Living with Unbelief

“The new rebel is a Skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. … In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.” – G.K. Chesterton

I have a friend from high school – an intelligent and articulate husband and father who reads widely, is well informed on a wide range of issues, and is fearlessly outspoken. I admire these things about him. He is also the closest to a conspiracy theorist of anyone I know. He appears to be skeptical of the government, the media, and the motives of nearly everyone he encounters who is unknown to him or disagrees with his perspective. I can live with that – but I can’t live like that.

In the Ben Stein documentary Expelled—a interesting film with numerous serious flaws, in my opinion—one of the atheist academics says that he rejects the idea of a higher purpose or meaning to the universe, and indeed, rejects free will. He has suffered a brain tumor, and says if it comes back, he will shoot himself in the head.

My first thought was, “Will he?”

How does he know? What if the chemicals and synapses line up differently? What if his neurons compel him to look into the sight organs of those of his species with whom he has chemically bonded, and some subconscious part of his brain gives rise to the unbidden hallucination that these “others” matter to him? Will he override those impulses, knowing that they are false and irrational?

I suppose he won’t. He has no free will, so he can’t override anything. I’m not sure how he professes to believe anything. His choices (er, potential life paths) are two, as far as I can see: either choose nothing, ever, to see whither his impulses lead (they will perhaps compel him to eat, drink, breed, and die, like an animal) or to insist upon his beliefs, but act otherwise – to live as though he had decisions to make, even as he says he doesn’t. He will regard this as perfectly rational. And if he kills himself, those who love him shouldn’t mourn or blame him. It’s nobody’s fault.

I see a similar (not identical) problem with the diehard skeptics and conspiracy theorists. It is reasonable, especially these days, to look around and think the deck is stacked against us. It is prudent, then, to proceed with caution and with our eyes open, doing our best to build a good life, and protect what we have and those we care about. But how much is too much? When you see the government, and those who are wealthy or powerful, and the political structure, and the healthcare system, all as false or corrupt; when you are ready to quit participating in government “of the people,” however flawed it may be; when you are skeptical of transcendental Truth and dismissive of religion – what’s the next step? Secession? Revolution? Or marriage? Can you justify bringing children into such circumstances? I admire my friend’s tenacity in uncovering possible lies and conspiracies, but how, then, does he live his knowledge? On which false information does he act? And what will he teach to his children?

In my college days, I called myself agnostic, thinking this was the most intelligent way to regard God. After all, how could anyone know the unknowable? Only later did I realize that I was hedging – that I didn’t have the courage to believe in God or not. I found, over time, that I could not disbelieve and believe at the same time. I could claim to be an agnostic, but I had to live as a believer or a non-believer.

Devout skepticism, like hard determinism, diminishes the possibility of a credible life without contradiction. The diehard skeptic knows only that he’s skeptical – everything else is uncertain. But I suspect that my friend, like me, has made his choice. He’s a good man, a devoted husband and father, and he genuinely cares about others. He must see something of value in this world, in this country, in his marriage and family, which makes him persist in the face of his doubts. Is it God? Love? Freedom? I don’t know. But he doesn’t behave like an unbeliever. I believe he wants to make the world a better place – and to that extent, his heart is a believer’s heart. It’s a step – forward, in my opinion.

One thought on “Living with Unbelief

  1. Great thoughts as I know someone like who you discribed and sometimes it takes too much energy to listen to them. You give me something else to think about the next time I listen to them!


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