Believe Nothing

A Sunday Gathering Message by Andy Pakula


Cherish Your Doubts, by Robert T. Weston

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing:

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.
But those who fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on rock.
They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:

It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.

Cherish your doubts, says Robert Weston

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

In December [2013], I ignited a bit of controversy when I presented for three minutes on the BBC’s Today Programme. Sir Tim Berners-Lee - the inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian - 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 beyond the pale.

After the BBC secured a different 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.

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 contrary - is not belief. It is dogmatism. It is narrow-mindedness. And regardless of whether it comes from intransigent atheists or dogmatic theists, it is fanaticism 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, lukewarm, 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 members of my congregation 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.

I’d like to invite you to try an experiment. Get some friends together and ask yourselves the questions below. Yes/No answers allowed only! 

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?

It is important to believe - to hold that something is true enough that we can act as though it were so. The inability to do this makes us skeptical of everything, including the relationships that make life worth living and the hope that our world can grow more just and compassionate.

Fight the tendency to simplify and polarize issues. What one person describes as believing, another may describe as disbelief. If it's worth fighting over - and it rarely is - at least make sure you know what views are actually held. You may find that when we drop the labels, we have much more in common than you thought.