current scientific state of understanding of the physical laws of our universe.
Do you believe that you a human being?
Do you believe that you are left-handed?
Do you believe that, after death, a human personality or consciousness can continue to exist?
Do you believe that there is a superphysical source of comfort, guidance, or inspiration?
Do you believe there is any superphysical entity that communicates with human beings through words, thoughts, signs, or sensations?
Do you believe there is any superphysical entity that intervenes physically in our world, such as by creating, changing or preventing storms, lightning strikes, or the growth of plants?
Do you believe that prayer, chanting, thought, or meditation can shape events in the world in a superphysical way?
Do you believe that there is superphysical communication between humans?
Do you believe that human beings have a relationship to the superphysical that is qualitatively different than that for other animals?
Do you believe that there is anything superphysical that has not been covered in these questions?