Belief: A Meditation
I see that in the Q&A (question and answer) page, someone has asked the question: Do atheists believe in good and evil? This got me to thinking: Well, what does it mean to "believe" in anything, after all?
When someone says---"I believe in God," for example, the first critical inquiry should not be---"Why?" or "How do you know there is a God?" Rather, it should be: What do you mean by "believe"?
This is so because "belief" is your connecting link to "God." There is you and there is God and then there is your "belief."
Without looking at a dictionary, only accessing your own lived understanding, tell me: What does the word "believe" mean?
If you tell me something and I say that "I believe you," (and assuming I mean it), my "belief" means at least two things:
1. I accept the truth of what you have told me.
2. I accept the sincerity with which you have received the information and reported it back to me. But this leaves open the possibility that you were mistaken in what you saw and/or heard and/or in the interpretation you put on it. I believe you are telling me the truth, so far as you know it.
There are a couple of things to note about the two circumstances:
- In the first instance I believe you because I accept you as an honest and intelligent person. I can accept you as a person who perceives "life" "accurately," and so forth; and I accept you as someone who is truthful in relating what you have learned.
- Because you and I are friends and you meet the criteria I mentioned above, I can accept what you tell me as truthful; I can "believe" you without "confirming" whatever it is.
- In the second instance, if I have reason to doubt either your sincerity or intelligence, my ability to believe you is compromised.
- Surely you've heard it said---or even said it yourself---that "I want to believe you, but..."
What do we mean when we say, ["I want to believe you."]? How does this relate to "sincerity" and "intelligence"?
When I say it I mean this: I want to accept what you are telling me as truthful. Therefore I want to be able to accept YOU as truthful.
I "want" to accept you as truthful, because I have an affection for you. However, I am aware of a character flaw you possess, which rather makes "sincerity" come and go.
Or, if it is not your sincerity I doubt, it may be your "intelligence." Let me say this, I am not likely to think you are generally stupid. In this instance, if I say, "I want to believe you," I am likely to think that some terrible upset has temporarily compromised your intelligence: some kind of hysteria brought on by tremendous trauma of some kind, or something like that.
In this instance, you communicate to me, with sincerity---which I fully accept----that something awful has happened, perhaps something that, to me, sounds "rather out there."
Stay with me.
A. I accept the truth of what you tell me (I 'believe') because I fully accept your sincerity and truthfulness.
B. I accept your sincerity but, for some reason, now doubt your "intelligence" (I 'want' to believe you).
C. I accept your intelligence but, for some reason, now doubt your "sincerity" (in which case, again, I 'want' to believe you).
What if you are somebody I don't like?
D. I may think you're "smart," but also feel that the only time you are not lying is when you're asleep. I accept your intelligence but not only doubt, but outright reject your "sincerity." (Since a sense of someone's "sincerity" is more emotion-based than analytically-based, it is the case that "I do not want to believe you.")
My understanding of your lack of sincerity acts negatively upon my sense of "want."
Does that make sense?
Since my understanding of your lack of sincerity, acts negatively upon my sense of "want," that means that I do not want to believe you. Of course, it goes without saying that you might be telling me the truth; and I let my dislike of you get in the way of my seeing things clearly.
E. Even if I do not like you, I may think that you are generally truthful ("sincere"), though lacking in intelligence. In this case, "I cannot believe you."
F. If I do not like you, I may reject both your sincerity and intelligence. I may think you are a liar and stupid. I cannot and will not believe you.
So far, I think we can say that "belief" entails an assessment of the quality of the vessel which asks to "believe."
Is that clear?
We cannot "believe" without an intermediary. If one is directly joined to knowledge of a thing, without an intermediary, "belief" is not operative. We are dealing with "knowledge."
What does it mean to "believe" in God?
A few points:
- The world has a very long history of saying that "God" exists.
- By "world," we mean people, generations and generations and generations and generations, etc., of people.
- People form communities and institutions.
- Specific arrangements of these communities and institutions, in different places, at different times form "vessels," which ask us to "believe" in God.
- It is one's assessment of the quality of these "vessels," that may inspire her to either believe or not believe in the existence of "God," since firsthand verification is not possible.
A few more points:
- An argument can be made, then, that to believe in God is to believe in people.
- When I say, "believe in people," which one has direct knowledge of, I just mean to say that one basically accepts the overall sincerity and intelligence of the species. You generally feel good about humanity.
- We all know that people can be subject to trauma which shatters their "belief in people," and therefore their "belief in God," which is to say that they no longer "believe" in God after they have been betrayed by human beings. The easiest example to cite is the underage sex scandals in the Catholic Church----rather low-hanging fruit!
Quick Question: What about people who call themselves "agnostic"? What is their relationship to "human vessels"?
Short Answer: More equivocal.
Now then, to return to the original question. "Do atheists believe in good and evil?"
What that question has in back of it, I think, is something like this: Since atheists don't believe in God (and presumably, the Devil as well), then what do they believe in? Do they believe in good and evil? The implication behind that is that God and the Devil are, to "believers," the sources of good and evil.
What does it mean to "believe in good an evil"?
Does it mean to have reliable human vessels, of "sincerity" and "intelligence," which inform us of the existence of good and evil?
If you tell me there is "good" in the world and I "believe" you, does that mean that I accept you as a worthy vessel of "sincerity" and "intelligence," competent to make that observation and judgment?
If you tell me there is "evil" in the world and I "believe" you, does that mean that I accept you as a worthy vessel of "sincerity" and "intelligence," competent to make that observation and judgment?
Remember, we have said that "belief" is only possible, only operative through intermediaries. Do we really need intermediaries to know that there is good and evil in the world? Is it necessary to "believe" in good and evil?
You know, in a sense, our "knowledge" of good and evil is mediated, if you think about it. I am talking about the news media. We may watch and read these "human interests" stories of Good Samaritan-hood and heroism, which falls under the category of "good."
When you really think about it, in our everyday lives, do we actually directly touch "goodness"? By the same token---and we may be thankful to whatever for this---we do not, in our everyday lives, actually directly touch "evil."
Our experience---and I am speaking from the perspective of a citizen of the United States of America---of "evil" tends to be mediated through the news media and history lessons, whereby we learn of the "evil" of Hitler.
So, if one believes in the competency of the news media and history teachers and professors, the it is possible to sensibly say that "I believe in good and evil."
Thank you so much for reading!