I’m not writing this essay to tell you what I believe. I’m writing to tell you what I don’t believe in, which is Beliefs. Seriously, I think Belief itself is about as overrated as it gets. I’m not talking about mundane beliefs, like “I believe I’ll have another beer,” or “I believe the cat is eating your tuna salad.” I’m talking about the big stuff, the capital B beliefs, the ones that people always talk about in that far off tone that makes everything sound so much more profound. Those are the sorts of Beliefs that I don’t believe in.
What’s the problem? Well first, people are much less consistent than all these games lead us to believe, and all pretensions aside, what is wrong with that? If today I think an unfettered Free Market is a great thing, but yesterday I was in favour of a regulated economy, well so what? If today I agree with every single tenet of the Nicene Creed (I don’t by the way, it’s just an example), but tomorrow I have my doubts about 2 central tenets, well who cares? Who cares? People who believe in Belief, that’s who. And those people (okay, almost everyone I know) will bend over backwards to stick to their established Beliefs and maintain some semblance of consistency (usually without succeeding).
The main benefit for maintaining this artificial consistency takes the form of a personal identity. It’s the ability to say in earnest; “Im a Marxist,” “I’m a Catholic,” “I Believe in Free Will,” or even “I’m essentially an Agnostic Atheist of the Weak variety, but I really prefer to think of myself as a Non-Cognitivist.” The list of options is as endless as it is tiresome. When people tell you their beliefs, they aren’t describing the world at large; they’re investing in a certain social commitment, one which they hope will bring them an interesting payoff over the course of their lives.
As an intellectual exercise, one might as well chain a metal ball to one’s leg; all it does is slow you down and hinder you ability to explore new options. But of course it’s worse than that, because all manner of foolishness is sure to follow from such pronouncements. You can identify friends and foes just by their beliefs, determine possible membership in this or that organization, and even pretend you know how and what other people think once you hear their magic oath of fealty to some claim, notable only because there is inevitably someone else swearing an oath of fealty to its opposite. People don’t declare beliefs in order to describe the world around them; they declare beliefs in order to raise banners, rally the faithful, and draw up the battle lines, …or simply to make an interesting fashion statement.
Is all this so bad? Probably not. But is it half as important as people usually pretend? I don’t think so. But then again, “I’m a Cynic.”
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