THIS I BELIEVE NPR
When it comes to beliefs I’m a minimalist. The fewer beliefs I have to justify the better. Why believe something that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny? But paring them down hasn’t been easy.
I probably started on the road to cognitive parsimony at age seven. Having discovered presents hidden in a closet just before Christmas, I vowed silence when they reappeared Christmas morning at the foot of my bed. The Santa Claus hoax was blown. But my parents needed their illusions, and I didn’t want to jeopardize future Noel gifting just to flaunt my perspicuity.
Being raised in the UK, I skipped the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny ruses. Unattached teeth were tossed unceremoniously into the trash. Easter eggs were merely colored hard-boiled chicken’s (not rabbit’s) eggs.
Next to be scuttled was my belief in life after death. I was fifteen and reading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” when my grandmother died from what was then referred to as old age. I was sad and everyone displayed the requisite solemnity.
After seeing my nana’s coffin lowered into it’s grave, I heard phrases like, “she’s in a better place”, “she’s in Heaven with the angels”, “she’s passed over to the other side”. I tried to imagine what nana would look like “on the other side”. But I couldn’t figure out what she might be wearing – surely, not that habitual navy hat and long dress that was still in the cupboard. And besides, how could her clothes pass over to the other side? Her clothes didn’t die.
Since I couldn’t, or wouldn’t imagine her naked, I tried thinking of her adorned appropriately in white raiment. But it just wasn’t her. Furthermore, if she was old and sick when she died, was she old and sick in Heaven? I was told, “of course not”, but no one was able to tell me her celestial age, medical condition, or what she might be doing in eternity. I also wondered if ants or viruses also “passed over”, and if not why not. I concluded that such stories served as comfort and solace.
After a bout of studying philosophy – which I found spawned it’s own complex mythology, I dismissed from my personal ontology ghosts, fairies, angels and the like that provided no evidence of their existence other than unthinking consent. I concluded that the arguments for God’s existence were, at best, intriguing, but hopelessly riddled with fallacies. My agnosticism bestowed the added benefit of banishing acknowledgment of the devil.
I am now in the process of ridding myself of unwarranted attitudes such as an obligatory positive outlook on life, and the need for existence to be constantly meaningful and bound by purpose. I see no obvious reason for a belief in myself, or the basic goodness of humanity, or the necessity of pursuing happiness and being successful. I am currently occupied writing a handbook on nihilism, which if published might assist others in diminishing their burden of belief.
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